The Modern Library: Barnes talks "Unshelved"

Thu, October 18th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

Published by the appropriately named Overdue Media, "Unshelved" is a webcomic about a band of variously skilled and eccentric librarians in the town of Mallville dealing with cranky customers, annoying teenagers, crying babies and naked adults. In a recent development, the town council sold the library's motto, "Heart of the Community," to the highest bidder. The strip has been collected into several paperbacks.

Appearing daily since 2002, "Unshelved" and its creators Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum just celebrated the webcomic's 2,000th strip. CBR News caught up with co-writer/artist Barnes to discuss the beloved webcomic, how it came to be, and what real-life librarians think about how their world is portrayed in the popular strip, which is a fixture at webcomics panels at Comic-Con and South By Southwest, and has been used in promotions by Book Expo America.

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How did you and Gene Ambaum meet and end up creating "Unshelved?"

Gene--which is not his real name--had returned from teaching overseas. He was telling these stories about working in the library and I told him, if you ever write it down, I'll draw it. At Comic-Con we talked up the story and spent the next six months trying to find the right balance to our writing relationship.

You mentioned that it was hearing Gene's stories that made you want to draw them, what was it about them in particular?

They were filled with a vast array of strange characters doing disturbing things; bizarre situations rife with conflict. In short, endless opportunities for comedy. I had been developing an entirely different comic strip and I really had to work hard for each punch line. As soon as we shifted the venue to the library, the jokes started writing themselves.

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What was the development process like between you and Gene as you were working out the strip?

The hardest part was figuring out our creative process. We come at writing very differently. Gene is more of a concept guy and I'm more of a punch line guy. That's a great combination, but it took a while to mesh. We also struggled to leverage Gene's experience as a librarian without creating a series of "in-jokes" which would have limited the audience. In the end we just wrote, wrote, wrote, and kept about ten percent. That hasn't really changed.

That said, we're intensely lazy. We named a date. "Starting on Monday, 2/16/02 we're going to post a comic on the website daily. We'll do that for six months then stop, figure out what works." Well, a few days after we started someone put the link on a library blog and in two weeks we went from about 40 readers to 3,000. So we didn't stop after six months. We've tweaked it, but we had it more or less right from the beginning.

One big change we made was the background. I actually drew up blueprints for the layout of the library and then we had a series where the library was being remodeled.

You both write the strip, do you just bounce ideas back and forth until you're both happy or how does it end up happening?

Gene writes a dozen strips a week. Every Saturday we get together at a coffee shop and skim off the strongest ideas and figure out a week's worth of beats. Then I take a pass at them. Then we edit the hell out of them together, arguing so fiercely that people give us worried looks. Once a month or so I deign to write some strips myself and they require no editing whatsoever because they are perfectly funny in every way.

How did the characters come about and grow? They could be described in shorthand as a type, but they are very rounded characters.

They started off as stereotypes, idealistic children's librarian, old-fashioned reference librarian - which makes them easy to describe (and recognize). But Gene and I argue endlessly about what makes them tick and try to grow them without letting them step out of character. One of my favorite parts of the job is learning something new about our characters. Recently Gene wrote a sequence about triathlons and I laughed out loud when I read that Colleen had been training with Dewey's very fit girlfriend Cathy. It was a complete surprise, and yet I could totally see her doing it, and the two of them becoming friends.

Was there a comic or film that had the kind of atmosphere and tone you were shooting for with the comic?

"Barney Miller" and "Night Court" capture the "everyone comes here eventually" setting of the library. "Fox Trot" proved that you can take a small cast of well-developed characters and play them off each other endlessly with hilarious results. And "Doonesbury" showed me that comics can be smart.

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You mentioned that Gene's real name is not Gene. Unless it is Gene and that's just part of his cover.

Gene is paranoid. His worst case scenario is that he would make something up and it would be similar enough to something that really happened and the person would complain and he would be fired. There are rumors about that sort of thing happening. That's why he uses a pseudonym.

"Unshelved" is only your part-time job when you're not working at the day job that supports you and your family.

I work 80 hours a week between my job and the strip. Plus I have a wife and two kids so it's important to keep a balance. I work in communications for the software industry. And I enjoy it. If Gene and I were just out of college we would be living it up. But we need an outlet. My wife likes me having an outlet and it being something like this.

You put a lot of effort into your T-shirts.

The t-shirts are good PR. People see them and remember them, ask about them. It really gets the word out. They're much less profitable than the books. 500 or so on -email from Comic-Con. 1000 library flak jackets designed like FBI jackets. Just vanity ideas like that.

One of my favorites is, "What Happens in the Library Stays in the Library."

We went to ALA (The American Library Association Annual Conference) and it was going to be "What happens at ALA Stays at ALA," but that was a little too true and we didn't want to go there.

In-progress "Unshelved" strip

Where did "Pimp my Bookcart" come from?

That's was Gene's idea and we turned it into a week-long series. We made a T-shirt. We announced the contest to pimp a bookcart and had over 100 entries. This year we're doing it again now we have a sponsor, Highsmith, which is a company that makes bookcarts. It's just an incredible outpouring of creativity. People have thanked us for the idea. I know some libraries have used it to appeal to kids.

It's not without controversy, so we occasionally get e-mails complaining about it. We're "promulgating the gangster ethos," I believe was the phrase. Some people just like being offended. It takes a lot of energy, it can be a lot of fun. If I've learned one thing from all this, it's that pimpin' ain't easy.

Librarians have embraced the strip.

Librarians have really embraced us. They think that we understand. They're subject to a lot of weird stereotypes.

It's an interesting setting and one that's not really mined for humor even though so much about it has that potential.

I was just talking with ["Wondermark" creator] David Malki about this. What we do is considered niche, even though it's no more niche than anything that's set anywhere. This setting just happens to come with a built in audience. A lot of what we do could be lifted and placed in another setting. We have a lot of advantages. We have a core audience that's fantastic for building a business. They're loyal, network well, they read and they recommend books.

Speaking of recommending books, where did the idea for the book club come from?

We were doing a comic strip about a library. We had to work hard not to recommend books. But it took a while before we figured out the right formula. We're still figuring it out.

Do you get feedback from authors about when they appear in the book club?

Yes, and there are few things in life more satisfying then getting fan e-mail from your favorite authors. Ursula K. LeGuin, Dan Simmons, David Brin, Lois McMaster Bujold and Scott Westerfeld have all written to say how much they enjoyed our take on their books. And that definitely raises the bar, because I know they're reading what we're writing.

In-progress "Unshelved" strip

What's your process for drawing the strip? I know you do it all on the computer.

I used to draw with pencils and ink with a brush, but these days I do most everything on my Cintiq in Photoshop. It's a million times faster, which I need because I still have a day job.

At Comic-Con, you drew the strip by hand. Was that a weird experience after working digitally for so long?

No, I fell right into it. I also think it was the best work I've done in years. There's something special about working with pencil and paper. But it takes a lot longer. If and when I can do this full-time I intend to go back to penciling on paper.

Finally, what does the Web offer you that wouldn't be possible in print?

Well, it's a lot easier to fix mistakes. And I can procrastinate a lot longer.

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