In college I worked at Waldenbooks around the time when the company began shelving African American literature in its own section. This was in the early 1990s, shortly after Terry McMillan’s novel, Waiting to Exhale, and Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris, were topping bestseller lists. All kinds of readers flocked to the bookstore looking for black popular fiction then, and every once in a while, after browsing the section, they would leave the store with a new and unexpected mystery, science fiction, or literary title by a black author. We sold a LOT more books by Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison during those early years.
A similar pattern has occurred with comics in bookstores and libraries. The surge in trade paperback comics, graphic novels, and the popularity of manga titles, have led stores to clear new spaces and endcaps. Online bookstores don’t have shelves of course, but they do engage in classification systems that are intended to guide and market to readers’ interests. Browsing the graphic novel section one afternoon was how I discovered one of my favorite comics, a short stocky book that didn’t quite sit right on the shelf.
After I had been working at Waldenbooks (and later, at Borders) for a few years, I noticed that attitudes toward the African American literature section had shifted. Readers of all races began making troubling assumptions about the content of the books despite the range of genres that were shelved there. Customers who were unaware that a particular author was African American searched aisles of “general fiction” shelves confused. Occasionally I noticed that my co-workers would incorrectly stock a book in the section if it had a black person on the cover. No wonder more and more bookstores are moving away from this practice.
But what about comics? In my local public library, the majority of the comics and graphic novels are housed in “juvenile fiction” sections. This is where I find titles like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Jeremy Love’s Bayou, and James Sturm and Rich Tommaso’s Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. I’ve learned over the years that, no matter what a publisher may suggest, deciding where a book is shelved is based largely on the discretion of the venue in which it is sold or exchanged. But do these choices also shape our reading experience as well?
I have encountered readers who are reluctant to pick up American Born Chinese once they realize that they have to walk through the Judy Blume books to pick it up. Friends ask me if it is okay to give Bayou to their elementary school-age kids since the main character is a little girl. But I’m less interested here in issues of age-appropriate content, than in the choices we make when selecting new material to read. In a medium that has a long history of being associated with children’s entertainment, but also remains steeped in post-code creative frontiers in which explicit language and images are the norm, the expectations that move us to pick up a comic are constantly being challenged.
What kind of comic book reader would you be if Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series from Scholastic were shelved alongside Bill Willingham’s Fables series from Vertigo? Or what if John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew were simply housed among other detective fiction titles? How does the shelf on which a comic appears affect how we read it?