For a comic-book superheroine who hasn't been in wide circulation yet, the Incredible Librarian has quite a following. She gets fan mail from Australia. Her exploits are publicized in newspaper stories and trade journals. Her image is printed on coffee mugs. Incredible Librarian tee shirts are available in several languages, including Chinese and Swahili. She even has her own credo: "In the defense of freedom and literacy, libraries are the most powerful weapons we have."

Predictably, the character is most popular with librarians--a group apparently starved for a hip role model. Her name is Maria Norlander-Martinez. A reference librarian by day, Maria spends her leisure time crusading against ignorance and book vandalism. Does she have the potential to expand her appeal beyond the check-out line? Is she a latent comic superstar capable of total world domination alongside pen-and-ink predecessors like Batman, Dick Tracy, Bart Simpson and those goddamn mutant turtles? Can she save the world from dumbness while maintaining plenty of provocative muscle tone? In comics, anything is possible. Joseph Grant, a Tempe househusband and ultraliberal political radical, planted the seed for the Incredible Librarian phenomenon almost three years ago. He appears about ready to deliver, for the first time, the first substantial IL product. Those who have been following the Incredible Librarian saga up to this point have been very, very patient. "It's taking a lot longer than I had anticipated," says Grant, age sixty. "Gratefully, librarians are pretty mellow people. I get letters like, `I have moved. Here is my address. I want to make sure that the elusive Incredible Librarian that I subscribed to a year ago knows my new address.'"

Of course, this all started as a bedtime story. Joseph Grant came of age in the upper Midwest, joined the navy and visited prewar Cuba. After the Korean War, he tried several colleges, finishing none. In the hippie days, he ran an underground newspaper in Iowa City, Iowa. When Grant and his second wife Sharlane had a child, they decided that Joe would be the home parent.

College-trained as a librarian, Sharlane went off each day to pursue her career. Joe stayed home and told stories to his daughter Charity. "I invented this character who was a woman who inadvertently, while back in the stacks doing research, stepped into a field of energy and was transformed into this person who had access to all knowledge and who could travel in time forward or backward," Grant says. "I called her the Incredible Librarian."

By the summer of 1988, the Grants had moved to Tempe. Sharlane was employed as a preservation librarian at Arizona State University, restoring books damaged by age, overuse and undergraduates. Charity was fourteen years old and preparing to leave for a six-week visit to the Soviet Union, a trip sponsored by some of Joe's freethinking friends back East. ("I'm a socialist," Grant explains later. "A Eugene Debs socialist, in the tradition of the Scandinavians.") As the daughter loaded up on trinkets to trade with Soviet youth, Dad presented her with a four-page cartoon pamphlet based on the character he invented during those long-ago storytelling sessions. This was the birth, at least in two dimensions, of the Incredible Librarian.

The original story opens as a fiendish library patron wantonly rrriiips! a page from a book. "No one will miss this page," he grunts, "and it will look just great on my refrigerator." Moments later, our heroine discovers the book, anguishes over the destruction for a second ("Oh, no! A vandalized book!"), then springs into action. Soaring high above the library, she spots the culprit.

"There!" she says, landing. "You, return what you have taken!"
"Who the . . . ?" asks the surprised book mangler. "You have stolen knowledge meant for everyone and defaced a book," lectures the Librarian, who in this first go-round wasn't yet totally "Incredible." "I only hope the damage is not irreparable." "I . . . I never thought of it that way," says the disgraced refrigerator decorator. "I'll return to the library and give the page back. . . . But, who are you?"

"I am the keeper of knowledge," she answers. "I maintain the written and recorded word for use by everyone. Inside the library is the inspiration for new dreams and ideas. When there are questions or you have the need to know, then I can help. "I am the Librarian."

This, needless to say, was a big hit with the young Russians, a notoriously literate mob. It also became a big hit among literate types in the free world. Not long after Charity's return to American soil, GraceAnne DeCandido, executive editor of the Library Journal, a trade magazine for librarians, was wandering the halls of a library-biz convention, looking for scoops. She found one: A copy of Grant's original pamphlet-size Librarian comic had made its way to the convention. Here was a strong, confident, brave, righteous and--dare we say it?--attractive cartoon character who also happened to know her way around a card catalogue. To DeCandido, the character's appeal was obvious. "Librarians' public image is not always great," says DeCandido. "I think this really struck a chord with the profession."

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Dave Walker