A Comics Community of Practice

I have been a comics reader since I was in university. Like many women of a certain age, I found my way into comics via Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which I discovered thanks to the music of Tori Amos. From there, my interests expanded to include superhero (mostly Marvel) comics, which I bought from the Silver Snail in Ottawa (RIP).


When I moved from Ottawa to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia’s School of Information (then called the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies), I took my weekly comics subscription with me from the Snail to Vancouver’s Comicshop (RIP). I also worked my love of comics into my studies: I wrote a paper on the preservation of comics for my preservation class; I evaluated the Vancouver Public Library’s collection of comics and graphic novels for my collection development class.


After I graduated from UBC in 2010, I started working as a librarian at Library and Archives Canada (LAC, formerly known as the National Library of Canada) with the Rare Book Collection. Much to my delight, I learned during one of my first days on the job that among the holdings I would be responsible for were two major collections of Canadian comic books: the Bell Features Collection, consisting of about four hundred comic books printed in the 1940s by Bell Features; and the John Bell Collection of Canadian Comic Books, which includes over four thousand comics published in Canada or published abroad by Canadians, dating from the 1940s into the twenty-first century.


I didn’t know much about the history of Canadian comics at the time, but my general interest in comics made me eager to spend time with these collections and learn more. In particular, I dug into the Second World War-era titles in the Bell Features Collection, but I also worked on getting the John Bell Collection more fully described. For a period in 2011, I was able to hire Rachel Richey—who went on to publish reprint editions of Canadian Golden Age comics featuring Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, and Mr. Monster—to work on the John Bell Collection.


Over the course of my career so far, I’ve spent a lot of time with the John Bell and Bell Features collections, and I’ve explored the rest of LAC’s Canadian comics holdings. I’ve worked to make LAC’s comics more widely known through the institution’s online presence as well as through my own research and publications. In 2016, I curated the exhibition Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity for LAC; Alter Ego got a second life when it was presented at the Toronto Public Library in 2018. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Bell Features Collection was fully digitized and those comics are now freely available online. (Search “Bell Features Collection” in LAC’s online library catalogue, Aurora, to find them.)


I’ve done all this because I love comics and enjoy working with them. But I wasn’t hired by LAC to be a comics librarian, and (sadly) comics are not my full-time job. As we discussed during the GLAMs panel at the symposium, there may not be a single library in Canada that has a full-time comics librarian position. John Bell also touched on the topic of staff resources during his keynote discussion with Ivan Kocmarek, noting how frequently there is only one person driving an institution’s comics-related activity. Quite often, that person is doing comics off the side of their desk, so to speak. (John, a retired LAC employee, knows this well, having helped usher LAC into the comics world despite the fact that his job was in the political archives section.) It is not their core work, and if they retire, find a new job, or lose interest, the comics may disappear among other institutional priorities. I don’t think my predecessor at LAC cared much about comics, for instance, and of course it’s impossible to say what might happen after I leave.


While this may seem discouraging, one of my main takeaways from the symposium is that there is an enthusiastic and relatively large community of people in Canada who have an interest in preserving and making known the country’s comic book heritage. There are academics, creators, publishers, retailers, collectors, independent researchers, fans, and librarians and other heritage professionals who understand the value of comics and want to promote them more widely. Some are experts who’ve dedicated years to researching and writing about Canadian comics. Others are new to the field but are keen to learn and do more.


There is also a growing recognition that comics have a place in heritage collections. During the symposium, we heard from Ho Che Anderson and Mark Shainblum, two comics creators who’ve been working in the field for over thirty years. Both commented on how much the situation has changed since their early days, when they had little thought of seeing their archives preserved because this just didn’t really happen with comics. But Shainblum and his collaborator Gabriel Morrissette placed some of their materials with LAC in the 1990s. Anderson recently sent original artwork from King—his biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.—to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, and some of his earlier work is going to McMaster University. At the symposium, cartoonist Cole Pauls mentioned, too, that the Yukon Permanent Art Collection had acquired a few pieces from him. So it appears that GLAMs are making space for comics in their vaults and on their shelves, even if they may not (yet) be committed to hiring dedicated staff members for their care.


Given the lack of permanent institutional resources, my feeling is that the future of comics studies in Canada consists of collective efforts from interested individuals and groups working outside the “official” GLAMs context. There will likely never be a major GLAM in Canada with a focused comics mandate. Comics-related materials will probably continue to be spread out around the country in various institutions that have varying degrees of interest in comics at various times.


I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. As noted above, the Canadian comics community includes people who bring diverse perspectives to the material. It should therefore be possible for this community to create resources that are useful and appealing to a broad spectrum of comics readers and researchers—something that might prove difficult in an institutional setting where staff are bound by policies and standards not developed with comics in mind. Community-created resources could live on the WEB forever, as long as there is someone left in the community to maintain them. One need only look at the Canada Comics Open Library and the affiliated Canadian Cartoonists Database created and maintained by Rotem Diamant to see the potential in this type of project. If Rotem ever decides to move on, there’s no reason their work should be lost.


The main challenge as I see it is communication. Canadian comics people need to be able to find each other. Events like the 80 Years and Beyond symposium are a strong start: we came away from it with a to-do list and a lot of momentum. I know that I personally felt energized after attending the event, and I hope others did too. There is great potential for the development of a community of practice around comics in Canada. I’m optimistic we’ll see that potential realized.

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