Kathryn Blackmer Reyes

Kathryn Blackmer Reyes, sketched by comic book artist Rafael Navarro (courtesy of Blackmer Reyes).

Librarian Kathryn Blackmer Reyes walked into the 2011 Latino Comics Expo in San Francisco and sensed a tremendous opportunity for the artists and for San Jose State.

She could see how the comics, meticulously created to authentically incorporate the Latino and Chicano experience, had the potential to inspire all kinds of students, from animation/illustration majors to ethnic studies majors.

So Blackmer Reyes began a Latino comics special collection, and this year, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library will host the 2014 Latino Comics Expo on Oct. 11 and 12. The event is free and open to the public.

The expo will include two exhibit rooms featuring cartoonists, writers, illustrators, zine makers and book vendors, as well as panels, presentations and children’s workshops.

Latino comics is about far more than eye-catching imagery, Blackmer Reyes explains. The following was edited for length.

Q. Do you need to know Spanish to read Latino comics?

A. This is about the U.S. experience so primarily, the text is going to be in English, but the artists are going to incorporate that U.S.-Latino feel. They use a lot of icons, like Lucha Libre, so the art includes pop culture that speaks to many in the vast Latino (U.S. and international) populations. They can be personal stories. We are also getting more women represented in the field and they’re bringing in their stories and characters as well. We are also seeing more indigenous images. I’m asked if this is Chicano Studies and frankly Chicano Studies is anything that represents and speaks to the Latino population regardless of its format. It’s about a people and it’s a story that can be told in the social sciences or the arts and humanities.

Latino Comics Expo poster features Lalo Alcaraz.

The Latino Comics Expo poster features artist Lalo Alcaraz.

Q. Who’s your favorite character?

A. As a librarian, I am interested in the entire field but when I first discovered this, it was through the Bros. Hernandez, who are considered the godfathers of Chicano comics. Their “Love & Rockets” series is incredibly important. It tells stories of individuals from the barrio. That was my first exposure. Later I was introduced to Lalo Alcaraz who does the comic strip “La Cucaracha,” and who is currently working on a TV show with Seth McFarlane called “Bordertown.” These artists are probably the most successful Chicano comic artists commercially.

Q. What’s your background?

A. I was born and raised in San Francisco and for my first 15 years, when school was out, I would be in Mexico City for the summer. I completed my B.A. in Chicano Studies at UC Davis. At UC Davis, my professors would send us to UC Berkeley to do research and that’s where I was introduced to my first Chicano Studies Library. Then I went to graduate school for sociology at Binghamton University. I was in a Ph.D. program and found myself showing undergraduates how to do research in the library. I really liked the idea of working in libraries, so on my return to the Bay Area, I entered the School of Information program here at SJSU. Before becoming a librarian here, I worked at UC Santa Cruz and then Sacramento State.

Aztec of the City, a comic book created and written by Fernando Rodriguez, will be joining us once again at the Latino Comics Expo. Launched in San José back in 1993

Latino Comics Expo participants will include San Jose native Fernando Rodriguez, who created “Aztec of the City” (image courtesy of Latino Comics Expo).

Q. Why collect comics?

A. I work at King Library’s Cultural Heritage Center, which houses the U.S. race and ethnic materials (Africana, Asian American, Chicano, and Comparative Ethnic Studies). So you’ll see collections with books that students can check out. My job is somewhat different from others in that I’m purchasing materials to provide a vision for these special collections. My hope is that students will be able to find topics that not only interest them but also “speak” to them. You want the collections to connect to them so that they can write that research paper. What I do, be it through the comics or books, is help students to succeed in that effort. Through my collections, I’m hoping they connect. Alone, comic books may serve of little scholarly value but put scholarly books in the mix and you can get a research paper. Comics have come a long way, and it’s also not just Latinos who are actively producing these works. It has become an outlet to present the U.S. ethnic experience in another voice.

Q. Was it hard to convince the library to collect Latino comics?

A. These are things that are left to the librarian to pick and choose, depending on what you think is important, and it’s also a question of what’s being taught. You hope there’s going to be interest and you’re reacting to what you see as growth in the field. It’s a treasure for San Jose to have this start-up collection.