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Library panel talks about the boom in graphic novels

Many comic book fans are annoyed that most people still believe that comics are just for kids. On Saturday, the Central Library held a panel discussion about graphic novels, called "From Sandman to Superman: Comics Grow Up," and surprisingly, the crowd was composed almost entirely of adults. It was a mix between diehard fans and those hoping to learn more about this medium that's suddenly becoming very popular.

Panelist Michael Lavin, electronics collections manager for UB Libraries and an obvious expert about comics, said that comics began in what he called a "cultural ghetto" in the '30s, where they were considered nothing more than a juvenile form of entertainment. Now, there's a wide range of graphic novels available, from well-known superheroes to surrealist fantasies to nonfiction and historical stories, and they're now receiving critical acclaim, Hollywood attention and academic recognition. Art Spiegelman's "Maus," a memoir of his father's experience in a Nazi concentration camp, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Film adaptations have become more frequent, from superhero blockbusters like "Spider-Man" to cult films like "V for Vendetta" and "Sin City" to Oscar-nominated indie films like "Ghost World" and "American Splendor." More and more of them are appearing in bookstores and libraries, several graphic novels are now being taught in classrooms, and the interest just continues to grow.

"Graphic novels are now of academic interest," observed panelist Barbara Boehnke, associate director for collection services for Canisius College. "People are interested in the vibrancy of the mix of images and words. Students are very engaged in (comics) and that's what encourages me to keep collecting." Lavin noted that despite the immature reputation attached to them, comics can encourage reluctant readers to begin reading, assist the understanding of poor readers by blending words and images, and can only lead to an increased interest in reading.
Panelist Martin Kilroy, a Lockport High senior who has a collection of thousands of graphic novels, said he started collecting graphic novels before he could even read, and said that early on, "I was only just interested in good vs. evil." But as he got older, he realized what kinds of complex themes could be worked into graphic novels. "I was no longer interested in whether Batman put the Joker in jail, but what motivated Batman," he said. "Comic books deal with complicated moral issues that affect the world around us." Kilroy sees a deep artistic value in comics, and compared graphic novels to a collaboration between Charles Dickens and Pablo Picasso.
Lavin thinks "there will always be a stigma attached to" graphic novels. Nonetheless, he's optimistic about the future interest in comics. Kilroy added: "It's going to blow up, it's gonna grow. I've always been very interested in storytelling, and that's what this is. It doesn't really matter what medium you use to tell the story and as long you do it well and it has an impact."

Rachel Nicolosi, a freshman at Niagara County Community College and avid graphic novel reader, optimistically commented on that impact: "The graphic novel, although it will never replace the written word or classic literature, will make those works of classic literature more available to a wider audience. It will also help spread different ideas to people who see the comic book as nothing more than trash and make them think about what they are actually reading."

Jason Silverstein is a junior at Williamsville North.

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