There are those of us who will tear into a comic book store to grab the latest annual or monthly issue, but the culture of uber-informed fans can be an intimidating place. This is especially true for the legion of newly formed fans who've been forged in the expanding Marvel and DC film franchises or drawn in by increasingly sophisticated graphic novels and web comics.
A new comic books store in Southeast Portland is part of a new wave of brick-and-mortar store that’s presenting a more inclusive face to the buying public.
This week we visited Books With Pictures, a cozy storefront flanked with white shelving and bubble-shaped, ultra-modern couches.
We stopped in during a signing by rock-star comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. Customer Elliot Smith was making her first visit and finding plenty to like.
“I’m really digging the Star Wars comics, of course,” she said. “Captain Marvel. The place I’m frequenting is the whole Neil Gaiman section.”
There’s definitely something about this place, but it’s hard to put your finger on it, at first. The walls are covered with Thor and X-Man wall art as well as some nice watercolors of independent titles.
“We really want to be a space that feels welcoming to new readers,” says owner Katie Proctor, “that feels like a place where you can come in and not know what you want or know you saw a movie you liked and want to read books around that and get recommendations.”
She calls it an explicitly inclusive space and points out gender-neutral restrooms. The store stocks just about the same titles you’d find in any other comic shop, but the displays have a decidedly less lurid feel.
“Having a lot of content that contains female protagonists and protagonists of color — those are the kind of thing we’re attentive to in our stocking and our staffing,” Proctor says.
Proctor envisioned Books With Pictures as Portland’s most welcoming comic book shop for the LGTBQ community, families and women — the people outside the industry’s marketing plan.
Proctor’s endgame is to draw in readers like Lava Kintsugi, a self-described “complete newb to the whole graphic novel thing.” Usually there are no pictures in the books she reads, but now she’s the proud owner of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s “Bitch Planet,” which is about an interstellar prison colony full of women who refuse to comply with a male-dominated society.
Kintsugi says, “A friend I game with messaged and said he thought I’d appreciate this book, being newly divorced!”
Mike Gorgone, Donovan Eilert and John Campbell, who host the comics podcast Panel on Panels, are heavy consumers who came to check the place out. Gorgone recognized something different right away.
“You don’t have that ingrained smell as much here," he says. "Not to say ALL stores have that smell but there’s an aura. I believe it's ingrained nerd.”
Eilert and Campbell elaborated they found the store inviting. Eliot called it “modern in a lot of ways, instead of stacks and stacks of long boxes with back issues.”
“It doesn’t say Stay Away Boys,” says Campbell. “It just means everyone’s welcome.”
Books With Pictures has been generally embraced in Portland comics circles, where shops are generally very supportive of each other.
Joshua Christensen is the marketing manager for Things From Another World, a shop founded by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson. Christensen says he thinks there's definitely room for another retailer, especially one with a compelling message to folks who've never bought comics.
Some of those people, Christensen observes, might otherwise feel reluctant about coming to a comics shop.
“I think comics shops around the country still have a bit of stigma to overcome — the Comic Book Guy effect,” he says.
Christensen says when he reads horror stories on the web about women or others having bad customer experiences, he makes sure to show it to staff as a way to say how not to do it. He finds Portland retailers pretty thoughtful about who they’re selling to.
Women-friendly comic book stores are part of something happening nationally — an awakening of what women and other non-traditional readers mean to comics. Its modern origin story traces back to a Canadian store staffer and artist named Kate Leth. In 2013 she put out a call on Twitter to other women working in comics shops.
Annie Bulloch is one of the women who answered that call. She and her husband own 8th Dimension Comics and Games in Houston, Texas. She was successfully experimenting with ladies nights and other measures aimed at drawing in new readers when she saw Leth’s tweet.
“She just wanted to be able to talk to other gals about experiences, the good and bad,” Bulloch says. “Having guys come in and hit on you, or people acting like you don’t belong.”
That shoutout led to the founding of the online group that Annie Bulloch now helps administrate. Known as the Valkyries, the group includes about 600 women working in comic book stores all over the world. They’re doing what they can to change representation — on the page and behind the counter.
I asked Bulloch if there’s something about comics that set up a culture of insiders and outsiders. She said she thinks there are lots of reasons, and offered up some history.
“Back in the day,” she says, “comics were huge, read everywhere.”
Think Archie Comics, or Betty and Veronica.
“Somewhere in the 70s, people started saying comics are for boys … started to get specialty comics shops, instead of off racks at grocery stores. They became clubhouses for people who felt ostracized … that is a thing that feeds itself. People started to identify ... ‘I am this persecuted person for what I like that other people aren’t allowed to like my things.’”
Bulloch says she believes the Valkyries and shops like Katie Proctor’s are starting to spread the idea that it’s normal to see women behind the comics counter. Once that happens, customers in front of the counter start changing, too.