It seems rather absurd to be lauding public libraries in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic that currently has the UK on lockdown – libraries are closed but, even if they were open, the thought of being in a small, airless room with other people nearby, touching books with your bare hands, books that have been touched by many other people sounds horrific. However, we are stuck indoors so I’ve got a bit more time on my hands than usual, so I’m going to write about them anyway.
Therefore, think of this blog post as a bit of nostalgia for a more innocent time, mixed in with a bit of bragging and a lot of joy in the delight of being able to find so many books to read for free in my local (and not so local) libraries.
Previously, on Clandestine Critic, I wrote a blog post in praise of libraries, in which I talked about how wonderful they are. Then, I had read nearly 400 trade paperback (TPB) collected editions/original graphic novels (OGNs) from various London libraries. That was five and a half years ago, and I’ve managed to pass the 1000 mark more quickly than I thought I would; and, if comics teach you anything about large significant numbers, they are a reason to celebrate.
I don’t know if anybody else has borrowed more than 1000 TPBs/OGNs from libraries – I haven’t seen people boasting about it online, although I’m not sure if it’s something that normal people would necessarily Tweet/Instagram/Facebook status about. I could be the first; it could be very common – I don’t know. But it brings me a certain sense of satisfaction that I was able to achieve such a tally – DC went crazy over Superman and Batman reaching their landmarks (and I was able to read those special volumes because of local libraries), so it’s got to mean something.
I won’t be listing every single book I’ve borrowed – that would be sad, even for me, and I’ve got the spreadsheet collating all the information in the first place – but I will mention a few that have stuck out. Due to the Barbican library, I was able to read the collected Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie – it was, appropriately, a massive hardback (ahem) and was most definitely erotica, aka classy porn. I was delighted when I found hardback collected edition of Private Eye by Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin in the Maida Vale library. I had heard excellent things about 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank by Matthew Rosenberg, Tyler Boss and Thomas Mauer, so I was buzzed to see it on the shelves in Charing Cross library (spoiler alert: it is excellent, as I tweeted about at the time). I bought the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, but I didn’t love it (I thought it was a very good book, but it didn’t force me to purchase the next volume); however, I’ve been able to read the entire series through libraries, and I’ve been impressed by the achievement by the creators.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol had blurb by Neil Gaiman, which was enough to persuade me to read it, and I’m very glad I did because it was wonderful; Brosgol’s Be Prepared! is also delightful. Lumberjanes (various creators) has been a phenomenon for Boom! Studios, and it’s easy to see why when you read the adventures of the hardcore lady types and their friendship to the max. A stablemate of Lumberjanes is Giant Days, the wonderful series by John Allinson and art by Max Sarin and Lissa Triemann, which I’d always heard raved about on the House To Astonish podcast so was particularly happy to pick up the series and realise that their recommendation was absolutely correct. I got to read Shutter by Joe Keatinge and Leila del Lucca, Resident Alien by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse (which I’m delighted is getting made into a TV show with Alan Tudyk), the work of Guy Delisle, and the charming Wild’s End by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard.
It wasn’t all interesting independents – I grew up reading superhero comic books, and I haven’t stopped. The Jane Foster Thor by Jason Aaron and Russell Dautermann was a great run and a wonderful story, and I’m glad it’s the basis for the (hopefully upcoming) Thor film. I was able to pick up the crossover, The War of the Realms, by the same creative team in Lewisham library, and it was a rollicking good tale. Getting to read Marvel’s crossovers was another library blessing: Hickman’s Avengers/Infinity, Secret War, Civil War II, Secret Empire; thank you, libraries.
I had enjoyed Tom King’s work on Sherriff of Babylon, so I picked up his take on The Omega Men (with art by Barnaby Bagenda) and of course The Vision, with art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (so good I had to buy it) and his run on Batman (I’m up to volume 9 so far). Ta-Nehisi Coates’ arrival on Black Panther was hugely heralded, so I was glad to be able to check out his work on the character, watching his comic-book writing develop over the years. I’m not a fan of the horror end of superhero comic books, but I’ve been enjoying Al Ewing’s take on the Hulk in The Immortal Hulk, with art by Joe Bennett.
Libraries allowed me to read new stuff by authors I like (Bendis’s Man of Steel, Superman, Naomi; Rucka’s Wonder Woman; Priest’s Deathstroke and Justice League; League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest; Aaron’s Doctor Strange and The Avengers) and discover stuff I might not have tried (I absolutely adored Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and various artists; I really enjoyed Tom Taylor’s All-New Wolverine with X-23; Skottie Young’s Deadpool really channelled the tone of the movies; I got to try Donny Cates’ Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy, after enjoying his early work; Gwenpool by Christopher Hastings and Gurihiru was an unexpected delight; Spider-Woman by Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez was so good that I had to buy it; Kelly Thompson’s Hawkeye and West Coast Avengers; Nighthawk by David Walker and Ramon Villalobos; New Illuminati by Joshua Williamson and Shawn Crystal; Superior Foes of Spider-Man; Mariko Tamaki’s She-Hulk – all because of libraries).
I’ve been very lucky in the selection and volume of books I’ve been able to borrow, but I’m still dependent on the whims of the people who work at the libraries and what they consider is worth purchasing for their collections. I don’t get to read everything, and the longer a series continues, the less likely it will be stocked as librarians, like normal comic-book readers, are distracted by shiny first volumes of new series, even of the same character. However, in the long run, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience with the depth and breadth of material I’ve been able to read, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.
Another reason for my writing of this post is that I’m not going to reach another significant milestone in the library-borrowing journey. Pandemic aside, the funding of libraries isn’t what it was, and ‘normal’ books get precedent over those with pictures. Before the lockdown, the number of new TPBs turning up on the shelves of my local libraries (I can access libraries from three different boroughs during my lunch hour at the office I work in London, increasing my selection opportunities) has diminished significantly. It looks like the beginning of the end. There has been a shift to comic ebooks for the modern library, but the selection is small and limited, almost exclusively Marvel and DC from several years ago (depending on which service the library has signed up to), so the future isn’t looking promising. I hope I’m wrong, but even if I’m right, I can’t complain; I’ve had a good run – I’ve legally read a ton of free comic books that I wouldn’t have been able to without purchasing them. How lucky am I?