Concerns and controversy

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    Aren't graphic novels only for reluctant readers?

    No. While graphic novels and comics act as a great bridge for folks we term reluctant readers (i.e. those folks out there who don't naturally devour a book a day and wonder just what the big deal is), graphic novels can and are enjoyed by all levels of reading enthusiasts. I know graphic novel lovers who read anything and everything, from the cereal box in front of them in the morning to the latest giant biography of T. E. Lawrence. They just also throw graphic novels into the mix, and they tend to love storytelling in all its forms.

    I also know graphic novel readers that read only graphic novels -- and that's ok too. We may all wish to see folks read (anything and everything) more, but the key to me is always that the person is excited and engaged by what they're reading. If graphic novels is what gets them jazzed about reading, then graphic novels is what I'm going to give them. They may branch out to other formats (and many folks do) but they don't have to -- reading any story is a wonderful end unto itself, and I would never presume to tell someone else that what they choose to read is somehow not good enough.

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    I've heard that comics don't represent women well. Is that true?

    In the past, as with other 20th century media including film, women were not always portrayed well. Be aware that some collections of comics from the 30s onward may well have a less than empowering take on women, on ethnicity, on society in general, and on sexuality. Remember, though, someone like Lois Lane was very much based on the the fast-talking dames of the 40s, like Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell. Those women were far from meek, and Lois is very much of the same breed. Who else could tackle Superman? Over time, comics have definitely changed for the better. Female artists, writers, and characters are gaining as much ground as women in the film industry. Women are portrayed with strength, intelligence, and independence. Titles like Birds of Prey are leading onward into the future. Same goes for superheroes of different ethnicities and backgrounds. If you'd like to see a list of titles with strong female leads, check out the Strong Girls List.

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    Aren't a lot of comics, well, x-rated?

    There are some comics that are -- they do exist. They are meant for adults and were never intended for children or teens. However, most comics are not pornographic! Comics and graphic novels tackle adult issues, certainly, but most are not remotely x-rated.

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    Should there be place our 16+ graphic novels in our teen collection? I have staff and parents raising concerns about 16+ titles being available.

    Personally, I very much agree that 16+ graphic novels and manga have a place in a teen collection -- for me, teens are those patrons 13-18, and the 16-18 range is often ignored in favor of the younger set, as they tend to be more obvious users of the collection. I do understand the problems that can arise, though, with graphic novels and anything visual -- images always provoke more of a fuss than words, and it is certainly true that the same event happening in prose in a YA novel will not be as acceptable to some if it happens in images in a graphic novel.

    Part of the problem comes from the fact that graphic novels are easy to flip through and thus identify potentially objectionable content -- good for us as librarians selecting, but bad as librarians trying to defend a collection -- too often people can take images out of context, much like when challenges are based on the existence of swears or sex in a book when the objector has not read the book at all for content.

    One guide I've always used (and explained to nervous patrons and staff) is to try to look at the MPAA ratings when I consider where a graphic novel is best placed. Would it be a PG-13 movie? Would it be R? I occasionally go and remind myself, too, what a PG-13 movie can be -- the Bourne Identity, for example, The Hunt for Red October and X-Men, are all PG-13. It's not that I always agree with the MPAA ratings, especially when it comes to allowing more violence than sensuality, but it's a place to start that's a familiar system to most patrons and coworkers.

    I do generally argue that there should be graphic novel collections at all age levels -- in Children's, in teen, and in adult. The existence of separate collections makes it clear to patrons that there are graphic novels aimed at specific age ranges (and thus inappropriate for all age ranges). That also means that, as a last resort, I can move a borderline YA graphic novel to the adult collection knowing that the teens who want to read it will still find it. I still say that most 16+ GNs should go in a YA collection, but if there is a serious objection that makes your director or others nervous, one compromise could be to move the title to the adult collection. As there are so many titles aimed at adults, there should be an adult collection anyway (remember, the average age of a graphic novel reader is 30, so the bulk of them are written for adults.)

    Unfortunately, all of this will not help the fact that younger kids will be curious and look at the older GNs, especially if they are close to the Children's books. I fear, in the end, all you can do is try to educate everyone as much as possible -- remind both your coworkers and the patrons that the collection is intended to serve all teens, from 13-18, and that the (entire) collection thus reflects that. Childrens covers 0-12, so it too has a wide range of ages it provides for, so parents must understand that YA has an equally broad range. 13-18, of course, encompasses great leaps in maturity, which is the crux of the problem for everyone.

    You might also try having a parents FAQ night, or flyer, or both, that educates parents to the facts about GNs -- that they are written mostly for adults at this point, and that your section is intended for 13-18, and that they should be aware that GNs have all manner of content, just like books and movies, and you want to make sure they know about the variety so that they can feel comfortable with what they're teens are reading. I've found in my own work that this does help, rather than hinder -- the parents feel like they've been addressed and they really don't understand that comics and GNs are not just for kids at this point. Once they learn a bit about the variety, they start to understand that it isn't a collection that they can just let their kids loose in, and that they might want or need to pay more attention.