This begins my look at various comics around the web that I discovered during this year’s NEWW (also known as Webcomics Weekend for those who may have already forgotten). First up is Unshelved, the hugely popular library humor comic from writer Gene Ambaum and artist Bill Barnes. Now given my experiences with both creators at the event, I figured their sixth volume, titled, Frequently Asked Questions, would be full of pithy dialogue and smart moments that invoked deep thought and intriguing questions.
What I found after reading the nearly 90 pages of strips (collected from Feb. 07 to Feb. 08), followed by several editions of the Unshelved Book Club, a Sunday-running addition where the cast takes a look at the hottest books in a review/synopsis format), was an exact opposite of that expectation. The humor is dry and very accessible, featuring common punchlines and simple storylines that don’t bother with weaving in and out of continuity in lieu of uncomplicated setups and characters that forgo development and depth for simplicity and accessability.
First, I found this difference to be off-putting. After meeting both men, especially the ukelele-strumming, biting-comment-throwing Mr. Barnes, I was not ready for a strip that was rudimentarily drawn and simplistically written. As I picked up the book, however, he informed me that all volumes should be instantly accessible due to simple storylines and shallow, if not fun, characters. The more I thought about my underwhelmed reaction, the more the premise started to really shine through for me.
Unshelved is a librarian’s strip made for librarians to enjoy and share. Bill and Gene regularly attend library conventions (rousing shin-digs that THOSE must be) and do incredible business with that crowd. You have to figure that they, being greater in number than the typical webcomics fans, are the target audience for the strip and probably don’t care as much about plot, character development, or continuity. This is not to dumb down the readers of Unshelved, it just shows that the creators know their audience and plan accordingly.
Buddy the Book Beaver: easily one of the creepiest webcomics characters EVER
With all that said, Unshelved follows a regular cast as they bumble their way through running a library. There’s main lead, Dewey, who usually fuels the humorous situations with unnecessary comments; branch manager Mel, who does her best to keep things level-headed but occasionally slips into the innanity around the workplace;Â Tamara, who exists somewhere in-betweeen productivity and Dewey’s world of do-as-little-as-possible; Colleen, who always seems to have a cause or policy to support/invoke; and Buddy the Book Beaver, a reading-is-fun mascot who exists merely to creep everyone out. Everyone plays their parts well and pop in simply to spout lines based on their occupation/purpose and move on. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s quick, perfectly suited for the audience and theÂ gag-a-day format the comic follows.
Ultimately, I see that I went into Unshelved with the wrong mindset. I expected to find something deep and thought-provoking and instead found a casual strip made by two guys are deep and thought-provoking and thus know how to work their skills to produce the most entertaining and effective product for their audience. These days, it really all seems to boil down to finding your audience and efficiently catering to them. If that’s a criteria for success, then both Barnes and Ambaum have it down to an art form.
The last, and most decisive, strip of the Unshelved vs. Sheldon steel cage match
If you’re looking for either a quality gag-a-day to add to your RSS feeds or a good strip collection to add to your library, Unshelved does a great job of making a mundane occupation entertaining and Vol. 6 includes a recap of the contextual war the Unshelved guys waged with Dave Kellett’s Sheldon , The Great Plastic Coffee Cup Lid Comic Strip Challenge (narrated by head Fleener, Gary Tyrrell) as well as the engaging, informative, and humorous Book Club shorts that might just introduce you to a writer or genre you haven’t given a chance yet. And on top of everything else, if these guys can get you to try a book you otherwise would have passed up, I’d say they’re doing both webcomics and librarians proud.