Why I spent so much time reading comics this past decade

This writing is meant to accompany a post of my favourite comics of the 2010s. I wrote this several weeks ago, but worked up the courage to make it public today.

Why I spent so much time reading comics this past decade

Reading comics has been a comforting and familiar ritual to me since childhood. As a kid, youngest of 3 siblings in a loud family, I used to go off on my own and read Mad Magazine, Archie, Dennis the Menace, Wee Pals, and other classic paperbacks that my mom’s ex-boyfriend gave me among other books. Not that those are still favourites, but I enjoyed them, being able to move through the pages, back and forth, at my own pace, and having a glimpse into other worlds that someone had created. It felt like magic. Kids comics are amazing now, cartoonists like Raina Telgemeier, Vera Brosgol, Hope Larson, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Aaron Renier, John Martz, Anouk Ricard, Jen Wang, and so many other creators. I would feel feel a bit jealous of kids, if not for the fact that I still read kids and YA comics regularly. They have some of the best stories.

Growing up, many weekends I would stay with my dad in his small apartment, and he would give me a few dollars to go downstairs to buy Archie comics at the 7-Eleven. I would spend hours recopying the characters into surreal landscapes and fashionable outfits at my dad’s drafting table made up of two large wood and metal folding tables pushed together to form a big square. He would sit on his side of the table and work on hand carving wax models for casting jewelry, or toy designs, and I would sit across from him and do my work, and we’d listen to CBC radio programs for hours. Every Saturday morning at my dad’s apartment, I would read the cartoon section of the newspaper at breakfast. On Saturdays, the comics were in colour and even though I didn’t necessarily get or like the dialogue, I loved looking at the characters and art styles. I’m thankful that my dad never had a television around, and that routine became so comfortable. I still draw a lot of inspiration from comics and listen to podcasts while working.

On an even more personal note, comics, zines, and graphic novels have helped me survive. It might sound hyperbolic or overly sentimental, but it’s true. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for a couple decades now, and reading the work of Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, Eleanor Davis, Marjane Satrapi, Julie Doucet, Geneviève Castrée, Jen Woodall, Tara Booth, Summer Pierre, Tom Hart, Jeffrey Brown, John Porcellino and many other comics that deal with everyday experiences have helped me feel less alone and better understand myself and others. Comics can convey emotions and experiences in a way that is impossible to capture in prose, especially with depictions of mental illness (visual metaphors, line tension, detail, colour, subtle visual clues, the relationship between words and images, the gaps, and especially conveying the weight or numbness of mental illness like depression). For many years, I didn’t know what was wrong with me and was too ashamed to ask for help. My mom was a sole-support parent who worked really hard to raise us, and to her, depression and anxiety were problems that she could just never afford to believe in because she had to pay the rent.

As a kid and in my early teens in Winnipeg, I didn’t know a lot of other people who read comics and the bookstore/library selection was really limited to either superhero comics, mostly written by cis white men, or indie/underground comix, written by cis white men. Anything else wasn’t available at the public library or was out of my budget, overpriced at my local comics shop. No one in my family was interested in comics. They’re still not. When I was in my late teens, I was so excited about this one book of interviews that I found called In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists by Todd Hignite. In that book, I remember reading that a cartoonist Barney Steel influenced the style of either Robert Crumb or Charles Burns. The interviews were all with male cartoonists who I really admired at the time. I immediately ordered single issues of Steel’s Armageddon comix #1-3 (1970s) off of eBay. Then I spent the next year hiding them from my mom until I moved out, terrified that she would find them and think I was a weirdo; they were pornographic and weirdly right wing and libertarian.

I think a lot of the underground comix of the late 1960s/70s were really appealing to me because like a lot of teenagers, I felt misunderstood and like an outcast, and they were so raw and real. I thought outsiders who were nostalgic about the past and skeptical about the future were romantic and that I was a part of their club, because that was how I felt at the time, not helped by watching Terry Zwigoff’s great documentary Crumb. I also loved grotesque aesthetics because I hated being perceived as a nice Jewish girl with a high-pitched voice, and it made me feel like I had a dark secret that made me not so nice. But the depiction of women in a lot of those comix and seeing only the perspective of men…wasn’t the healthiest for me. There are so many amazing comix by women, but I didn’t know where to find them; a recently published anthology that collects a lot of these comix is The Complete Wimmen’s Comix edited by Trina Robbins. Growing up, I mostly knew the artwork of men, and at some point, started equating being a genius with being a man; it’s something that naturally happens to girls in a sexist culture. This didn’t make me very happy about being a girl, and because of it, I started unconsciously reading less books by women in general, for years. Like I wrote in a diary comic I posted to Instagram recently, I saw that girls were treated like objects and events and were the inspiration for other people’s stories. Eventually, when I sought out work made by women, I started feeling better about myself.

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I came across comics where other women were telling personal stories that could be grotesque and dealt with themes like sexuality, depression, racism, and sexism that weren’t often talked about in the community I knew growing up. Maybe they were somewhere around Winnipeg, but I couldn’t see them. Reading narratives by women helped me reflect on my own experiences as a woman, understand that I was a feminist, and acknowledge some of the frustrations that I previously couldn’t articulate about how I was treated and perceived for being a woman. In my twenties, I read comics like Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Skim by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Long Red Hair by Meags Fitzgerald, and Kiss & Tell by MariNaomi that helped me think about queerness and reflect on my own feelings of queerness, like pansexuality and feeling non-binary, although I hardly spoke about them. More recent YA and kids comics like Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman, and Tomboy by Liz Prince are beautiful narratives that are probably helping a lot of kids and teens feel more comfortable being themselves in an increasingly tense and polarized political climate across the world.

Escaping into speculative, dark, and surreal comics helped me as well. I could find some beauty in those worlds when I was otherwise really numb, in the work of Jim Woodring, Tove Jansson (Moomin!), Renée French, Lilli Carré, Charles Burns, Ron Regé, Richard Sala, Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët, Peter Blegvad, Daniel Clowes, Tobias Tak, and Dame Darcy (Meat Cake!). That might seem like a strange thing to say about some of them, like Charles Burns’ comics that are horror spoofs of classic romance and sci-fi comics, often grotesque and satirical. Although many of these narratives are often cynical, wary of cultural norms, capitalism, consumerism, greed, vanity, and so on, there seems to be an underlying love of humanity and appreciation of the absurdity of life, or at least that’s the impression I always had. I wanted to keep living so I could keep reading and see what was next. That’s also why I’ve always liked having to-be-read book piles around, because it feels like nothing can happen when I have so many books to read. Some of the earliest graphic novels I read were Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Sandman, American Splendor, and Love and Rockets, and all of them made me want to keep reading. I started trying to draw and make comics regularly in my late teens and early 20s. Although I gave that up for several years while in university for English and then library school, I never stopped drawing late at night and reading comics. I have since tried making comics and illustration zines and continue to draw more regularly.  Making art helps me keep going. One of the best feelings I know is sharing art that people connect with, even if it’s just one person. And even if it’s awful, just the act of someone creating something that wasn’t there before feels like casting a spell to me. And for comics, you’re creating whole worlds. It’s like a really laborious form of magic.

About storytelling in comics

Comics offer a unique and generous glimpse into so many different worlds and experiences. They are generous because they take so long to create, are often inhaled by readers in a couple of hours, and comics creators are relatively paid so little for all their time and labour. Comics are made with a lot of love because cartoonists are in love with the medium and its potential— you’d have to be to give so much time and effort with such unreliable outcomes. Because comics are such a hybrid and difficult to define medium and can be about anything, they invite many different forms, like woodcut and papercut illustrations, watercolour, gouache, digital, pen and ink, collage… and creators can experiment and continually push boundaries. But I can’t think of any set rules in comics, only historical conventions and diverse ways of achieving certain effects of storytelling and art. Comics creators can make work that is personal in the way that only comics can be, as a mixture of styles, words and images, or images that form a narrative or impression. Even comics that are non-autobiographical can reveal a lot about their creators or the process of their creation. Personal and stylistically unique narratives linger and have shaken me out of my comfort level or a delusion many times.

Comics are a way for people who are quiet and marginalized to speak loudly and without censorship. They are an accessible way for people to share difficult experiences, like struggles with mental or physical illness, trauma, and grief. A lot of people find their voice and community through comics. Because of all these reasons, I read comics and believe that they should be more accessible. The mainstream industry should be more inclusive of marginalized creators and women; this is not a debate and never should have been. Elementary schools and high schools should include more programs for creating comics in the curriculum like writing is taught. Those who read or create comics know their value, but a lot of people haven’t had access to them or haven’t seen themselves represented, and as a result they have little interest in comics. Over the years, having worked in libraries and bookstores, I’ve seen this so many times. I’ve been told that comics are really just for kids, more like bad toys than “literature”, are just men’s stories, and many other negative connotations. In recent years, comics readership and the industry has blossomed, especially within kids and YA narratives, and because of an effort to increase diversity in indie and mainstream publishing and hiring. I also think the way comics are catalogued, organized, and understood in large library systems and bookstores will continue to change and improve. I’ve co-written a blog post on traditional comics classification, how it’s changed, and the politics of comics librarianship on the Canada Comics Open Library (CCOL) blog if you’d like to know more. There is a widespread demand for making comics more accessible and advocating for comics in libraries and schools, and many librarians are working towards these efforts; the formation of the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table, for example. I wish I could afford an ALA membership just to take part in this round table alone.

Through comics, history is alive. Personal bias or the creator’s presence is often acknowledged in non-fiction works. You can see their hand in the production of the drawings, line quality, or other creative and storytelling devices in the narrative. You can imagine the person who has created the comic. I think this makes comics more honest through their self-conscious unreliability. Non-fiction comics, like the war journalism comics of Joe Sacco, are often told in first person by their creators. Local histories can be preserved through indie comics and zines, different and diverse perspectives documented that have traditionally been left out of the history textbooks. We remember personal and visual stories. I am sure that these points aren’t shocking to comics readers. I learned a lot about comics through reading, when I studied comics in university, a great seminar course at the University of Winnipeg, and through conversations with other comics readers and creators. There is so much comics scholarship and writing that speaks to these and many other points connecting comics with culture, politics, medicine (Graphic Medicine), art conventions, and so much more. There are so many possibilities in comics. Comics are fascinating and complex narratives, art objects, and cultural artifacts. And maybe most importantly, they spread a lot of joy.

For all these reasons and more, I have spent the last decade reading comics. And if you are new to comics, I hope that you will give them a try this next decade and send me some recommendations 🙂

My favourite comics of the 2010s

About this list

I’m not suggesting that these are the best comics of the last decade (I don’t think a list like that is even possible), but I would recommend them to anyone interested in comics. They are biased towards indie press and autobiography because those are the comics that generally have meant the most to me. I have kept the descriptions brief for most of them and many include my personal reasons for choosing them which are subjective. Feel free to click on the titles to read more about them elsewhere. This selection is a bit longer than most best of lists, but it’s my blog and I felt like it.

If you are interested, I wrote an accompanying post about why I’ve spent so much time reading comics over the past decade and what I love about them.

I also want to recommend this “Best of” comics list by Kim Jooha on Solrad that focuses on artists, zines, indie comics, and includes a great quote by Elena Gorfinkel on some of the problems inherent in best of  lists.

  • Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
    • Geneviève Castrée’s delicately illustrated but powerful memoir about an imperfect girl (Goglu, who is meant to represent Castrée ) forced to grow up at too young an age and raise herself. This comic narrates childhood emotional neglect, bullying, and finding community in punk rock, visually depicting loneliness and isolation through a unique intricate style and use of negative space. It takes place in Quebec and BC. I felt very lucky to see some of Castrée’s art up close at the Canadian Indie Comics exhibit at the Art Gallery of Hamilton this year. There was a quiet alcove dedicated to her work.  Castrée, a musician as well, passed away from cancer in 2016 when she was only thirty-five, and that loss was felt heavily among many communities. Her art was brilliant and emotional.
  • Beautiful Darkness (and also Satania!) by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    • At first, this appears to be a very cute Disney-like fairy tale that takes place in a lush forest— but very soon you will realize that this is a terrifying fairy tale (closer to the original fairy tales), that takes place surrounding the decomposing body of a corpse in the middle of the woods. The cute characters are horrifyingly wicked, cruel, and vain, and the reader must follow the sweet protagonist as she painfully uncovers the truth of her dark world and dreams. (reviewed for Canada Comics Open Library’s Halloween blog post).

(image from artist’s online store)

  • Stone Fruit Chapter 1 + 2 by Lee Lai
    • A beautifully illustrated chronicle of a relationship, the messiness of relationships, and monstrous feelings. There was a rhythm to the comic as I read, reminding me of of steadily running forward and jumping across rooftops in dreams (anyone else?). The brush line work is amazing.
  • In-Between Days by Teva Harrison
    • In-Between Days narrates how Teva Harrison lived with her illness after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in her 30s. It is told in diary-like entries that examine themes of identity, anger, fear, pain, death, sadness, memories, hope, and relationships. It is beautifully drawn, funny, and very touching. It is one of my favourite graphic autobiographies. I was so sad to hear of her death last year. She was a very generous artist, open and encouraging to cartoonists who were just starting out.
  • Alone by Christophe Chabouté
    • A wordless comic about a lonely lighthouse keeper who escapes his rock prison through his imagination. Told in powerful contrasting black and white illustrations. Hopeful and heartwarming, with stunning art.
  • Earthling by Aisha Franz
    • A magical realism coming of age narrative about two sisters experiencing the awkwardness and loneliness of growing up, and the affects of their father’s absence. It is told in dark pencil which gives it an ephemeral quality, a feeling like you can press down and smudge the pages with your fingers. It reminded me of how childhood feels so ephemeral as you get older, yet feels so long and permanent when you are a child.
  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
    • My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a beautifully illustrated (with Bic ballpoint pens on drawing paper/ruled notebook paper!) semi-autobiographical historical murder mystery (1960s Chicago). The story is manifested in the thoughtful and fascinating diary entries and observations of a complex monster/horror-loving girl protagonist. The story includes themes and experiences of race, class, gender, queerness, and trauma (through the experiences of Holocaust survivors), and what it means to be or feel monstrous. Also, I knew I would like it because my favourite thing is monsters.
  • The End of Summer and Are you Listening? by Tillie Walden
    • Architectural and surreal landscapes make up the backdrops of these melancholy and beautiful comics that will sweep you away. Perfect for curling up with a quilt and getting lost in during a cold fall or winter day.
  • Eden by Pablo Holmberg
    • Sweet and funny 4 panel comics that are meditative to read. I always enjoy returning to this one and checking in on these characters in their small window worlds. If you enjoy reading Moomin by Tove Jansson, this little book is for you.
  • Somnambulance by Fiona Smyth
    • I wish that I had seen these comics earlier in my life. Fiona Smyth is a wonderful artist and I just really connect with her work. Somnambulance is a retrospective of comics and artwork that uniquely stands out as a hybrid of speculative fiction, autobiography, punk rock, and much more, including a wonderfully strange exploration of girlhood. I’m filled with awe and glee looking through it.
  • Alienation by Ines Estrada
    • A really freaky sci-fi that feels all too familiar and made me want to throw away my phone, involving virtual reality, environmental degradation, futuristic sex work, relationships, and lack of connection in the year 2054. Told in Ines Estrada’s hand drawn, cute, and terrifyingly visceral style.
  • Fluorescent Mud by Eli Howey
    • A gorgeous and haunting neon nightmare that conveys the numbness of mental illness and a disconnection from the environment and oneself. A challenging and powerful read, even if you take something else away from it.
  • Heartless by Nina Bunjevic
    • Heartless is a series of stories about a lonely Eastern European (Balkan) woman’s life and miseries after being sent to America by her Uncle.  The art is simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, and the detail in the cross-hatching, shading, and stippling is stunning. It is a difficult narrative to read because it is so heartbreaking.
  • Your Black Friend and Other Strangers by Ben Passmore
    • A gloriously illustrated collection of short stories (sci-fi and everyday) covering a wide range of  topics like American politics, race, identity (the author is a biracial person of colour), dysphoria, the prison system, lowbrow art, the punk scene and much more with humour, satire, and care. The pages are vibrant and alive. A call to action in this numbing political climate. And a book that all allies should read.
  • The Strange by Jérôme Ruillier
    • Sad, beautiful, and a must read in these times of widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric, xenophobia, and dehumanization of those deemed to be “other”. The Strange narrates an undocumented immigrant’s journey to a western country,  told through the perspective of those he meets. Drawn in a bold colour palette of red, orange, and green pencils. You will carry this with you for a long time.
  • Rat Time by Keiler Roberts
    • A funny and relatable chronicle of everyday moments and humility, with a quality of drawing that is deadpan and so enjoyable. Rat Time is an autobiographical comic about motherhood, illness, memories, ageing, and how ridiculous we are. A lot of moments that will sneak up on you and make you pause to admire their beauty and clarity.
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
    • A comic memoir by Thi Bui, narrating the story of a Vietnamese family separated by war and trauma, who immigrate to America, and a daughter longing to reconnect with her parents through understanding their past. Intimate with breathtaking illustrations.
  • Naming Monsters by Hannah Eaton
    • Monsters, amateur cryptozoology, fairies, sexuality, friendship, identity, and grieving the loss of a parent— these themes and topics are woven seamlessly together in this powerful and viscerally illustrated story. The pencil drawings are deeply moving.
  • The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
    • A mysterious and surreal story about regret and loss, fatherhood, and growing up. My introduction to the work of Jeff Lemire, and still one of my favourite comics of all time.
  • Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels
    • A stunning and eerie sci-fi about the human desire for perfection and youth, regret, relationships, ageing, money and power, race politics, and the dark side of privatized science. One of my favourite reads last year, but it was also very disturbing, in the way that brilliant books often are. I recommend it highly, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to read it again for a long time.
  • Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak
    • A fabulous read filled with magical realism and sci-fi short stories, following women’s friendships and relationships. So charming, insightful, and funny.
  • First Year Healthy by Michael DeForge (and many other books by him)

    • Michael DeForge creates beautifully realized alternative worlds that capture complex personal, social, and political experiences and the absurdity of living in the world. Ornate, delicate and cute aesthetics combine with visceral and grim story undertones and body horror to offer a simultaneous feeling of childhood playfulness and imagining as well as a disturbing feeling caused by the distortion of familiar aesthetics. His art reminds me of the gross ornateness of insects, as weird as that may sound; his more recent work is simplified in terms of line work and use of flat colour. First Year Healthy is a surreal narrative about mental illness and ill-fated relationships, told by a maybe not so reliable narrator, and set in a treacherous climate that reminded me a lot of home in Winnipeg.
  • Heads or Tails by Lilli Carré
    • A collection of whimsical and charmingly illustrated magical short stories, with beautiful colour and detail.
  • Our Wretched Town Hall by Eric Kostiuk Williams
    • I am in such awe of Eric Kostiuk Williams’ ability to capture the emotion and culture of a time and place through the surreal (like Kensington Market and Videofag artspace). There is so much energy in his inking, line work, and colouring. When I first read this comic as a judge for the Doug Wright Awards last year, I jotted down, “It’s like a living beating heart with rainbow ink coursing through the pages.” His fluid morphing narratives are often about queer culture, urban decay, and gentrification in Toronto, Canada.
  • Picking Bones by Keet Geniza
    • Picking Bones is a gentle and emotional narrative that is told through vignettes of the memories and experiences of the author, moving from one place to another and trying to understand their self and needs, through relationships, struggles, and self-reflection. These zines are sweet and sad and carry a message about the importance of self-love and care. An artist I really admire.
  • You Don’t Have to be Afraid of Me by Victor Martins
    • A mini-comic and zine about the author’s relationship with masculinity and why he grew to fear and distrust men, told from a transmasc perspective and based on his own experiences. This is an emotionally powerful and vital read (and funny and very charming!)

Kids/Teens

  • Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will
    • One of the first comics I read that dealt so frankly with mental illness and the fear and stigma associated with it. A realistic depiction of high school life, losing control and having a breakdown, and surviving despite it all. This one meant a lot to me.
  • Jane, The Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Elizabeth Arsenault
    •  A large format graphic narrative for all ages about the difficulty of making friends, being kind to yourself, and fitting in. It also deals with body image, body positivity, and societal expectations in a thoughtful way. For me, there is something about the tactile satisfaction of holding large format comics that makes the experience of reading them so enjoyable and immersive.
  • Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illustrated by Natasha Donovan
    • A beautifully illustrated story of friendship and navigating growing up Indigenous in Winnipeg, Manitoba, living with the systemic problems and trauma caused by colonialism, including missing and murdered Indigenous women. It carries a tone of resilience and hope. HighWater Press is publishing such great work, and I can’t recommend this graphic novel enough.
  • Tomboy by Liz Prince
    • A hilarious childhood memoir about girlhood, gender roles, identity, awkward and embarrassing moments, and the fallibility of “normal”, that should be required reading for everyone. The drawing style is so endearing and expressive (for comparison, it reminded me a bit of Kate Beaton’s work).
  • Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
    • Maia Kobabe’s wonderful autobiography about growing up and realizing eir self-identity as a gender queer and asexual person, struggling with social and family expectations, and other relatable elements of growing up, like crushes, awkward body changes, and the difficulties of opening up to family members. This book is filled with humour and kindness, and I would recommend it to anyone.
  • Anne Frank’s Diary The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman, illustrations by David Polonsky
    • A visually beautiful adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary that I thought did a good job of maintaining the spirit of the original narrator, depicting universal themes of being young, finding out who you are, suffering from depression, craving independence, longing for intimacy, and feeling alienated from those around you. Inviting and heartbreaking. I needed multiple reading sessions to move through the narrative, because it was difficult to take in the violence, fear, and trauma of the time in one sitting. I think with historical fiction and autobiographies that depict trauma, there is an added layer of brutality, immediacy, and realness through the imagery in comics that can cause a more visceral reaction than with similar stories in prose (the graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, Maus by Art Spiegelman…).
  • Fish by Bianca Bagnarelli
    • The artwork and purple and orange tones of this short comic are visually stunning. A grieving child reflects on death and mortality in a quiet little town in the French Riviera in the summer. It narrates a child’s depression, grief, and fear in an honest and piercing way.
  • Navel Gazing by Gyimah Gariba
    • A gentle and surreal story about doppelgangers, identity, and the dangers of too much introspection. Filled with humour and charm.
  • The Only Child by Guojing
    • A stunning narrative. Guojing who is a newcomer explains in her author’s note that this wordless graphic novel grew out of memories of “isolation and loneliness,” from having grown up under China’s one-child policy. A melancholy and emotional fairy tale that offers the comfort of a dream.
  • Anna And Froga: I dunno…what do you want to do? by Anouk Ricard
    • Charming illustrations and lovable goofs. It’s a world to escape to when you need to forget about how messed up the world is and remember the humour of everyday life. Features a deeply flawed  cast of friends, and chronicles their misadventures. You may experience the similar immersive bewitchment of childhood Saturday morning cartoons (at least I did). These comics bring me joy.
  • This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
    • Gorgeous illustrations capturing a queer coming of age narrative and friendship story set in a lakefront community in Ontario over the course of a summer. This has been challenged in schools and libraries for language and adult themes related to sexuality, gender, identity; these books consider the emotional intelligence of YA readers and combat cultural myths about a safe, sheltered and idealized childhood. It includes themes like depression, miscarriages (and other experiences with pregnancy), sexism, and the undercurrents of colonialism.
  • Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Öberg and Kristin Lidström
    • A mostly wordless story about learning disabilities (dyslexia), loneliness, finding a friend, and the power of the imagination to help us keep going during difficult times. I fell in love with the streetscapes, interiors, and use of colour (shifting from black and white to colour) to coincide with the characters emotions and experiences. It is a stunning little comic.
  • The Unsinkable Walker Bean (Volumes 1 and 2) by Aaron Renier
    • A really fun fantasy and adventure story set on the high-seas that has brilliant illustrations and lovable characters. I use this one for YA book therapy.
  • As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman
    • Uniquely illustrated with coloured pencils, As the Crow Flies is an intimate coming of age narrative and friendship story that takes place at a Christian summer retreat for teenage girls. Gillman shares the story of Charlie, a queer person of colour, her frustrations with the hypocrisy of her camp’s religious ideology and practices, and her coming to terms with her queer identity.
  • Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
    • A gorgeously illustrated and very spooky story about friendship and the challenges of creativity, made with vibrant and innovative panel layouts. You wouldn’t think it initially from how beautiful and bright the artwork is, but it is really more of a horror story!

Anthology

Lastly, if you have compiled a list of your favourite comics of the last decade, please link me to it 🙂

Creating an independent comics library

CCOL October 4_filt

Canada Comics Open Library has been in our Regent Park space just about 9 months now, and we recently held a crowdfunding campaign to be able to pay rent and insurance for the next year as well as make our collection circulating. Although we did not reach all of our larger goals, we were able to meet our main goals to run for the next year (with circulation!), and I am so proud and thankful for all of the support we’ve had this year from volunteers and community members.

I wanted to share a presentation I made earlier this year about the politics of this library project, comics librarianship, and traditional library cataloguing and classification.

The following link will take you to a post on the CCOL blog, the script from my presentation at the 2nd Annual Conference of the Comics Studies Society COMICS/POLITICS on July 25th (Community Day), at Ryerson University. This paper was written by me, in collaboration with my partner Brandon Haworth:

Reading the Shelves: The Politics of Creating a Diverse Comics Library

If you have any feedback or suggestions, please feel free to comment or contact me! If you are in Toronto, come visit us at the comics library!

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(Above: participants at one of our workshop events at CCOL this year)

Here is a bit more about the library project:

Canada Comics Open Library (CCOL) is a non-profit and volunteer-run comics library located in Regent Park, Toronto, Ontario. CCOL was founded in the springtime of 2018. Our mission is to help make comics more accessible while increasing representation of marginalized communities in comics, with a focus on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), LGBTQ+, disabled, and women creators. We are working to achieve our mission through our library collection and space, online resources, and community events.”
You can also follow CCOL:

Canada Comics Open Library!

I was so swept up in work that I forgot to post about work!

This is the most exciting project I have ever worked on, and I’ve had the complete pleasure of leading this non-profit comics library for the past 9 months— and can finally talk about it!

The Canada Comics Open Library is working on creating an inclusive physical library space to help showcase how diverse and wonderful comics are. Right now we have an online platform with plenty of resources about Canadian comics,  and we are hosting pop-up libraries and events in existing accessible spaces until we are able to rent a space of our own.

This is a poster from our recent launch event

Launch event poster 4 small

And here are a few photos of community members enjoying comics at our recent pop-up library!

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(Photos by Ramtin Teymouri)

Zine Making Guides

Here are a few templates for making zines! There are so many great tutorials online you should check out. I prepared these images for an “introduction to zines” booklet to give away at Maker Fest this summer at the Toronto Reference Library, where I tabled with the  Toronto Zine Library. Feel free to re-post and share.

8 page mini zine made from one sheet of paper (8.5 * 11″)

8 page mini zine guidefinalcolour copy

Accordion zine made from one sheet of paper (8.5 * 11″)

Accordionfoldcolour copy

accordionplayer copy 2

Computerpageguideforacccordionbook copy 2

Simple hand-sewn binding

Handsewn binding guide colour copy

A few general tips

Zine Layout Tips copy

Have fun!

A post about the new Toronto Zine Library OPAC and DIY library software

This is an updated version of a piece created for the Toronto Zine Library’s winter 2019 Zine-O-File, published by the TZL Collective.

First, for those who are unfamiliar, zines are self-published booklets that can be about anything— from garlic recipe zines made of garlic paper to comic zines about socialism in Canada. The term “zine” comes from fanzine and fan magazine, rooted in sci-fi fanzines, and made popular with the rise of punk in the 1970s, queercore in the 1980s, and the feminist punk movement well into the 90s (Bikini Kill! and riot grrrl). Traditionally, zines were a way for niche communities to stay connected and share information that wasn’t picked up by mainstream media.

It may seem obvious, but zines are still being made! People still have things they are concerned about and excited about; marginalized communities are still left out of mainstream publication and censored online; communities of like-minded individuals still want to communicate with each other to share knowledge, ideas, and wisdom in a meaningful way; people still want to connect with each other, with people who have had similar experiences, and with people who have had different experiences —  you get the idea.

The beauty of zines is that anyone can make them— there are no rules. Zines do not have to be perfect, and they do not have to be pretty. Often, master copies are made by cutting and pasting images and texts by hand, mixing print media and handwriting, which are then folded in proper page order, photocopied, refolded, and hand bound or stapled. They are filled with uncensored personal experiences and perspectives and therefore differ from mainstream publication. They allow diverse communities to share their experiences, knowledge, and wisdom.

You may be wondering, how does an independent, volunteer-run zine library keep track of all these wonderful zines and share them with the public?

While we all highly valued the old paper and pencil method of record keeping, at well over 3600 zines (and growing rapidly with weekly donations!) and 200 members (also rapidly growing!) the method had become untenable. The Toronto Zine Library now has an online public access catalogue (OPAC), a searchable online catalogue which you can check out here: https://www.torontozinelibrary.org/catalogue/opac/

Rotem managed and facilitated the library science side of this project, while Brandon supported the tech side of the project — and along the way we received support from the rest of the TZL’s lovely volunteers.

We decided that this beautiful collection would best serve the public if we could afford not only  public research and access to the catalogue but also a more streamlined user management and circulation system. In librarian lingo, this means using an integrated library system (ILS). An ILS is an umbrella term for library management systems that usually, at minimum, serve the desired functions of user management, circulation, and an OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue). For our integrated library system (ILS), we used the open source software OpenBiblio. Open Source software enables small independent organizations like the TZL to function without the monetary constraints commercial software creates. The TZL runs on Open Source already, for example we use Linux at our circulation desk and office tools like LibreOffice to manage documents. However, adapting an existing library’s collections and operating history, managed partially on paper and partially in digital, is no simple task.

The first step to moving to an ILS was the server side setup. For this, we needed to setup a MySQL database and user for OpenBiblio to use and then install the software itself. Fortunately, OpenBiblio comes with good install instructions and the setup was straightforward. At this point, we wanted to begin converting our information from one system to another. However, each preexisting system had its own caveats.

First, the membership database was entirely paper based across binders that spanned all the years of the TZL’s operations (over a decade!). Additionally, OpenBiblio requires members to be associated with barcodes, since typically libraries scan cards as a means of user identification. Our member database had never kept track of its users this way, so the first feature we added to the OpenBiblio functionality — barcode generation!  We chose a simple format and made an automatic generator that would populate the barcode field in the membership form with a unique barcode. Finally, because we’d be storing user information and moving circulation to a web based platform, we needed enhanced security. Since login information over an unsecure channel can be easily “sniffed”, we needed to ensure our admin logins were secure! So we used the Let’s Encrypt Free SSL/TLS certificate service and moved the entire TZL website to Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS). This means all of our communications to the OpenBiblio system, and the server in general, were now encrypted and secure! At this point, we were able to move from heavy binders to a sustainable and secure digital database thanks to the hard work of volunteer zine librarians who transferred membership information manually. We can now better track individual copies of zines and run circulation services through our library computer and remotely.

Second, we had been cataloguing the zines using a small custom made app and database for years. It was mostly textual and in a straightforward format that captured the organization of the catalogue. However, OpenBiblio uses the MARC 21 format internally. MARC 21 is a format for machine-readable bibliographic information developed by the Library of Congress. On one hand, this system codifies the storage of bibliographic information and is used broadly in the library community. On the other hand, the system encodes certain assumptions about the medium being catalogued and these assumptions are not necessarily commensurate with zines and zine culture. The first step to this process was understanding the structure of the database in use and getting the preexisting information out in a usable format. To facilitate this we used the SQLite DB Explorer to dump the entire database out into a tab delimited text file. The next step was getting the information into a format for OpenBiblio, this means MARC data, since, fortunately, OpenBiblio has a MARC data importer. To do this we used MARCEdit, a MARC editing and authoring tool made by Terry Reese, a librarian at The Ohio State University. In MARCEdit we were able to map the fields in our custom database to MARC fields we thought would serve them well. For example, we mapped genre to 650$a (650 => Subject Added Entry-Topical Term, $a => Topical term or geographic name entry element), and zine format to 300$b (300 => Physical Description, $b => Other physical details). At this point we were able to export the database as MARC and import it into OpenBiblio. The one caveat here is that OpenBiblio requires call numbers, which the TZL does not use.  To handle this, we were able to simply remove the requirement by commenting out a few lines of code (a hack, yes, but it works!). The very last step is to create an actual copy entry for each item imported, since the bibliographic information and the copies are separate. This is a straightforward process outlined on the OpenBiblio website and requires a little bit of SQL (fortunately copy/paste will do here). Now we had 3400+ entries and a fully functioning OPAC and circulation system!

Third, we wanted to ensure that the medium of zines was captured as best as possible online so our members could do their research and see what they were getting in to. We decided early on that, since OpenBiblio did not already have the feature, that we needed pictures! This led to the second addition to the OpenBiblio feature set. The first task was to understand the inner working of OpenBiblio — we needed to go under the hood for this one! Fortunately, a past contributor had made a patch for an earlier version of this feature. Using this, decoding the inner workings became much more straightforward and made the transition from OpenBiblio user to OpenBiblio developer much more easy. Since it was for an earlier version and didn’t quite have all the features we wanted, we still had our work cut out! This involved several steps: using an experimental MARC field in the 900s to store the image location; adding support to render the image in the bibliographic searches and individual entries; and adding support to upload the image using some fancy jQuery ajax client-side and a dollop of php server-side; and finally building out a thumbnail system so the entire thing was efficient. This year, we held a fundraiser to raise money for a scanner for the library (and for other projects), and since then, we have started the process of scanning zine covers.

All these adjustments and the shift to the new library software in general has improved the way we are able to catalogue zines and the accessibility of the collection. Cataloguing zines is difficult because zine librarians have to choose one out of several categories to organize zines into— but we desperately want to choose multiple. For the TZL, these categories traditionally include: Perzine, Fanzine, Litzine, Humour, Culture, Miscellaneous, Gender/Queer, Politics, Comics, Art (and many subcategories to choose from). Since zines can often fit into multiple categories, we read each zine carefully and cautiously choose what we hope will be its best home. Now we can also add comprehensive keywords to make the catalogue more accessible and showcase how diverse the collection is.

The other great thing about DIY library software is we can avoid the outdated vocabulary, racism, sexism, and other problematic bias that is built into other standard  library taxonomies such as Library of Congress Classification and Dewey. As mentioned, we also have the ability to alter MARC fields in OpenBiblio to match the needs of zine library taxonomies, which are still a work in progress (for us) to be honest. The other great thing about DIY library software is that we can incorporate feedback from zinesters and library visitors to improve the catalogue. For example, we can update tags to reflect current cultural language, from self-determination within marginalized communities to vocabulary within niche communities that we just do not have expertise on.

Limiting zines to one category might prevent someone from stumbling across a zine that they might be searching for (or not know they needed), maybe for research, interest, or other personal reasons. For example, a zine maker’s personal story of surviving a traumatic experience that deals with mental health struggles might be narrated in comic medium and catalogued in the Comics section— but it could just as easily have been shelved in Perzines (personal zines), or maybe Gender/Sexuality. As a result, someone going through a difficult experience and searching for zines relating to trauma and depression, might miss out on this narrative if they only search the Perzine section. Our hope is that by adding keywords to all zines, we can provide library visitors and staff with better information to locate and discover the right zines. The example scenario above (Comics vs. Perzines etc.) can be avoided because zines from any section can now be linked to terms such as: mental health, trauma, survival, grief, self care, personal stories, body positivity, feminism, diary, and so on — which makes us zine librarians very happy.

Also, anyone can now search the collection from their homes or anywhere else with wifi. Since, regrettably, the TZL’s physical library space is not as accessible as we would like (second floor, no elevator), the ability to search the catalogue remotely enables more people to see the scope of the collection and engage with zine resources. For example, a wheelchair user can now email us, ask us to pull zines from our collection that they have found in our online catalogue, and we can then deliver these zines to them on the more accessible main floor of the building.

For more information about the Toronto Zine Library: https://www.torontozinelibrary.org/

Please contact the TZL if you have suggestions for improving community-specific or intersectional keywords, or other ways to improve the language in the catalogue: torontozinelibrary@gmail.com

Below is a list of zines I prepared for the fundraiser to showcase catalogue records with zine covers and keywords added, to show the potential of what the catalogue can grow to look like in the future.

For more information about the Toronto Zine Library: https://www.torontozinelibrary.org/

Please contact me if you have concerns or suggestions regarding anything written about in this post.

 

FundraiserCataloguesheet

 

 

 

 

Toronto Zine Library Fundraiser at Glad Day Bookstore

TZL Fundraiser Poster, August 4th copy

 

Please share this info and support DIY zine culture in Toronto 🖤

The Toronto Zine Library is hosting an event to raise money for a new printer and scanner for the library, and to help support future library operations. The library would like to provide accessible printing/copy methods for zine makers. Also, the scanner will support a special project that we have been working on (to be revealed the night of the fundraiser!)

The fundraiser will take place Saturday, August 4th at Glad Day Bookstore from 6-9pm. There will be live music, guest artists, a raffle, and a station where you can make zines!

Libraries like the Toronto Zine Library are far too rare, and much needed. The TZL is a much loved special place for everyone who has volunteered and visited, and we want to keep it running. The collection holds zines made by creators from all around the world speaking from diverse experiences and knowledge. The TZL is a place that aims to accept everyone and help support marginalized creators.

(Let me know if you would like a copy of this image to share elsewhere)

Thank you!