I think reading comics on an iPad is corny. I like going to a comic book store, looking at the new releases, picking up trades, talking to my fellow nerd, checking out the toys and statues, and making small talk with the clerk. Then I go home, jump on my bed, run through the comics. With technology stomping on tangible content like Godzilla and everything being accessible by phone, I feel like a member of a dying breed. However, it’s moments like this, when I hear director Anthony Desiato is putting together a movie like MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY, that I feel like the robots haven’t completely taken over.

MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY is a film that is an extension of Desiato’s ongoing podcast called My Comic Shop History, where he goes around the country talking to owners of different comic shops. As far as I’m concerned, he’s doing God’s work. He focuses on the people who make these stores special and the heart of the comics community. So check out our interview with Anthony and make sure to follow him on his social media to get updates on MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY.

Anthony Desiato
“…why would people still go to a comic shop? Why would I still find this a worthwhile subject? It’s community.” – Anthony DesiatoImage: Kickstarter

Andrew Rivera: Hello, I’m Andrew Rivera with ComicsVerse, I’m here with Anthony Desiato. Anthony, how you doing?

Anthony Desiato: I’m doing well. How are you?

AR: I’m doing alright. Anthony, you are the main staple of the podcast My Comic Shop History, which you are spinning into a film called MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY. You wanna just give us a quick synopsis of that?

Anthony Desiato: Sure. The podcast is currently in its third season, it was born out of the closing of my local comic shop, Alternate Realities. So the first season was about the closing and in the current season I have been traveling to comic book stores across America and as you were just getting at, the next step is to turn it into a documentary film. The new documentary movie called MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY that will explore the business culture and fandom of comic book stores around the country.

AR: Well then, let’s get to it. I was super interested in this project, primarily because I feel like comic book shops are really if you’re a comic fan, where you grow up a little bit, you know? And it’s always nice to see people spotlight them in the digital age. First and foremost, when you’re putting together this kick starter, what makes you the authority? What’s gonna make you stand out or what do you feel makes you stand out to people?

Anthony Desiato: I certainly wouldn’t call myself the authority, but I’m someone, you know? I have had experience on both sides of the counter. I worked at my local comic shop for many years, so I have that perspective of being on both sides. And now through the documentaries that I have already done and the podcasts, I’ve spoken to a lot of retailers so I feel like I’ve been getting a good sense from them about the challenges they’re facing and the ways in which they are able to respond to them.

At the same time, I think the fact that I don’t own a store myself might actually help me because I can have a little bit of a detachment and really be able to present both sides of this in a way that would be engaging to people who have stores and also people who are fans who just go to their local comic shop every week. There’s a lot they don’t know. And I think I can kind of service that.

AR: And when you talk about your experience, not only just the podcast and speaking with these people, but you have mentioned that—I think it was for over ten years, right? You had either worked or were a part of and it was Alternate Realities, correct?

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, the late Alternate Realities in New York. I was shopping there in elementary school and then I started working there in high school and I kept working there throughout college and a little bit of Law School as well. In total, it was about 10 years working there.

Anthony standing in front of Alternate Realities
Anthony standing in front of Alternate Realities, the comic book shop he worked at for ten years. | Image: Kickstarter

AR: Wow. 10 years working at a comic book shop. What’s the craziest thing you saw? At a comic book shop?

Anthony Desiato: You know what’s really funny? There have been a number of instances where I’ve asked retailers in the podcast, like any crazy memorable stories that stand out and they never have anything.

AR: You’ve got something. You sound like you’ve got something.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s—I don’t know, maybe everything just kinda blurs together. I mean there are certainly characters who stand out. And for us at Alternate Realities, and he was featured in the first documentary that I did, there was this guy named Jeff who worked at the local TGI Fridays. He claimed that he was part of this SWAT team and he would go on undercover drug busts and raids. And people around him were always getting killed. Like it was crazy the stuff that he would come in with. He was always a character who stood out, to us, for sure.

AR: I think we all need a little bit of Jeff in our heart.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, right? I think so.

AR: Yeah, absolutely. So I kinda wanted to just go into this a little bit more. I just wanted to ask you—I hope it’s not too much of a broad question. We’re gonna go back into a little bit about—not your experiences like that, but why in this day and age, do you think comic book shops are worth saving?

Anthony Desiato: I don’t think that’s too broad a question. I think that’s really an important question. People always ask me “why this project?,” “why comic shops?” I think these questions and the one you’ve just asked go together because I think it comes down to community. That’s why I made the movie about Alternate Realities and that’s, I think, the driving theme of these projects and what I’m hearing from retailers. I said before that we get into the challenges that retailers face and digital’s a little bit of a challenge. I think they face a much bigger challenge in the form of Amazon. People being able to order trade paperbacks online.

And so it’s sort of like why would people still go to a comic shop? Why would I still find this a worthwhile subject? It’s community. It’s those connections that you’re able to forge within the walls of a store, where everybody’s coming in and sharing that passion. A few retailers have said this—and I’m thinking back to my own experience—and it’s very true. In a lot of cases, this might be the only opportunity that somebody has in a week to share their passion with somebody. They have more opportunities now thanks to message boards and social media and all that. But to really have those face to face conversations, they might not get that anywhere else and I’ve been that person.

Like I remember, when I first started working at Alternate Realities in high school, there was one day in particular where I chewed the owner’s ear off all day. But like, basically anything that I had ever wanted to talk about, with respect to comics, this was my chance. And he was very gracious and patient and everything—but I’ve been that person. I’ve interacted with people who are in that situation and it’s a really—it’s a powerful thing. I had such a defining experience at my store and I know other people have similar experiences. But I mean, yeah, one word, it’s really that community.

AR: I always go back to this episode of THE OFFICE, where Michael Scott kinda starts his own paper business and just the idea of—People think the reason why we thrive while other people—[the reason] we can compete against these big businesses is that customer service. That kind of lost art of you know, looking at somebody in the eye and helping them to get what they need out of why-ever they come to see you. On your Greensboro, North Carolina episode, it was a great interview because you talked to the manager. I forget his name—

Anthony with Steve Oto, Bill Maio, and Nick Robinson
Anthony with Steve Oto, Bill Maio, and Nick Robinson | Image: My Comic Shop History

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, Jermaine.

AR:—Jermaine, yeah. You talked to Jermaine and he’s talking about how he started changing his approach when somebody first walks in. Maybe he doesn’t ask them if he can help them with something. He tries to notice what they’re talking about. I think that attention to detail is really what’s great about comic book shops—that sense of community—you get your regulars. When Jermaine was talking about how there is that mythical new customer that you’re trying to get, it’s really a community of people that you see often and they’re always coming back in. So I think that’s such a great answer. Thank you for that.

Speaking on competing with Amazon, or just the digital age, how do you approach the comic shop owners with these questions about their stores, without kind of spooking them a little bit? I feel like it’s kind of a touchy subject. Sometimes it’s like, “Hey, this is the reason why a lot of people around you are falling.” It’s kinda like the boogie man, you know, so how do you do that? Is there kind of a process behind it? Do you find that they’re mostly friendly about it? Or they’re kinda just taking it as it is?

Anthony Desiato: That’s a great question. I’m glad you asked it. It’s interesting. I mean, I think it’s tough too because a lot of these places—In some cases, I have already developed relationships a little bit with them or in some cases, I know the retailers ahead of time. But in a lot of these cases, I am going in cold. I don’t know to what extent they’re listening to previous episodes. Like Jermaine, in particular, he’d been listening since season one, so I know he knows the deal and he knows what it’s about. But others maybe not as much so. Even though they’re effectively interviews, I try to make them as conversational as possible. They get the sense tha my ultimate aim with this is for it to be a celebration of comic shops.

I think it’s important to address the challenges. But, ultimately, it’s not to be a doom and gloom approach. Coming at it from the perspective of like “we’re gonna have a conversation,” it’s a celebration of stores. We wanna address the challenges, but not in a way to just say that these are the challenges and that’s it. But it’s like, how are you responding to them? Giving them that opportunity helps and facilitates that. Across the board, retailers not being forthcoming has really not been an issue that I’ve had for the most part, They’ve seemed real eager to discuss their process and how they go about their business.

Anthony Desiato and Allan Baus
Anthony speaks with It’z Vintage owner and action figure customizer, Alan Baus | Image: My Comic Shop History

AR: Yeah, I was especially wondering that. You did work at this comic shop. It always sucks when a local comic shop closes down. And it kinda leaves like this—I don’t know—there’s a place that used to be by me called Cosmic Comics on 23rd Street and it just—one day it’s there, the next day it’s not. And so, I think that a lot of people were going through that.

But moving on, [though] keeping in the same vein of comics being popular or unpopular, however, we get them. One of the big booms in comics in the industry are these comic book films, particularly superhero films. We’re seeing a little bit more of these other properties get some love like PREACHER. THE WALKING DEAD is, of course, killing it on television. You got Archie getting some love on RIVERDALE. Have you noticed in all of your experience, what’s the primary difference that you’ve noticed in the consumption in comic books? Or in the culture of a comic book shop after that boom?

Meet the Cast of Marvel and Hulu’s RUNAWAYS at NYCC 2017

Anthony Desiato: It’s interesting because there’ve been a couple of stores that have said they saw an influx of people after one of the superhero movies. One example that immediately comes to mind: I was at a store in Palm Desert, California and the owner said that after DR. STRANGE a lot of people came in asking for DR. STRANGE comics. But it seems like for the most part the movies and the TV adaptations are not really moving the needle all that much or as much as you might hope or expect.

So that’s been interesting and that’s something I saw at Alternate Realities. The store’s been closed a few years, but these superhero movies have been going on for a while. It wasn’t like we got a flood of people—it was always a little disheartening ’cause you would kinda hope that would be the case. And I don’t know what would necessarily make a difference. I mean, advertising the comics before the movie on the big screen? I don’t know. So it doesn’t seem like that’s had such a huge effect.

As far as how people are consuming, I don’t think this was any revelatory observation. Trades are really big. And that might be a result of this binge consumption society that we’re in, where people are more apt to pick up a trade, collecting the whole story and not do the delayed gratification bit of waiting each month for a new issue. That’s certainly something. But yeah, the adaptations… It’s a weird thing.

AR: Yeah, I watch [this] YouTube series. Basically they talk about movies and stuff like that. And one of the things they always mention is like—for all the talk—it’s supposed to be like the comic book; it’s supposed to be like this; the movie industry is worried about—They’re not worried about the guys that are reading the comics, you know?

I think that’s one of the ways that comic book fans get taken advantage of actually. They know we wanna see it and we’ve been waiting to see these things. But they’re really concerned about the people who aren’t at the comic book shop. You know, like we are the minority in the consumers of that industry. Where do you fall on the line of that? Do you think those are fake fans? Or are you just kind of the guy that’s like, ” I like people appreciating comic culture in any way they can kind of get it. ”

Anthony Desiato: Oh yeah, the latter. I certainly don’t harbor any ill will towards people who just watch the movies or the TV shows. Enjoy it however you like to enjoy it. And that’s actually something, I think it was in that episode with Jermaine where we were talking about this question of: Are people getting their fix from the movies and TV shows? And [are] they satisfied with that and they don’t need the comics? Or can comics become part of that overall entertainment package? They can watch the movie and play the video game and read the comic. But as far as how people experience it, it’s like, do your thing. Right on.

Anthony Desiato and Ariell Johnson
Anthony with Ariell Johnson, owner of Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse | Image: My Comic Shop History

AR: But Anthony, Wolverine isn’t six foot five.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah it’s—Well, going back to your point about servicing the comic book audience, it is kinda weird ’cause I feel like we, the comic book fans, were necessary for these movies, but not sufficient, right? You need that core base for that initial interest, but you need more people beyond just the comic book readers. So it becomes this balance that I guess they have to strike and, as we all know, comic book fans are very, very passionate about seeing their material brought to life and brought to life in a specific way.

AR: Yeah, absolutely. I’m wondering then—I don’t wanna bring the doom and gloom back, but it’s just an interesting thing—you’re going to these places, you’re interviewing all these people, and we’re talking about how people are consuming comics, whether it’s through television, whether it’s through digital, whether it’s through trades, whether they’re you know, just the weekly soldiers—What is your biggest fear for comic culture?

Anthony Desiato: Oh, that’s a big question.

AR: I guess as you’re speaking to these people, as somebody who’s been in the industry and somebody who was just a fan of comics in general, is there something we should fear or is it—Are you gonna give me the Superman? It’s all hopeful and wonderful.

Anthony Desiato: No, I mean, I get—It’s always a balance. I mean, I think, going back to what I was saying about community, you’re seeing a lot of stores really engaged in a lot of proactive community building. So, you’re seeing things like book clubs or team nights or you know, in-store signings and things like that. I think that is and can be a really key way to keep people coming into stores. I guess what I wonder—and I mean I’ve asked some of the retailers this—to what extent are those events and community building efforts directly translating to sales? Because if they’re not, then it’s like this nice thing that you’re doing and it’s promoting a culture within your store that you wanna have, but is it necessarily moving the business forward?

That’s maybe one thing that I’ve been wondering as I’ve been going to stores and hearing about all these amazing things that they’re doing. I do think they’re great and worthwhile, but yeah it’s like taking that step of going from these events to really translating it into growth for the business. And I don’t know if I would say it’s a fear, but it’s definitely a question I have. I hope that that translation is happening.

Andrew Rivera: Yeah, of course. So, as we’re talking about you know, you and putting this film together and having traveled—You’ve made two films. What’s the hardest part about making films? Is it specific to the film? Does each film carry its own difficulties? Or are there general things that are just like, ” Man, I don’t have enough footage.” Or things like that. What is the hardest part about making one of these films?

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, so I’ve done two documentaries that are comic shop-centric. Then I did a third one that’s about an aspiring puppeteer. They all kind of have their own challenges. Not having enough footage is usually not a problem, it’s usually more the opposite. I feel if there’s one thing throughout, it’s really boiling each project down to its essence and making sure that everything goes towards the narrative that you’re trying to tell.

Sometimes you have great material that might not exactly fit and [it] can be tough to make cuts.  I think really just getting at what the heart of it is and really just staying focused on that… It’s easy to get a little bit lost or a little bit intimidated when you have so much to work with. So I think that’s probably the main challenge.

By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story
Two-time “Best Documentary” winning film, By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story | Image: Kickstarter

AR: What’s the one thing you want viewers to walk away with after they finish watching MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY?

Anthony Desiato: I’ve been describing the three pillars of the movie as like business, culture and fandom. Those are definitely the three things that I’ll be exploring in it. As far as the one thing I want people to come away with, ultimately this is a celebration of this beloved retail institution. I guess I just want people to know what’s out there, what people are doing.

And like I said, I had a really formative, unique—well, maybe not so unique—but a special experience at my store. If I can capture a little bit of that in these other stores that I’m going to and convey to people why comic shops are worthwhile, whether you are a comic book fan and maybe you order your trades on Amazon, this gets you to think about going to your local comic shop.

Or you have no interest in comics necessarily and you’re watching this because you think it’s an interesting human interest story—which I think it will be—then maybe you think about going into a comic store. Maybe it’s just something that you are now aware of. And your perception of it has moved beyond what you see on COMIC BOOK MEN or BIG BANG THEORY. You can get more a bit of the reality of it. That’s ultimately it. I wanna share this institution with people.

AR: Yeah, and [that’s] one of the things I really get from listening to My Comic Shop History. You really get to the heart of the shop keeps and you get to the human behind the counter. It is business and there is this industry. But it is nice to hear these people talk about what they do in their shops: how they keep things up, the obstacles that they work against, or the victories they celebrate.

I think it’s a really great job that you’re doing and it was one of the reasons why I was so interested in this project. The closer we can get to humanizing anybody, it would be just so wonderful. ‘Cause then you have a way more vested interest than ordering it online, then maybe you say, ” Oh, I’d love to go to that shop. Let me check them out and support them.” So, kudos to you for that. You’re doing God’s work.

Anthony Desiato: I appreciate that. I mean it’s funny, there was one of the listeners from one of the episodes, the Zach Comics episode, he shared on Twitter that after listening to the episode, he went to Zach for the first time to look for some [inaudible]. And something like that is awesome. Ultimately the idea isn’t for this just to be commercials for the stores, but if listening to that gets somebody excited about going to one of these stores, that’s great.

And I feel like, you know, these areThere’s so many aspects of the comic book industry. And I feel like what gets the most attention is probably the creative side and I get it. It’s exciting to talk to a writer about what they’re working on. I understand that. But I just feel like comic shops really do play such a vital role and often get overlooked. So if we can shine a light on that, I’d be very proud to do that.

Anthony Desiato
Anthony hosts his Christmas special at Undiscovered Realm | Image: My Comic Shop History

AR: That’s great, man. Let’s have a little bit of fun here, alright?

Anthony Desiato: Sure.

AR: What was the first comic you purchased?

Anthony Desiato: The Death of Superman, 1992.

AR: How old were you?

Anthony Desiato: I was five. My parents got it for me, we were at the Galleria Mall—

AR: Geez, the Death of Superman.

Anthony Desiato: The Death of Superman, yeah. I was one of—I was truly into it for the story. I wasn’t speculating—

AR: You read it for the articles.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah.

AR: That’s amazing. Do you remember—Was there any specific panel or any moment that was like, ” Holy crap, this is what I wanna keep reading. ”

Anthony Desiato: Oh man, I mean, there were probably things during the story. But that final image of him sprawled out dead, that was just so striking, especially as a young child.

AR: Yeah. You’re like, “That can happen?!”

Anthony Desiato: This was the day that a Superman died, it’s like it hits you.

The Struggle In Establishing The Modern Superman

AR: Yeah, absolutely. Then, what are your top five favorite comics? Or that you can think of right now? I know that that’s like a very like, that’s a question that can go on for awhile, but—

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, it’s—I’ve thought about this before and I’m actually looking at my library of graphic novels.

AR: Let’s go.

Anthony Desiato: So I think that I can bang this out.

AR: Okay.

Anthony Desiato: Y: The Last Man, probably my all-time favorite series.

AR: Alright.

Anthony Desiato: Gotham Central is up there, huge. Starman, James Robinson’s Starman, really love that. Ah, let’s see. Oh, DC: The New Frontier, for sure.

AR: Yeah.

Anthony Desiato: Wait, that’s already four, is that right?

AR: Yeah, you’ve got one more. And one for good luck, we’ll do six, everybody does five, let’s do six.

Anthony Desiato: Alright, let me see, let me try and narrow this down a little bit.

AR: Yeah, that’s a … The first four are easy.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, I know, now it’s like the pressure’s coming on. It’s like you don’t wanna leave anything out. Those are things, like specific limited stories for the most part. I’m gonna pick a run, the Geoff John’s run on Flash, the Wally run, one of my favorites. Let’s see, one more. You know, I’m gonna go—Oh, Superman: Secret Identity.

AR: Okay, alright. Sweet. That’s a solid list. Nobody’s gonna sneeze at that one, nobody’s gonna sneeze at that one. That’s pretty big.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah.

AR: What is your most prized comic possession?

Anthony Desiato: You know, I mean I still have that original Death of Superman and just for sentimental value …

AR: Oh wow.

Anthony Desiato: It has to be that.

AR: That’s big.

Anthony Desiato: That is what got all of this started, although, I guess what would go with that is the—Not a comic book, but the Kenner Super Powers Superman Action Figure, which was the first Superman collectible that I had, even before I got the comic book. I had this action figure and I think that’s actually why I was drawn to the comic book, ’cause I knew the character from this toy that I had. And I tracked down a mint in package version on eBay a few years ago. That one means a lot.

AR: That’s like—The fact that you can track stuff down now is amazing, you know? Like I love that idea, “This meant a lot to me before, now I can kinda go back and get it.” It’s wonderful. I’ve gotten so many video games that I used to play as a kid that I could never beat through Amazon.

Anthony Desiato: It’s funny. Yeah, video—I’m not a huge gamer, but I was just able to track down one of the classic Super Nintendos that just came out and I’m so excited to revisit that stuff.

Anthony Desiato with Brandon Montclare
Anthony with Brandon Montclare, author of Rocket Girl (Image Comics) and a former comic book retailer | Image: My Comic Shop History

AR: Yeah, it’s great. So then, if you had to give somebody one comic book to open up their entire world to comics, what would it be?

Anthony Desiato: You know, it’s funny you ask that. It actually ties into something that I’ve been talking about to retailers about with the art of the personal recommendation. One thing that I’ve been hearing from retailers, they have some of their evergreen books that they can always go to. It’s much more about really making those personal recommendations. Like asking someone what kind of stuff they like to watch on TV for example.

So if someone’s a big LAW AND ORDER fan or something, I’d probably recommend Gotham Central to anybody ’cause it’s just so good. But something like that, in particular, it’s like, “Oh you like police procedural and you’re interested in getting into comics? Well, this is perfect. This is a police procedural set in the Batman universe.” I guess any of the things that I listed as my top five or six. I would recommend them. I really feel like it’s more about getting at what types of story the person is into.

AR: Is there—What’s the most surprising like anecdote or story somebody’s told you during an interview? Anything that stood out, that was just, “Oh, I did not expect that at all.”

Anthony Desiato: Oh man, you’re putting me on the spot the way I put these retailers on the spot.

AR: I’m trying man, I think there’s a lot to live up to there.

Anthony Desiato: You know, I mentioned Zach Comics before. And not so much an anecdote, but getting a sense from the owner, Ben, about the extent of their back issue buying—I don’t know if you’re familiar with their store, but if you go on their website it’s like, “We buy comics, we buy comics—”

AR: Yeah, I listened to the episode.

Anthony Desiato: Oh, okay cool. So, you know, he’s going out dropping tens of thousands of dollars on these collections on a fairly regular basis. And so that—That was surprising to me because a lot of stores are not in a position where they even able to do that.

AR: Exactly.

Anthony Desiato: So, that was definitely very striking.

AR: Awesome. And finally, if you could live in any comic universe, what would be and how would you be involved?

Anthony Desiato: Well, I mean, [with] “universe” we could go in a number of directions. But I will take it in this direction. I’ll say as a Superman fan and as a Smallville fan, I could spend some time on the farm. I’d be in my glory, so I guess that’s where I would go.

AR: That is so much deeper than me saying, I obviously would be Spiderman in the Marvel Universe. That’s really— That’s almost like very romantic of you.

Anthony Desiato: Yeah, like I wanna go bale some hay like I just—

AR: With papa Kent.

Anthony Desiato: Hang out on the farm. Yes, [eat] some apple pie. It would be great.

AR: That’s amazing. Alright, well thanks a lot for the interview man, I had a great time. Thank you for joining us!

Anthony Desiato: Awesome, thank you for having me!

Thanks for listening to our interview with Anthony Desiato, director of MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY!

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