Can we stop pretending all comic book stores are now awesome?

Heroes screenshot
The most recent episode of the TV series Heroes featured a scene that seems to have upset a lot of people around the Internet. You can watch it here at Hulu and it starts about 17 minutes into the show.

If you don’t want to watch it, here’s the summary (please note that I do not watch Heroes, but I know enough about it and I did watch bits of this episode and this scene in particular):

Claire, the blond cheerleader-type, decides for various reasons to go get a job at a comic book store. Never mind she doesn’t read comics. The store owner/manager/whatever asks if she can work Wednesdays. When she doesn’t get it, he tells her that’s when new comics come out. He then asks her if she wants to fly or have invisibility. Claire is further confused and decides to leave. The manager-type says she can have the job because all the guys are looking at her and she’ll probably sell comics.

This scene was not nearly as bad as everyone made it out to be. The manager person seemed pretty patient in dealing with someone who didn’t know anything about the job she was applying for and while he was obviously nerdy, he just struck me as being a typical slightly awkward comic book guy. Maybe the line about “all the guys are looking at you” was questionable, but at the same time, maybe the manager thought it would be nice to diversify his staff a bit.

But instead everyone has decided that Heroes is making fun of their core audience and girls totally read comics and comic book stores are never ever like that. Ever.

Let me make one thing clear: I know there are a lot of amazingly cool comic book stores out there. I’ve been to a bunch of them. Isotope in San Francisco, certainly. Big Planet around here, yeah (I especially like the Georgetown one). Forbidden Planet in NYC is, of course, phenomenal. Vault of Midnight in Ann Arbor is fun. Everyone seems to adore Rocketship in Brooklyn. And a little stuffed bull really enjoyed his trip to Bergen Street Comics.

But I don’t think a handful of stores in major metropolitan areas along the coasts (and one in a liberal university town) is necessarily representative of all comic book stores.

Because for every one of these great comic book stores, there are probably dozens of comic book stores like Stories in Richmond.

One of the Stories is near my mom’s house in suburbs of Richmond. It is exactly what you think of when you think of a comic book store — tables covered with long boxes of back issues, old collectible toys hanging from the walls, dimly lit and packed full of stuff and the “adult” section a little too visible. Now, Stories is fine for what it is — it’s a comic book store and it’s not trying to be anything else. And while I never felt particularly uncomfortable going in there, it really wasn’t a place I ever felt too excited about going to, and given the choice, I’d go somewhere else.

And yes, it’s still there. It’s still like that today. Stories, to me, is much more typical of comic book stores than any of the others I mentioned above. Those are the exceptions. This is still, unfortunately, the rule.

I do feel like I should point out that the employees at the comic book store I went to as a young teenager were always really nice to me. The worst thing any of them ever said to me was to tease me about my hat and ask if I was trying to be “Blossom” (it was the ’90s, OK?). But I also remember going into comic book stores and feeling invisible and ignored. And this still happens.

Once, a year or two ago, I was in the Big Planet store in Vienna. When I first went in, there was a dad and his young son looking at Bone or some such, and then a young hipster couple looking at graphic novels. They departed and young men came in and started talking about typical comic book stuff. No one, to my knowledge, was really saying anything terrible or sexist, but I suddenly had the sense that I was an intruder in a boys’ club and I didn’t belong there. I left soon after.

And this was a store I like, a store that basically does everything right. It’s well-organized, bright and colorful and comfortable (it should be said that the Vienna store is probably the most suburban of the Big Planet stories). It was the underlying attitude of the patrons that changed that store for me.

Girls and women reading comics isn’t the novelty it used to be and I think that’s awesome. I love that. When I was teenager it did feel pretty lonely and I’m glad it doesn’t seem as lonely now. But there are still some comic book stores — and obviously, fans — that are slow to catch up with the changing times. If you thought that scene in Heroes didn’t represent reality, well, I’m glad that you see comic book stores and fans that way. But to me, even though I know there’s plenty of cool stores and cool fans, it still felt pretty accurate.

Screenshot taken from Heroes episode “Shades of Gray,” captured from Hulu.com

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9 comments

  1. talkinboutcomics says:

    I agree with you.
    I go to Painted Visions in Woodbridge. It isn’t a fancy store, but the owner is a great guy, and the staff greets you when you walk in, and is pretty attentive as well as trying to be mindful of younger shoppers, etc. (They will let parents know that they may want to look at watchmen first before letting their young child buy it, They have quieted down customers and asked them to watch their language when kids are in the store, etc. They don’t stock everything, but they will bend over backwards to get anything you ask for.

    That being said… I am a big, huge guy with a beard, and I have felt invisible and unwelcome in plenty of comic stores. Sometimes it’s introverts at the register, and sometimes it’s the Comic Guy from the Simpsons.

    I loved Forbidden Planet, but I saw no female employees there in the two trips I made (doesn’t mean there aren’t any.) I did see a good number of women in the store both times, though. Of the employees in the store, half were really trying, and half were rock-stars who were a bit too cool for customers in my opinion. I still love the place and will go back, and I wasn’t ignored at all, just slightly alienated, maybe.

    I think that if there is outrage, it may be from the sort of … comic fan ‘ivory tower’ (which I would say I am in… or at least the suburban equivalent) I’m not taking a real position on the Heores thing, just agreeing with you.

  2. comicsgirl says:

    That’s interesting to me — that comic book stores can be uncomfortable for just about anyone. I think there’s a fine balance between catering to fans and non-fans. If they swing too far in either direction, they will lose someone.

  3. Tami says:

    My experience, as limited as it is, is that comic book stores are as varied as any other store. It comes down to customer service. As a 47-year-old woman I am acutely aware of the fact I don’t quite mesh in your average comic book store. I see few women at my hometown store (Double Midnight Comics in Manchester NH) , but they have always treated me just like any other comic book fan and has made me comfortable enough that I make a trip there every week with my 16-year-old son who is also a comic book enthusiast. I make a point of going to Double Midnight Comics every week and give them business because they treat both of us well and they deserve my business. Other stores, not so much. Stores that treat women or non-“experts” as anything less than a valued customer will only make e-bay that much more attractive and will eventually put themselves out of business. That would be sad, because, honestly, there’s nothing as satisfying as going to the comic book store.

  4. comicsgirl says:

    I’ve definitely made it a point to visit great comic book stores in my travels (my travels being what they are, of course) and pointing them out. While there are many different types of comic book stores out there, I think the comfortable, welcoming ones remain the exception and not the rule, though. I think it’s slowly changing, but every time I think that, I tend to get proven wrong.

  5. […] Commentary On Comic Book Shops & Girls […]

  6. BradyDale says:

    yeah, didn’t seem off the mark to me at all. Especially since Claire WAS NOT in a big Metro area at the time, she was out in the Burbs somewhere. Seemed totally appropriate. The only part that stretched believability for me was that she would come back after the creepy comment about the dudes looking at her.

    Still, I loved that they worked in the reference to new-comics-wednesdays.

  7. Caitlin says:

    I’m Caitlin, and I have been working at Stories (the very one mentioned in this article) for about six years now. Before that, I was a lifelong and very loyal customer, so I probably grew up in the same neighborhood where your mother lives.

    Honestly, I have to say I’m a little hurt that you classify Stories as “not awesome.” Our customer base is very diverse and quite loyal. Sure, there are some other places that are more brightly lit, but most people that come in to my store find it cozy. A lot of folks that come in for the first time are very delighted with how unique and vast this location is. I’ve seen a lot of other comic stores, some really great ones, but can we just agree that Stories is still awesome, in a different way?

  8. comicsgirl says:

    Hi, Caitlin.

    I wrote this nearly three years ago, and while I don’t regret what I said, it’s not something I’d say now. Or at least, I’d say it differently.

    Admittedly, my memories of Stories probably predates when you were working there since I haven’t lived in the area for a little more than 9 years. I may feel differently about the store now, quite honestly. Also, since this was written, I’ve also become friends with Jared Smith, who owns the Vienna Big Planet Comics I mentioned and we’ve talked about these issues (and I’ve discussed these issues with other members of the Big Planet Comics family). In fact, I was just hanging out at the Vienna Big Planet this weekend.

    I don’t that there doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all approach to comic book stores — a comic book store that’s awesome to one person may not necessarily be awesome to someone else. A place I feel comfortable may be a place someone else feels uncomfortable. I think there’s room in the world for all kinds of comic book stores.

  9. ChatOmbre says:

    Honestly, ignored is one of the better things you can be as a female in a comic book shop. Back when I lived in Cobb county (GA), there was a comics and gaming store next to my dance studio that I used to go to before or after ballet classes… I stopped going because they would constantly leer and hover, and be a little *too* eager to help me (I only need to be asked “can I help you?” so many times. you’ve seen me here enough that you should realize I know what I’m doing and don’t need or want you to explain the basics of D&D, or anything else. and don’t hover behind my shoulder while I’m looking at the books. if you do I’ll feel unsafe and will leave without buying anything.)

    So even if being ignored is the treatment I would receive at Stories (though I doubt I’d be ignored if I really did need help or have a question)… it sounds better than a lot of other comic book shops I’ve been to!

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