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Urbana Free Library is laying the groundwork for first Comic Con

On Saturday, August 13th, the Urbana Free Library will be hosting its first Comic Con. Now, if you read the words Comic Con and thought of only superheroes in capes and colored underwear, you might not have the right idea. The planners are billing the event as a celebration of comics and fandom. According to librarian and event organizer, Lauren Chambers, it’s “more than just comic books.” 


The core of the day is a lineup of presenters, panels, and discussions lasting from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM with auxiliary events throughout the day and into the evening. Presenters include some of the most recognisable names in the local animation, gaming, and comics world: Nina Paley, Damian Duffy, Carol Tilley and Volition to name a few.

Chambers said the event was inspired by the teen manga club, who had previously used Library space to meet and hold a smaller Mini-Manga Con. “Many of [the club members] don’t have the time or the funds to go to other conventions,” Chambers said, “it seemed natural to expand to a Comic Con this year and bring the convention to them.” The Library staff have planned something for fans of all media, from anime, to movies, to comics, to games and more.

The idea is to follow in the strain of conventions that have rose to prominence over the past few years. Most people have heard of Comic-Con International, held annually in San Diego. It draws in crowds of thousands and showcases the biggest names in media and pop culture, but other prominent conventions that have celebrated traditionally nerdy things like science fiction, comics, and gaming, have also grown in size and number over the past 20 years. Between the innumerable local comic cons, manga cons, and larger conventions like GenCon, AnimeExpo, Wizard World Chicago, Leakycon, World Con, and Vid Con.

Nina Paley — shown right in a photograph by Nick Mann and Theodore Gray — is among the most talked about presenters.She is known for being a free culture activist, speaking around the country and world on the subject. Though she started as a newspaper comic artist, she gained major notoriety from her first feature length film, Sita Sings The Blues, a musical retelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana featuring modern commentary, multiple animation techniques, and Jazz age recordings of Annette Hanshaw. She credits her work in comics as “fantastic training” for being an animator.

Paley will be presenting clips from her ongoing film project, Seder-Masochism at this weekend’s Comic Con. I sat down to discuss it with her to see what attendees could expect. According to her, it is “the Book of Exodus as told by an atheist.” She shared that while the film is usually straightforward, it is colored by her strong distaste for both fundamentalist interpretations of religion and the actual text itself. “The more I delve into the text, the more offensive and abhorrent it becomes,” Paley says, citing the early Jews’ treatment of animals, of women, and of other religions. When I asked Paley how that influenced her work, she said she tried to tell aspects of the story “from the point of view of the gods and goddesses that Judaism wiped out.” One early clip from the film has earned several million views online.

While presentations are at the heart of this weekend, there will also be several other events to participate in. There will be a medieval combat demonstration in Cherry Alley next to the Library; tabletop, board, and video games throughout the library all day; and a cosplay parade at the end of the day, open to everyone who comes dressed as their favorite character. Chambers cited costuming as one of the most exciting parts of the Comic Con, saying she  “always loved seeing what convention goers dress up and cosplay as.”

The planning committee also helped spawn several off-site events involving other community members, artists, and businesses. These include an art show at the gallery of the Art Coop at Lincoln Square Mall, a showing of the Hiyao Miyazaki film My Neighbor Totoro across the street at the Busey Bank Drive-Through, and a comic book signing with Steve Bryant, creator of Ghouls Scouts. The comic book shop Action Jackson Comics, pictured left, will be hosting the author. I spoke with Jackson Bird, the owner of the store. Bird, a former North Dakotan, brought his store to Urbana early last year. When I asked him about his, he seemed excited to help the Library out. “Comics are a great way of engaging people of all ages into reading,” he said, adding “when I was a kid, comics were junk food, but they really celebrate the differences we all have.”

When I asked Bird to respond on the Comic Con’s tagline – “celebrating comics and fandom” – he said that comic books are a way to learn about each other. He gave me a few examples – Duffle, Lumberjanes, and The Story of My Tits – of comics and graphic novels that seem to say, in his words, “our experiences aren’t that different.” When I asked him if he had any other words for people planning to go, Bird shared with me his store motto: “discover your alter ego,” adding  that “hopefully, we can help you discover your inner superhero.”

Whether you are a die-hard comic book fan or have only heard people talk about that one Iron Man movie you forgot to watch, the people planning and participating in the UFL Comic Con definitely want you to come. It might be cozy, as Chambers said they had to get “creative about how we spaced out events and used the space in the Library,” but that feeling of community might be the feeling that the Library staff was aiming for all along.

A full schedule of events can be found at the Urbana Free Library website.

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