Beloved Comics Characters: Looking Back at 60 Years of Reading Comics

By Kat Kan, MLS

Recently, a friend on Facebook challenged me to post images of 10 comics characters that had an impact on me. Since I started reading comics with newspaper comic strips when I was in Kindergarten, I realized that I have been reading comics, in one form or another, for 60 years. I used that Facebook challenge to think back over the decades.

I remember watching lots of cartoons on television when I was between four and five years old: mostly Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Yogi Bear, and all the various Hanna-Barbera cartoons that were on back then. We had just moved to San Francisco from Hawaii in 1959. The newspaper’s comics page had strips like Peanuts, Blondie, Little Orphan Annie, and Steve Canyon, but I paid more attention to the humorous strips. I thought I was pretty grown up while “reading” the newspaper every day, although I always went straight to the “funnies.”

PopeyePopeye was one of my favorite cartoons. I could sing along with his “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” theme song, and I decided to eat lots of spinach in the hope I could grow to be as strong as he was (as I’m sure a lot of other kids did, too). Bugs Bunny was another favorite character, and my mother could get us kids to eat whole carrots as a treat. She let us strut around the house saying “What’s up, Doc?” while eating carrots like they were candy. Hmm, my Japanese mother was pretty smart, using cartoon characters to “trick” us into eating healthy…

When my Air Force Sergeant dad was transferred to Japan in late summer 1961, I was ready to start first grade. He and my mother started taking us kids with them to the Base Exchange (BX) every Saturday—think of it as WalMart or Target for military families. The BX had a magazine rack, and the bottom rack was filled with “funny books,” otherwise known as comic books. Until then I really had no idea that such things existed. My parents allowed us to choose one comic book each week (they had to approve our choice), which we three kids had to share. As the oldest, and the one who was actually reading, I tended to choose the comics. Over the course of every week, I’d read and reread the books until they fell apart.

Little LuluSome of my early favorites include Little Lulu, Nancy and Sluggo, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, Dennis the Menace (yes, there were comic books, not just the newspaper comic strips), and Richie Rich. Of these titles, my absolute favorite is Little Lulu. She was such a sassy girl, easily able to handle all the boys, especially Tubby. I loved that she wore dresses, but that it didn’t stop her from doing all kinds of fun, physical things. She also believed that she and other girls were just as good as boys, and she acted on that. Decades later, Dark Horse Comics published collections of John Stanley’s Little Lulu comics, and my younger son, then about eight years old, would sit in a chair in my study and read them, giggling most of the time. One day he looked up and told me, “This comic is for girls.” I asked him, “You’re reading the book, do you like it?” “Yeah.” “So, if you like the comic, that means it’s not only for girls, right?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Yes!” And now, present day, Drawn & Quarterly is doing its own reprinting of Little Lulu comics. That girl has had lasting power… and I love it!

When I was in third grade, we Air Force families were moved from the Washington Heights housing in central Tokyo (near Ueno Park) out to newly built housing (called Kanto Mura) nearly an hour away from the city. The housing was set up in quadrangles of four-unit buildings. We had new neighbors, and all of us kids played with each other and went to each other’s homes all the time. The moms all helped each other keep track of us. Our house became the place where a bunch of the boys would come with their stacks of comics; I was the only girl in the group. We’d sit on the living room floor in kind of a circle, put all the comics in the middle, and just read one comic book after another. My parents still only let me buy the funny comics, but some of the boys brought really cool superhero comics. That was my introduction to Batman, The Phantom, Superman, and The Spirit. I really liked those heroes. I loved the adventures, and they just seemed to go better with the books I was reading: mythology, adventures, and mysteries.

Green LanternIn 1964 we moved back to the U.S., and within a few months my parents decided to buy a house. It was just a couple of blocks from a drugstore that had a comic book rack. By this time, I was getting a weekly allowance of a whopping 25 cents! I used part of that allowance once a month or so to buy comics. But now, with my own money, I was buying superhero and adventure comics. I really loved The Green Lantern then; Hal Jordan was my favorite superhero. I think I liked that he was pretty much a regular guy who got his powers from his ring, which in turn was powered by the lantern. It seemed to be more straight science fiction, which I was reading in books.

I also bought Tarzan comics (published by Gold Key). I was already reading the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, borrowed from my local public library. Back then, starting at age 10, I didn’t have to have a parent with me to go to the library and check out books. I read a lot, close to a book a day. When my mother ordered me to go outside, I’d often take a book or some comics and sit outside on the front steps from the sidewalk up to our lawn and read, until she’d order me to either pull weeds or go ride my bike.

By 1967 I would also pick up random comics that tied in to shows I watched on television: The Green Hornet, Star Trek, The Rat Patrol…I reread those comics a lot. I would also borrow comics from our neighbors. I remember reading a big stack of Metal Men comics and some Batman Family comics. I loved Batgirl on the Batman TV show, but the Batgirl in the comics wasn’t like Yvonne Craig’s portrayal, so I didn’t seek out Batman comics on the store racks. I had a nice little stack of comics that I kept reading. I also bought the occasional issue of “Mad,” especially if the issue included a parody of a TV show or movie I liked. In addition, I bought a number of mass market paperback collections of Peanuts comics, which I also read to pieces—literally.

My dad had been deployed to Vietnam the summer of 1967. When he returned home in 1968, he had orders to move across the country to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia. As an enlisted man, he didn’t have a generous weight allowance for household goods to be shipped to his new assignment, so he ordered us kids to get rid of a lot of our stuff, especially books and comics. I snuck a few of them into one of my boxes, but I had to give up most of them.

For a couple of years, I just kept rereading those few comics I saved, especially Star Trek and Green Hornet, since I no longer had easy access to stores. We spent one year in Georgia, before my dad was reassigned to Hawaii. While we lived in Kailua that first year there, I found a stack of Classics Illustrated comics at a neighborhood garage sale and bought them. I read lots of classic literature already, but the comics were so much fun! When we finally got base housing at Hickam Air Force Base, where my dad was assigned, I started high school and met a girl who loved science fiction and comics as much as I did. Ruth introduced me to Marvel Comics. In the mid-1960s I had watched the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four cartoons on TV, but I was a DC superhero comics fan. I spent a lot of time at Ruth’s house, where we would read through her X-Men comics.

Fast-forward to the mid-1970s. I was attending University of Hawaii and living at home, while working part-time at the local WaldenBooks. The store carried trade paperback collections of Heavy Metal comics translated from the French: I remember “Lone Sloan: Delirius.” And Simon & Schuster published trade paperback collections of Marvel Comics in “Origins of Marvel Comics,” “Bring On the Bad Guys,” “The Superhero Women,” and others. I found the trade paperback of “God Loves, Man Kills”—a classic X-Men story—and lots more. I went on a buying and reading spree. “Elfquest” by Wendy and Richard Pini came out in trade paperbacks in the late 1970s, along with comic book adaptations of Robert Asprin’s “Myth Adventures” fantasy novels, and I bought and read all of those.

MaiI focused my buying and reading on the trade collections of comics, because I bought them from bookstores. By this time, most supermarkets and drugstores carried very little in the way of magazines or comics. They had done away with the spinner racks, and just displayed a few magazines and maybe some Archie comics digests at the checkout counters. WaldenBooks didn’t carry them, but Honolulu Bookstore carried English translations of Japanese comics, starting in the mid-1980s. When we lived in Japan, I used to “read” the comics in my mother’s Japanese magazines, so when I saw some manga, I picked them up. One of my earliest purchases was “Mai, the Psychic Girl” by Kazuya Koda and Ryoichi Ikegami.

Ronin RabbitI also finally ventured into a couple of specialty comics shops. From that time, I started buying comics issues of some Marvel and DC series, then branched out to Eclipse Comics, Valiant, and several other publishers. Fantagraphics had been publishing “Usagi Yojimbo” comics, and I bought the trade paperback collections. I have kept up with “Usagi Yojimbo” through several decades now; Stan Sakai combines Japanese history, folklore, and cultural traditions to tell compelling stories featuring his ronin rabbit. As a mixed Japanese-White person (in Hawaii we’re called Hapa), I really appreciate seeing my Japanese culture represented in comics. I also bought the original black and white “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” trades.

These days, I enjoy manga for the time the creators take to tell the stories, and for telling stories in many different genres—from crime drama to fantasy, to wacky humor, to serious science fiction, to historical fiction, to stories focusing on food, to creepy horror. I like the black and white art, which helps me read horror. I don’t like full-color gore that so many American horror comics depict. I also get a kick out of the fact that several publishers are reprinting or publishing new comics featuring some of the comics characters I read when I was young. And I love seeing prose writers getting into comics: people like Joe Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and others. I jumped up and down in my chair and screamed with joy at my computer screen when I saw that Jerry Craft’s graphic novel “The New Kid” had won the 2020 Newbery Award.

I read comics for all different age levels now, including mainstream superhero and independent comics, in almost every genre. I have supported Kickstarter and Patreon projects for a lot of new comics creators. I’m now 65 years old, and I love comics even more than I did at five. I don’t plan to stop reading comics until I can’t read any more at all. I love the incredible diversity of creators, styles, and genres that people can read. They exist in print and online. Some are available for free. Many libraries carry at least a few graphic novels that people can borrow. And I really love that my work at Brodart focuses on helping librarians find good graphic novels for their collections.

I never would have believed, even when I was in library school, that I could use my love for comics in my job. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’ll continue on it as long as I can.

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Katharine

If you’re looking for a graphic novel guru, you’re looking for Kat Kan. Kat looks like the stereotypical librarian with glasses and a bun, until you see the hair sticks and notice her earrings may be tiny books, TARDISes from Doctor Who, or LEGO Batgirls. Click here for more.

 

The Evolution of the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards

By Kat Kan, MLS

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards have seen significant changes over the past 14 years, and I have been honored enough to be a part of the process. I witnessed first-hand the impact librarian judges have made on the Eisner Award voting and how the Awards have evolved to reflect emerging trends in publishing and society at large. It has been a fascinating journey to witness and participate in.

shutterstock_1130802248I’ve worked in libraries for about 36 years now. For most of that time, I have pushed to promote the acceptance of graphic novels as a vital component of library collections. For a couple of decades, it felt like a long, hard slog to convince other librarians of the value of graphic novels. Writing my “Graphically Speaking” column in Voice of Youth Advocates since 1994 may have helped—at least I like to think so! In late fall of 2004, when I was serving as chair of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Graphic Novel Task Force proposal, I received a phone call from Jackie Estrada, who administers the Eisner Awards for the San Diego Comic-Con International.

Kat Gift Picture

I spent my 50th birthday traveling to serve as a judge for the 2005 Eisner Awards. Jackie Estrada and my fellow judges surprised me with a cake and a very cute stuffed bunny, which I still have to this day.

She said that she wanted to add a librarian to the judges’ panel for the 2005 Eisner Awards, and she asked me to be that librarian judge. The Eisner Awards are the Oscars of the comics industry, so it was a huge deal that she wanted a librarian to be part of the awards. Of course I said yes! I didn’t find out until years later that Mr. Eisner himself had requested librarians to be included as judges for the awards. Incidentally, he passed away in early 2005. I’m sad I never had the chance to meet him.

I had served on various book list selection committees for YALSA over the years, so I had experience with having to read a lot of books, but this time all the reading was comics! For the Eisners, we judges were to select up to five nominees for each award category. We were also tasked with creating a new award category for best digital comic.

We all gathered in San Diego over the first weekend in April 2005. We spent the next two days in marathon discussion sessions, punctuated by someone dashing to a table or box to pull out the comics in question. We talked about the writing, the art, the stories. It was amazing and invigorating. We argued, but things never got heated among us. Jackie sat with us, ready to referee if needed, but our discussions remained cordial. I imagine the interaction between judges is similarly animated and stimulating every year.

There are two stages to the Eisner Awards process (from the Comic-Con Eisner Awards FAQ):

Judging (Nominations)

“The nominees in each category are chosen by a blue-ribbon panel of judges who meet in San Diego in the spring of each year… The judging panel, which changes each year, consists of five or six people representing various aspects of the comics industry.”

Voting

“Once the nominees have been chosen, voting…usually occurs in mid-April, with a deadline in early June. Voting is open to comic book/graphic novel/webcomic creators (writers, artists, cartoonists, pencillers, inkers, letterers, colorists); all nominees in any category; comic book/graphic novel publishers and editors; comics historians and educators; graphic novel librarians; owners and managers of comic book specialty retail stores.”

Serving as an Eisner judge is a once in a lifetime opportunity; I can never serve again. However, what Jackie did was open voting privileges, first to me, because I had served as an Eisner judge, then to all librarians who work with graphic novels. Why was this so special?  Before 2005, only those people working directly in the comics industry as publishers, creators, retailers, and journalists, could vote. Librarians were excluded from this list. But within a couple of years, voter eligibility was expanded to include not just comics industry professionals, publishers, and the librarian judges, Powbut also any librarian who works with comics and graphic novels. Broadening representation among judges and voters has helped the Awards to develop.

The following 11 awards categories were introduced after librarians were added to the judges’ panel and are still being presented:

  • Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8) (2012-present)
  • Best Publication for Kids (ages 9–12) (2008–present)
  • Best Publication for Teens (ages 13–17) (2008–present)
  • Best Reality-Based Work (2007–present)
  • Best Adaptation from Another Medium (2013-2014, 2016–present)
  • Best U.S. Edition of International Material — Asia (2010–present)
  • Best Archival Collection/Project — Comic Books (2006–present)
  • Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism (2008–present)
  • Best Academic/Scholarly Work (2012–present)
  • Best Digital Comic (2005–present)
  • Best Webcomic (2017–present)

Since librarians became eligible voters, and as more librarians have taken advantage of that opportunity, we are seeing more independent comics creators and independent book trade publishers being nominated—and winning. Certain categories, especially YA and international adaptations to English, have been expanded. These changes reflect the maturation of the comics/graphic novels segment and growing contributions from what were once considered fringe sources.

Each succeeding year has brought more nominees from outside the Marvel/DC superhero mainstream, and various judges’ panels expanded the younger reader category into three age levels. The international comics category has also been split into two, separating Asian comics from those published elsewhere in the world.

shutterstock_521328379In 2005, seven women were nominated and two of them won. Fast forward to the 2015 Eisner Awards, when there were 30 nominations for women, and 12 of them won. Of the 29 categories, independent comics publishers and trade publishers won most of the awards; DC won one, and Marvel didn’t win any.

In 2019, there were 31 categories. New this year, the webcomics category was divided into digital comics and webcomics. More than 40 of the nominees were women, and Image Comics swept the entire Best New Series category.

The Eisner Awards have undergone dramatic changes over the past 14 years. I’m looking forward to seeing even more diversity and representation among nominees and winners in the years to come.

Sources:

Eisner Awards FAQ

2005 Eisner Award Winners

2015 Eisner Award Winners

2019 Eisner Award Nominees

2019 Eisner Award Winners

Kat_Kan_Better_Pic

Katharine

If you’re looking for a graphic novel guru, you’re looking for Kat Kan. Kat looks like the stereotypical librarian with glasses and a bun, until you see the hair sticks and notice her earrings may be tiny books, TARDISes from Doctor Who, or LEGO Batgirls. Click here for more.

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