It's National Library Week, which means I've been thinking a lot lately about how libraries and librarians have helped me out. Libraries continue to be an amazing public resource for any number of reasons, but for me one thing in particular stands out: Libraries are the reason I know a lot about comic books.
I didn't grow up around a comic book store, which meant many of my early experiences with the medium came in the form of trade paperbacks purchased at the nearest Barnes & Noble, but that can be an expensive habit. By the time I moved to a place that did have an easily accessible comics shop, I didn't have the money to buy single issues every single month, let alone trades. What I did have was a great public library with a great staff and an Interlibrary Loan Program. That meant that if you were willing to do a little Googling to figure out which volumes you needed, you could get just about any trade or hardcover out there. If the local library didn't have it, a neighboring library did, and they'd mail it out to you for a limited loan period.
I know this isn't a post about libraries, but seriously: They're great, and you can read a lot of comics through their resources, especially now that e-book versions of trades are so widespread and available to check out.
Anyway, it was during this time that I started using my local library to put together various essential comic book runs, from Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan to Batman's Knightfall saga. One day I decided it might be a good idea to start reading all of Mike Mignola's Hellboy as efficiently as possible, and in searching the collected editions I found something called "Hellboy Library Edition, Volume 1," which collected the first two major arcs in the series. I didn't know what it looked like from a book design standpoint or exactly how many single issues I was getting, I just knew it was the biggest collection available as a starting point. I requested an Interlibrary Loan, and a couple of weeks later a massive tome arrived, looking something like this:
At first it just seemed like it might just be an efficient way to pack a lot of comics into one volume, but when I took this book home (and the next volume, and the next, and so on), I found a gorgeously produced piece that not only introduced me to the story of Hellboy, but shined light on Mignola's creative process, inspirations, and influence.
The first volume, for example, leads off with an introduction from legendary author Robert Bloch, who writes about how far comics have come since his days coming up as a purveyor of pulp short stories. From there, the volume transitions into the "Seed of Destruction" arc, followed by "Wake The Devil" (complete with an introduction of its own by Alan Moore), then an afterword by Mignola himself, then a lovingly assembled collection of sketches documenting how carefully Mignola built his characters and his world. Subsequent volumes, particularly those highlighting various Hellboy short stories, ended up including fascinating liner notes detailing Mignola's lifelong love of folklore, focusing on which tales he was reading when he dreamed up particular adventures for his big red monster. I realized I was getting a portrait of both a character and a creator over the course of a single line of collected editions.
Plus, these volumes just felt right in my hands. I'm not a snob when it comes to reading format. I'll read trades, hardcovers, floppies, digital, whatever gets the story to my eyeballs while maintaining the quality of the art. With these books, though, it suddenly felt like this was the only way I was supposed to read Hellboy comics. The 9" by 11" size, sturdy covers and embossed text made me feel like I was cracking open some old grimoire every time I dove in, and the larger page size allowed me to really get lost in those famous pools of shadow and light that dominate Mignola's art style. The crumbling graveyards and Gothic vistas of the Hellboy universe felt big enough to climb inside.
Sadly, I have yet to make the financial investment that would allow me to own these volumes myself, though Dark Horse is still printing them (a Hellboy In Hell collection came out just last year). I definitely plan to buy them some day, but for now I know I can still find them in the library, tucked away in the graphic novels section waiting for even more readers to discover them.