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The New Graphic Novel Panel at BEA

graphic novel panel at BEAI had the opportunity to attend Book Expo America in New York City last week, and by far the most illuminating and entertaining panel I attended was “The New Graphic Novel” with Calvin Reid from Publishers Weekly in conversation with Gene Luen Yang, Faith Erin Hicks, and Paul Pope.

Diversity & Identity

The discussion kept circling back to the theme of diversity. Faith Erin Hicks said as a teen she didn’t think comics were for her, so she started making her own. There is much more available to teens today outside of the DC and Marvel superhero worlds, and these stories are drawn by artists from a variety of backgrounds. Though she wants her comics to be seen as not “just for girls,” she is glad to be a part of the new generation of female graphic artists who write and draw stories about female characters.

Yang’s books all deal with identity. In American Born Chinese (2007 Printz Award winner, 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults selection) he explored Chinese American identity, and in his forthcoming set of books, Boxers and Saints, he explores the role of Christianity in Chinese culture with two different stories about each side of the Boxer Rebellion, a pro-nationalist movement in China that opposed the influence of Western Christianity on China at the beginning of the 20th century. His own background as a Roman Catholic Chinese American made him interested in telling this historical story.

Paul Pope said his new book, Battling Boy, is a new twist on superheroes. While characters like Superman seem to have it all figured out, he thought teens could relate more to a hero who is just discovering his powers.

The Internet

A big force in the changing world of comics is the Internet. Faith Erin Hicks got her start producing web comics. Not only does the Internet give artists a way to showcase their work without being published, it also is a great source for readers looking for comics outside the mainstream superhero stories, and it gives access to those who don’t have a local comic shop or well-stocked library.

Faith Erin Hicks discussed how her publisher allowed her to post — for free — The Adventures of Superhero Girl in its entirety in weekly installments so fans could read along. Taking a risk on sharing the book for free paid off in the form of new fans.

Library Love

Luckily, though, more and more libraries are embracing graphic novels. All the authors shared their love for libraries. Yang said he “lived in the 741s as a kid” (the Dewey call number for how to draw comics, and where some libraries shelve graphic novels and comics) and loved how more and more libraries are developing extensive graphic novel collections. Hicks noted how expensive graphic novels can be for teens, and noted that libraries give access to teens who couldn’t otherwise afford to collect long manga series.

Artistic Background

All three artists had unique paths to becoming graphic novelists. Faith Erin Hicks says she never thought she’d make a living drawing comics, but her degree in animation and years of practice drawing webcomics gave her the experience she needed. Yang’s parents were not supportive of him pursuing an art degree, so while he tried to double major in computer science and art, he quickly realized that the art classes weren’t his style. He mostly learned by getting together for weekly art nights with other comic artists in the Bay Area. Paul Pope was more classically trained in art and said life drawing and anatomy were fundamental in his education. He also had a unique opportunity to work in Japan with companies that produce manga, which is rare for an American artist.

As a new fan of graphic novels, I was very interested in hearing about the processes of these artists and their influences. Pope explained that in writing and drawing graphic novels, he aims to create “sealed worlds” that “transport readers.” This panel was a welcoming introduction to the world of graphic novels.

— Molly Wetta, currently reading All Our Yesterdays by Cristine Terrill and listening to Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

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Molly is the Senior Librarian for Youth Services, Programming, and Marketing at Santa Barbara (CA) Public Library. She is a former member manager of YALSA's The Hub.