As more and more libraries collect comics for adult readers, content present in any library’s collection can be increasingly intended solely for adult readers. What’s visually presented on the page, from sex to violence to drug use, may push a title into an adult collection while complex and dense storytelling may indicate a title’s audience is likely to be readers over eighteen.

Some of the most popular series in graphic novel collections, from The Walking Dead to Saga, contain both explicit violence and sex. While one library may have an established graphic novel collection in their adult shelves, others may keep them in nonfiction sections while other institutions interfile teen and adult titles given limited physical space.

What are librarians to do with mature content? What kind of lines can be drawn between what makes a title for teens or for adults? We here at No Flying No Tights today are comparing notes, discussing best practices, and tackling challenge fears in order to illuminate the best way to select and maintain a collect for adults that includes content the equivalent of an R-rating or higher.

Where and how does your library shelve adult titles? How does the mission of your library support maintaining an adult collection?

Garrett: We shelve adult titles in with all graphic novels that aren’t catalogued as juvenile titles. Our mission statement involves language such as “to be the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the community,” so we don’t particularly discriminate when it comes to collecting material that’s considered “adult.”

Allen: Our library shelves graphic novels in the adult collection if the themes and content present in the material is too strong for the Teen Collection. Usually, this has more to do with themes of sexuality and nudity rather than violence. For example, The Walking Dead is actually shelved in our Teen collection. For the most part, if titles in the Teen collection are thought to be too much for the area, they get moved to the Adult collection. This also applies to the Juvenile collection. If someone believes the content doesn’t fit the collection, it gets bumped up to a different age group.

Nic: Our library has a Juvenile and a Young Adult graphic novel collection, but does not have one for adults. If a title is ordered or donated, but then determined to be too “adult” for the YA section, I often send it to one of the other branches of our library system that does have an Adult GN section. That way, patrons can at least get it pretty easily through interlibrary loan.

Robin: In my library, we have graphic novel collections for each age range: kids, teens, and adults. That way we can collect most any title and be sure it has a place to go in the collection. We consider collecting graphic novels to be the same as other media we collect, from films and television (which share a similar visual aspect) to our traditional book collections. Having a section in each age range means our browsers have some sense immediately of who the audience for the titles are.

Does (and if so, how does) your collection development policy enter into how adult titles are collected and where they are shelved?

Garrett: Surprisingly (and, frankly, refreshingly), the bulk of our collection development policy simply consists of the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement, and the Library Bill of Rights. The only circumstances in recent memory of someone objecting to material we’ve purchased comes from staff.

Allen: We don’t have a hard and fast rule in our collection development policy. Like Garrett, we employ the Library Bill of Rights when developing our collection. There are processes in place if someone wishes to challenge the material’s home location, and staff (and management) act accordingly.

Nic: Because our library doesn’t have an Adult GN collection, we do not knowingly purchase any graphic novels that we don’t think we could put in Juvenile or YA.

Robin: Our collection development policy makes few mentions of age range, except that we aim to support kids and teens in our collection. In one particular note, when discussing intellectual freedom, we explain, “The selection of materials for the adult collection is not restricted by the possibility that children may obtain materials their parents or guardians consider inappropriate.”

When it comes to mature content, especially when it is in images on the page, what are your rules of thumb about what is teen appropriate and what is adult? What kinds of content are considered specifically for adults?

Megan: As a reviewer, I’d say detailed nudity tends to automatically bump a graphic novel into the adult section for me. I think this decision is partially cultural: nudity in films tends to push the rating into R and above, and so I follow similar guidelines when I’m reviewing. When I’m reviewing comics for No Flying No Tights, my decision also has a fair bit to do with the context. If the story has shown to have other warnings (like heavy violence for example), that will also influence my decision.

Allen: Nudity is certainly a concern, especially since it tends to be more stigmatized than violence. If the nudity presented in the work is anatomically correct, that’s usually enough to get it sent to the adult collection. Again, violence isn’t so much a concern. The Walking Dead’s depiction of human on human and human on zombie violence has proven to be the limit for the collection. I would never put a series like Crossed in YA. Or anything else Garth Ennis has done, for that matter.

Nic: Manga with brief nude scenes that don’t show genitalia, especially in a context that doesn’t directly involve sex, might squeak by into the YA section. But if genitalia are shown, or female nipples appear for more than a quick glimpse, or if characters are clearly having sex on the page, that’s unlikely to go into our collection. Sexual assault, if not covered in a very sensitive way, is also likely to keep a book out of the YA section. For example, we don’t collect The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, in which a character uses rape to punish another character. I also chose not to include the manga World War Blue because one of the “good guy” characters harasses and gropes the teen girls he is supposed to be teaching to the point at which they are uncomfortable around him, but he is never called out on it and faces no consequences. In this case, it’s not the behavior alone—groping and harassing girls—that made me rule out the series, but the fact that this behavior is viewed so uncritically that the series seems almost to be condoning it. While I can imagine non-sexual violence that is too extreme for our YA collection, I haven’t actually encountered it often. The other thing I tend not to collect is graphic novels that simply don’t seem like they’d have much teen appeal—those aimed at adults, sometimes including storylines that are specific to adult characters, like midlife crises, marriages dissolving, dealing with one’s own adult kids, etc. And I generally do not collect seinen or josei manga, though I would be willing to consider a specific series if it wasn’t ruled out by one of the aforementioned policies.

Robin: Our teen collection is pretty broad in terms of what’s allowable, but the explicitness of an image plus the frequency and context can well move it into the adult section. As an example, we have Takehiko Inoue’s REAL in our teen collection, and it does feature full frontal nudity of a young man in its pages. However, it is one image, it is not at all sexual, and it is part of a contemplative moment in the character’s mental state. So, for us, that’s okay to go in teen.

How much weight do you give the context of an image within a narrative? How do you deal with concerns that someone might flip through a graphic novel and see something explicit, and then raise objections, versus the people who check out and read the whole story and thus see the images in context?

Allen: When reviewing titles for the Teen collection, I certainly try to see where the content, be it violence or fan service, fits in the greater narrative. It’s sometimes easy to spot when a manga, for example, is of the ecchi type where the whole point of the work is to offer sexualized material. A series like Food Wars! Is filled with fan service material for the first few volumes, but that they are intended as bits of comedy and not the driving force of the narrative. Prison School would be a challenge to justify because of the intensity of the adult material. A casual flip through any one volume would make it easy for someone to develop a snap judgement.

Nic: This is tough. I am certain that some patrons, if they were to go flipping through every book in the YA graphic novel section looking for content they found objectionable, would absolutely find it. Still, we can’t let the specter of that possibility hover over us when we’re collecting. On the other hand, a single very explicit scene can keep a book out of the YA section—this happened after another staff member flipped through the yaoi manga Blue Sky and strongly objected to an explicit sex scene. It also happened when I ordered a volume of manga which would have been fine for the YA section on its own, but which turned out to have a preview of Monster Musume in the back that featured more sexual content than we felt comfortable putting into the YA section.

Robin: I agree with Nic that worrying about challenges before they happen (especially when they might never happen) is a dangerous way to collect. I am lucky in that I am able to move a title to adult (or up to teen from the kids collection) if we discover an image or scene that we didn’t realize was within a text. Because of that ability, I do feel more leeway in ordering titles, looking them over when they arrive, and making a decision as to where they belong audience-wise. I do also, as I said above, try to consider what the readers are comfortable with and try to let their reactions and title requests lead me to where a title belongs. I have in the past bought a series requested by a teen reader but put it in adult due to content, knowing full well that they would find it easily on the adult shelves.

How do you weigh violence versus nudity or explicit sex? In many media, comics included, consumers think of violence as more okay to include that full frontal nudity or sexual situations. Do you think of comics in the same way? Would you argue they should be treated differently?

Megan: I would say that, yes, I mostly evaluate comics similarly to other forms of media. Nudity, particularly detailed, tends to make me rate content as mature. I think this decision partially has to do with what my colleagues will have to face when trying to determine where to place something; depending on the community, I think it is important to consider patrons’ perceptions.

Garrett: I would argue that it’s a cultural phenomena that can trace its roots to the Puritans as to why violence seems to be more tolerable in our society than sexual imagery. I don’t particularly think they should be treated any differently than other forms of media. However, images have a way of being perceived as more powerful than words. For example, at my library, it’s usually staff who object to content. I can’t remember any specific graphic novels that were objected to, but there was a Sally Mann photography book that recently caused a big stir. It always boggles me how the most torrid and sexually explicit novels would never provoke such controversy…it’s always the pictures.

Allen: Oh, absolutely comics are treated the same way. I find it frustrating that I’m more nervous about including Food Wars!—a wonderful manga about a cooking school which features amazing food art AND recipes with a sprinkling of fan service—than getting the latest volume of The Walking Dead. I have a harder time with manga than graphic novels because I think it’s harder to explain to a parent unfamiliar with the genre that the stories and content come from a place that is culturally different from our own. Our Puritanical leanings towards sexual content is at odds with other cultures that have more relaxed attitudes on sex—be it presented as the ultimate expression of love between two characters or as a punchline. As much as I’d like to see a more growing mainstream acceptance of manga and the culture from where it comes from, it’s got a serious uphill climb.

Nic: I kind of wish this weren’t the case – why should violence be more acceptable than naked bodies, which are totally natural things that literally all of us have under our clothes? Why should violence be more acceptable than healthy, consensual sex? (Though it’s true that a nude scene or sex scene may also include problematic sexualization and objectification.) That said, it is more common for me to decide not to collect a graphic novel because of sexual content than because of violence.

Robin: It’s irksome that nudity will always cause more of an uproar than violence. I try to be consistent in my selection and try to consider violence as much as I consider nudity, partly because I’ve had parents tell me they’re more concerned about the former than the latter. I have moved a title from teen to adult because of the violence included, and I have no qualms about doing that. I also, as stated above, have a few titles that have frank nudity in them in teen because the story overall is definitely teen and that one image isn’t going to warrant it being in the adult collection.

I am, as you all have experienced, more likely to hear comments from staff about nudity or sex than I have ever heard from the public. I try to approach it as a teaching moment, as a time to explain a bit more to the staff about why we’re collecting a comic with this content and its placement in the collection. My comparisons are to the movies and television we also readily collect, from The Walking Dead to Queer as Folk to Sex and the City. If we have those titles on our DVD shelves, I feel it’s fine to collect similar content in the graphic novel format as long as it’s placed in the appropriate age range collection.

Are there any titles you would just never be able to have on your shelves because of the content? What prevents their inclusion?

Allen: Prison School, Senran Kagura, Monster Musume just to name a few. These volumes contain a significant amount of nudity and fan service that just wouldn’t fly despite their popularity. To even think of seeing them on my shelves makes me laugh. On the other side of the spectrum, I don’t think I could get away with having Inio Asano’s A Girl on the Shore because of its honest depiction of heavy topics like bullying and teen sexuality.

Nic: Saga and Monster Musume are just a couple of the ones with more sexual content than we would put in YA. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for the treatment of rape. We also don’t have The Walking Dead, mostly for the violence. We don’t feel too bad about not carrying popular adult GNs because interlibrary loan is very quick and easy in our library system, and is heavily used by our patrons, so they can and do get Saga, The Walking Dead, and other titles that way.

Robin: There are a few yaoi titles over the year’s that I couldn’t justify, not because they were guy on guy action but in that the ratio of explicit sex to plot made them a bit too lopsided for our adult collection. When yaoi was the new and exciting romance to hit comics, we had a substantial collection on our adult shelves. if a title veered toward underage characters and played around with troubling consent scenarios, then we’d pass.

What advice would you give librarians who want to include more explicit content in terms of how to arrange their collections and consider titles?

Garrett: Firstly, I would advise never pandering to your audience. As long as you respect the people you serve, as well as respecting their intelligence and maturity, you can challenge them with any kind of content you want. Secondly, I would suggest that you simply not call out explicit titles. If you are collecting for an adult collection, then why call specific attention to a book or put it in a specific section simply due to its content? I would hazard to guess that the majority of adult fiction or film sections in libraries across the country make no special effort to separate and distinguish explicit content. If you work at a library where all the erotica is shelved in general fiction or even marked as romance, there’s no reason to single out comics as any different than anything else on the shelves.

Professionally, we can’t make value judgments or assumptions about other people’s tastes, and, in my opinion, that includes making similar value judgments about content.

Nic: I think that if it’s in an adult graphic novel section, pretty much anything goes. I wouldn’t put special labels on books with especially explicit content or shelve them separately. I would be prepared, though, to explain your library’s collection development policy and possibly the rationale for choosing explicit titles, since patrons might be more likely to challenge these books than other materials.

Robin: I very much agree with Garrett. I encourage collectors to think about the other visual media they do collect, including film, television, art books, and to use those as a yardstick for what’s included in your adult comics section. Sometimes just turning to thinking of comics in relation to other image based works is more helpful than thinking of them in relation to romance novels or print fiction.

What about titles that include fan service—especially when it is not actual sex acts but detailed, sexualized art (often female characters, but not always)? Is there fan service that you consider too much for a teen collection? Too much even for a library collection, even if it’s in the adult collection?

Garrett: I’m going to stick to my philosophical guns here and simply state that unless a work has been deemed by a professional librarian to be not worthy of inclusion in a collection for whatever reason, then there’s no reason to consider it special or unique or meriting extraordinary placement.

I would hope that any particular librarian would understand their community well enough to make informed decisions about what kind of content is best suited for their own shelves. That will certainly be different, depending on the readers in the community.

Allen: It really depends on the level of fan service on display. There are a lot of manga that feature its female characters in compromising positions, but their significant body parts are either covered or not anatomically correct. If I see a manga employs this sort of fan service, and based on its context, I might not have a problem with adding it to the Teen collection. Fan service in this case is more of presenting the sexual context as some sort of joke. However, for books like Monster Musume and Highschool DxD where the fan service includes anatomically correct bodies and bawdy humor on practically every page, it really wouldn’t be something that would last long in a Teen collection. And then there’s manga like How To Build A Dungeon—a seemingly innocent sounding story about an evil wizard who builds a dungeon in order to strike back at those who defeated him. It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but what the “16+” rating on the back cover doesn’t tell you is that the book is really an erotic thriller featuring explicit sex scenes.

Nic: I mostly treat fan service the way I treat other nudity on the page. If it’s anatomically correct with genitals, it’s probably a no-go for the YA section. If it’s panty shots, that’s probably fine. That said, I would hesitate to collect a manga where most of the humor or a large part of the plot revolved around this kind of fan service.

Robin: Overwhelming fan service (detailed drawings up a girl’s skirt examining every fold of her panties, or extreme detail of a girl’s breasts through a shirt) tends to make me move a series up to adult. For me, it doesn’t make any difference if it’s for a joke or not—if it’s that explicit, I won’t place it in the Teen collection. I have found over the years that teen guys interested in those series will find them. I have also seen first hand how that level of fan service, often shared around a group of friends and loudly discussed, will make other teens, especially younger teen girls, understandably uncomfortable.

Do you treat sexual content differently if it is, for example, a romance where the sex is a significant focus of the story being told, or an action thriller, where sex is included but not the actual point of the story? Is there a kind of story where more sex, or more explicit sex, is allowable?

Nic: I might be willing to allow for a little more sex in a genre that I want to have represented in our collection. For instance, I have had some trouble finding LGBTQ love stories in manga that don’t include nudity or sex scenes (possibly just due to what is carried by our distributor), so I might let a little more sexual content than usual slide just so that I can have some LGBTQ love stories alongside all the straight love stories on the shelves.

Robin: I agree that if the story and character development is being told through the sex, as with stories like Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku and even Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, I’m more likely to consider the title for our collection. If the sex is more gratuitous in that it’s not the focus of the story, it may make me think through where to place such a title. With, for example, the unedited version of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga, which included one very explicit sex scene in the middle of a narrative that otherwise doesn’t include any sex, it was a bit of a question as to which version of the manga we could collect. The sex scene is ostensibly about character, but also debatably so. So I can see both sides of why a library could or could not justify collecting the unedited version. I’d have to consider my community, their interest in that title, and where to shelve it if we did get the more explicit version.

Thanks to Garrett Gottschalk, Allen Kesinger, Megan Rupe, and Nic Willcox for contributing to this discussion.

  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

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