West Virginia Book Festival

Clear your schedule — Free Comic Book Day

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Saturday is Free Comic Book Day. I’m just sayin’.

If you wanted to grab the kid (or not) and head to a local comic book shop, it should be a nice day to reminisce with old friends and make some new ones, both in our actual universe and others. You can check for participating shops by ZIP code at the Free Comic Book Day website. I see stores in South Charleston, Huntington, Beckley, Morgantown, Fairmont, the Parkersburg area and near Wheeling and Martinsburg.

Pretty much everything you need to know about the event at Lost Legion Games & Comics/The Rifleman in South Charleston is in this gazz story. That includes appearances by local writer and filmmaker Danny Boyd (author of the Chillers graphic novel) and Jason Pell (creator of the Zombie Highway comic).

Of course, serious readers of this blog respect art in all its forms, so I don’t have to go into any justifications of comic books or graphic novels as either art or literature.  However, if you want a deeper look at how this art form grew out of the early 20th-century and how the Forces of Darkness moved to suppress it, let me draw your attention to a book from a few years back, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America” by David Hajdu.

But you don’t need that book to enjoy Free Comic Book Day.

You also don’t really need to know all the ways comic book reading is good for kids. Reading for fun improves fluency, which comes in handy Monday morning when kids are reading for school. Reading fiction to the point of being absorbed in characters and the story has recently been shown to be beneficial in other ways that have to do with compassion and experience. When teaching and testing young people on reading comprehension, teachers sometimes break stories into sections or panels, so students can identify events and how they relate.

Of course, I don’t tell the kids this, but if there are any reluctant readers in your family, kids who just haven’t yet found a book they love to read, the comic book versions of movie, TV and game characters can ease them into reading for fun.

It’s great that all that happens, but that’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m catching up with my beloved Spidey, or evaluating an issue of Young Justice or Superman Family Adventures for our very young nieces and nephews. I’m enjoying the art, the action, the characters, the humor. I’m mulling over ethical quandries and scientific possibilities. I’m looking backward and forward, inside and out. And having a good time doing it.

Happy Free Comic Book Day.

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Marc Tyler Nobleman

Before Metropolis, Smallville and Krypton, Superman came from Cleveland, and Batman’s biggest secret is not Bruce Wayne. Both superheroes were created by youthful dreamers whose stories are told in picture books by Marc Tyler Nobleman.

Nobleman will speak about his work and sign books at the West Virginia Book Festival on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center.

The author of more than 70 books for young people of all ages, Nobleman’s titles include “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman” and “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.” On his blog Noblemania, he reveals the behind-the-scenes stories of his books, from uplifting research moments to unconventional promotional efforts.

Nobleman joins best-selling urban fantasy novelist Charlaine Harris, best-selling author of books for teens Tamora Pierce, and Senator Robert Byrd historian David Corbin, among others, in the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, the Friends of The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

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Harvey Pekar, “Huntington, West Virginia, ‘On The Fly.'”  Illustrated by Summer McClinton. Villard Books, a division of Random House Inc. New York. 2011. $19.95

Once about a time, I thought graphic literature referred to novels with illicit sex. Think “God’s Little Acre” or “Peyton Place.”

Times have changed. Since the 1960s, graphic literature is the name given comic-type books for adult readers. Some authors write nonfiction, similar to a daily blog, but illustrated with cartoon-like images and bubble-like dialogue. Other authors write fiction and develop imaginary characters; still others create cartoons from religious stories or similar serious subjects.

Graphic literature gained its popularity, in part, due to the work of Harvey L. Pekar, a young Jewish man employed as a medical file clerk in Cleveland, Ohio. Not noted for being cheerful, Pekar wrote about the mundane minutiae of daily life and illustrated his work with stick figures. His text consisted of conversations he had or had overheard. His wife and co-workers often served as characters in his down-and-out-in-decaying- Cleveland saga. As interest grew, he began to self-published the episodes.

His deprecating humor, a la Woody Allen meets Andy Kaufman, caught the attention of another Cleveland resident, illustrator Robert Crumb. When the two landed a major publisher for their joint work, “American Splendor,” Pekar and his sad-sack style became part of the official literary scene. “American Splendor” won an American Book Award (1987). Its film adaptation won significant awards, including the Sundance Film Award (dramatic category, 2003).

In the late 1980s, Pekar was a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Eventually, he crossed verbal swords with Letterman and became persona non grata on the show. He continued to work with various illustrators to publish graphic autobiography about his daily life, year by year.

In 2006, Pekar was a guest at the Ohio River Festival of Books, held at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington. He wrote about the festival, (incorrectly calling it the Ohio Valley Festival of Books), in a section of “Huntington, West Virginia ‘On the Fly'” (2011).  Illustrated by Summer Mc Clinton and published by Villard Books, a division of Random House, the book’s copyright page includes the disclaimer, “Some names and identifying details have been changed.”  For that we can be grateful.

Pekar was not a happy camper under the best of circumstance and air travel did not improve his mood.  In the limo approaching the Cleveland airport, he tells the driver, “I’m supposed to be gettin’ a per diem for food and other expenses.  I know it’s gonna be hard collecting that.” He adds, “…that West Virginia Crew don’t seem like they’re too sharp. They might not know what a per diem is.”  Once in flight, he muses, “As old as I am, I’ve never been to Appalachia before” — apparently unaware that 16,033 square miles of Ohio are part of Appalachia.

When the plane lands, a festival volunteer (a Pekar fan) greets him and escorts him to the hotel, and then to a reception-type event. The event is described by Pekar, who expected a dinner, as a buffet set up by a Coke machine. The first food group he spies: potato chips. As he meets other author guests he concludes, “… it seems like the only books people read down here are romance novels, mystery novels, and kids’ books. What kinda festival is this?”

The next morning, Pekar is chauffeured around Huntington, treated to lunch, and taken to a comic book stores he asks to visit.  At the store, he fulfills a prior commitment to do a free cameo appearance in an independent film about graphic books. When he loses a shoe heel, the grateful filmmaker drives him to a shoe store, pays for the new shoes, and escorts him to the Festival.

At the Festival, Pekar is pleased to draw a large crowd but aggravated by what he feels are inane questions from the audience. He is further disappointed to learns his per diem check was sent to his agent.

But all is not gloom and doom; his new West Virginia friends treat him to yet another meal and offer to drive him to Cleveland, sparing him the dreaded flight. He accepts.

The book ends with Pekar enjoying good company and conversation as he is driven to Cleveland. He concedes, “Well everyone has been real nice to me.”

“Huntington, West Virginia ‘On The Fly,'” the posthumous publication of a crusty guy, does what Pekar set out to do; it describes his life with acerbic wit. If you enjoy autobiographical graphic books about the daily grind, you will like this, one of Pekar’s final works.

For baseball season, a little “Clemente”

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Ten years ago, members of the Charleston Alley Cats Class A minor league team got their initial look at Watt Powell Park. The Alley Cats have since become the West Virginia Power, and Watt Powell Park was torn down in 2005. Photo by Lawrence Pierce

The major league baseball season opens Thursday; high school and college baseball have been going on for a while now, and the minor leagues (including your West Virginia Power) start soon.

I used to read a lot more baseball books than I do now.  I read all of those kid biographies in my grade school library: Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams. I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so the one about Stargell was my favorite. But then I came across the Roberto Clemente biography, and I was captivated.

Plucked from obscurity by the Pirates in the minor league draft. Led the team to two World Series titles, 11 years apart. Got his 3,000th hit on the last day of the 1972 season — and a few months later, he was dead, killed in a plane crash while trying to help victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. That story has everything.

So I was both excited and wary a few years ago when David Maraniss, who wrote lauded biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, came out with an adult biography of Clemente. Part of me was put off by the book’s grandiose subtitle, “The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” I would have loved that kind of thing when I was 10; as an adult, I’d like a little more even-handedness and a little less hero worship. Mostly, though, I think I was worried that the book wouldn’t do justice to the story I loved so much.

But “Clemente” was one of the better biographies I’ve read in recent years, never mind sports biographies. Clemente was a complex guy; as Maraniss writes, “The truth was he had a temper and occasionally did stupid things.” He faced racism and ignorance as the first Puerto Rican baseball star (Maraniss notes that on the 1960 World Series-winning team, the “ethnic” star was Bill Mazeroski — whose father was a coal miner from Wheeling). Clemente’s relationship with the city of Pittsburgh, its fans and its press, though largely positive, had some pretty rough spots. Maraniss doesn’t gloss over them. But Clemente truly was one of those athletes who became a symbol for a people and a nation, and his impact continues. Current Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata has a tattoo of Clemente on his chest.

And now, the story lives on for a new generation, in a new medium:

The graphic novel “21: The Story of Roberto Clemente,” by Wilfred Santiago, will be published on April 12. Early reviews are promising, including one from Alex Belth, who wrote in Sports Illustrated:

The wonder of this book is that is will appeal to kids and adults alike. Even non-baseball fans will fall under its spell. The national pastime has been virtually untouched by the graphic novel genre but if Santiago’s effort is any indication, the marriage of subject and form is nothing short of a grand slam. Santiago has set the bar high, though, and we’ll be all the richer if anyone can approach the artistry and emotional resonance of this memorable book.

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If you enjoy West Virginia history and real stories about real people, ask Santa for a copy of  Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers. This engaging album describes a time when the first line of defense against forest fires was dedicated human vigilance. A time when men (and at least one woman) were employed to climb swaying 50 foot towers and walk narrow catwalks looking for smoke in the heavily forested region of Pocahontas County.

The job was essential but not easy. Observers lived alone in the towers for long stretches during the dry season, some times for as long as a month. Equipped with two way radios, they could request the delivery of necessary items from their employer, the U.S. Forest Service. Hearty family members could visit and even spend the night but there was little sleeping room. In good weather, tourist and visitors helped break the monotony by climbing the towers for the view.

The interviews recorded in the album show readers life as it was in Pocahontas County between 1915 until around 1980. They read like well written short stories. The album includes 16 pages of photographs of the people, the towers and the towns.

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“The Exile” is a graphic novel for which Outlander series fans should rejoice.  If you’ve never read the series, tear your eyes away from the pictures of Jamie’s butt and read the book by Diana Gabaldon first — you only have to read the first one to get “The Exile.”

So.  “Outlander.” Epic Scottish time travel romance adventure with a healthy smattering of historical medical detail.  And: so good.

Claire is a nurse in WWII, and after the war is over, she and her husband, Frank, reunite for a second honeymoon in Scotland.  She goes a-wandering and touches some standing stones – which zip her back in time two hundred years, and into the arms of a young warrior named Jamie Fraser.

It’s more complicated than that!  And so worth reading.  But the wonderful complicatedness of the story is precisely the reason you should read “Outlanderbefore you attempt “The Exile.”

“The Exile” is the above story, more or less, from Murtagh’s point of view.  (The cover says it’s “Jamie’s side of the story,” which is not really the case, although probably easier to market since people love Jamie and probably don’t remember Murtagh.  Sorry, man.)  Murtagh is Jamie’s godfather, and a warrior, and one of the people who finds Claire and thinks she’s a witch.

So if you already know the story, why would you read this graphic novel?  First of all, if you had read “Outlander” like I told you to, you would instantly become obsessed and need to read everything you can about it.  Second, it is beautifully drawn in full color by Hoang Nguyen.  Every page is like a Scottish time travel painting.  Third, yes, it is the same story, but as we all know from life, when you hear a different perspective, you get different details.  Murtagh was privy to different information than Jamie was – we get that here.  Murtagh was in love with Jamie’s mother – we get a little of that, too.

And, did you know the Scottish invented the mullet?

If you haven’t read “Outlander,” you will be lost when you read this graphic novel.  Still, it is pretty to look at.  For me, reading it made me want to read “Outlander” again to get a new insight into some of the things brought up in “The Exile.”  It is a credit to Diana Gabaldon’s world-building that there is room for such depth.

So read “Outlander,” then read “The Exile,” then come to the Book Festival on Sunday to hear Diana Gabaldon talk about her work.

A preview of coming attractions

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Missed it last week, but Publishers Weekly came out with their list of books expected this fall, both hardcovers and trade paperbacks. It’s a little hard to read in places, but you can browse through there and find some interesting stuff, whether you’re looking to buy or just want to get to the head of the hold queue at your local library. A few things that caught my attention:

Jane Leavy, who wrote a great biography of baseball legend Sandy Koufax a few years ago (and a pretty good baseball novel before that), returns with “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” Mantle’s story is a fascinating one, and I love baseball books, but I’ve grown more leery of the ones that talk about how much better things used to be. Still, it’ll go on the to-be-read list.

Rolling Stones co-founder and modern medical miracle Keith Richards has an autobiography coming out, called “Life.” (Well, that about sums it up, I guess.) Ought to be a few good stories in there.

Frederick Exley is the author of the cult classic quasi-memoir “A Fan’s Notes,” which I read when I was too young to get half of it and probably should try again. Anyway, Brock Clarke’s third novel, “Exley,” is about “a boy [searching] for a person who can save his father, writer Frederick Exley.” Hmmmmm. I really enjoyed Clarke’s previous novel, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” so I’ll check this one out.

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention that West Virginia Book Festival headliner Nicholas Sparks has a new book coming out, “Safe Haven” — including “one woman’s choice between loyalty and love.” Also, Book Festival author Diana Gabaldon is coming out with “The Exile,” a graphic novel version of the first book in her “Outlander” series, told from a different character’s point of view.

Just a few fish that I noticed in a big, big sea. There are, of course, too many books by familiar authors to count: John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, David Sedaris, Patricia Cornwell, Joseph Ellis, Richard Reeves, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child … really, it’s amazing (and a little mind-numbing). But somewhere in those lists is a novel, or a collection of stories or essays, or a history or biography, by the next Grisham or Evanovich or Sedaris. Go find it.

Graphic novelist Jessica Abel at Marshall this week

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abelThe growth of graphic novels over the past 20 years has been phenomenal. While movie goers have seen the success of films based on iconic characters such as Batman, comic book readers have long been aware of the literary achievements of such masters as Art Spiegelman. In recent years, the academic community has recognized graphic novels as serious literature and designed whole courses devoted to their study. Marshall offers such a course, taught by English professor David Hatfield.

Jessica Abel’s reading this Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. in the Marshall Student Center is the opening appearance of her visit to the area to teach in the Huntington Museum of Arts Gropius Masters series of workshops. For the museum events, she will be joined by her husband Matt Madden, also an accomplished artist and writer.

For lovers of literature and graphic novels, Jessica Abel’s presentation will be a delight. Along with reading from engaging new work full of colorful characters at the edge of society — and sometimes at the edge of the fantastic — Abel will offer visual displays from the stories, along with explorations of her creative process in merging artwork with language. No one interested in the cross pollination of the arts and media should miss her appearance.

Jessica Abel (that’s her self-portrait above) is the first graphic novelist to appear in the Marshall Visiting Writers Series’ 20-year history. Our goal has always been to show the face and the voice of the writer, the character behind the words we read in books. In doing so, the literary arts come alive in the world beyond a book’s pages, a world where breathing humans join the community of storytelling.

laperdidaWhen I opened Abel’s great first novel, “La Perdida,” I did not know what to expect other than words pictures and a large investment of time. To my delight, her story pulled me in immediately. In search of cross-cultural truths, its young heroine is genuine and compelling. The panels capturing scenes from the streets of Mexico City are as gritty and realistic as the mix of English and Spanish that surrounds Carla as her misadventures draw her into the intrigue of shady local figures. The New York Times Book Review has praised her work, saying that it “captures perfectly the expat experience.”

Jessica Abel is an award-winning writer whose career has already begun to shape the future of literary media and engagement.