Some film critics might claim that it is misguided to reflect on film without also taking into account the phenomenological experience of going to the movies. Could we say something similar about the experience of reading in a comic book shop? What do we stand to gain from reflecting on the relationship between the medium of comics and the phenomenological experience of the comic book store?

What kind of sociability arises when people read standing silently alongside one another? Is the comic book shop still a predominantly masculine space? How does the commingling of readers from different age groups affect the intelligibility of the space to the non-initiated? What appeal does the comic book shop have over online shops? What embodied practices are associated with the space? Do “New Release Wednesdays” still have the same ritual aura they did when we were teenagers? How does the space of the comic book store differ in other cultural contexts?

The medium itself does lend itself to a specific kind of public reading. Comic books, or albums in the Franco-Belgian context, are short enough to be read cover to cover in one sitting (or standing, as the case may be). Unlike magazines, which one tends to read with a distracted eye, or novels, which require much more time to immerse the reader, comics can be quickly immersive without demanding too much concentration. I like to read a newly released comic book cover to cover in the comic book store, for example, and then reread it much more slowly, lingering on visual and narrative details, once home later. But that first read-through, accomplished while reading elbow-to-elbow with other comic book readers, is tinged with an inexplicable degree of shame. Not so much because I’m ashamed to be reading comics but because reading in public mimics the attitude of shame as Silvan Tomkins describes it (the lowering of the eyelids, the lowering of the eyes, the hanging of the head). Like the experience of shame, reading in public “mantles the threshold between introversion and extroversion, between absorption and theatricality,” to cite Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling.

Very much related to the feeling of shame that public reading arouses is the question of age-appropriateness, a question that still haunts the medium itself to the frustration of many. Adolescents and adults rub shoulders in the aisles of the comic book store in a way that is not fully intelligible within heteronormative hierarchies of space and time, art and enjoyment; they rub shoulders in a way that is not quite sexual but neither entirely innocent. Although there is very little open dialogue in these spaces of public reading, there is, nonetheless, a form of sociability between adults and adolescents that occurs in these spaces but it is one that narratives of innocence and experience can only fail to describe. How do you experience the space of the comic book shop?

About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

6 responses »

  1. Welcome, Michael!!! What a fascinating topic! These questions make me think of all those black and white photos from the 1940s and 1950s of kids sprawled out in doorways and backyards reading comics together. The statistics from that period indicate that comics were regularly passed around and traded within peer groups more so than today, which could make for a very different kind of experience among comic readers than one might expect standing shoulder to shoulder in a direct marketing comic shop (where everyone makes their own selections and buys their own copy).

    In my local comic shop, I don’t feel very encouraged to interact with others, although I see that other customers, mostly males of all races, generally do. We’ve talked before about the insular nature of comics reading communities and your questions seems to offer a different approach to thinking about them.

    What’s interesting, though, are the random conversations that I have had with people in public venues such as the airport or the park who I spot reading comics (or who have seen me reading them). We talk eagerly about what we are reading, what genres, artists, writers we enjoy the most/least. And we both seem a little relieved to be able to set aside the underlying feelings of shame that you describe. I’m not sure of the academic relevance here, but it seems like in those moments, the comic itself creates the social space for me and an unlikely companion to interact.

    • Michael A. Johnson says:

      Thanks for the great comments, Qiana! I realize after reading everyone’s comments that the comparison to cinema is perhaps not useful since the modes of public reading of comic books varies and has varied historically from newsstands to sharing comics among peer groups to comics sections in libraries (especially in Europe) to comic book stores and comic book sections of regular book stores. But the question of public reading still seems to me important and connected in some unique way to comics. Your comment reminds me of a story told to my by a friend who once worked in a maquiladora in Ciudad Acuña on the Mexico-US border. The workers had a system whereby one person would buy a copy of Estefanía (http://vintagesleazepaperbacks.wordpress.com/tag/marcial-lafuente-estefania/) to read during breaks and it would get passed around among the workers until everyone had read it. The next designated person would buy the next copy, and so on. An alternative (humane) economy to the (inhumane) one that conditioned the existence of the maquiladora.

      I also love your comment about comics *creating* a social space for you to interact with total strangers in unexpected ways. It resonates as true for me as well, especially on airplanes.

  2. Welcome aboard, Michael!

    Your post gives us a lot to think about. I have to admit that I have been mulling over the Silvan Tomkins assertion about shame. I’d be very interested to read more about this, but I was very surprised to hear this connection. From a personal perspective, I associate shame with reading only in a particular phase in my life when I was coming out; this was mostly in college. As a 19-year-old, I discovered novels by Armistead Maupin and Alan Hollinghurst, just to name two. I read them furtively in my dorm room, making sure my roommate wouldn’t catch me. I felt both shame and elation…it was a highly conflictual experience for me.

    I wonder how many people wear their comic book shop experience as a badge of honor rather than a metaphorical scarlet letter. In this way, I imagine a comic book shop as a safe space, where people can rest their shame outside the door, picking it back up only as they leave. Perhaps they even forget to take it with them when they go!

    I’ll be thinking about this post on my next visit to the comic book store, that’s for certain.

  3. Barbara Postema says:

    An interesting question, Michael!
    My experience in comics stores is quite similar to Qiana’s I think: I don’t read them there, but have had nice random chats with people out and about, upon discovering we both read comics. One thing that I’ve noticed about shopping in comics stores, and which may be one of the reasons I choose not to read much there: I’ve often been complimented by store owners or clerks on having good taste in comics. Gratifying of course, in a way, but on the other hand there was also somehow the implied addition, good taste–for a woman.

  4. roytcook says:

    Wow, you’ve really made me rethink my own behavior in comics shops. While I frequent them regularly, I usually know what I want, go in, locate it, buy it, and leave. No reading until I get home.

    Part of this might be that I pretty much only read trade paperbacks, and hence new-release Wednesday doesn’t hold as much power for me as it once did. But I am now going to have to think about whether my quick in-and-out behavior reflects some deeper feelings on my part with regard to comic store culture (which I have long been worried about generally, for many reasons, the insular all-male atmosphere being but one).

    Also, I wonder how this differs from culture to culture, especially in eastern cultures (e.g. Thailand, Indonesia) where comic book rental stores are common.

    Great stuff, and welcome to PPP!

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