I grew up in a fairly small town, in a place that didn’t really have much in the way of comic books. There was one local Hastings, which had a poor selection, and one Barnes & Noble, which didn’t carry single issues and had a trade paperback section that was spotty at best. For a thirteen year old in a time before the internet, finding and then making the trek to a comic book store was something of a brutal challenge. Once I finally made it there, I distinctly remember being ecstatic to finally make it to this place. It felt like some kind of mecca, some kind of huge step in my life to be able to even just cross the threshold of the place that held so much of what I loved.
Once inside, though, finding a place to start was just as hard as it was anywhere else. Like most small shops at that time, they carried Marvel and DC almost exclusively, and both of those worlds have been convoluted for so long that getting started without help is extremely difficult. So, like any kid who doesn’t know what to do, I asked for help. That was my very first lesson in what exclusivity feels like. Being laughed at when I asked for help, being brushed off, and ultimately leaving with nothing in hand.
Obviously, I got over it. I moved on and found my own way, but for a long time, I was afraid to try and enter the comics world as a whole. I stuck to the small stock of Barnes & Noble and my uncle’s very old collection to get what I could. Things changed slowly over time. Once I made it to college, I found a friend who was just ecstatic to have someone to talk to about comics. He and I discovered the world more fully together. It became more and more clear to me as we explored, though, that we were both in the same boat on the outside of that exclusive club. He was black and I was not male. While he made it more readily into conversations with other Comic Book Guys™, he wasn’t represented much at all and his opinions only half counted with the CBG™s anyway.
Straight, white, and cismale are considered to be the core demographic, and that’s not a surprise considering the oversaturation of that representation in our available heroes even today. What this assumption has bred, though, is a customer base that expects to see that narrow representation and only that narrow representation both in their media and their stores. They close the doors on those who aren’t like them and they close the pages of those titles that don’t represent them or serve them somehow. This base is the embarrassing Country Club of the geek world.
This is a cultural ideal that’s been the norm for so long that seeing something besides that portrayed in media is considered unrealistic. Take Big Bang Theory, where every scene in a comic shop is crowded with straight white men who are all terrified of women. The man who runs the store is generally more friendly than most, but don’t worry! They make a point to tell you that he’s one of the good ones.
Even Santa Clarita Diet makes sure to show us a comic shop with an unappealing clerk, limiting flip throughs of issues to thirty seconds and who is actively rude to both new and regular patrons.
Let’s not forget The Simpsons either, the show that shaped the Comic Book Guy™ persona as we know it. Jeff Albertson is a dumpy guy, unappealing, rude, and takes no joy in anything. If you like something, he will tell you why it’s wrong, and he will do it with gusto.
Now, I’m not saying that those guys don’t exist. They certainly do, and I have met them face to face. The comics world is changing, though, like the real world does, and many stores are changing with it. The Valkyries is a network created by Kate Leth to bring women who work in the comic book world together. Geeks of Color is a wide and reliable source to bring together fans who aren’t white and want to see their world reflected in their media. (As much as I try pointedly to delve into the world of queer comics, I don’t have a reliable and frequently updated source, but you can certainly let me know in the comments or ask me directly if you’d like to get into that world as well. Find my contact info on my bio page!)
Outside of the internet, I can only speak to my own experience and it isn’t all amazing. While my own store and all others I’ve visited in Austin (Austin Books and Comics, Dragon’s Lair, and Tribe Comics) have been inviting and friendly, I’ve seen just as many with a person up front reading while he ignores me. During my time in college, I managed to find one comic book store run by a woman, but it was tucked away from the foot traffic and even she tended to be often belittled or ignored by of her own clientele. While comics are changing and growing, not every comic book store is
changing and growing with them. Many are trying, but the ones that aren’t, as well as the general perception of the Comic Book Guy™, are doing a fair job of running new readers out of the storefronts and into the welcoming hands of the internet.
It’s no wonder, then, that while physical comic book sales are struggling in many ways, digital sales climb higher and higher. These numbers reach an even greater disparity when you take a look at what we think of as “diverse” comics, those that have heroes or writers that aren’t the ever-present straight white man. It speaks to the number of people who cannot or will not go into a comic shop to buy these things.
Like I said before, the comic book world is changing. The demographic isn’t the one it used to be. The little ones who grew up reading comics in the 30’s and 40’s grew up to make comics for a new audience, who in turn have grown up to make the comics they want to read too. The medium has changed and expanded with its audience in ways that creators decades ago could never have foreseen.
Maybe these people who are trying to close the doors on us aren’t ready to see who they’ve drawn in, maybe they aren’t ready to open up their little club to the world. They’re wrong, though. We’re in. We have our place in this world and we will not let it go without a fight.
So if someone brushes you off in a comic book store, hold your head high and make yourself known. If you feel unwelcome, send that sentiment right back to them. If they can’t open that door for us, then we will open that door ourselves. We are out here, and you are not alone. You are wanted. You are welcome. You belong here.