This week, on the internet and in public spaces like NYCC, there’s been a lot of discussion regarding the toxic culture that surrounds comic shops, especially with regards to race and gender. Over the past few years, it feels like these issues flare up every few months or so, go dormant, and then return, prompted by a bad cover, a creator insisting that criticism is the same as censorship, or — as in this case — a retailer articulating a rather unpleasant rejection of so-called Social Justice Warriors.

On the tails of this particular event, one of the ensuing discussions focused on the atmosphere of the local comic shops. As near as I can tell it was kicked off by twitter impresario TaskvsTheWorld, who pointed out that most fans have to go to the local comic stores for their books, which often requires a dig in some unpleasantness for “non-traditional” (traditional being us white 20-to-40-year-old men) fans and collectors.

Predictably, people heartily objected.

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Safety and Acceptance in Comic Shops

I get it. For many “traditional” fans, the comic shop was a place of refuge during awkward years, especially those of us who were collecting in the times before the current superhero movie renaissance and general victory of geek culture becoming mainstream. I don’t think more people are reading comics — and the sales charts back me up on that one — but I sure hear, “I’m thinking about reading some comics,” from my peers a lot more often than I did when I was, say, fourteen.

comic shops

Anyway, back before these golden years, reading comics wasn’t considered cool, and many of those reading comics felt pretty uncool. Then there was the comic shop, where people loved the same stuff and knew the trivia you knew, and you could hang out while feeling safe and maybe, for a few minutes, cool. So how could this place that makes you feel cool make someone else feel uncomfortable?

A Different Perspective

I get that confusion, but let’s start here: not everyone feels that way. It may not make me, you, your friends feel that way, but this isn’t always the case: new fans, fans who are women, fans whose skin tones are darker than mine. They aren’t just saying it for laughs, they mean it. For many, comic shops aren’t welcoming environments. You might never see or hear it at your shop, but it happens. Just take them at face value on that because, well, why wouldn’t you? It’s not the kind of thing someone says just for the sake of saying it.

Two, no one is asking us to feel guilty. Speaking as someone who carries comically large sacks of guilt through his day-to-day life, it’s a largely useless emotion. It’s paralyzing, not activating. Too often our reaction to criticisms of things we love or atrocities committed by people who looked like us is, “What? Am I supposed to feel guilty because [southerners owned slaves, I’m a white guy who likes comics, I’m attracted to women, etc.]?”

For the person who wants you to understand the legacy of slavery, how it feels to be a woman in a comic shop, or what objectification is like the answer is, “No! I don’t give a damn if you feel guilty. I just want the problem solved.” So don’t worry about feeling guilty or not for the atmosphere of comics shops in the past. No one is being asked to regret the years that felt safe in their comic book store of choice. They’re just asking you to widen that cone of safety.

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We Can Do Better

Any subculture can trend towards isolationism and exclusion. Anyone who has come to love any non-mainstream pop music can tell you that. “Oh yeah, what’s your favorite album? Favorite single? Oh, big surprise the one that was on the radio,” and so on. It’s all nonsense. For punk, for comics, for film noir. To get into a subculture, you need to start somewhere. Everyone needs to start somewhere. My first comic featured Green Goblin, the Harry Osborn version. It would be years before I read a comic with the Norman Osborn Green Goblin. Somehow, my affection for Spider-Man was still 100% real.

Comics and comic shops shouldn’t be like the hottest club. There should be no barrier to entry, no need to have the right clothes or to know the right people. Men, women, girls, boys, non-binary people, every race, and every sexuality should be allowed in the store and welcomed.

From the guy who only reads manga to the woman who liked LOGAN and wants to try some comics — we all belong there. This isn’t an attempt to steal our sanctuary by outsiders; it’s them asking us for a little bit of refuge too. It’s the least we can do. Remember yourself at ten or eleven, and remember finally feeling like you belonged. Then give someone else the same bit of grace.

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2 Comments

  1. Alan C. Smith (@algingersmith)

    December 26, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I’ll tell you what put me off the so-called comic chain in the UK, Forbidden Planet. The fact it’s full of kids toys, too many comics badly displayed with premium given to Marvel/DC titles rather than more adult stuff at a time when the market is crying out for more Gosh/Page 45 style adult-friendly shops. Their approach is stuck in the 80’s, staffed by overgrown teenagers, music too loud. It’s the very definition of a ghetto. ALL comic shops are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t broaden their appeal to the WHOLE of society, not just a tiny minority. Comics can take it, but they’re being poorly served when they should be booming.

    Reply

  2. Alan C. Smith (@algingersmith)

    December 26, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Not sure this is entirely on topic….but I don’t really get the whole ‘I need people who look like me to identify with them’ idea. Rereading an old Claremont/Windsor Smith X-Men with Ororo….I indentified with the person, the emotions totally. The fact she was a black woman, and I a white male, was irrelevant. I get it when no characters look like you – plenty white males in 80’s Marvel to identify with, though their being so did not make it a given. But I think a desire for role models who look like you misses the point. Anyone is a potential role model. Surely.

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