Early last month, I had the welcome opportunity to be a part of the first major comics event at the Miami International Book Fair. For the first time in the Fair’s history, as part of its 25 year anniversary slate of programming, Comix Galaxy arrived, a celebration of graphic novels and comics for everyone from fans to educators to librarians including a whole pavilion of publishers and vendors spreading the word about comic literature.
My own portion of the weekend was The School of Comics, a day-long event on comics for educators and librarians, and we had a blast. I was honored and excited to be speaking with a slate of talented advocates. I shared the stage with TOON Books Editor (and New Yorker Art Editor) Francoise Mouly, Stanford professor Adam Johnson, and two stellar local librarians, David Serchay, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels for Children and Tweens, and Arlene Allen, an expert at amazing anime and manga programming. Our series of talks covered everything from graphic novel basics to understanding Japanese manga, and we were overjoyed to have over one hundred attendees, the majority of them educators and school librarians.
In the course of the day’s discussions, we discussed graphic novels aimed at children, and as part of our first discussion Francoise Mouly discussed her many reasons for starting up TOON Books. One major reason was the lack of graphic novels currently on the market aimed at the youngest readers, especially titles considered easy readers or for elementary school kids. An audience member pointed out that Marvel and DC comics had been publishing titles for younger readers (although in this case titles are aimed at the most served group of kids, those ages 9-12), specifically citing the Marvel Adventures series. From my own experiences speaking with Children’s librarians, I commented that while they were very popular, they were hard to order, and I understood that a lot of them were out of print. The audience member said that wasn’t at all true, and that Marvel was selling them at their booth.
I was surprised, and being the investigative soul that I am, I went to check out what Marvel had. Indeed, they had tables stacked high with shiny new copies of their Marvel Adventures series. I was happy to be proved wrong. Given the bounty on offer, I wondered — had I been hallucinating the difficulty in getting these titles? Once I returned to Boston, I checked in with my peeps — my colleagues who are Children’s librarians, and my acquisitions folks.
As it turns out, both I and the attendee to our program are right. On the one hand, if you’re looking for a current Marvel Adventures titles, they are readily available from the vendors I checked. However, kids (and readers in general) do have that pesky desire to read titles in order, and given the popularity of these titles, libraries want to stock all the available volumes in order, starting with volume one.
In that spirit, I checked on the availability of a number of Marvel Adventures series through our vendors, Baker and Taylor and Ingram. For Marvel Adventures Avengers, Baker and Taylor has volumes one through four as out of print or permanently out of stock, and five to seven are only available on back order. Ingram shows the same situation, and while volumes two through for and eight are listed in their catalog, they are not in stock. For Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, in Baker and Taylor volumes one through four are out of print or permanently out of stock, volume five, seven and eight are on back order, and volumes six and nine are available, with Ingram in much the same boat. The few reprints of the original first volumes were also out of stock or only available on back order, and from the mounting number of orders with zero stock, there seems to be little hope of filling those orders.
Unlike the general public, librarians cannot just walk down to the local book store or comics store and buy what they need. We have to go through vendors, and often we are limited to the vendors that our library is contracted to use. When our vendors are out of titles, we may or may not have an alternative option (say, ordering them via Amazon with a library credit card or purchase order), but this is not possible everywhere. When our vendors are out of stock, we’re stuck with kids clamoring for more titles that we cannot provide. When I brought up the problem with the Diamond Comics folks at the fair, including that juggernaut of comics advocacy John Shableski, they assured me that they could help me get whatever volumes I needed. On the one hand, yay! On the other hand, most librarians don’t have that direct option.
I’m not sure where the breakdown happens, or if there’s any one aspect of ordering to pin the blame on. Given the number of orders I can see looking at Baker and Taylor and Ingram for a number of the above volumes, there is definitely demand, and I’m betting those vendors are trying to fill them. I know Diamond is dependable on sending out the titles that they have. So that leaves me the impression that the problem here is with the publisher.
Marvel has never been particularly conscious of the library market, although I can personally attest to the fact that they are improving given my communications with them this past year for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List committee. As a company, however, they tend to drive librarians a bit nuts. On these specific titles, the fact that the initial volumes go out of print so quickly is a barrier to librarians maintaining their collections. Marvel are not the only publishers with the habit of letting titles go out of print like this, but they have become one of the most frustrating examples given their lack of response to libraries and librarians alerting representatives to this issue.
Even if the titles are available, Marvel is also one of the chief offenders when it comes to poor binding, with popular series titles shedding pages left and right after only a few checkouts (many of the mainstream publishers have the same problem, including DC and Image, so there’s plenty of incriminating loose pages to go around.) If we can’t count on replacement copies, and our original copies explode into piles of unnumbered pages, then it’s that much harder to invest in copies in the first place with tightening budgets and sturdier options from competing book and manga publishers.
I’d bet a lot of money that a lot more kids go through the public library’s Children’s section every day than go into comics stories every day, and if Marvel cares about getting those new readers they are purportedly courting with the Marvel Adventures line, they need to make sure all of these titles are readily available for libraries and schools. If we cannot get the titles through our vendors, then all those kids who might become Marvel readers by picking one up never get the chance to meet Spider-Man or the Avengers. We want to stock the titles, and we’d spend a pretty penny to keep them available on our shelves. Marvel needs to hold up their end by keeping them in print and make sure that even if we hear about a series after its initial release, there’s still a way for us to get all of the volumes in the series.