Feeling anxiety at the comic store? You’re not crazy

Though I have a long history with comic book shops, I didn’t start reading comics until I was in my 40s.

I occasionally walked to the local comic store with my younger sister and brother as they picked up their copies of The Amazing Spider-Man, Ren & Stimpy, Duck Tales, X-Men, Spawn, and The Maxx. And when my family went on summer vacations, my brother would look up the addresses of comic shops we’d be passing, so I visited memorable stores in many different places.

I was drawn to the quirkiness and subversive punk-rock spirit of these musty buildings with their colorful logos and posters, unique collectibles, and shelf upon shelf of slim, eye-catching volumes. However, I never considered picking up one of these volumes or finding something I might be interested to read. I browsed enthusiastically, but I never bought. I remember feeling like comic books weren’t for me.

After graduating college, I got a job at a newspaper and became a reporter for the entertainment section. This was in the days of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the first X-Men movies, when comic book adaptations were poised to become the huge, populist phenomenon they are today.

Before the release of the latest movie, I would spend time at a local comic shop, interviewing the regulars. I’d ask them how the X-Men impacted their lives or what they wanted to see in the latest Marvel movie. Then I’d take their quotes back to my desk and turn them into a story.

As an outsider coming in to examine this culture in an almost anthropological way, I felt welcome. The mostly male collectors I spoke to treated me with respect and were happy to share their thoughts with me. I became friends with the staff, who went out of their way to help me.

It wasn’t until almost a couple decades later that I became interested in actually reading comics. This was after the release of DC’s Wonder Woman movie when a kind friend loaned me some titles by Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick and I realized I could actually get into this.

I worked up the nerve to visit a shop owned by someone who’d been helpful to me when I started my blog. But when I set foot in this place – small, dimly lit and, depending on how you look at it, eccentrically cozy or completely alien – I was blindsided by confusing emotions.

The shop was typically pretty empty, but occasionally there’d be regulars – almost always men – who wouldn’t acknowledge my presence when I entered or would stand by the register, dominating the attention of the clerk behind the counter, while I stood awkwardly by, too shy to interrupt.

A lot of the time, I didn’t know what to ask for or what I wanted to buy and I felt awkward and almost ashamed about that. Even after establishing a meager pull list, and despite the shop owner’s kindness and patience, I began to experience a feeling of dread when it was time to pick up my pulls.

I would often send my husband in my place, but I knew how ridiculous this was. The fact that I was scared to set foot in the store bothered me and I began wondering if I was just being crazy. After all, nothing really terrible or traumatizing had happened to me. Why was this so difficult?

After months of wrestling with this, I decided to ask other women if they’d had similar feelings or experiences when it came to visiting the comic book store. I wondered, was this seemingly mundane fandom ritual as psychologically fraught for other women as it was for me?

The answer is yes.

All the women I spoke to (and some men) — even longtime comic book readers – had experienced some form of anxiety or insecurity in or around the space of the comic book store. Sometimes this was due to a negative first experience, but many women expressed discomfort while acknowledging they’d never been overtly mistreated or harassed.

Sara Parrott, a costume designer and writer who works in the TV industry, fondly remembers the comic store she frequented in college. She spent a month shyly visiting the shop without buying anything, but eventually a woman who worked there helped her feel comfortable enough to start asking questions.

Since graduating and moving, she hasn’t been able to replicate that first positive experience. Living in Los Angeles, where parking is scant and driving to the store can be a trek, hasn’t helped and she’s largely stopped reading comics.

“I’m a major introvert and I hate asking questions while I’m shopping,” Parrott said.

“Especially because some silly part of me is anxious about asking a comic store full of guys for advice or asking questions because that just gives them ammo to gatekeep. And I know it’s not a rational thought process, but I spend most of my time in nerd culture, so I think about fighting gatekeeping … all the time.

“It wasn’t even fear of being subjected to gatekeeping so much as being underestimated or being used as an example of why gatekeeping is a good thing. ‘Remember that girl that came in and didn’t know where in the Spiderverse to start? Man, girls don’t get comics.’”

Miranda Nordell, creator of invaluable website Femme Power Comix, came to comic books later in life and her first comic shopping experiences weren’t exactly positive.

“I remember early on, going to a big comic book sale with my husband and having the other shoppers snicker and jeer as I was literally the only female out of dozens of people,” she recalled.

“One of them told my husband that he was ‘cheating’ by bringing a ‘girl’ to the sale who would ‘hold all his stuff’ so he could shop faster. My husband thankfully kept me from saying or doing something I’d regret in response, and quickly pointed out I was the major fan.”

When it comes to anxieties about gatekeeping, it’s not just comic newbies who experience fear.

Librarian Fawn Kemble (full disclosure: she’s the younger sister I mentioned above) has been reading comics since she was a teenager. Despite mostly positive experiences, she’s not immune to the anxiety that can be triggered within a comic store setting.

Kemble said her first visits were made more comfortable by the presence of her brother. She remembers the shop owners and staff treating the two of them kindly. She always had specific titles in mind to buy, so she never felt overwhelmed, and the selection was much smaller at that time, “just one wall. It was a simpler time, just DC and Marvel.”

“I have no memory of feeling awkward as a kid,” she said.

As an adult, she moved to the Santa Clarita area and decided to try out a celebrated shop that has since changed ownership.

At the time, “the staff was elitist,” she recalled, mostly made up of male “comic nerds who knew all the little details” and didn’t treat women and newcomers well.

Kemble never bothered to set up a pull list and only visited the store occasionally.

“They were gatekeepers,” she said. “They didn’t treat their hardcore regulars that way.”

Later, Kemble moved to West L.A., where she started shopping at Hi De Ho Comics (now Geoffrey’s Comics at Hi De Ho).

“One of the things that I was shocked by the first time I walked in … it was the first time I saw a woman working at a comic book store,” she said. Seeing that female staff member was “like a sigh of relief.”

As anxiety-inducing as visiting a new shop can be for her, a seasoned comic book fan, it’s even harder for newcomers, Kemble said.

“That’s such a scary experience. You don’t know that Wednesday is (new) comic book day. Nobody ever tells you that. They should tell you that. … When you walk in, you’re literally tense. I just want to get my comic, get in and get out. Lord help me if I have to ask a question.”

On one occasion, Kemble remembers feeling embarrassed because she was “just” asking for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic. “I thought, I’m not a real comic book fan.”

In the past, staff members might say “snarky things,” along the lines of, “Oh, all the girls like that.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘real’ comic book reader,” she said. “Comic book stores, I think, are now a little bit better than that.”

Despite the fact that comic shops are traditionally male spaces, it’s not uncommon for men to experience anxiety at the prospect of gatekeeping there as well.

As a kid, longtime reader David Rivas started buying Batman comics off the rack at Save-On, after Tim Burton’s film adaptation hit theaters. He eventually stopped due to “lack of funds,” but rekindled his interest as an adult.

On his first visit to his local comic shop, Rivas said he remembers worrying he’d feel like “an outsider.”

“I was uncomfortable because I didn’t know what I wanted and I’d feel pressure. I don’t know that I was made to feel uncomfortable, but I did feel uncomfortable.”

For women, these feelings can be compounded by negative experiences in spheres beyond the comic book community.

Parrott and I talked about how women often assume they’re being oversensitive or their insecurities and anxieties aren’t valid or are “just in their heads.”

“Which has historical basis in the fact that women were put in asylums for hysteria, and emotional disorders were women’s diseases, etc.,” Parrott said.

“The baggage that women everywhere carry that is written off by men is so infuriating. Men don’t get the big deal about asking for help or asking for a recommendation. But women are concerned if they’ll sound bitchy, if they’ll reinforce stereotypes, if they’ll sound dumb, if asking follow-up questions is being pushy or taking up too much of an employee’s time.”

If white women, in their relative privilege, are wary of navigating the nerd microcosm of the comic book store, one can only imagine how women of color or LGBTQ customers feel.

“Comic book stores are a perfect example of these kinds of feelings, but they exist everywhere,” Parrott pointed out.

“People of color are worried about being stereotyped while unloading groceries from their car, while picking up their kids from school, from simply existing. And LGBT people choose to live a lie because they might be homeless or might be assaulted or might be sent to conversion camps if they come out to the people who are supposed to love them no matter what. And the fact that (a man) can look at a woman in a comic store and think, ‘What a poser. I bet she’s buying that to impress some guy,’ … it just blows my effing mind.”

It stands to reason that store owners might be interested in improving the comic store experience for a potential customer demographic that represents at least 50% of the population.

What can business owners do to help newcomers feel welcome enough to stay and become regulars?

All the women I spoke to agreed that the best solution is a simple one: employ women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.

“Have women behind the counter!,” Nordell said.

“That is a fast way for women to know they’re welcome, if there are employees that reflect them. There should also be stories on the shelves that reflect them, and not hidden in a corner. I have been in stores before that use a ‘girl shelf’ where things like Snotgirl are immediately gendered and thus banished.

“Ultimately, shops can make women and newcomers feel welcomed by not gatekeeping. Nerd culture in general and, certainly, comic book stores, in particular, are infamous for testing to see if patrons are knowledgeable or ‘nerdy’ enough to shop in their store.”

Nordell said the shop she frequents is just the opposite, “open to everyone. They have a majority female staff, a diverse collection of stories (including local zines), and community events. They have been open 30 years, and are happy to help decade’s old customers and first timers. It’s where I got my first copy of Paper Girls two and a half years ago and have gone at least once a week since.”

Parrott agreed that shops that are owned by or employ women are the way to go.

“Seeing another woman in nerd spaces is a huge sigh of relief like, ‘Yes! Someone else knows all this baggage I carry with me and the fears I have,’” she said.

“Woman-owned shops make all the difference! Most of my book purchases are now from an indie bookstore in Culver City owned by two sisters. It’s primarily romance novels. And everyone who works there is super friendly, loves chatting about tropes and authors. Part of their job is to know the genre to offer recommendations. But they also let me silently browse and there’s no pressure to buy, which is great.”

At a 2018 Los Angeles Comic-Con panel, titled “Tales From the Comic Book Store,” Hi De Ho Comics co-owner Kristen Parraz discussed how her negative experiences as a woman in comic shops influenced the way she runs things at her store.

She recalled many instances of being “ignored” and patronized” at male-run stores. “I left one comic book shop in tears because I was so angry at the way I’d been treated,” she said.

Burbank comic shop The Perky Nerd is a bright, cheery, aesthetically pleasing space known for warmly welcoming women and newcomers of any gender. Owner Tiffany Melius didn’t grow up in comic book culture, but entered that world after discovering Carol Danvers on the cover of an issue of Ms. Marvel.

“I’m very sensitive to the fact that it can be intimidating and you might not want to ask questions so you don’t look dumb,” Melius said.

“So I try to be as casual and light as possible, so people don’t feel judged. I never knew what bags and boards were, so when I ask people if they want them and they seem confused, I know to act even more casual while explaining what they are so they know in the future.”

Welcoming women involves creating the sort of space they’ll feel comfortable occupying, Melius said.

“From the moment you walk in the door to a bright, open, nicely decorated space, you can tell it’s different. I am complimented daily on how nice of a shop (The Perky Nerd) is, which is reassuring that the feel is coming across.”

DC Comics fan Kristy Rivas said “hygiene” and a physically welcoming space can make a huge difference in increasing women’s comfort levels. When she first began reading Batgirl and Wonder Woman comics, she visited a local store and brought her kids with her.

“I felt out of place, both because I didn’t feel comfortable — I had children in tow — and because I was a woman and there was no women in there and it felt very weird. It wasn’t set up as a family store or a woman-friendly store. It wasn’t catered to me. (It was) for a crowd I was not part of and it was obvious.”

She’s since found a shop she loves with a personable owner who’s friendly with kids, organized, welcomes questions, and learned her name and reading preferences almost immediately.

Kemble believes many comic store owners simply aren’t trained or don’t know how to best welcome customers, but there are several simple things they can do to improve.

“As a librarian, one of the things you’re trained for is trying not to turn kids off with their first experience,” she said.

When it comes to deterring potential readers, “it doesn’t have to be an overt trauma. It’s an attitude, it’s condescending. You get this subconscious message, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me.’”

Kemble said store owners should read body language and pay attention to their customers.

“Be aware of women, families with kids, people of color. Don’t make them feel unseen, because you could not just lose a sale for the day, but you could lose a customer for life.”

Shop staff should also be careful to avoid gatekeeping behavior, Kemble said.

“Men might write women off because they only pick up one title, a ‘girly’ title. I think they need to be aware that that’s our toe in the water. A lot of it is all how you treat me because we are testing you. You could have a regular that ends up dropping a lot of money at your store.”

Parrott agreed that training staff to treat customers with respect and sensitivity is key.

“I think there needs to be a conscious discussion about how best to offer your location and your staff as a safe space to everyone. Even promoting yourselves as LGBT-inclusive goes a long way, even before I identified as LGBT.”

What if you’re a customer or potential customer who struggles with anxiety about shopping at your local comic store? Are there ways you can improve your own experience?

“This is actually a question I have gotten a few times before,” Nordell said.

“Folks live in places that perhaps aren’t as progressive as San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, etc., and they know they won’t be welcomed in their local store. While the ideal would be for stores to be safe havens for all, the reality is that may not be an overnight change.”

In that case, Nordell advises women not to go it alone.

“If you have a more knowledgeable person you trust, have them go with you. They can be your buffer against any gatekeeping.

“If not, try your local library. Many libraries have invested in comic compendiums and graphic novels, and this is a very low barrier to entry. Librarians will likely love helping you find the best read for you! If all else fails, there are more options than ever for shopping online, including connecting with independent shops.”

If you get desperate or need more help, you can always contact Nordell at femmepowercomix.com.

“We love connecting with folks,” she said. “If you need help with new reads, knowing what stores will welcome you, if your library has comics, etc., we are more than happy to hop in and help!”

Kemble advises comic book newcomers to bravely take the step of setting up a pull list, which will show the shop owner you’re serious about patronizing their business and help you become part of the community.

“Take the time to do a little bit of research into just one comic book that’s coming out the week you’re going to go so that you have an anchor,” she said. “Have titles in your head that you like so that you have somewhere to start. Say, ‘I like the Wonder Woman movie … .’”

If you are ignored by the staff, Kemble urges persistence, noting that they have hundreds of customers they must interact with.

“(Learn that) it is actually ok to interrupt the geeky guys” hogging the staff’s attention, she said. “You just have to have the confidence to go ask.”

During the researching and writing of this post, I’ve made progress toward feeling more at home at my local comic shop. Most Wednesdays or Thursdays, I drop by to pick up my own pulls, instead of asking my husband to go. I’m working on being more assertive and unafraid to ask questions.

Perhaps the solution to ending the gatekeeping culture that prevents women and others from joining the comic book community can only come through the combined efforts of receptive shop owners and customers who realize it’s not easy to run a small business.

However, if you’ve visited a comic store several times and made a reasonable effort, but still don’t feel welcome, I’d listen to Kristy Rivas, who has some straightforward advice:

“Find a different shop.”

Photos: Fawn Kemble. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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