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An Interview with Mike Pawuk

-by Andrew Goletz

When people talk about the problem with bringing new readers into the Comic Industry, they often cite the rising cost of the product, and the lack of availability of comics to people who don’t want to track down a direct store. 29 year-old librarian Mike Pawuk has found a solution. The life long comic book reader created a workshop last year called: "Be Graphic: Comic Books in the Library", which is aimed at helping librarians understand how to place graphic novels and comic books on their shelves. Mike took some time out of his very busy schedule to let Gray Haven readers know what the project is all about and why this is an extremely important work.

GHM: Tell us a little bit about yourself for those who may not be familiar with the work you do.

Mike Pawuk: I'm a Young Adult librarian for the Brooklyn Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system. Our library system serves the suburbs around the Greater Cleveland area. I'm 29 years old and I've been a comic book reader all my life. I just got married in November and while I'm learning what it's like to be married to a dedicated runner and to live with two cats - my wife is learning to live with a man who owns 12 long boxes of comic books and basement full of toy dinosaurs and action figures. I think it's a pretty fair trade off. :)

This past year I was asked by the Ohio Library Council (OLC) to present workshops across Ohio for fellow librarians on how to build a graphic novel and comic book collection. The workshop was called "Be Graphic! Comic Books in the Library." I spoke at 7 different locations to over 250 librarians combined about the importance of having a graphic novel collection in a library. In an hour we briefly touched on:

What makes a comic book so special?

-Why we should have comic books in libraries?

Origins and History of the comic book:

-Genres of comic books, the Comics Code and censorship in the 1950s

Selections and Acquisition issues:

- Includes the differences between comic books, graphic novels, and trade

paperbacks

- Where can you purchase comic book, graphic novels and trade paperbacks

- How do you know what`s available?

- Are comic books for kids?

- Where to look for reviews in journals and online

- Cataloging and processing issues (i.e., poor bindings)

- How to promote your collection

Comic Book publishers: including mainstream, independent and Manga

Collection recommendations 

I'm also a member of the YALSA (Young Adults Library Services Association - a division of the American Library Association) Popular Paperbacks committee. I'm the chair for the subdivision (we're also working on War stories, Relationships, and Urban experiences for next year's list) and our group is made up of 7 librarians across the USA. This year we'll be working on a list of the best 10-25 graphic novels for young adults and our final list will be released next year for 2002. This year DC Comic`s Big Book of Unexplained received a recommendation from our committee for one of the best paranormal paperbacks for teens.

If anyone would like to submit recommendations for the 2002 Graphic Novel list, you can visit our submissions website at  http://www.ala.org/yalsa/yalsainfo/poppapernomfrm.html. Anyone can nominate a book - we only ask is that the recommendation is still in print and in paperback. What's also exciting is that the YALSA Popular Paperbacks committee also just submitted a proposal for an all-day graphic novel workshop for the 2002 Atlanta ALA Annual Convention.

I've always been a big fan of comic books. I remember my twin brother and I when we were younger we'd always check to see what was in the comic book section of the library. In those days there weren't a lot of trade paperbacks around - I'd end of checking out the same copy of Marvel's "Son of Origins" or "Bring on the Bad Guys" again and again. Every time I opened up a comic book I was transported to a wonderful world - it didn't matter that I reread the same story again and again. I loved it every time. I've been a young adult librarian - I order materials in my library primarily for teens ages 12-18. If I can give them back that same feeling.

Libraries today don't just carry books. It's more than most people think. We've got a lot of other types of popular materials in the library -from CDs, magazines, DVDs, CD-Roms, videos - to fiction genres like romance novels, sci-fi, mysteries and westerns. We even have a toy lending library at my library. Including comic books in a library's collection is just an extension of our desire to bring more people in the library. They're popular. They bring reluctant readers into the library. It's a great visual tool - and they're something for all readers.

GHM: Have you always read comics or is this a new thing for you?

MP: I've always read comic books. My first comic book I can remember was a Batman oversized special - the kind they made in the 70s. My brother got Superman. I got Batman. And today we've pretty much been the same way ever since.  :) When we were younger, we got mainly Marvel Comics. They were mostly their movie/toy tie-ins - you know: Star Wars. Shogun Warriors. Rom.

Godzilla. Transformers. Man, I loved the Micronauts! 

GHM: Did your love of comics propel you to read more in general or were you an avid reader who found the medium interesting?

MP: I've always read comic books as well as books. It sounds strange, but I don't think I've ever considered them to be that different from each other. They're both ways to tell a story. Just because one story is told with pictures as opposed to another one with all text doesn't mean that the illustrated story's inferior. All that counts is that the story is engaging and that you care about the characters.

Some people over-generalize comic books and think they're all about two guys slugging it out. They don't know it, but they're missing out on great stories with some pretty amazing and colorful characters that readers care about. There's a great editorial by Stefan Blitz from the latest issue of Comicology that hits the nail on the head. He said  "Every time I enter the worlds of these characters, I feel welcome and at home." Any good story should do that. It doesn't matter if you're reading about Huck Finn, watching Indiana Jones, or reading about Batman - you care and love the characters.

GHM: What do you think comics can offer that novels or magazines cannot?

MP: Comic books are more accessible to a lot of readers. With a comic book you can summarize a feeling someone's having in a single panel as opposed to a paragraph. It's an amazing source of storytelling for a reluctant reader. A person who's afraid to read a book might not feel as overwhelmed reading a comic book. Comic books are already in the library. Many children's book classics are really comic books in disguise such as Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen, Raymond Briggs' The Snowman and David Wiesner's Sector 7.

GHM: What was involved in the process of bringing comic books to the library?

MP: Not much really exciting. :) Young Adult librarians are always looking to attract more teens into the library and to hope that they find something in the library. The suggestion to add monthly comic books into the library happened several years ago after we noticed that the graphic novels were circulating fairly well at the branches that carried them and we wanted to try another format and to see if it was successful.

GHM: Was it an easy battle or did you catch any flak for it?

MP: I think at first there might've been a few raised eyebrows here and there about getting comic books in libraries originally, but now after hearing time and time again the success that other libraries have had adding comic books into their collections, there's no doubt that it's the right thing to do. It's been a pretty easy battle. My managers have always been supportive of trying new ways to bring library patrons in. Comic books are an obvious outlet that does attract a lot of library patrons.

GHM: What's the response been to the comics?

MP: The response has been phenomenal. I couldn't be happier with the success we've had here at my branch. They circulate very well. We've built up a strong collection so there is always something available on the shelf for both comic books and graphic novels and there's plenty to choose from.

GHM: Is there an equal number of trades vs. standard comics or does it lean one way or another?

MP: We carry both in our library system. We get over 45 comic book titles, but we specialize in getting the trade paperbacks and graphic novels. They hold up better over time and a trade collects a whole storyline that you can enjoy in one sitting instead of having to wait months to get the whole story.

GHM: Since there is a collectiblity factor involved with comics, has there been an unusual amount of occurrences where people don't return the books?

MP: Like any material in a library there's always been some form of theft or vandalism done to materials. I don't think it's been unusual to have a comic book stolen or "borrowed indefinitely" (i.e., checked out and never returned) - but the same thing happens with all library materials. Plus, most of the comic books and trades get library stickers, barcodes and book tape attached to them. If collectors want the material, it's pretty tough to take off book tape. It's almost as good as duct tape. :) 

What's tough is that a lot of works go out of print very fast or a company goes under and it's hard to replace a trade paperback. I know that publishers like Marvel are finally working on this problem - but so many great works are lost forever.

GHM:  Have you noticed a particular trend in who is reading what, and what types of comics are being chosen?

MP: Manga TPBs are really popular with the teens but it's not surprising at all for me to see a lot of adults hanging out around the graphic novel section finding something they like. Titles like No Need for Tenchi, Ranma 1/2, Battle Angel Alita, Gon, and Blade of the Immortal are hard to keep on the shelves. Mainstream titles like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-men to even more adult titles like Preacher and Sandman circulate very well as well as movie/TV tie-ins like Star Wars, Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Independent publishers also have a place on our shelves. We get Bone, Castle Waiting, Ghost World, Whiteout, Scary Godmother, Clerks and many others. We also carry non-traditional comic books like Maus, Pedro and Me, and the Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom.

GHM:  Do you stock the rack with titles you think would be popular or your own favorites?

MP: It's a little of both. I help recommend which 45 monthly comic book titles our library system carries as well as the graphic novels. I do try and get a variety of titles from all sorts of publishers, but there's always a desire to add titles that I love reading and that I'm familiar with. I love works by Neil Gaiman, Art Adams, Walt Simonson, Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Jeph Loeb (the list could go on and on) - so when I order titles I try to order what's popular and also from writers/artists whose work I enjoy. If I can have someone read their works and have them get the same "Wow!" feeling that I had reading the title - it's worth it. Sometimes I'll even donate a book and add it into a library's collection just so other people have the chance to read it. I did that with titles such as Longshot by Ann Nocenti and Art Adams and the X-Men: The Asgardian War TPB.  They're such wonderful stories and unfortunately they're not in print anymore (hint hint Marvel) so I donated my copies to my library just so people have a chance to read them. We even have library patrons now that come in and donate their trade paperbacks and their comic books. It's great!

GHM:  What comics do you read?

MP: I collect the core X-Men titles, Astro City, Batman, Thor, Star Wars, Daredevil, Tellos, Tom Strong, Top Ten, and Orion. I'm really enjoying Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man and X-Men line of titles. There's a lot of great stuff out there being published today. I'm lucky also to have a twin brother who splits collecting with me so he'll get other titles that I don't like JLA and Hellblazer and I still get to enjoy them. :)

I'm also collecting the trade paperbacks like Preacher, Bone, Lone Wolf and Cub, Powers, Fortune and Glory, Castle Waiting. I think it's unfortunate that many readers can't buy all the titles that they'd like to read. Getting them at the library is definitely the way for fans to read the books they've always wanted to get their hands on but couldn't afford to.

GHM: What comics or types of comics do you feel would be best suited for a library?

MP: Hands down, we carry more of the traditional comic book - the superhero books but we try to get something for everyone. As long as the material is in print it's got a good chance of being in the library. Not everyone wants to read Batman, Sandman or Pedro and Me - but we try to have a variety of titles to choose from. Not everyone would like to read a comic book, but we have plenty to choose from in case they would like to. The same concept applies to any other material in the library - we have it here - it's your choice if you'd like to check it out.

GHM: What's the average 'lifespan' of a comic in your library?

MP: A single-issue comic book has a real short lifespan. After being read - a lot of the times they fall apart. Unless you protect the spine with book tape, they don't last long at all. That's why I prefer getting trade books - they last longer and are sturdier.

GHM:  Have you been speaking with comic companies directly in order to get some more attention focused on this initiative? What are the details of this?

MP: I have made some good contacts with a lot of publishers – from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Viz, Sirius, Image - I think publishers are beginning to realize that there are other markets than just the direct market. While a lot of publishers are focusing on outreaching to places like Borders and Barnes & Noble, they're also beginning to realize that libraries are important. One company that has been extremely generous is Viz Communications, Inc. They have donated plenty of GNs to libraries all across the US. It's appreciated and it gets the word out to librarians and patrons that they care.

GHM: Can people do anything to help, or is this an issue that is the responsibility of the libraries themselves? What can the 'average' person do to help?

MP: Librarians need to hear from the public about what they'd like to see in their collections so everyone can help. Public libraries are made for the people in the community and we're always looking for recommendations to make our libraries better. If a patron doesn't find what they're looking  - they should let us know what they'd like to see. If it's in print, we can get it for them. I always have patrons asking for new comic book recommendations. 

GHM: Have you been bringing this idea to the attention of other libraries and locations? Has the response been good?

MP: I'm on a listserv run for librarians who are supporters of graphic novels in libraries and we always like to share information. There are around 200 librarians on the listserv from all over the world. You can find more info on it at http://www.topica.com/lists/GNLIB-L/ . It's so nice to hear from other librarians across the US sharing their stories and successes including comic books in their collections. I'm definitely not the only one interested in bringing graphic novels in libraries. We're everywhere! :)

GHM: What are your immediate and future plans with this program?

MP: I don't have any immediate plans for this year to do the workshop, but I'm always willing to help other librarians build up their library collections. For 2002 our Popular Paperbacks committee is planning an all-day comic book symposium for the American Library Association's annual conference in Atlanta. It's still in the planning stages, but we're really looking forward to promoting graphic novels and we're looking into contacting publishers, writers, artists, and even distributors who would be interested in helping us out. It's looking very promising even though we have a year 1/2 to go.

GHM: If someone had an idea for a good comic book to feature in the library or wanted to donate trades, how would they go about it?

MP: Many libraries have had comic book-related programs. From having local guest artists/writers to even the good old comic book swap. Anything's possible. We've even had comic book discussion groups at our library.  

GHM: How can someone get this program started in his or her local library?

MP: All you have to do is ask your local library to begin getting comic books and graphic novels.   

GHM:  Where's the cooler place to be? The library or a comic book store?

MP: The library, of course! It's all free and we don't look like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. :)

GHM:  And anything else you want to add that we haven't gone over? Contact information, etc?

MP: If anyone would like to contact me, feel free to email me at: mpawuk@cuyahoga.lib.oh.us

Mike Pawuk

Young Adult Librarian

Brooklyn Branch - CCPL

Copyright©2001 Andrew Goletz