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December 17, 2014

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BOOKS:

Comic book literature unmasked at festival

If You Go

  • What: Vegas Valley Book Festival
  • When: 1 to 5 p.m. today, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St., and Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo
  • Admission: Free; seating for keynotes first-come, first-served; 229-5431, www.artslasvegas.org/vvbf
  • Highlights: Neil Gaiman keynote at 7 tonight at Clark County Library Theater; Operation Desert Word Storm (spoken poetry and music), 6 to 10 p.m. at First Friday celebration, stage at corner of California and Casino Center; Local Authors Expo, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Fifth Street School; Children’s Book Festival, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Centennial Plaza and Lewis Avenue; Michael Chabon keynote, 6 p.m. Saturday at Clark County Library Theater

At 7 years old, the Vegas Valley Book Festival is demonstrating how truly grown-up it is.

By celebrating comic books.

Comic books and graphic novels are the focus of a substantial Saturday expo at the free festival, the city’s largest annual literary event, during which reading and writing become — for three days, anyway — a top priority in this city of endless distractions.

The festival, which presents more than 100 authors reading and signing their books, is book-ended by keynote addresses by two major literary figures, Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon, both of whom made significant career advances with comic books as inspiration and subject. Gaiman is a best-selling novelist and creator of the groundbreaking “Sandman” series of graphic novels. And Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” about a pair of comic book progenitors.

The comics expo features leading comics industry figures and artists, including Gilbert Hernandez.

And the festival’s comic books track serves as a reminder that comics, often derided as “kids’ stuff,” were once the center of a busy intersection of popular culture and politics, the subject of one of America’s first “culture wars.”

“There’s no question that the battle over comics was not just a skirmish but a full-blown battle in the culture wars,” says David Hajdu, author of the recently published “The 10-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America.” “The issue of comics divided generations and captured the country for almost 10 years,” says Hajdu, who will be interviewed about his book onstage Saturday at the Clark County Library.

“From the mid-’40s to the mid-’50s, comics and the place of comics in the lives of young people, and how they were affecting young people, was a raging debate. There were public protests of comics, there were public burnings of comic books. School groups and church groups were leading kids to build bonfires of books, specifically comic books and to march around them and recite incantations and to vow not to read them. A very scary set of events.”

Hajdu, who is also a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of the best-seller “Positively 4th Street,” notes that newspapers and magazines poured gas on the cultural conflagration, publishing thousands of stories and editorials about the horrors of comics.

Much of the criticism of comics was not unfounded, Hajdu says. “Parents didn’t understand and were afraid of what was going on in those comics pages. And it was partly a well-founded fear, because what was in those pages was designed to be a challenge to what adults believed. Cynicism toward authority, glamorization of outlaw behavior, romanticization of villains and wrongdoing of all kind, luxuriating in violence and sex. The intent of all that was to defy everything the world of parents represented.

“Comics were doing their job in ticking off adults,” Hajdu says. “That was their function and they did it all too well. A lot of artists and writers were denied their livelihood and suffered pretty dramatically as a result.”

By 1948 there were 50 acts of legislation outlawing and restricting the sales of comics; by 1953 there were 100 bills enacted at the state and municipal levels.

“It crippled the industry,” Hajdu says, “at a level comparable to the Hollywood blacklist.”

Hajdu concludes “The 10-Cent Plague” with an extensively researched “war memorial,” a list of more than 800 artists and writers who were never again published in comics after the clampdown in the early ’50s.

Comic books have seen a renaissance in recent years, and have achieved an unprecedented level of cultural acceptance and respectability. Comic books and graphic novels are the raw material for many blockbuster movies and are routinely reviewed in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and even The New York Review of Books.

They are still under political and legal fire, however, and this particular cultural combat zone remains active to this day, says Chris Staros, publisher of the critically acclaimed Georgia-based Top Shelf Productions line of graphic novels and comics, and president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization chartered to protect the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers and readers. Staros will speak at several panels Saturday, including one called “Comic Books — It’s Not Just for Superheroes Anymore.”

“The issues,” Staros says, “tend to be the same, which is that sometimes people still get offended by images in comics. Comic book stores, for example, can be charged with distributing obscene materials for selling comic books to adults.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Staros notes, librarians across the United States have picked up on the value of graphic novels and what good reading tools they are. “They realized in today’s fast-paced world, when things are so visual, that kids could really sink their teeth into graphic novels, and learn to read and find reading fun,” he says.

Comics have always been easy to underestimate, says Hajdu, who considers contemporary comics artists Alison Bechdel and Daniel Clowes two of our major literary figures of the day.

In Chabon’s latest book, “Maps and Legends,” a collection of his nonfiction work, he defends comics as art — and yes, literature.

“For at least the first 40 years of their existence, from the Paleozoic pre-Superman era of “Famous Funnies” (1933) ... comic books were widely viewed, even by those who adored them, as juvenile,” he writes in an essay called “Kids’ Stuff.”

“But almost from the first, fitfully in the early days, intermittently through the ’50s, and then starting in the mid-’60s with increasing vigor and determination, a battle has been waged by writers, artists, editors and publishers to elevate the medium, to expand the scope of its subject matter and the range of its artistic styles, to sharpen and increase the sophistication of its language and visual grammar, to probe and explode the limits of the sequential panel, to give free rein to irony, tragedy, autobiography and other grown-up type modes of expression.”

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