Vancouver library goes graphic, picking cartoonist as writer-in-residence

By Vanessa Ybarra
September 2, 2017 - 1:33pm

VANCOUVER — A library in British Columbia is colouring outside the lines with its writer-in-residence program and showing people that literature can be more than words on a page.

Cartoonist Miriam Libicki is the Vancouver Public Library’s writer-in-residence for 2017, marking the first time the library has named a graphic novelist to the role since the program began in 2005.

Comics have captivated Libicki since childhood, but she didn’t think she could create them herself until after she left the Israeli army and went to art school in Vancouver.

There, Libicki struggled to explain the intense experience to others until she turned a diary entry into a comic.

“It’s hard to, just through text descriptions, really immerse somebody,” Libicki said. “Pictures, it’s much more immediate to immerse somebody in an environment that’s just in your head.”

The response to her work was positive, so the budding artist turned her army experiences into a graphic novel called “Jobnik!” which she self-published in 2008.

Libicki’s work mixes intricate sketches and watercolour paintings, a marked difference from the simple images in comics like Superman. Her subjects, too, delve deeper than Archie and Veronica’s latest tiff, reflecting instead on Jewish identity and examining relationships.

“I write what I like to write and I paint what I like to paint,” she said of her style.

Vancouver’s library isn’t the first to turn to someone with a unique specialty as a writer-in-residence. The Edmonton Public Library picked rapper AOK — writer Omar Mouallem — for the role in 2013, while Concordia University chose graphic novelist Matthew Forsythe to be the 2017 Mordecai Richler writer-in-residence.

Picking someone from a non-traditional medium shows that stories can be created and shared in a variety of ways, said Dawn Ibey, director of library experience with the Vancouver Public Library.

Libraries have changed as societies have changed, she said, and many now offer an array of items and services, from ebooks to recording booths, and three-dimensional printers to musical instruments.

But some traditional aspects remain.

“The end point is still the same,” Ibey said. “We’re still inviting people to be engaged, informed, to create and share information, ideas and stories.”

The Vancouver library is “format agnostic,” she added, and sees graphic novels as a way to engage a broader audience.

“A graphic novel can have an entry point for kids or teens or adults from very diverse backgrounds, different learning styles, reluctant readers, anyone who a more traditional means or a piece written for a specific demographic or age group might not reach,” Ibey said.

Graphic novels have gained prominence in recent years, including Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and “The Walking Dead,” which was adapted into a hit TV show. 

Part of the reason the form is so popular is that it can be used in a variety of ways, Libicki said.

“It’s a medium, not a genre,” she said. “It just means words and pictures put together in any sort of way. Any sort of story can be told with it.”

That’s a message she’s looking forward to sharing as a writer-in-residence.

For the next four months, she will mentor other writers and work on her latest project, a graphic novel about what happened to people who fled the collapsing Soviet Union. Libicki said she’s spent two years conducting interviews, researching and writing a script for the story.

She’ll also lead workshops for both children and adults on everything from water colour painting to conducting interviews.

“I’m really excited about the idea that we can bring graphic novels to so many different populations, both as appreciation and reading them, and getting people making their own,” Libicki said.

“I’d just really like to see more people cartooning.”

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