Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Happy "Read Comics in Public Day", a.k.a. Jack Kirby Day!

This post comes at the end of a long day where I had totally intended to post earlier (hey, I got busy!), but since we're coming up on a long holiday weekend--you can still get out there and participate in Read Comics in Public Day!  

Today is important. It's meant to help recapture our excitement for powerful visual storytelling as much as it it's aimed at helping to de-mystify and de-stigmatize an artform some may consider "juvenile" or time you could have spent reading a "real" book.

So what makes comics so special anyway? 

Paleolithic paintings from Bhimbetka caves in India
Comics are an essential part of our modern, visual language. More than just superheroes with boxes drawn around them--they're the building blocks of storytelling with the camera lens of the mind's eye. They're motion and emotion and language broken down into the most significant beats of a story--its DNA.

The true strength of comics (sometimes called sequential storytelling) is the ability to reshape those individual nuggets of character, setting, and pacing into a whole, cohesive-and-yet-captivating tale. One that can be examined by the reader--backwards, forwards, and holding still--over each frame in time--as no other art form can. They're not just pictures with word bubbles, but actually pictures as words (the best of them are, anyway).

Comics are rooted in illustration, our oldest, visual fine art. Drawing, paintings, etchings, scrawls from primitive tools or by hand helped our ancestors express experiences in a way that could be shared immediately and--at least to them--as a way to carry messages through time. From cave paintings, to illuminated manuscripts, to political cartoons and pulp stories--we've been reading comic books in one form or another for as long as we could spread paint on rock.

Wonder Woman issue #1
Why do we need to read them in public?
Comics earned their inheritance from the pulp novels of early 20th century. The most successful pulps enticed readers with stories of mystery, romance, and high adventure. Most of them weren't aimed at kids--though many children and young adults took to them.

Comics came along as a cheaper, slimmer, quicker way to tell a story--enthrall readers, and get them coming back for more. By the 1930s magazine publishers were becoming comic book publishers, and during this time  some of our most iconic pop culture characters emerged: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman. By the early forties: Captain America.

When the U.S. entered World War II, comics went with soldiers overseas to help them escape the horrors they'd faced on the battlefield, and as a reminder of simple pleasures back at home. When the war ended, American GI's brought their love of comics home, now hooked on the characters they'd come to love.

Shaming an Industry
But to keep growing audiences, comics grew up, and soon followed the pattern of the more adult stories the pulps had established years earlier. After the war, veterans returned home to start families. Rock and roll emerged. Teenagers rebelled and the strict confines of 1950s society couldn't hold back the coming societal changes. The term "juvenile delinquency" became a part of the national lexicon as parents hoped to restrain the newfound rebelliousness of the newest generation--the Baby Boomers.

Politics became embroiled in the teenage vs. parent conflict found in many American households--but a straw man was needed--something that could be fought against and held up as a scapegoat for parental fears--and comics were the perfect target. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a damning report about how American youth were falling victim to the corruptible influence of comic book violence and sexual overtones. It was a witch hunt (not uncommon in the 50s). Comic publishers and creators were summoned to Washington to atone for their sins during a Congressional investigation. Comics were ruining everything and an entire industry was made to pay a steep price--censorship. 

Publishers, seeing no other alternative, worked together to create a self-imposed standard called the Comics Code Authority, that would serve as a literal stamp of moral approval. But the damage was done--for decades to follow comic books would have to settle for being second-rate, low-brow lit. (Note: it was proven once and for all last year that Wertham falsified his research and testimony.)

A Hero for Comics
Jack Kirby's birthday is August 28
Comics persisted though--and as the industry matured, so did their visual palette. Storytelling had to be more compelling to keep selling comics. Many creators helped weave a rich history of comics culture. One stood out and still stands the test of time as being the "King of Comics"....Jack Kirby.

Kirby began his career during that Golden Age heyday, and went to become (in all likelihood) the most prolific comic book artist of the Silver Age. He created Captain America for Timely Comics (the early Marvel studio) and went on to create and/or design many of Marvel's most recognizable characters: Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the X-men, the Avengers, and more.

He's beloved by comic book readers above all others because his heroes were real--that is, they suffered in their stories. They carried the burden of outside responsibilities, past sins, and real-world problems. They also lived in vibrant, foreshortened, feverishly colored worlds. Jack's worlds. His work fed the dreams of filmmakers, musicians, and artists of all quarters. His characters became icons.

Can you imagine a world without The Avengers or Captain America?
If comics had a patron saint, Jack Kirby is indefatigably he. He's the hero for an art form once vilified. Today, September 28, would have been his 96th birthday. And so it's easy to see why the creators of Read Comics in Public Day chose his birthday as the day we should all celebrate comics together.

Okay, so what do I do now?
Whether you prefer the Sunday newspaper variety, the superhero sagas found in specialty stores or bookstore racks, long-form graphic novels, or the electronic versions that can be downloaded to e-readers--comics need you. There are stories out there that you need to see, that a movie can't convey. There are characters out there that you need to know, that a TV show on Netflix isn't going to speak to you in the same, intimate fashion. Read something you love. Share it with people.

Let others ask you questions. Let your friends, family, and total strangers know that you're a comic book reader and that you appreciate a great story--and a great story can come from anywhere--even (especially!) from comics.

Perhaps the most important reason to read them in public--so those people know that you--whomever you might be or what your background is--loves comics.

So get out there and read them today, tomorrow, this weekend, and every day as you would any other book--share what you love!


All images: Wikipedia

Thursday, August 22, 2013

John Lewis' journey for justice begins in "MARCH: Book One"

MARCH: Book One, nonfiction graphic novel by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell  
It's not often that the Library of Justice gets to feature something related to actual "justice". Sure, we've got our share of superheroes and crime and mystery novels--but now we can say we've finally got our hands on something...historic.

New in the Library is MARCH: Book One a graphic novel from Top Shelf Comics by Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis. He's joined by co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. Lewis' himself is narrator to a nonfiction retelling of his life: growing up in a poor sharecropping family, early participation in the Civil Rights movement, and first impressions of his role model, Martin Luther King Jr. The story is book-ended by his role in Congress at the time of Barack Obama's first presidential inauguration.

Click to enlarge interior pages

Powell's illustrations are powerful; deftly rendered in crisp black and white. The story is moving, never shying from the ugliness of the past, but also accessible to young readers without being heavy-handed. This is exactly the tone the story needs to be successful. It's dramatic, without skewing into melodrama.

I'm really looking forward to the follow-ups (this is the first of three parts). MARCH is one of a few nonfiction graphic novels we've got in stock and are extremely proud to share. We hope you enjoy it!