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The Comics Shift: Modifying Material Rhetorics of Bookstores for Collaborative Category and Community Change

By Kenneth Oravetz

Recent comics scholarship has emphasized the importance of a wide and flexible notion of the comics canon and of the definition of “comics” more broadly. For instance, a recent collection of responses to Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? in PMLA critiques her focus on a small assortment of literary comics auteurs. One of the respondents, Ramzi Fawaz, states that while scholars like Chute advocate for a wide notion of comics as a medium in their language, they regrettably remain restrictive in approaching comics as a literary genre in their choice of object of study (89). He argues that the canon needs to be opened, and the multiplicity and sequentiality of comics reading integrated into a “queer disruption” of the literary field (592). In Between Pen and Pixel, Aaron Kashtan argues for a similar opening of the field, stating that “any text that pays careful attention to its own material and physical properties can be viewed as a comic, whether or not it uses pictures” (187). 

I agree with these scholars—it is vitally important to open the notion of comics and extend its reach, moving not just beyond “superheroes,” but also beyond the “literary,” and beyond the formal realm of what traditionally would be considered comics. These statements regarding the openness of comics are ultimately rather noncontroversial, and indeed have entered the realm of the cliché. However, opening the comics canon is not that simple, especially in the non-academic realm. A multitude of rhetorical and cultural factors designate comics to include certain types and genres. In some senses, the issue is not defining what comics are, but rather, in Ian Hague’s words, determining the roots of the “social definition” of comics, or, in other words, determining the origins of the definitions and canon of comics (17). Understanding and interacting with those definitional and canonical processes would allow comics scholars to enact the inclusive change we wish to see.

One key factor in this definitional process, subtle as it may be, is the bookstore. Bookstore sections, through their arrangement, inclusions and exclusions, and other material rhetorics, serve as definitional devices for comics—such as that of the canon, genre, and format—for those who browse those sections. In this article, I will use techniques from visual and spatial rhetoric inflected by comics studies to reveal the ways in which bookstore sections delimit notions of what comics can be. Through application of these techniques, I will call attention to the ways in which the space for comics can expand, both physically and canonically, to include marginalized genres and forms. Bookstore sections are important centers of action for those seeking to disrupt reductive notions of comics; new spatial configurations and settings for comics can serve as new materialized definitions of comics and new spaces for comics communities. In this sense, modification of the bookstore space, with attention to spatio-material rhetorics, can bring the important tasks of canon-busting and inclusivity out of the academic realm and into the mainstream. 

Comics scholars have focused on comic bookstores in the past, often writing about the social dynamics of comic shop customers and employees. Jeffrey Brown’s 1997 “Comic Book Fandom and Cultural Capital” is perhaps the forerunner to these studies. He declares that comic shops “have provided a focal point for cultural fandom” and delves into a Bourdeausian analysis of the power dynamics within that fandom (Brown 16). Matthew Pustz echoes this former notion, stating, “The comic book shop is a meeting place, like the clubhouse at a country club or a small-town barbershop. It is a place for commerce, but, more importantly, it is a place for culture” (Pustz 6). Both Putz and Brown implicitly call for scholars to dig more deeply into the distinct cultural community of the comic shop; Benjamin Woo and Andrew Herrmann have answered. Woo and Herrmann look at comic shops as cultural sites via ethnographic methods focused on the people inside each store, drawing conclusions regarding comics fandom and cultural contexts from their approaches. Herrmann’s work specifically points to how comic shops can become exclusive sites for white male hegemonies (295); as he writes, “King Comics is not what one would call ‘inviting,’ particularly for the uninitiated… The shop looks and feels like an overgrown man cave, with almost all of the symbolic and rhetorical trappings of masculinity on display” (292). Hermann’s close attention to the comics space reveals an exclusive, masculine domain which would benefit from the spatial shifts I will ultimately espouse.

While my focus builds off of Hermann’s prior work, it differs from this argument in two major ways. First, while Hermann briefly touches on the layout of the store, he dedicates most of his work to studying the store’s patrons and staff. I focus on the material and spatial dynamics of the two stores I study, rather than interviewing the customer base and store employees. Second, while one of the two stores I investigate is a comic shop, I use my analysis of the shop to as a stepping stone to an analysis of a comics section in a bookstore, an area that has been under-studied in comics scholarship. My object and space-oriented focus is useful for analyzing comic shops, but it is even more pressing in the context of the bookstore. For comics fans, general bookstores do not function as “third places,” which Herrmann describe as “public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” (290). While bookstores may occasionally host book talks by cartoonists, most of the time they are not spaces conducive to literary discussion of comics. In comic shops, however, such discussion pervades and functions as a key element of the shop’s role as a cultural center (Herrmann, Woo, Stevens and Bell).  Yet, rapid expansion of the graphic novel market into the mainstream can be seen in growing sales figures, especially outside of comics specialty stores (Reid). General bookstores are places that culturally situate and define comics to readers who may never  enter a comics store, especially considering the exclusivity of said stores (Herrmann). 

The physical comics section, placed in a space relatively devoid of any specialized comics discussion, assumes, in a sense, the role of the social subject of the comic shop in these bookstores. As Woo notes, while aesthetic “competences and tastes,” including those surrounding comics, “are misrecognized as natural and immediate,” in reality, they are “learned by interaction with other participants… in physical spaces for ‘situated learning’” (128). In other words, “reception practices are transmitted through interaction among members of the communities that inhabit” social settings (Woo 128). In the unique case of comics sections in bookstores, the very books, shelves, signage, commodity objects, and detritus of the comics section comes to inhabit the role of the “participant” or “community member” around which store visitors develop their aesthetic perceptions and “reception practices” surrounding comics. These sections’ material instantiations therefore play an outsize role in developing the notion of the comics canon, comics communities, and, on a basic level, what comics are to the burgeoning audience of graphic novel and comics readers who exist outside of the insular groups inhabiting the comic book store. 

Thus, these sections demand a rhetorical analytic approach that seeks to understand in depth not only how objects communicatively function, but how the communicative dynamic of comics books and sections may change, ideally to become more inclusive. Through this rhetorical approach, this study can serve as a guide for other comics scholars who may wish to  paint a fuller picture of the bookstore as an impactful cultural climate for the cultural ontology of comics. Therefore, this rhetorical approach may also ultimately help make comics a more inclusive and expansive space, both materially and socially. Doing so can help prevent the recreation of hegemonic white masculine spaces pervasive in and detrimental to comic shop settings (Herrmann 295). 

I will focus on two different bookstores in my close readings of the spatial and material rhetorics of bookstore sections. Close reading of bookstore sections and their materiality and visuality allows for a deeper investigation of how their spatio-material instantiations and interplay with visual, cultural, and capital-oriented rhetorical factors give rise to potential definitions for the categories they declare themselves to bein this case, comics. Such reading serves to not only elucidate the shifting—yet standardized and socialized—dynamics of comics classification and culture, opening the door to the inclusion and recognition of marginalized forms, but also to provide a comics-studies inflected model for investigating rhetorics of sturdy-yet-malleable categorized human space.  Comics in bookstore sections exemplify how certain material artifacts can be both empty “images” without inherent meaning and assertive texts which strive to dictate their own identities and situations. I dub such artifacts image-texts because of their dual imagistic and textual nature. This term refers less to Kristie Fleckenstein’s important work on “imagewords,” which points to the cognitive inextricability of imagery and linguistic meaning,1 and more to the academic nomenclature of comics as “image-texts” which function via a synthesis and juxtaposition of drawn, graphic image and written, alphanumeric text.2 In a similar way, my notion of the rhetorical “image-text” points to the collaborative action and meaning-making that the situated textual and imagistic dynamics of an object potentially compel. The synthesis of an object’s textual dynamics and its situated juxtaposition with other objects generates its meaning and action potential as an “image-text.” In this sense, the way in which comic book-objects function as “image-texts”, in my sense of the term, echoes the way in which image and text function in comics, where drawn images are often anchored by the text juxtaposed with them in space. Similar to how in comics, the narrative and impact of a work can develop by a change in the juxtaposition of a semantically open-ended image and a specific piece of text, the “image-text” dynamics of book-objects allow for “collaborative” shifts in spatially-determined genres. Book-objects simultaneously accommodate meaning ascribed by juxtaposition and context via their open-ended image-ness and insist on certain new dynamics of their own via their textuality. Their textuality also influences the dynamics of the space in which they are juxtaposed, creating new contexts which can sway the meaning of newly introduced book-objects.  Comic book-objects thus ultimately permit and engender new notions of comics in material form through their arrangement.

The case study for this project focuses on two bookstores: Comicopia in Boston, Massachusetts and Pegasus Books Downtown in Berkeley, California. The difference in location stems both from my material circumstances (these two cities are my home cities) and the cultural expectations of each city for its bookstores. Analysis of a bookstore section’s material dynamics is most fruitful and evident when a section contains a large number and a wide variety of artifacts with potentially identificatory characteristics. Many Boston bookstores, while exhaustive in their selections, are relatively sterile in their decor and arrangement compared to stores in Berkeley. Conversely, Berkeley lacks a comprehensively organized comics store akin to Comicopia in Boston, which is useful for a (still subjective, still somewhat glossing) standard for what a non-glossing comics section arrangement might look like. Each of these components of these two stores are vital for providing analysis that may later permit greater scrutiny of less rhetorically dense ecologies.

Furthermore, I believe that similarities between the two cities offer a rich potential for placing the two stores in conversation. Berkeley and Boston are both wealthy, academic, and “well-read” cities with similar demographics. Boston is home to some of the most esteemed universities in the world and has an extremely high number of universities per capita; Berkeley is the site of UC Berkeley, an academic powerhouse, and the city’s culture and economy also revolve around university culture and a tradition of progressive, if not radical, thought. Each city has served as a major site for intellectual cultural shifts, and each thus represents a “tastemaker” when it comes to intellectual cultures, which themselves are often situated in bookstores visited by university-attending and university-adjacent locals. These bookstores are filled with a rich and cutting-edge variety and quantity of texts by virtue of this customer base. In both Berkeley and Boston, bookstores reflect and reinforce the presiding cultures of intellectual curiosity, literary leisure, and progressivism, providing a strong basis for fieldwork and analysis in conversation with each other.

As I previously mentioned, this study uses rhetorical notions of how visual artifacts circulate as it analyzes the comics receptions, competencies, and tastes communicated by these two bookstores and their sections. I build off and reconsider the work of Laurie Gries and scholars focused on the formation and disruption of spatial genres, such as Charles Lesh and Dylan Dryer, in part by integrating related perspectives prevalent in comics studies. I further use Carol Blair’s work to analyze spatial rhetorics surrounding books-as-images in bookstores. While each of these works is firmly couched in the field of rhetoric, I believe many of their insights apply well to understanding comics spaces. These scholars, like those in comics studies, focus on the potential ambiguity and reinscription of meaning in the visual. 

Gries’s Still Life with Rhetoric uses a case study of the spread and modification of a Shepherd Fairey painting of Obama as the basis for envisioning new modes of investigating the material usage and circulation of images. Gries posits that, as an image enters circulation, it acts in new ways depending on its situational contexts; the image does not convey an inherent “meaning” or “doing” as much as that dynamic is subject to its positioning. In some ways, her argument is similar to Barthes’s notion of the polysemous, the “floating” image which can assume various meanings based on its context (Gries 38-39). However, in a divergence from and an expansion upon Gries, who insists on the emptiness of the circulated image, this study reveals how some circulated materials (in this case, comics), by virtue of being textual,3 also suggest new identifications for the contexts into which those materials are sorted. These objects can be considered image-texts. They motivate new activity by viewers not only by their new context but by their pre-existing, insistent textual qualities. In this sense, these objects can be subjected to the dynamics of being empty matter impacted by their context while also contributing and asserting their own dynamics within their context in a delicate, continual shifting of the scales of influence and presence. These objects, among them comics, essentially function like comics, containing both polysemous or semantically ambiguous visuals which can be influenced by their surroundings and their specific contained text that rein in that polysemous nature partially, but not fully, leaving room for viewers to see the object in a multitude of fashions based on context. Yet the fact that these objects have this polysemous range of possible or promoted meanings indicates that, even as they are influenced by their rhetorical ecology, they also come to strongly influence the ecology themselves. In other words, while Gries suggests a mutual influence of image and ecology, she does not address how image-artifacts beyond pure “image,” though floating, dynamic, and unaffixed, still have layers of embedded, pre-context meaning that can directly influence the contexts in which they are circulated, by virtue of their capacity to function as both text and image.4 This essay strives to do so.

Furthermore, through a focus on comics as its primary object, this study emphasizes the potential for collaborative shifts in spatial rhetoric more broadly by combining notions common in comics studies (the polysemous yet affixed image) and rhetorical techniques. By “collaborative shifts,” I mean that this study reveals how objects can change systems of power (here, literary categorization) from the inside, rather than solely radically interrupting them from the outside. It is not only social interactions between people that can impact the Bourdeausian hierarchies within fandoms (Brown 22), but the communicative potential endowed by the arrangement of objects in established social spaces like the bookstore section. Thus, these objects (bookstore sections) are “collaborative” in their compliance and interaction with established frameworks even as they potentially shift those frameworks. This project considers the extent to which such genre and categorical changes, based in the spatio-material dynamics of the image-text, may serve as a means for creating new forms of collective and communicative possibility. This particular approach to the study of image-texts strives to be not only an ethical effort to create room for marginalized artists, forms, and subgenres, but also to show the potential for change from within spatialized categorical systems via the semantic dynamics of the objects in those systems. 

I bring Dryer and Lesh’s work in conversation with my development of Gries’s work to help reveal the potential for collaborative shifts in spatial genres through the interaction of spatialized objects and the codes which have come to define that space. Dryer and Lesh have each written about spatial genre recontextualization in urban contexts. In “Taking Up Space: On Genre Systems as Geographies of the Possible,” Dryer addresses how, in urban areas, as genre standards (such as housing codes or demographics) persist, they perpetuate the material conditions that accompany them, creating a loop that preserves and naturalizes spatial conditions and the categorization alongside. In “Writing Boston: Graffiti Bombing as Community Publishing,” Lesh discusses how graffiti bombing interrupts this perpetuation of conditions to create new organizations of space, new networks throughout the city-space in which the graffiti is situated. While Lesh emphasizes the potential for violent disruptions of urban space to reconceptualize spatial genres and networks, here, I emphasize how Dryer’s codified spaces can be rhetorically shifted via and alongside the new contents therein. Again, both scholars’ work resonates strongly with scholarship on comics. The panel and grid system in comics is a genre standard that perpetuates and naturalizes itself in a similar manner to urban ecosystems; experimental comics, which break that grid or present new layouts, are a means of creating new organizations of space similarly to how graffiti bombing does so in urban spaces. Many contemporary comics integrate both gridded pages and un-panelized pages, leading to an integrative shift in comics’ formal norms. This process is analogous to how I will show that the introduction of comics outside, yet related to, works already in a comics section can lead to shifts in the norms of that section, and therefore the perception of the genre it contains, without a wholesale destruction of the section.

Case Study

This case study, as mentioned previously, will analyze two stores: Comicopia and Pegasus Books Downtown. Overall, comparing these two stores in conjunction with one another allows for a deeper analysis of the dynamics of collaborative construction and refiguration of spatial genres through the interaction of image-texts (in both senses of the term) and spatio-material factors; the comparison and juxtaposition of the two stores helps reveal alternate potentialities for organization and figuration of comics, elucidating these category-oriented definitional dynamics through their differences. At its core, the study of these two stores does not use them to argue that comic shops are different from bookstores, though this study certainly touches upon those differences. It uses the two stores rather to show the degree to which image-text dynamics and exclusive and semi-arbitrary categorical definitions happen in both commercial spaces, as idealized as the greater variety of categories in the comic shop may be. While Comicopia asserts a wide variety of comics subgenres through its spatio-material rhetorical factors, evading the hegemonic norms of many other comic shops, its categories still prove somewhat reductive, categorizing ostensibly different sorts of texts under broad classifications like “Graphic Novels,” which opens both those texts and their containing sections to ontological shifts through the dynamic of the image-text. Still, Comicopia presents a more fitting categorization of comics than Pegasus Books, which, despite the inclusion of comics in spatio-material contexts outside their own section, categorizes all of its new (as in non-used) comics in one section with a literary focus which I will later describe. This unitary classification serves to strikingly gloss over certain comics elements while favoring others, particularly in those comics potentially and conventionally outside the literary spectrum, like trade paperbacks and newspaper comics, which are nevertheless included. The inclusion of these comics in such an otherwise targeted section provides a unique opportunity to investigate the potential for gradual, collaborative shifts in categorized spatial rhetoric—rhetoric emphasizing the hegemony of certain spatial categorizations—through the dynamic of the seemingly paradoxical image-text, an artifact that is both “empty” as an image and “full” as a text which can be read.

Comicopia: A Varied but Imperfect Arrangement

I first analyze Comicopia, a comic shop in Boston. My analysis of Comicopia seeks to highlight what a more open spatially materialized notion of comics might look like and while simultaneously revealing that, even in a more open space, restrictions and ambiguities based in material rhetoric exist. While Comicopia’s diverse and meticulously organized selection of comics, as well as its inclusionary space, attests to the wide variety of potential comics subgenres, communities, and categories, the store’s categorization is still susceptible to exclusionary or questionable dynamics and decision-making. 

Comicopia, founded in 1989, is located in Kenmore Square, near both Fenway Park and Boston University. The store’s mission, as stated on its website, is “to help every kind of reader,” regardless of comics niche ( Implicit in this statement is the recognition that comics is not a format with a singular appeal, but one that appeals to multiple types of readers; it stands in stark contrast to the exclusionary hegemonic white masculine environments present in most comic shops (Herrmann 295). Comicopia’s statement does not define comics or comics culture as a singular typification of thing or people, but comics is instead adopted as an umbrella term for a diverse range of cultural and textual spaces with which to engage. The store’s spatial rhetoric largely embraces this mantra, foregrounding and therefore asserting a variety of comics subgenres through inclusive décor and sixteen distinct sections. However, even in this diversified context, these sections exert rhetorical pressure on the interpretation and nature of certain books that might not otherwise conventionally align with the purported category in which they are placed, and vice versa. In such a diversified store, this dynamic is often understated. However, a shift in the ontology of certain sections (and of individual works inside said sections) persists through comics objects’ ability to rhetorically function both as “image” and “text”—just as their contents do. This is particularly the case in the Graphic Novels section, wherein comics with a diverse range of textual qualities intermingle.

Existence and Diversity in Comicopia

The rhetorical power of material existence plays a strong role in asserting Comicopia’s mission of providing a diverse collection of comics subgenres and thereby appealing to a diverse range of comics readers. In her investigation of the spatial rhetoric of public memorials, Carol Blair describes the rhetoric of existence by stating, “when a memorial (or any other text) appears on the landscape, it is thereby deemed—at least by some, at least for the moment—attention worthy” (Blair 35-36). The store’s exterior presents a wide and open representation of the comics medium and its readers rather than an enclosed and reductive one through the existence of multiple rhetorical artifacts. The primary street-facing window is draped with a LGBTQ+ pride flag, emphasizing the store as a welcoming space and signaling that it carries queer comics (or comix), a significant part of the independent comics tradition. A colorfully decorated stand-up chalkboard sign stands outside the entrance, adorned on both sides with the store’s name. See Fig.1 and Fig. 2 below.


This sign promotes a multivalent notion of what comics are through the existence of two distinct designs, each attesting to the vitality and worthiness of their referent subgenre to the viewer, while also attempting to entice said viewer to enter the store. One side depicts a more conventional male superhero (perhaps Shazam), drawn yelling “Comicopia” in large block letters in a jagged word bubble. As a representative of the comics store, this side of the sign posits its notion of comics in the superhero tradition, and of its potential customer base as the traditional white male reader. On the other side, however, “Comicopia” is written in a looser script, accompanied by drawings of two women. One of these appears as a superheroine, and the other as a princess, drawn in the manga tradition. The word bubbles on this side of the sign are also in the manga tradition, using a pointy, explosive frame reminiscent of exclamations in manga. These design choices complicate the notion of comics beyond its hegemonic masculine tradition, depicting it as something more than the provenance of male superheroes—though, as the other side of the sign suggests, those superheroes certainly play a part. The mutual existence of both designs in the same space asserts and establishes a diversity of comics traditions, rather than deeming one form of comics as superior to the other. By serving as a microcosm of the store itself, the co-existence of the two designs on the sign establishes the store’s ideology that each of these two types of comics are equally worthy of attention, signaling that they are co-present both on store shelves and in the store’s notion of comics, and that both types of readers are welcome. 

The inside of the store emphasizes this notion of comics through decor in diverse ways; however, for the purposes of this study, it is important to note the existence of a large number of distinct sections for different varieties of comics. Building off Blair’s notion of existence denoting worthiness, the existence of a thing in space, when the alternative is nonexistence, is a tacit assertion of the value and influence of that thing—of its worth (34). In this sense, the mere existence of these diversified comics sections plays a significant rhetorical role. When a comic is not granted a section matching its subgenre or other characteristics, that lack of appropriate category serves as a terministic screen inhibiting the conception that the fitting category for that comic exists at all. For instance, if a store were organized only alphabetically by superhero name, prioritizing DC and Marvel comics, queer comix might be so spatially and organizationally marginalized that they would essentially cease to exist as a subgenre and community to the average observer-customer of the store. This marginalization could then impede the creation of queer cultural spaces; just as Herrmann and Woo found that the presence of superhero memorabilia encouraged superhero fandoms and dialogues in their respective stores, queer comix artifacts and memorabilia invite the creation of queer fandoms and dialogues in stores in which they appear. In this way, a lack of categorical possibility works to exclude certain comics, cultures, and identities from the cultural sphere, as uncategorized comics lack the potential to form genre communities of readership or to be foregrounded and accessible in fitting sections when their potential to do so goes unrecognized. Therefore, by including a large number of categories and sections, the bookstore rhetorically establishes an ethically varied and liberated possibility for comics and genre communities through those sections’ very existence. Conversely, a small number of categories inhibits the field and misrepresents its subjects, defining comics and comics cultures reductively, rather than expansively, diminishing the value of certain formats, subgenres, and affiliated communities. 

Each of Comicopia’s fifteen distinct sections uses its own organizational logic in a manner that respects the textual dynamics of its contents, as represented in Fig. 3. The way in which these organizational logics adhere to the textual demands and values of the books they contain rhetorically asserts the values of these texts through existence. For instance, fans of superhero comics are more likely to want to find works following their favorite hero rather than works by a specific author. Therefore, an alphabetization by character name makes sense. It both facilitates browsing by fans and acknowledges the dynamics of the superhero tradition. On the other hand, fans of graphic novels—whose characters often do not play as strong or recurring roles as in superhero texts—would be more likely to look for works by favored authors. In that sense, an alphabetization by author acknowledges the dynamics of that tradition, and the desires of that audience. This democratic organization, wherein sections exist, are made distinct, and are organized per their particular narrative and publishing dynamics and traditions, thereby acknowledges and sustains a broad definition of comics as a format that includes and recognizes multiple subgenres through the existence of sections for those subgenres. That said, as is clear from Comicopia’s large number of different organizational logics, described in Fig. 3, this system is also labor-intensive and exhaustive to a degree that smaller spaces, like Pegasus’s comics section, cannot accommodate.

Figure 3. Sections and organizational logics at Comicopia in Boston.

Categorization Compels and Affected by Interaction With with Other Image-Texts

However, even here in the context of a large, labor intensive system of categorization, some of the sections create ambiguous definitions of comics that both gloss over certain dynamics of individual texts and press reductive definitions of the contained categories themselves. In this sense, these sections facilitate some early readings of “image-text” dynamics. The comics within them function dualistically. As empty “images,” which fill with meaning through their contexts, they face rhetorical pressure from their categorization; as filled, written “texts,” which assert their own inscribed and explicit meanings, they put pressure onto the ontology of their section’s categorization. In other words, these comics image-texts rhetorically assert certain definitions of comics subgenres, but are also rhetorically framed, with certain textual components privileged over others, by the category they are assigned and the surrounding books they interact with via spatial juxtaposition. These image-texts function both as “empty” images whose action is subject to their context, as Gries posits, and as assertive texts which point to different categorical potentials in occasionally jarring fashion. 

For instance, the Graphic Novels section includes trade paperbacks from Image and Dark Horse, such as The Walking Dead series, which focuses on a revolving cast of characters in a zombie apocalypse. These comics series, while created by individual authors, in many senses belong to a different tradition than conventional literary graphic novels such as Pride of the Decent Man, a graphic novel by T.J. Kirsch about growing up in an abusive family, which is shelved near The Walking Dead in the graphic novels section. The difference between the two (potential) categories—independently authored trade paperbacks and literary single-instantiation graphic novels, or even graphic memoir or graphic medicine—lies not only in content. Independently authored trade paperbacks often utilize traditional comic-book style solid linework and vibrant coloration composed by collaborators, are printed on glossy pages, and are published initially in individual issues over many years. Conversely, literary graphic novels vary widely in style and material, are created often by single author-artists, and are often standalone works. Literary graphic novels carry and/or vie for a sense of literary prestige often denied to trade paperbacks, perhaps by virtue of their adherence to typical literary traditions of authorship. 

In assessing the wide array of (often contrasting) traits associated with each potential subgenre, we can clearly see how the categorically dictated spatial interaction between trade paperbacks and graphic novels can obscure textual qualities that make trade paperbacks distinct, while also imagistically redefining them as literary through association with the literary connotations of graphic novels. By their shared space, these two distinct genre forms become amalgamated into a single type, assuming and asserting different dynamics of and into that type. The trade paperback functions as an image-text, taking on qualities of its context; through dynamics of interaction with its surrounding objects, with the literary graphic novels surrounding it, the trade paperback becomes a graphic novel. In a sense, this interaction is a form of the silencing, challenging, and competing that Blair discusses occurring between juxtaposed objects in space (42-44). Certain aspects of the trade paperback are silenced or challenged (or amplified or asserted) through its juxtaposed (and fiscal) competition with the literary graphic novel in the section. In this case, a reader who was earlier dismissive of The Walking Dead as a literary text could rethink that logic upon seeing the text in the same category as texts like Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, arranged on the shelf nearby, which has garnered much more recognition in the literary sphere. Alternatively, were The Walking Dead to be sorted into a larger trade paperback section, these literary affiliations would be lost, while new textual qualities, say, participation in a periodical tradition, or superhero characters with accompanying fandoms, would be re-highlighted and reinscribed onto the book-object. In this sense, The Walking Dead, and indeed any text organized on a shelf, assumes new definitional valences based on its arrangement and interaction with other texts. This is particularly true for new readers who have little prior comics experience, and are unable to recognize the cultural and aesthetic codes that situate certain books in certain genre traditions—the types of people who may be less likely to enter a comics store, but who are far more likely to enter a bookstore. The book functions as a partially emptied but still assertive image whose definitional valences and cultural roles are catalyzed by virtue of its ecologies of material juxtaposition with other texts.

This dynamic, in a store like Comicopia, with its extensive attention to categories of comics, is rather understated, and has less potential for outright erasure than it does for the emphasis of certain traits above others. Exclusion and (re)definition become far more pronounced and polemical, however, in spaces where expertise with, attention to, and real estate for comics categorization is much more limited, such as in conventional bookstores. These spaces do not reflect the multiple potentialities of what comics could be through their categorical divisions. Instead, they are often forced by constraints of time and space to put comics in a catch-all or a very broad category. This broad category, say “comics” or “graphic novels,” then asserts reductive hegemonic notions of the comic through arrangement of its texts and its material qualities, rather than asserting the multiplicity of the comic. In this sense, these stores are more insightful for determining broader conceptions of what comics are in mainstream, non-specialist spaces, which are growing more prevalent today with the rise of graphic novels. Comicopia, as problematic as it may be in some small respects (in the same ways that all systems of categorization are problematic), can serve as a comparison for more ideal systems. These “catch-all” comics sections are thereby more dramatic and culturally pressing models for how the image-text and material dynamics of spatial genre systems’ contents can determine and reshape those systems. 

Pegasus Books

Pegasus Books Downtown in Berkeley is one of three Pegasus Books locations in Berkeley and Oakland, California. Situated in a sky-blue building on the corner of Shattuck and Durant avenues, the store’s website advertises that the Downtown location “offers an ever-changing mix of new and used books, overstock books, art cards and thoughtfully chosen magazines” in a “spacious, light” space (“Pegasus Books Downtown”). The website further emphasizes its author and artist events, including poetry readings, storytelling, jazz music nights, and talks and signings, including those by “award-winning graphic novelists” such as Daniel Clowes, Anders Nilsen, and Adrian Tomine (“Events at Pegasus Books,”). Each of these “graphic novelists” (an interesting choice of term rather than, say, “cartoonists,” since the word “novelist” could be interpreted as a sign of literary merit) are firmly couched in the literary comics tradition, signaling that the same might be true for the store’s selection, organization, and material dynamics—and thus the store’s definition of comics asserted by its spatio-material contexts. This notion indeed holds true. While some comics are interspersed throughout the store in a manner that asserts their literary quality, most comics are reductively sorted into a “catch-all” comics category which highly favors the literary tradition. However, this section still incorporates some comics outside of that tradition, providing a unique opportunity to explore image-text dynamics in a less subtle setting than that of Comicopia. The singular comics section is certainly reductive, but it is also ambiguous, opening the door for the exploration of how flexible a categorization can potentially become through the gradual effects of the incorporation of new image-texts.

Book Distribution Throughout Pegasus Through the Lens of Existence and Interaction

Pegasus Books Downtown has two distinct comics sections, new and used, though a smattering of comics also appear on various table and shelf displays of featured books from a variety of genres. These scattered comics can be read both in terms of existence and interaction with other texts. Again, existence here establishes a comics’ “worthiness,” in this case, in the literary canon, while that same existence, which puts it in interaction with surrounding texts, serves to challenge canonical notions of literature. For instance, Nick Sousanis’s comics essay Unflattening appears alongside books by David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and Aldous Huxley in the “Staff Picks” section pictured in Fig. 4. 

Figure 4. Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening appears in the Pegasus “Staff Picks” section amongst other literary texts.

The existence of Unflattening in a section wherein it can interact with non-comics texts asserts a relative egality of genres; rather than sequestering comics to their sections for the geeks to pore over, Pegasus recognizes comics as participating in a broader literary sphere of interest to a diverse range of readers through their material interaction with fellow books in this “Staff Picks” section and other featured displays. In this sense, Pegasus appeals to an audience of readers open to “literature” in a variety of formats and simultaneously asserts that “literature” can be a variety of formats. I say “literature,” because the comics in these featured displays are not superhero comics, as Unflattening evinces, but literarily oriented, single-author works, signaling  the valuing of work by “graphic novelists” rather than collaborative teams or featuring certain characters. 

Comics Section Positioning and Organization and Action on People: Two Contradictory Dynamics

While Pegasus Books Downtown suggests a rhetorical egalitarity of comics through these dynamics of existence and interaction in featured displays, the positioning of the new comics section in the store’s floorplan points to a contrary positioning of comics in the literary sphere when read through a rhetoric of  “action on people.” Blair reminds us that rhetoric does not solely appeal to the mind, but also to the body, as special configurations “act on people” by prescribing and influencing the way audiences move through space (45-47). While the featured displays discussed above are largely congregated around the store’s entrance, encouraging and facilitating movement toward them, the new comics section is located in the back-left corner of the store. It occupies one wide shelf, whose backside holds cookbooks. Considering this arrangement, it is unlikely customers would end up there coincidentally; the store’s front shelves, devoted to more “mainstream” categories like general literature, new releases, recent used acquisitions, and biographies, funnel patrons along the front edge and middle core of the store, prescribing their movement away from the comics. Thus, the bookstore organization presents comics at a clear disadvantage, considering the genre’s placement in relation to more commonly purchased genres. Cornered as they are, these new comics are literally ostracized from the literary core through the store’s layout, which diverts people elsewhere. This arrangement creates a tacit literary positioning of comics as an outlier genre, rather than a core one. 

While the positioning of the section in the store suggests comics’existence on the literary fringes, the shelf itself posits and prioritizes a more specific notion of comics, one rooted in an independent, literary, and progressive tradition—essentially, as “graphic novels”—in part through its spatial guidance of potential readers. The shelf is not organized in any coherent fashion, and instead places such author-oriented literary work cover-forward in its center, emphasizing that genre tradition through positioning. This spatial organization of texts seeks to attract certain audiences (the graphic novel reader, as well as the reader of  literature more generally), while dissuading other groups like the superhero fan, who will be quickly put off by their inability to find their favorite characters and series (and therefore unlikely to make the store a hub for their fandom). It encourages action rooted in browsing; to the idle browser, this disorder is welcoming, rather than confusing, as the small size of the shelf combined with the lack of organization encourages casual shopping without making it overly difficult to determine if a desired book is in stock. See Fig. 5.

Figure 5. The “New Comics” section at Comicopia.

Low Durability as an Expression of Values Rather than Neglect

When browsing the section, one is immediately drawn to the sign at above the shelves, as pictured in Fig. 6. This sign can perhaps be read rhetorically through the lens of durability. While Blair argues that a lack of durability may seem to signal neglect and an accompanying loss of value, here, durability can be read differently (37).

Figure 6. The sign denoting the “New Comics” section at Pegasus.

The sign is rather slipshod, consisting of printed cutouts of different comics glued onto a rectangular piece of cardboard, with the words “New Comics,” printed in a whimsical, artsy font glued on top. This construction, which is neither materially durable nor professionally streamlined (the very seams and means of its construction worn on its sleeve), ostensibly signals a lack of care for the comics section. The sign might suggest to some customers that the comics section is not enough of a priority to receive a nicely printed, embossed, or etched sign, and instead, an employee hastily and haphazardly whipped up a functional but neglected placeholder. However, a different reading of the sign’s durability and material construction emerges when one considers the actual comics excerpted on it, each of which plays a significant, though not obvious, role in graphic novel tradition. From left to right, there is a woman drawn by renowned graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, an excerpt from Windsor McKay’s extremely influential experimental early work Little Nemo, an excerpt from Marjane Satrapi’s lauded graphic memoir Persepolis, and an excerpt from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s acclaimed crossover graphic novel Watchmen. The placement of these works on the sign is meant to signal to a level of experience with graphic novels that suggests a degree of care for the section. With this dynamic in mind, the durability and materiality of the sign can be re-read to not signal a lack of care, but an attention to the DIY and independent ethos driving the creation of graphic novels past and present, a legacy of punk messages and materials that graphic novels have built upon. The materials of the sign itself participate in an ecology of clear, individuated and independent creation processes, rather than involvement in mass-distributed and often obscured standards of format, plotting, and material—standards to which superhero comics and trade paperbacks have long adhered. In doing so, the sign asserts DIY and independent praxis as a key component of “comics.” 

Spatial Genre Shift Through Image-Text Interactions

Many of the comics foregrounded in the section follow this independently oriented notion of comics, such as Ben Passmore’s Your Black Friend, published by the small, local comics press Silver Sprocket; Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, an important memoir in both the graphic novel and queer literature traditions; and Edena, a collection of science fiction artist Moebius’s work on alternate worlds. While there are a few trade paperbacks tucked away, spine out, the selection is predominantly limited to trendy literary trade series, rather than emphasizing superhero traditions; Saga, Black Panther, and Paper Girls, for instance, have seen wide reception in the literary sphere and mainstream. The interesting exception here are two collections of Trump-related Doonesbury comics, which provide a unique opportunity for investigating rhetorical dynamics of interaction with other texts and the definitional power of image-text and image-text context. While in other circumstances, Doonesbury would fit and even establish a comics section organized per the demands of the newspaper strip tradition, here, it becomes enmeshed and reshaped in the independent, literary, progressive comics tradition through a spatial interaction that redefines it along those lines, in part through emphasis of certain textual qualities. The material circumstances of the section—including not only the books inside but the aforementioned sign—influence the definition of the Doonesbury text inside, while the Doonesbury text influences the section’s definitional dynamics and material possibilities.

Doonesbury is a newspaper comic strip series by Gary Trudeau which often depicts liberal-minded caricatures of politicians and political situations. Thus, in its daily instantiations, it concretely and spatially participates in asserting and defining newspaper comics as a category; analogous to a bookshelf, a sheet of newsprint covered with comics situates those comics as newspaper comics in their own genre tradition. However, Doonesbury is also collected in multiple codex book anthologies, focusing on different time periods and central characters of the strip. Here, in the shelf at Pegasus, the two collections do both, presenting Doonesbury comics in the “age of Trump.” 

Herein is the image-text crux upon which Doonesbury’s redefinition into the Pegasus notion of “comics” relies; the foregrounding of Trump, both in title and cover image, situates these comics in a progressive political consciousness shared by their spatial brethren like Your Black Friend. The book-image thus becomes resituated in this section, not to assert a definition of comics as stemming from the newspaper tradition, but from a progressive, critical, and thoughtful tradition, as comics like Your Black Friend do. The Doonesbury collections themselves beg to be read in this context, not as lightly connotated newsprint “funnies,” but as insightfully satirical, literary pieces of political commentary. In turn, this situating of the individual texts influences the surrounding spaces and book sections, concretizing the political potentiality of the comics in this section and comics in general. Thus, the influence of definitional juxtaposition is not a one-way street, as the material circumstances of the section both influence and are influenced by the presence of the Doonesbury books. In this latter sense, the section functions, in a way, like the graffiti bombing Lesh analyzes. Akin to graffiti bombing, which artists use to assert their presence in space and establish new spatial networks, the Doonesbury books change the way the space around them is conceptualized; they “challenge the existing order of things” through their circulation (Lesh 78). In the former sense, however, the books function quite differently, assuming attributes based on their spatial configuration, rather than wholly breaking or violating them via “resistance,” as Lesh asserts the graffiti does (78). The combination of these two dynamics suggests the potential for a collaborative shift in spatialized genres, a shift that entails both matching up with previous elements of the space—both in textual and in material elements—and asserting new ones, in a multidimensional discourse. 

Imagining hypothetical alternatives and shifts over time in this section clarifies the potential of collaborative material shifts in spatial genres. It may be that with Doonesbury in this section, store employees, guided by the book’s presence, feel justified to put more politically oriented newspaper comics in the section, such as Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks. With these “edgy” newspaper comics in the section, employees may then begin adding other provocative or thoughtful syndicated works, like Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes or Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine, which could then lead to adding newspaper comics more generally. By this stage, the definition of comics presented by the section would have shifted from “graphic novels” to an amalgamation of literary comics and newspaper comics, participating in a different tradition of creation, publication, format, and narrative style than the section previously represented. Such a shift would serve to reconceptualize both graphic novels and newspaper comics, changing their valences, while also establishing new gaps and criteria for inclusion or exclusion in the comics category. This change would not be sudden or violent, but gradual, enabled by the dyadic influence of section upon books inside, and books upon section. Image-texts would assume new roles in context through their image-ness, but continue to assert their own potentialities through their text-ness. These potentialities could be used as foundations for the establishment of new spatial genre standards that could then shape the roles of incoming image-texts, repeating yet slightly shifting the cycle in a collaborative process. As the roles of the image-texts shift, so would the potential communities and cultures rising around them. In the example, fans of newspaper comics might gravitate toward the newly-defined section.


In this sense, the comics’ bookshelf functions as an exemplary micro-ecology for how collaborative shifts in spatial genre may occur; this image-text shifting process in the comics section may present a new potential for gainful and ethical shifts elsewhere. Of course, any overarching categorization of comics under one banner is reductive. In this case, the amalgamation of newspaper comics and graphic novels would still implicitly exclude superheroes from the “literary” comics canon that is Pegasus Books. A much more precise, vast system of organization, such as that found at Comicopia, presents many more ethical opportunities for text organization. These categorizations respect the traditions and communities most closely related to them, though neither Comicopia nor Pegasus can entirely avoid reductive categories. However, those categories can be shifted through an interplay of pre-existing material factors and contexts and through the introduction of new textual components, all in an effort to promote inclusion.

The identity of a spatial category is not only dictated by its contents, however, but by its material instantiation, its appearance and occurrence in material space. Things like positioning in space, action upon audiences, durability, and juxtaposition play significant roles in determining how a space is construed. For some spaces, such as the urban spaces Dryer and Lesh discuss, literally concretized in the cityscape, collaborative spatial genre shifts via these material characteristics can be difficult to achieve. Mobile and smaller-scale spaces like bookstores, however, are ripe for potential collaborative material change in the pursuit of certain rhetorical dynamics. What might it mean for the comics section at Pegasus if the store owners situated comics closer to the front of the store, rather than in a corner? How might this movement engage collaboratively with existing material dynamics of the space to avoid violent and jarring disruptions that may drive away customers (who are comfortable and/or dependent on more standard forms of categorization), while opening the bookstore space to new fandoms and communities? Spatial genres can be materially shifted collaboratively rather than violently through adherence to Blair’s material qualities of a space—including durability, existence, interaction with other texts, and action on people—while changing other traits. In the case of moving the comics section at Pegasus to somewhere more ensconced in the literary sphere, this might mean that it is transported to a space which highlights a more complimentary juxtaposition (between this section and another), such as that of the art section (due to their shared focus on illustration) or game books (due to their shared audiences) or horror and sci-fi books (near which comics are often located, as Charles Hatfield notes [30]). It might also mean moving to somewhere more in line with the flow of the store, to somewhere that the material arrangement of bookshelves and tables in the space more directly point visitors toward. These sorts of changes to space are not limited to bookstores, either; they could just as well take place in any flexible, delineated, and categorized space, with changes taking place both on this more macro-material scale and on the juxtapositional scale of the image-text discussed earlier. 

Clearly, there are many different situated definitions of comics, definitions in large part determined by comics’ material contexts. Durability, construction material, and location within a store all play strong roles in suggesting what comics are and how they are situated in the literary sphere, and juxtaposing these elements (whether within the comics’ section or among different sections) allows for a better understanding of how these spatial relationships function. These dynamics can be changed collaboratively, with gradual material shifts over time; in some senses, these shifts may be inevitable in a bookstore where objects come and go. This notion of spatialized material genre and the collaborative shifts that may occur are not limited to comics sections, or even bookstore sections more broadly. Any material arrangement of space can be gradually tweaked with an eye toward potentially similar and different facets to pre-existing spatial situations, attempting to achieve different dynamics and definitional categories of space. Perhaps the literary canon might be shifted toward greater diversity through the inclusion of non-white, non-male authors writing conventionally accepted literary forms like novels in the “classics” section of many bookstores. Perhaps galleries can promote decolonial endeavors by placing works by artists like Kehinde Wiley, who directly challenges white legacies of “great art” while mimicking that arts’ aesthetics, in juxtaposition with white-male art in galleries, opening the door to more diverse and critical art spaces. Perhaps even cityscapes like those Lesh describes can decriminalize graffiti to a degree so it becomes an acceptable component of a city’s aesthetics, opening the door for a visible and collaborative participation in the configuration of space by graffiti artists. As these examples show, attention to such spatial dynamics, and attention to how objects function as both open-ended “images” and concrete and specific texts, is an attention to power systems that subtly dictate our perception of our immediate space, and—building on that space through generalization—the world around us. Thus, material space stands as a potential place for intervention in power dynamics through a “shift,” not only in the comics section, but anywhere where space is malleable, and material speaks. 


[1] This is articulated further in Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s Embodied Literacies : Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 2003).

[2] This can perhaps be seen most notably in the name of the comics journal ImageTexT.

[3] It’s important to note that by “textual” here I do not mean in the sense of text versus image, but rather in the notion of something that contains specific language, no matter what marks may compose that language.

[4] It is further interesting to note that the singular images that Gries discusses can also be perceived as multiple distinct images. Eric Jenkins, in “Materialism(s) In Recent Visual Rhetorical Histories: A Commentary,” emphasizes this differentiation in his critique of Gries. The modified image on which Gries focuses (i.e. parody images of Obama Hope), Jenkins says, is clearly a different material object, something changed enough from the original circulated image that it cannot be considered the same image. Because of this change, Jenkins finds much of Gries’s argument, and particularly her case studies on the permutations of Obama Hope, to be unstable. This study’s focus on materially unchanging image-texts in book store sections can stabilize the argument that same images can perform differently in different contexts by providing a case study wherein the images truly do remain one and the same.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Image – Music – Text. Hill and Wang, 1977.

Blair, Carol. “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality.” In  Rhetorical Bodies. Edited by Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley. Madison: University of  Wisconsin Press, 1999, 16-57.

Brown, Jeffrey. “Comic Book Fandom and Cultural Capital.” Journal of Popular Culture, 30.4 , 1997, 13-31.

Comicopia, 464 Commonwealth Avenue #13, Boston, MA 02215.

Dryer, Dylan B. “Taking Up Space: On Genre Systems as Geographies of the Possible.” JAC, 28.3, 2008, 503-534.

“Events at Pegasus Books,” Pegasus Books Berkeley and Oakland. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Fawaz, Ramzi. “A Queer Sequence: Comics as a Disruptive Medium.” PMLA 134.3, 2019, 588-594.

Fleckenstein, Kristie S. Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of TeachingCarbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 2003.

Gries, Laurie. Still Life With Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2015.

Hague, Ian. Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels. Routledge, 2014.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Herrmann, Andrew. “Communication and Ritual at the Comic Book Shop: The Convergence of Organizational and Popular Cultures.” Journal of Organizational Ethnography 7.3, 2008, 285-301. 

Jenkins, Eric Scott. “Materialism(s) in Recent Visual Rhetorical Histories: A Commentary.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 21.1, 2018, 157-173.

Kashtan, Aaron. Between Pen and Pixel. Ohio State University Press, 2018.

Lesh, Charlie. “Writing Boston: Graffiti Bombing as Community Publishing.” Community Literacy Journal 12, 2017, 62-86.

Pegasus Books Downtown, 2349 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704.

“Pegasus Books Downtown,” Pegasus Books Berkeley and Oakland. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Pustz, Matthew. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Reid, Calvin. “2019 North American Comics Sales Hit Record 1.21 Billion,” Publishers WeeklyAccessed 16 Nov. 2020.

“Welcome to Comicopia!” Comicopia. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.

Woo, Benjamin. “The Android’s Dungeon: comic-bookstores, cultural spaces, and the social practices of audiences.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 2:2, 2011, 125-136.

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