Last year, John Keithley, who runs Mystery House Comics, met a young boy in a samurai rabbit costume at a comic convention.
"Oh, you're dressed as Usagi Yojimbo," Keithley said, instantly recognizing a character created by Stan Sakai.
The boy's mother leaned in. "He wrote a letter to Stan," she said. "Could you get it to him?"
If this were San Diego Comic Con, or one of the other expensive, multi-day behemoth conventions that have taken over the comic con industry, that request would have been typical—and drowned out among the din of thousands of other passionate comics geeks. But it wasn't, and that young samurai didn't need to travel to San Diego to make it. This was the annual Boise Library Comic Con, which draws nearly 10,000 Idahoans with artist tables, panels, and cosplay.
Keithley took out his phone to exchange a few tweets and a photo of the boy with industry colleagues. Within minutes, Stan himself had written back. "That's a great costume!" his message concluded.
These are the interactions made possible for small-town comics fans thanks to a growing trend in public libraries: conventions, services, and programs centered on comic books and graphic novels.
Traditionally, comic cons are expensive, multi-day affairs at big-city convention centers and airport hotels. Badges for San Diego Comic Con, which last year cost up to $55 a day, regularly sell out within hours; even passes to smaller commercial conventions can run into the hundreds of dollars. As mainstream interest in comics grows, commercial cons have become increasingly overgrown and unruly.
But over the past few years, comics fans have begun forming new, small, low-pressure conventions in collaboration with their local libraries. For their part, libraries have responded first with surprise and then delight to discover entirely new ways to reach readers.
"We're in an isolated part of the country," said Josh Shapel, events coordinator at the Boise Public Library. "A lot of people here can't afford to go to San Diego or even [Seattle's] Emerald City Comic Con, especially if you've got a family and you've got kids."
That's especially true since Tree City Comic Con, Boise's for-profit con, shuttered due to financial troubles in 2015. When operating at smaller scales, libraries are well-suited to withstand fiscal challenges that can doom commercial events.
The library system in Lacey, Washington, has been broadening its offerings into various niches for several years. "Poor communities who are far from any major center, these kids wouldn't be able to go to Seattle and Portland," said Naomi Bell, a librarian in Lacey. Bell loves the sense of community that her library provides, whether at the comic con she helped start four years ago or at the punk shows the library also hosts. "It makes me so happy and comfortable in my community," she said. "Knowing that this is a space that exists makes me feel like there's a place for me in the world."
Typical library comic cons boast many of the familiar trappings of traditional cons: book sales, artist alleys, costume contests, and author signings. Boise hosted Pokémon-themed events at its con, while Cincinnati's featured a Star Trek exhibit and tabletop games. Mesa County, Colorado's convention included workshops with stormtrooper cosplayers.
On top of those offerings, libraries can provide a multitude of advantages that convention-center cons simply can't—starting with thousands upon thousands of free books available to anyone who walks through the doors.
Bell noted that the overwhelming majority of library cons are free to the public, unlike large commercial events. And, she added, "The library is always there. The con you go to for a weekend, and it's gone. But the library will always be there."
Library cons also offer opportunities to connect with creators and fans that would otherwise involve the expense and travel big cons demand. "For kids to be able to meet those authors and talk about their creative process—that's a really big shift," said Seattle Public Library children's librarian Claire Scott. "It's something that's been exciting to see—for kids to see, 'This is something that I can do, too.'"
Sarah Felkar is acting digital experience coordinator at the West Vancouver Library, and helped with the installation of a suite of creative tools for patrons, including Microsoft Publisher, Wacom drawing tablets, and Adobe applications that people use to make comics. "It's come along with the Maker movement," she said. "Around five years ago, libraries began looking into 3D printers and making things. But then libraries were like, 'creative content around sound and text and image and video is something we're really interested in. How can we support that?'"
If it's been a few years since you set foot in a library, you might find yourself wondering "what even is a library anymore?" Institutions now regularly think outside of traditional offerings—for example, last year my local library hosted a drag show tribute to William Shakespeare.
"The library's a platform for creativity," said Shapel. Outside of the annual comic con, his branch provides patrons with tablets and virtual reality painting rigs.
"For a library to stay relevant, we have to keep up on what people are doing currently," he said. "We've got books, which is great, but having all this other stuff too is important to make people aware that we're right there with you, and we're going to change and evolve as the community changes."
"People might think, 'oh it's just books,'" said Bell. "But no, we have more than that. I think libraries are more and more trying to embrace that. There's a public perception that print is going away and libraries are obsolete. The library will always at its core be about literacy. But you want to be more than the core. The sign of a great civilization is having a library that can do more than just literacy, to be a core of the community."
"The the traditional 'we're just about books' idea is going by the wayside," said Shapel. "And that's a good thing."