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Somerville Is Comical, Part 2

by in Arts and Culture
Posted on November 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm
Last Modified on December 3, 2010 at 8:56 am

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This is the second installment of a multipart article about comic art in Somerville. A shorter version of this article was first published in the Fall 2010 issue of Somerville Scout. The Scout’s editor and publisher have graciously granted permission for me to post it here. I will post subsequent sections of the article on Tuesdays over the next several weeks.

Part 1 was posted here. Part 3 is posted here.

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Where To Find Comics in Somerville
The range and depth of comic art in Somerville is illustrated by the output of artists living here and by the businesses and libraries supporting comic art in our community.

If you’re curious about the many forms of expression to be found in comics, you have only to visit the following purveyors to start your own journey into this world:

Comicazi (407 Highland Ave). Co-owner Michael Burke, 40, has more than 200 customers with in-store subscriptions to serialized comics. (Any customer who has told Burke that he wants an issue of a particular serial every week or month when it arrives is an in-store subscriber.) Burke orders a copy of the desired serial for each subscriber and he or she comes in to pick it up. Through this regular interaction, a relationship is formed. Burke learns from the subscribers about new trends, new series, and new comics coming out. He also learns about their interests and passions. These relationships form the basis of how he stocks his inventory.

The members of this tight-knit and loyal customer base often continue ordering from him even after they’ve moved out of the area. It’s not uncommon for Comicazi customers to attend each other’s weddings, barbecues, or other social gatherings.

Burke is proud of the community that has formed – and keeps forming – around his store. He sees more local families wandering in on Saturday afternoons to buy comics for the kids. He also sees an increase in female customers. Burke believes that the continued spate of Hollywood blockbuster movies based on comic book heroes has had a popularizing impact.

In addition, fans no longer need to buy their favorite comics in a piecemeal fashion. Publishers package the serialized stories as complete graphic novels and sell them in mainstream bookstores. As it happens, Comicazi completed a major renovation four months ago to make room for graphic novel shelving and a graphic novel book club that meets on alternate Tuesdays.

Comicazi has two stores: one in Arlington and one in Somerville. The Somerville store, established in 2000, is the original business and is where Burke sells the highest volume of books. “Batman and X-men still pay the rent,” says Burke, “but horror and sci-fi are also very popular.”

Burke supports local artists and displays self-published local titles on the new release wall in order to give them maximum exposure. If they sell, he’ll ask the artist for more.

Hub Comics (19 Bow St). Welborn understood the wider opportunity for comics when he opened his shop in 2008 with the tag line “the comics shop for NPR listeners.” Indeed, he is quite proud of the non-fiction section nestled among the racks of Marvel and DC comics. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Kafka all find a home at Hub as well as books like Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq; The Cartoon Introduction to Economics; Persepolis; and a comic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.

Welborn organized his shelves like a bookstore rather than a comic shop. Comic shops are typically arranged by publisher and/or by characters. Welborn wanted to group his books by genres such as non-fiction, literature, anthologies, and slice-of-life. He believes this makes the titles more accessible to a broader audience. Hub also has a special corner of titles suitable for children in a part of the store with seating. Children can sit and read while parents browse, or vice versa.

Like Burke, Welborn provides exposure to Somerville comic artists. He has a prominent rack on which he sells works created by locals. These include self-published as well as commercially published titles.

Hub hosts a Sketch Night every Monday during which aspiring and published artists gather at the store to sketch a model in costume, imaginary subjects, or the store’s beloved dog, Bub. Hub offers book signings, art exhibits, and other events as well. In addition, Hub serves as an informal gathering place for local comic artists.

Papercut Zine Library (226 Pearl St). As of April, there’s a new library in town. The Papercut Zine Library is one of the largest zine libraries in the world. It is staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. Anyone can become a member and check out one or more of their 13,000 zines for two weeks at a time.

A zine is an independently published item with a low print run that is usually photocopied and distributed without the intention of monetary profit. Papercut’s collection includes newsletters from now-defunct activist groups in the 1980s, travel pamphlets, Beatles fanzines from the 1970s, excerpts from journals, reflections of prison inmates, and much more.

One of the largest sections at the Papercut Zine Library is the collection of self-published comics known as minicomics. These are small, usually photocopied, and sometimes hand-made comic books that comic artists use to gain grassroots exposure for their work.

The library has more than 1,200 members and is open to the public for reading, writing, drawing, and zine-making. There’s a pink box near the entrance where anyone can donate issues of their own zine or minicomic for general circulation.

The Papercut hosts a potpourri of events, everything from clothing swaps to zine release parties, bake-offs, zine-making workshops, and movie showings. There’s a special rack for zines and minicomics by local artists. Local items are marked with blue dots for easy identification.

Somerville Public Library, Central Branch (79 Highland Ave). The Central Branch has mounted a display of graphic novels in the main reading room called “A Different Way of Reading.” This display illustrates the range of serious topics that have benefited from the comic or graphic format: Everything from the immigrant experience to the Old Testament, homosexuality, sexual abuse, World War I, Rwanda, Hurricane Katrina, and autism.

Moreover, the library maintains a robust collection of graphic novels (19 shelves) and comics (22 shelves including manga). A clear distinction is made between the serialized comics for young adults and the graphic novels assembled for a wider audience. The graphic novel collection was started in the early 2000s and continues to grow in scope and readership. Barbara Nowak manages the acquisition of graphic novels by carefully sifting through reviews, patron requests, known authors, and publisher catalogs. Somerville patrons are a “well-educated population that wants the best,” she says.

Ron Castile manages the acquisition of comics, which he describes as one of the most popular collections in the library. Patrons can easily make requests for the purchase of new comics or graphic novels via the library web site or in person. Castile notices local teenagers sitting for long hours and drawing comics in the main reading room. They refer to the actual comic books, as well as the library’s collection of books about how to draw comics. “This is their portal to becoming cartoonists,” he says.

Highwater Books. Somerville used to be home to its own comic and graphic book publisher between 1997 and 2004. Former resident Tom Devlin started Highwater Books in Somerville because it combined the advantages of proximity to Boston and Cambridge with affordability. Devlin has since moved on to be creative director for Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal. Highwater published 15 books during its lifespan and played a significant role as an alternative comics publisher in connecting talented artists with each other and with a readership. Highwater’s books are still sold over the web, and the vibe created by their tenure is still felt and talked about by the comics community. In fact, the Fourth Wall Project in Boston (132 Brookline Avenue) recently held a retrospective exhibit of Highwater artists during October 2010. The exhibit included old and new works by the core artists involved in the development of Highwater as well as an installation that elucidated the history of the company itself.

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