STORY WRITTEN BY M. ENGLISH
For Digital First Media
Like comic books? Consider checking out the free Montco Comic Fest at Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library April 16 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The “all ages” event is open to the public and — as planned — will feature workshops, movies, panels and Q and A’s as well as vendors, photo booths, prizes and take-aways. Costumes are “encouraged,” and members of The Heroes Alliance, a national non-profit, will be on hand to show off theirs and pose for pictures.
“We’re very excited,” says Asha Verma, who heads reader services at MC-NPL. “We think people are going to be very pleased with what we’ve lined up.”
The casual comic fan might be surprised at the latter’s scope.
Comic book visuals, especially superheroes, are everywhere — from every kid product imaginable to the “Batman v Superman” branding in ads for Jeep Renegade’s Dawn of Justice Special Edition model.
Of course, the proliferation of men and women in hero gear on area movie screens drives much of the superhero hoopla. Marvel’s resuscitated “Deadpool” earned a staggering $152.2 million during its opening weekend in February with Ryan Reynolds’ depiction of wise-cracking cancer victim-turned-superhero Wade Wilson going on to dominate movie screens for weeks. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” hit multiplexes in March, and “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” and a whole gaggle of comic glitterati are waiting in the cinematic wings.
Meanwhile, “Marvel’s Daredevil” series about Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer turned vigilante superhero returned to Netflix for its second season in Marvel’s TV universe, while other fans follow their preferred comic protagonists via apps that would have seemed as futuristic as…well, apps, when the American comic book format debuted and began to flourish amid social catastrophes like the Stock Market Crash, Great Depression and World War 2.
But back then — as now — superheroes aren’t the comic world’s only standouts.
“There are some very popular non-superheroes out there,” says MC-NPL Comic Fest Committee Member John Roe, a Bookmobile and Extension Department staffer. “What I like to tell people, comics are a format, not a genre.”
The “Astro City” series by Kurt Busiek, a New York Times best-selling author and winner of numerous awards, is one of Roe’s personal favorites.
“One of the things I like about ‘Astro City,’ its emphasis isn’t on the superheroes but on the people who have to live around them,” he explains.
The increasing popularity of graphic novels (in general, trade paperbacks that contain a complete story in comic form but on higher grade stock than traditional comic books, including the Japanese manga style), has broadened the format’s appeal among elementary and middle school readers. A few ‘tweener faves: Raina Telgemeier’s “Smile,” “Drama” and “Sisters”; Victoria Jamieson’s “Roller Girl”; and Lincoln Peirce’s “Nate” series). But even old standards like Archie, Jughead, Veronica and Betty have found favor with today’s eclectic youth market.
“Again, comics are simply another format for telling stories, and with the right artist, they can tell beautiful stories that can be dramatic, funny, even whimsical…like Stan Sakai’s ‘Usagi Yojimbo’ saga,” Roe says. “He also works in factual information about ancient Japan in his stories, so (comics) can be educational too.”
Fellow Comic Fest planner Angela Carles agrees.
“Comics, graphic novels — although I don’t love the name — are actually great for kids because they help them with their reading skills,” says Carles, who works at Perkiomen Valley Library in Schwenksville. “That’s partially due to the format…which isn’t as intimidating to some kids as the number of words on a given page in a traditional book. So, (comics) can help build kids’ confidence in their reading skills and make them want to read more, whether or not the story involves a superhero.”
Carles believes the expansive number of genres available in comic form — “horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance…and much more” — keeps the form fresh for readers in general.
“Horror, for example, is a big genre for the (medium)…a legacy that even pre-dates superheroes,” she says. “‘The Walking Dead’ by Robert Kirkman continues to be very popular. The ‘Saga’ series is another one that’s really big, and it (consists of) an interesting blend of sci-fi and fantasy (that) people really seem to like.”
Also successful, Roe notes, “non-fiction comics like Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ or Sid Jacobson’s adaptation of the 9/11 Report.”
“The latter makes especially good use of the medium to clarify the sequence of events on that awful day,” Roe says.
MC-NPL Automation and Technology Coordinator Jamie Albrecht figures just about any storyline is adaptable to the comic format.
“There’s a general divide between kid-friendly, teen-friendly and adult-friendly…in terms of being age-appropriate, not pornographic,” Albrecht observes. “But comics as a medium are on the rise and…no longer pigeon-holed into a narrow category for a specific type of reader. I think they’ve evolved in the same way TV has become a prestige medium. A medium is a medium. The rest depends on what you put into it.”
Nonetheless, Albrecht, an enthusiast since he read his first — Incredible Hulk — comic two decades ago, is surprised at the medium’s staying power.
“I never would have expected how thoroughly culture has absorbed it…Marvel, for example, bringing out ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and having it do such big box office,” he says. “That wasn’t a well-known comic, but good writing made it work. The same thing with ‘Deadpool.’ Neither one of them was well-known like, say, Spiderman or Batman.”
For now, Albrecht, Roe and Carles are focused on April 16’s Montco Comic Fest. At press time, the day’s speakers, panelist and workshop leaders included Keville Bowen, Nicole Carter, Edward Dippolito, Alex Eckman-Lawn, Julie Anne Evans, Kate Glasheen, Lewis Helfand, Victoria Marshall, Kelly Phillips, Claire Folkman, George Tagmire, Jason Tagmire, Brian Welsh, Chris Williams and David Yoon.
Cheyenne Morris, Monique Bonanni and the Heroes Alliance were scheduled to present a workshop on costume design; Harold W. Halbert, an English professor at Montgomery County Community College, a session related to publishing new work; and Helfand and Glasheen, a discussion of new avenues for “comic distribution and connecting with audiences.”
MC-NPL is located at 1001 Powell St., Norristown. Additional information is available at 610-278-5100 and http://mnl.mclinc.org/comicfest.