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  1. It's been nearly a week now and hopefully all of you reading this blog will be aware of which books finished in the Top Three of the 2014 Stan Lee Excelsior Award. If you don't, it's one click away. The blue column on the left. Go have a quick look.

    This year's results were surprising and fascinating in many ways and this was something which I discussed at the end of the awards ceremony with those present. I thought it would be worth sharing those thoughts with everyone else - in a handy blog format.

    Firstly, it is worth noting that despite this site's recent online poll showing 70% of voters would claim Marvel to be their favourite publisher, Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z is the first Marvel book to appear in our Top Three. We can only speculate on why Marvel hasn't done all that well in the Excelsior Award previously but I would certainly argue that this should be seen as a huge compliment to writer Rick Remender and illustrator John Romita Jr. (who has just joined DC Comics to draw Superman!) for creating a Cap story that so many people got so invested in.

    Secondly, it's worth noting that both Earth 2 and Quantum and Woody beat the previous highest score for this award (set in 2011 by Yen Press' Black Butler). That means that the first volume of James Robinson's and Nicola Scott's parallel world, superhero epic is the most popular book we've ever had on the Excelsior Award! It also means that if Quantum and Woody had been on any previous shortlist, it would have won 1st place! Earth 2 is also the first graphic novel to make the Top Three and win the JABBICA, so congratulations must also go to cover artist Ivan Reis

    Finally, that Earth 2 has won this year's award in such handsome fashion says a heck of a lot about the comics-reading youth of today. It could be argued that it was a bit of a risk to include a book on this year’s shortlist that had an openly gay character like Alan Scott in it. The unashamed depiction of his lifestyle could have been a problem and might even have held the book back from achieving a score that properly reflected its qualities. The fact that it has done so well is a testimony to the values and tolerance that our comics-reading teenagers have. It is also a recognition of their ability to recognise that Earth 2 was not a story about being homosexual but was just a fantastic superhero story where one of the characters just happened to be gay. And that makes me feel proud of what we - librarians, teachers and students - have achieved this year.

    Enjoy your summer.

  2. I love lists. I love reading lists and I love writing lists. They're like bestseller charts or football league tables - love them too. It's the most fun way of analysing data (possibly the only fun way!) and is always a great conversation starter.

    With this in mind, I hereby present you lucky readers with a variety of Top 5s from my own personal school library. Obviously these lists are written with my Excelsior Award hat on and so will only feature graphic novels and manga. I do lend regular books (or, as Kev F. Sutherland calls them, "comics without pictures") too but let's not worry about them for now.  

    Here's the Top 5 most popular graphic novels borrowed by boys from my school library in 2013 (in the interests of fairness, this list doesn't include books shortlisted for the 2013 Stan Lee Excelsior Award as these will have an unfair advantage over the others):

    1. Avengers vs X-Men
    2. Grandville: Mon Amour
    3. Simpsons Comics: Hit The Road
    4. Aliens vs Predator: Three World War
    5. The Flash: Rebirth

    I like this list. It says a lot about the reading tastes of the male comics enthusiasts at my school. It's not all superheroes and there's a nice spread of publishers there too. Avengers vs X-Men was only added to the library's stock at the end of September and yet still stormed its way to the top of this list. Bryan Talbot's Grandville books have always been a big hit here, and any and all Simpsons books are always going to fly off the shelves so there's no shocks there. Aliens and Predator books have been very popular with boys for many years. This is largely why Aliens: Inhuman Condition made it onto this year's shortlist. I had been on the look-out for an Aliens or Predator book for the shortlist for quite a while and Layman and Kieth's "graphic novella" fitted the bill perfectly. What's really pleasing though is to see The Flash: Rebirth in there. The Flash is not the most popular character amongst DC Comics' superhero pantheon (he's often in Superman's shadow) and yet this book - which has quickly become a modern DC classic and was the first step on the publisher's "New 52" relaunch of 2011) - has certainly had a very healthy amount of borrowings. I suspect this is from word of mouth too, which is a nice thought.

    Now it's the turn of the girls! This is the Top 5 most popular graphic novels and manga borrowed by girls at my school in 2013 (again not including Excelsior Award books):

    1. Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Volume 1
    2. Vampire Knight, Volume 1
    3. Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Volume 2
    4. Vampire Knight, Volume 2
    5. Black Butler, Volume 1

    Fascinating, eh? Not nearly as interesting or as varied, is it? Don't get me wrong, I'm not casting any judgement on these books or on the people that read them. I don't really like Twilight but the graphic novel adaptations were gorgeous and very readable. I enjoyed Vampire Knight too. This list does back up my long-held opinion about the differences in reading habits between boys and girls though - girls do read more than boys but boys read wider. Sounds simple but I've had that shown to me time and time again during all the years I've been working in school libraries. Boys will try new things but girls stick to what they know and like. And there's nothing really wrong with that, is there? As my old Nan used to say "It wunt do if we were all t'same!"

  3. Well, that’s that done for another year. The new shortlist for 2014 has been chosen, polished up, glued to a varnished wooden plinth and put on display for all to see and admire!

    I always try to make every effort to be neutral when it comes to discussing the shortlisted books and never want to appear to favour one book over another. With that in mind, I will attempt to talk about the shortlist as a whole, in general terms. Attempt it anyway.

    This is the first year I’ve employed (not in the strictest sense) a team of judges to assist in the shortlisting process. It was a good idea and I’m glad I did it. Shortlisting is not easy, especially when the list is trying to represent a wide variety of genres, writing styles, artistic styles and interest levels – as well as quality. With three years’ worth of shortlists behind us now, we were able to identify three areas that seemed to have been successful in previous top threes. Simply put, these were superhero starting points (origin stories and/or books that didn’t require too much foreknowledge of the characters and their often-convoluted history), TV/movie tie-ins (original stories but ones with an air of familiarity to them) and quirky stuff (books that are a bit weird, bizarre and unlike anything else you might have read before). Obviously we didn’t let this dominate the whole list but it certainly gave us some food for thought and led to several books on the longlist being immediately ruled out.

    So what can I say about the shortlist itself? I’m pleased with it. Very pleased really. I’m not pleased that I had to jettison four books that could have very easily made this list but were excluded in the name of balance. I’ll be taking those four books out for a meal down town sometime after Xmas by way of an apology. However, the eight books that have been chosen are all quite interesting in their own way. The two Marvel books take very different approaches to expanding what you can do with those characters, both narratively and artistically. There’s two DC books too, both of which feature Batman on the cover. Now don’t worry. This is not compromising the inherent variety of a Stan Lee Excelsior Award shortlist. The truth is that Batman plays a very small part in both of those books. They are certainly not Batman stories. I suspect he is only on these covers because DC know that… Batman sells!

    There’s a lot of humour on the list too. I think one of the books (I’ll let you work out which one!) is the funniest we’ve ever had. Oh how I’ve chuckled to myself in the library whilst reading it! Literal LOLs! There are also some serious, meaty topics in the pages of these books too. I am proud to be able to introduce books that are able to analyse various aspects of the human condition in ways that are neither clunky, patronising nor offensive. I hope they will encourage some fascinating conversations and debates amongst the patrons of your school libraries.

    I think this list covers a lot of bases and any teenager who likes reading comics will find something that they absolutely love. I can’t wait to start the students in my own school reading them and I can’t wait to see what all you wonderful librarians think as well!

  4. Anyone who's into a certain art form will have 'gaps in their knowledge'. By this I mean certain works that they know full well they should have experienced by now but, for whatever reason, just haven't. For example, there will be music fans in the world who have never listened to Abbey Road by The Beatles all the way through. There will be fans of horror vampire fiction who have never read 'Salems Lot by Stephen King. There will be sci-fi movie fans who've never seen Planet of the Apes. There will be TV comedy fans who've never watched a Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. We all do it. Unless you're about 100 years old and you've been retired since you were 35, there's bound to be lots of things you wish you'd done but just haven't quite found the time... yet.

    Readers of comics and graphic novels are no different. There will always be 'classics' we haven't read - no matter how much we've been told we should. I'm a massive comics fan (obviously) but until last year I had never read a Tintin book. "Boo hiss!" I hear some of you shout. I never made a conscious decision to not read Tintin. There was just always something else I'd rather read more. My wife's grandmother is the same. She enjoys movies but, despite being 92, she has never watched a James Bond movie. She's nothing against James Bond. It's just never happened for her and now, at her time of life, she wears that fact like a badge of honour! It didn't matter how good Skyfall was, she was never going to watch it and break her duck! Imagine if she actually loved it! She would probably end up having to watch all the Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan ones! That could take months and months!

    Having a list of graphic novels you've yet to read is only exacerbated when you're a librarian too. Tell people you're a librarian and they automatically expect that you've read every single one of the books they've read - plus a load more. The reality is that many librarians find that running a library actually gets in the way of their reading! I read so much more during the school holidays! As a huge fan of comics and graphic novels, I believe I will always have that list of stuff I know I should have read by now... but just haven't gotten around to. There's a ton of new stuff comes out every month, some of which looks very exciting and has to be read as soon as possible. These will always push the Tintin books (for example) a little further down that reading list.

    However, sometimes something happens that makes one of these 'classic graphic novels of shame' rise to the surface and makes you finally, finally read it. Last week, I was having a lazy browse on eBay and I noticed this:


    It was cheap. The seller described it as being "like new". I'd always intended to read it but never quite had. So I put my £2 bid in and won the auction! It came two days later and I started reading it this weekend. And it's bloody marvellous! I can now understand why people have been raving about it since 1991. I don't know if there's any sort of moral to this tale or wisdom I'm trying to impart but I suppose I'm just saying that us comics readers (or movie goers or TV watchers or novel readers) should occasionally make the effort to step out of our comfort zone and try something new. This is one of the precepts that underpins the Excelsior Award itself - being open to new ideas. And the good thing is, even if what you've tried turns out to be rubbish, it just makes you appreciate what you do like even more!

    Happy reading.

  5. On 10th July, I announced that DC Comics' Supergirl: Last Daughter of Krypton had won this year's Stan Lee Excelsior Award. And I was delighted to do so. Not only is it a great adventure story full of mystery, tragedy and identity issues, it is also an original re-imagining of a character who has often struggled to exist in her own right and not just as a feminised reflection of her cousin and worldwide cultural icon Superman. This new Kara is forging ahead on her own terms and the book is a triumph because of its courage and originality.

    Perhaps even more importantly though, having Supergirl win this year's award (and also having Wonder Woman: Blood take third place) is a big poke in the eye for all those people who assume that graphic novels and comics are only for 'reluctant reader boys'. I can assure you all that of the thousands of Rating Forms I get sent to me by the participating schools, it is a pretty even split of boys and girls filling them in. I have several all-girls schools that take part every year as well. The students who take part in this scheme are thoughtful, intelligent readers and they don't need dumbed-down books with two-dimensional action characters to hook them in. They can recognise and appreciate a good story and fine artwork. Don't believe me? Have a read of the books that have been successful in the Excelsior Award over the last three years. You might surprise yourself.