Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry 18: Unshelved

I’m using this digital new media platform to tell you right now that libraries are wonderful. Like many institutions, their role and utility has been changing as technology advances, but the remain delightful repositories of knowledge. Libraries are sometimes lambasted as irrelevant relics of a pre-Internet age, but typically the people who make those claims are people who don’t know much about either libraries or the Internet. For people who love libraries and the Internet, there is Unshelved.

Unshelved is a webcomic set in a library, written from personal experience as well as a strong grasp of character and humor. It’s a love letter to libraries, books, and the weirdos who frequent them. If you love libraries, or just reading in general (comics totally count!), or if you’ve ever had a customer service job, there’s going to be something in Unshelved for you to relate to.

The cast includes some eccentric, larger-than-life characters, such as Ned the nudist lawyer, and Buddy the Book Beaver, whose real name and appearance remain a mystery. The patrons and the library staff can both exhibit bizarre behavioral traits, which over time become less shocking through repeated exposure. The setting is quite ordinary, but some of the people are very strange, and while the others acknowledge their strangeness, eventually they become acclimated and move on. Besides, some of the normal characters can seem bizarre until you get used to them.

Unshelved is a gag-based comic, and while there is continuity, and even short storylines, for the most part each installment can be read in isolation. Reading through the extensive archive is not at all a requirement for enjoying the comic on a daily basis. Currently, old comics from the archive are running on the site every Saturday and Sunday, so if you visit every day you’ll get a dose of a “classic” Unshelved era.

If you do choose to read through the archive, you’ll find insight into the characters’ depths, understand the way their relationships with one another have developed and changed over time, and get a sense for their personal histories. While the surface appeal of Unshelved is definitely in the jokes, there’s an added layer to the humor when you bring an understanding of the people you’re reading about. I’d even go so far as to say that the heart of Unshelved really is the characterization. These wacky characters have begun to feel like real people to me over the years I’ve been reading about them, and I care about them as though they were actually my friends.

This one is much more effective if you know a bit about Tamara.
The focal point of the comic is Dewey, the Young Adult Librarian. He’s character who appears the most frequently and whose viewpoint we see the most often. He loves pop culture, particularly comics, so there’s an immediate resonance between the character and a reader who’s chosen to read a comic about a library. One of the least strange characters of the bunch, he still stands out with his dedication to slacking off and avoiding work whenever possible.

Appropriately, a love of books runs through Unshelved like a heartbeat. Characters read, re-read, talk to each other about books, provide recommendations and arguments, and sometimes even write. Once a week for the past several years (not going back to the very beginning of Unshelved, but going back pretty dang far), they’ve been running the Unshelved Book Club, which is exclusively reserved time for the Unshelved characters to provide book recommendations. (Or for characters from other works to give book recommendations in guest strips.) I haven’t read anything like all of the books that have been in the Unshelved Book Club, but I’ve sought out some of them, and I’ve never once been disappointed.

The Unshelved Book Club is the reason I read Ringworld and discovered Larry Niven, and I will always be grateful for that.

Reading Unshelved has not just reinforced my love of libraries, it’s actually taught me about services that libraries offer. While the Unshelved librarians have to deal with countless unreasonable requests, they also help people with loads of reasonable requests for things that I hadn’t realized the library was equipped to handle. When I needed to print something and I used a library printer, it’s because I saw people doing it in Unshelved. (If I’d bothered to think about it for a moment I probably would have realized that libraries are set up to print things, but sometimes I can be a little bit dense. Anyway, Unshelved was there to teach me.)

If you’re reading this, then I recommend Unshelved, because you probably have an interest in comics, reading, or both. If you’re reading this and you aren’t interested in comics or reading, then I’m a little confused but I appreciate your attention. And maybe if you don’t like comics or reading but you find my blog interesting enough to persevere anyway, Unshelved might have a similar effect on you? Just a thought.

Unshelved is written by Gene Ambaum and drawn by Bill Barnes, except for once a year on Bill’s birthday when he writes the comic and Gene draws it. New comics go up Monday through Friday. The Friday installment is where you’ll find the Unshelved Book Club. Reruns of old comics go up on Saturdays and Sundays. I think this is the most complicated schedule description I’ve yet written for this blog. I guess those guys have trouble keeping anything simple, bless them.

PS: A couple of weeks ago I took my schizophrenic aunt to a library because she wanted to get out of the house. She enjoyed the trip, and the librarians were very kind and helpful, though it was challenging for them because my aunt tends to mumble, and if you want someone to look something up for you it helps to speak clearly so they can understand what you’re saying. Anyway, at one point she was describing poetry that she was hoping to find in the library, and after a while I realized that she was talking about her own poetry that she had written. So, when I re-read this particular Unshelved bit, I sympathized.

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