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."

Grant is a sensitive guy--the Incredible Librarian's credo is a wry paraphrase of a slogan used by the National Rifle Association--especially sensitive to the needs of librarians. He's married to one, after all. "I didn't realize until about a year ago that there was an image problem for librarians," he says. "I never thought of librarians as staid and conservative. They've always been these incredible people to me. "If I have a question about what I'm doing, I ask my wife. She has a good sense about what works.

"But," he is quick to add, "the Incredible Librarian is not my wife." When DeCandido's 27,000 librarian readers learned about their new mythological buddy, she wasn't much of anything other than a great idea with a built-in constituency. Still, subscription inquiries--and cash--started flowing Joe Grant's way.

"The next thing I know, we're getting requests from librarians literally all over the world who want to know more about the Librarian," says Grant. "The response was so great, I decided I would write the stories out, illustrate them, and do some comic books." Knowing next to nothing about contemporary comic books (Grant says he kept up only with the strips done by underground-type hippie artists such as R. Crumb), the artist began to investigate. He found a literary subgenre in midexplosion. Comic books--and their upscale adult cousins "graphic novels"--were midway through a surge that has increased sales from about $130 million in 1986 toward $400 million-plus in 1990. The storytelling and artwork were surprisingly sophisticated, Grant discovered.

The project began to acquire appropriately heroic proportions. Grant decided that Maria Norlander-Martinez's exploits would carry a side-by-side Spanish translation. Other helpful translations--Swahili, even--would follow Maria's English-Spanish debut. The strip's education mission was stepped up when Grant decided that school-age characters would play important parts in every episode. Also incorporated into working story lines were several areas of personal interest to Grant. In one episode, the Incredible Librarian will be approached by students researching Helen Keller, whom Grant met as a high school student. Another episode will tell the true story of Christopher Columbus. ("He was a lost explorer who was rescued by the people he ended up exploiting," hints Grant.) Yet another installment will take readers back to the late 1930s. The setting: Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Fargo, North Dakota. In this scenario, we'll see a librarian reading a magazine article to a class of fourth graders. Sound insignificant? Well, sitting in that class so long ago was young Joe Grant. That teacher-librarian (he can no longer recall her name) was the first to introduce Grant to the wonders of the library. "I sat there and I was just awed by this," Grant says today. "She's one of the really important women in my life." So far, none of this quirky, personal storytelling exists outside Joe Grant's office. Progress toward completion of volume one, number one of The Adventures of the Incredible Librarian has been interrupted twice. At one point, Grant was laid up for four months by an auto accident, and his capacity to sit at the word processor has been limited. He kept fans satisfied during the delay by marketing tee shirts and coffee mugs. To help cool some of the fever (or stoke it further, depending on your perspective), Grant produced a comic-style "sampler," which offered readers a brief IL strip and several prose teasers about potential plot action.

"This I did because of everything being held up," he says. "I had to give them something to let them know what we're doing." Readers--or potential readers--were more than willing to offer feedback on Grant's work in progress. Complaints came in almost immediately from real librarians, protesting that the prototypical Maria looked too unreal, too heroic, too cute. Grant says he scrapped an almost-finished version of his first full issue because Maria looked "too Barbie dollish."

Also among the correspondence was news that manly knowledge-keepers didn't want to be left out. "Male librarians have sent me artwork where they've redrawn the Incredible Librarian with hairy legs," says Grant, adding that a supporting character throughout the serial will be a male researcher who assists the IL in her crusades. Grant, who has contracted with a couple of different local illustrators to help get all of this down in ink, says the full-blown debut of the Incredible Librarian--due early this year--will be an "illustrated book" covering more than 250 pages. A lighthearted fashion section for librarians will be included. Another feature will be an illustrated poem. Grant adds that the book will be printed quarterly on acid-free paper--a decision that arose from another personal bugaboo, this one relating to preservation of the comic art. Grant's little company, which operates out of a back bedroom in his rented Tempe home, is called Preservation Graphics. Pressure is building to get the presses rolling. More trade-journal articles have followed DeCandido's original piece, and Joe Grant has traveled to several library trade shows and conventions to promote his baby. Subscription requests continue to arrive at the Incredible Librarian's Tempe post office box. When the character could still be contained by the comic-book format, the one-year subscription price of $28.80 was supposed to cover four issues. Original subscribers will receive all that they paid for, Grant says. "I'm staying with the subscription prices until I see it's absolutely impossible to go on," he says. "Everyone who paid for four issues will get four issues."

MDRV Says library-journal editor DeCandido: "He's reached a point where there's enough publicity and enough people wearing the tee shirts that he really has to come through with something. His public awaits him."

The character is most popular with librarians--
a group apparently starved for a hip role model. "I'm a socialist. A Eugene Debs socialist, in the tradition of the Scandinavians."

Complaints came in almost immediately from real librarians, protesting that the prototypical Maria looked too unreal, too heroic, too cute. "Male librarians have sent me artwork where they've redrawn the Incredible Librarian with hairy legs." In one episode, the Incredible Librarian will be approached by students researching Helen Keller.

"I am the keeper of knowledge. I maintain the written and recorded word for use by everyone. I am the Librarian.

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Dave Walker