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A HEROINE WITH A SPINEA TEMPE HOUSEHUSBAND CREATED A COMIC-BOOK CHARACTER WHO IS CAUSING EXCITEMENT IN REFERENCE ROOMS

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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."

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Dave Walker