Wide World of Webcomics: Getting UNSHELVED With Libraries

Wide World of Webcomics: UNSHELVED

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best of what’s on the web. Today, we take a trip to the library for a strip that’s become a sensation among the Dewey Decimal set.


Since 2002, Unshelved (www.unshelved.com) has chronicled the misadventures of the staff of the Mallville Public Library, from the slacker Dewey to the mascot Buddy the Book Beaver. It’s also proven a great place to find book recommendations with its regular feature “The Unshelved Book Club.”

Unsurprisingly, the strip has become a hit with librarians, with creators Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes frequently appearing to explain webcomics at everywhere from libraries to South by Southwest. We spoke with the creators by email to talk about the strip, and why libraries are awesome.

Newsarama: Bill, Gene -- when you guys initially started doing the strip, did you anticipate the librarian audience for your work becoming quite so widespread? Because I have friends who work in college libraries, county libraries, people who never pick up a comic, who are huge fans of the strip.

Bill Barnes: We originally envisioned Unshelved as a newspaper strip, and so to the extent that we actually thought it through, which is probably pretty small, I think we saw the librarians as just a small, enthusiastic part of the overall audience. Instead Unshelved became a webcomic, and the librarians were the ones who found us first and told each other about us. So that part of the audience grew the fastest, and today they are still the majority of our readers.

Gene Ambaum: I'm still really surprised the way Unshelved resonates with other librarians. I didn't know the extent to which we experienced the same things -- rude patrons, unintended outcomes of policy decisions, gross stuff in the book drop, and naked people in the library -- and the extent to which that would garner an audience.

Nrama: Have you found yourselves identifying more with certain characters since you've been doing the strip who are different than the ones you identified with at the beginning?

Barnes: I inject most of my personal foibles into Dewey, but on occasion I also speak through Ned the civil libertarian, and sometimes Colleen when I'm feeling old and grumpy.

Ambaum: Dewey says things I'd like to say to people, but never would. And I wish I thought the world was as pleasant as Tamara does.

Nrama: One of the things that's distinguished your work from the beginning has been your interactions with readers and how it's influenced the strip. What's been the biggest advantages -- and in some cases, disadvantages -- of this degree of interactivity? 


Barnes: It's hard to think of any disadvantages. Our readers have provided immense support, and the occasional story idea. It's hard to underestimate the value of reader interaction when you work alone at home.

Of course there are always a few cranks, someone who thinks we're funny except when we make a joke about something that is important to them, at which point we are suddenly supervillains. But I probably do that too.

Ambaum: It's always hard to hear when a fan doesn't like something in the strip. But on the whole, it's great -- librarians and library workers tell us stories they'd never tell their bosses, just so they can get the last laugh if the idea inspires a comic.

Nrama: Since you started doing the strip, what are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the library system, and what's it been like adapting those changes to the strip?

Ambaum: I don't think libraries have changed much in the last ten years. They're still offering books and computers and space for everyone, and the world seems to have recently woken up to the fact that they have eBooks, too.

At their core, libraries are still about getting people (largely those who don't have patience or the ability to use books and technology) the information they need.

But they tend to try to help anyone who comes through the door with any problem they have -- it's a noble goal but they inevitably fall short some of the time. They love sexy new gadgets and social media but for either can't afford them or, for the most part, can't figure out how to use them effectively. I feel like things look different but they're pretty much the same.

Nrama: What's the most surprising/gratifying reaction you've gotten to the strip over the years?

Ambaum: I love hearing from someone that we make their day. I get a few emails like this a month and they always make me grin. What's funny is they usually begin with an apology. Don't apologize!

I'm always surprised when I make something up and then I get an email that says "That happened at my library yesterday!" Here's an alarming example.

I think my least favorite reaction was when we ran this strip. Marla Cilley (the Flylady) sent it out to her mailing list. Some of them saw Buddy holding the Bible and thought we were joking. (We weren't -- he's been messed up in his life and we thought his being saved was the only reason he's functional.)

We got a lot of mail telling us that we were going to hell, and explaining what was going to happen to us when we got there. (I got a lot of apologies back after I explained the strip and that we were serious, but it still felt like an overreaction.) 


Nrama: What's the biggest challenge keeping up with the strip with all the tours and talks you do?

Barnes: We've been traveling a lot almost since the beginning of the strip, so in a way it's hard to separate the travel from the strip. It provides a lot of structure ("I'm going to be away for two weeks? I'd better draw two weeks of strips!") that I don't know what I'd do without. And seeing people in person at talks or our booth gives us a great chance to get feedback and ideas.

Ambaum: My fear of flying used to get in the way of everything. I was sick to my stomach weeks before we even went on a trip. I still find it hard to work on planes, though I'm resigned to flying.

Nrama: Has the way you collaborate changed since you started doing the strip, and if so, how?

Barnes: I've been making comic strips since I was a kid, but it was new to Gene. He has always been funny, and had a good story to tell, but it took him a while to learn the basic 3 or 4 panel rhythm. So in the early days I took his work and did a lot of editing.

These days as often as not I am drawing exactly what he wrote with no editing at all. Which is nice, because it frees me up to do more original writing for the strip myself. Needless to say my work is always perfect the first time and has never needed any editing whatsoever.

Ambaum: We both have veto power over any strip, though we used to exercise that power much more than we do these days. Fisticuffs have also become rarer. Every week I write about three times as many strips as we run. (I used to write more.)

I also used to write very detailed instructions about the illustrations that Bill (rightly) mostly ignored. After a few years I let go and the writing became much less stressful. Now I hardly write "at the reference desk" because I feel like it's obvious.

Nrama: You're working on some different strips at this point -- do you see yourselves doing a longer story like the bookmobile tale in the future as well?

Barnes: I would love to do another long-form (or longish-form) Unshelved story. We've got a couple of half-developed stories. But as you say, there's a lot going on. I started writing Not Invented Here (http://notinventedhe.re) two years ago, and Gene has a project he'll be able to tell us about soon. I think we'd need a solid reason to do it. Maybe we'll do a Kickstarter to see if there's enough interest. 


Ambaum: Most my ideas for longer stories aren't Unshelved ideas anymore. I think my brain kicks into a 3-4 panel, 3-4 strip story arc mode when I sit down to write Unshelved. But I have been working on a kids book with Sophie Goldstein, co-creator and illustrator of Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, that we expect to publish in 2012.

Nrama: Here is a lovely opportunity for y'all to sing the praises of libraries and what they mean to people, and possibly why hard-copy books are still awesome even with all this Kindle/Nook argle-bargle going 'round.

Gene Ambaum: Libraries are one of the last places where anyone can come through the door and expect the same level of service: rich or poor, filthy or clean, sane or not.

Everyone who works in a library really wants to help you, even if they're having a bad day, implementing a policy they don't agree with, or explaining how to format a resume for the thirteenth time that day (to the same dude).

They expect kids (and even adults!) to be responsible and to respect one another. And they have real books (including comics and graphic novels) available for free! (And even a few eBooks.)

Nrama: The tenth anniversary of the strip is coming up in 2012! Any plans you can tell us about? Newsarama Note: This interview was conducted before the anniversary hit on Feb.16.

Bill Barnes: I plan on issuing a really great press release. I hope to throw at least one big party. Beyond that I think it's just the usual parades, fireworks, and global flash riots.

Ambaum: I'm going to shower Bill with heart-shaped confetti.

Nrama: For that matter, do you ever see ending the strip at some point?

Barnes: I used to think about that occasionally before I started my other comic, but now that I have an outlet for the stories from my old job I feel very creatively fulfilled and can't really imagine it. But if Joss Whedon calls me up and asks for help on his reimagining of The Last Starfighter, I wouldn't even look back.

Ambaum: Not ever.

Nrama: What are some of your favorite comics and creators, online and off?

Barnes: I love your basic Marvel superhero comics. Brian Michael Bendis never fails to impress, and it's been a real pleasure to watch Dan Slott (with whom I went to high school) mature as a writer.

Looking at my bookcase, I have everything by Terry Moore and Alan Moore, who I like to think are distant cousins, Alex Robinson, and Grant Morrison. My favorite author is Neal Stephenson, and the single webcomic I look forward to the most these days is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner, with whom we shared a booth at Comic-Con last year. I have become a huge raging fanboy for the blogger John Gruber.

Ambaum: Lewis Trondheim (Mister O, Dungeon, A.I.L.E.E.E.N., Little Nothings) is my favorite cartoonist. My French is dismal, but his drawings always amaze me. Like Bill I'm a big superhero nerd, and I'm loving Hickman's work in FF and Bendis' take on The Avengers.

I also love Kiyohiko Azuma's Yotsuba! , all of Jiro Taniguchi's work, and everything I've ever read by Jeffrey Brown. And Craig Thompson completely exceeded my already high expectations with his new book, Habibi. 


: Going back to the new media mentioned earlier, what do you feel are some of the opportunities such technology as iPads and smartphones have opened up for comics distribution, and what do you feel creators can do to take advantage of these opportunities?

Barnes: I think we all got right away that the iPad was practically invented for reading comics. It's a little small and a little low-resolution, but it's certainly good enough, and will only get better. And so it's incredibly disappointing that Marvel and DC have been so conservative about digital comics.

Every comic from my youth should be up there for free or some reasonable subscription, their cumulative back-story adding immense value to the new comics they're producing today. But they're not, which just leaves the door wide open to all the pirates.

I don't know if it's particularly valuable for webcomics like ours - the distribution can't beat the web itself, and it's not clear that the reading experience will be substantially better - but I'd love to see Girl Genius on there.

Ambaum: I feel like creators should get their work out their in every format and on every device where it will work narratively. I feel like some of the comics I've read on my iPad don't really work there, though -- it's no substitute for the right paper and high-quality printing, though it's easier to pack.

The big publishers seem to not want to ruin things for the comic stores, and I think this is leaving room for smaller publishers and individuals to step in, though I think it's hard without the big name recognition A-list superheroes bring.

Nrama: What's coming up for you guys?

Barnes: In the last few months we've started writing more plot into the strip: Colleen left, Dewey got his girlfriend pregnant, there's a new library assistant. It's been a lot of fun to write, and we've gotten great feedback from the readers. So I think you can expect that trend to continue and eventually culminate in something like WHO KILLED BUDDY THE BOOK BEAVER?

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Barnes: I just wish someone would ask us where we get our ideas.Ambaum: I hear people bring Warren Ellis whiskey when he's doing appearances. I'm still waiting for this to happen. (I prefer Scotch and, like Conner MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, my favorite is Glenmorangie.)

Read Unshelved at www.unshelved.com and meet the creators at Emerald City Comic-Con in Seattle on March 30.

Next: Frank & Becky talk Tiny Kitten Teeth, quite possibly the single most adorable webcomic on the planet. Then, Godland’s Tom Scioli introduces us to the American Barbarian and colorist Christina Strain weaves the tale of The Fox Sister!

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