Finding Personality in the Ephemeral Comic Shop

Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us a New Geek Culture
Dan Gearino
Swallow Press / Ohio University Press

For many North Americans, comic shops maintain an aura of otherness, a place where the comic book guy from The Simpsons meets the cast of Big Bang Theory for a showdown of snark and poor people skills. Dan Gearino offers a more compelling and complex place for the comic shop in popular culture by demonstrating how entrepreneurs and distribution channels have reshaped that commercial space over the last 50 years. His reporting demonstrates a commercial climate that has never found equilibrium with the market forces that remain volatile due to a series of competitions between publishers, distributors, comic shop owners, and comics buyers.

Comic shops filled with collectible comics and boxes of back issues have only existed for a relatively short period of time. When comics were a mainstream medium, new issues were sold in newsstands and bookstores, at grocers and pharmacies, as they were serviced by distributors. Comics, like other periodicals, were considered ephemeral by the distribution and retail side, and this left collectors and specialty sellers unsupported in the market. Gearino marks the changes that created the comic shops and tells the stories of the people involved, tracing the movement through a series of people with strong personalities who, through their own vision and circumstances, set in motion changes that led to major changes in the industry.

The basics of the story are widely known by comics hobbyists. Phil Seuling, a public school teacher, began organizing conventions for collectors and dealers in ’60s-era New York. From these conventions grew networks and ideas of how to better serve dealers and collectors. Seuling interrupted the system by buying straight from the printers, carving the first foothold in the volatile distribution economy. This leads to other entrepreneurs to set up shop in other regions, allowing the creation of comic shops to begin proliferating across the US. In a book with no singular thesis, readers follow individual actions that sparked these changes. Gearino’s text is not a straightforward history because there’s no linear narrative. Instead, relationships between early players get explored, and rhizomatic businesses pop up across the country only to face the pitfalls of an industry without experience or direction.

To tell this story, Gearino leaves out the two main foci of most comics studies books: fans and the comics. Readers will not find chapters devoted to their favorite artists or characters, nor will scholars find evidence of fandom beyond some very generalized remarks about customers. Instead, the primary focus remains on trends in distribution and conscious manipulation of the market by publishers more concerned with temporary bumps in their production than in maintaining a long-term relationship with consumers.

Gender issues feature heavily in the text, and this offers scholars at least a point of consideration lacking from many other outlets. While Seuling has been a primary character in most stories of the history of the comic business, Gearino often focuses on Jonni Levas, Seuling’s romantic and business partner, as a major factor in the success of his business. Seuling set up the first direct distribution deals, but anecdotal statements show Levas remained a central operator, pushing to keep the business running to pay for Seuling’s medical insurance as he was wasting away from an illness that eventually took his life.

Of the creators mentioned, the two with the most coverage included Wendy Pini, Elfquest creator and Red Sonya cosplayer, and Raina Telgemeier a New York Times bestselling author of graphic novels for young readers. Pini became one of the breakthrough independent creators in the late ’70s in part through the relationships she built in the industry with distributors who supported her by buying copies of her first issues and promoting them through their stores. Outside of her work, she had become known through her Red Sonya performances at conventions. While some judge her revealing costume as something negative, she reflects on her performances as a way to present a feminist message to the audience while becoming a recognizable person to the industry. This complex duality played to the gender biases prevalent in the comics industry while opening doors for her and her diverse readership in the world of comics.

Telgemeier has also expanded the gender diversity in comics readership and creates books that bring new readers to the comic format. Her role has elevated her to that of mainstream star who transcends the comics industry through her books distributed by Scholastic. Gearino uses her unique position to document the role the comic in book format for both female readers and younger readers.

Gearino also marks the changes of comic shops as female workers and readers take their place in what was initially a male-centric place. He profiles how Carol Kalish of Marvel Comics helped raise the professionalism at the comic shop level, strengthening the industry by giving the sellers the tools to do their work more efficiently. Gearino also remarks on the professional network female employees have created through the Valkyries message board that allows communication amongst the growing number of female workers.

Gearino’s literary heartbeat is related to his hometown comic shop, The Laughing Ogre. While the shop’s history doesn’t span the four decades of his project, it does serve to show the realities of an independent store in a volatile market and resilience in a changing cultural landscape. Part Two of the book is a collection of profiles of 40 important comic shops and the people who work in them. At times it feels like a guidebook for comics fans, but much like the first part of the book, it manages to personalize the shops in ways that give a detailed overview of the contemporary comic shop landscape.

Comic Shop provides a very human face to an industry that hasn’t found cohesion between all the players involved. What it does best is use the industry’s history as a platform to jump into stories of people who participated through their entrepreneurial endeavors and supporting roles in the pop culture community. Gearino brings the hidden gender diversity to the forefront of the industry while recognizing the problems still present that limit the overall diversity of the shops and their patrons. Above all, this work personalizes the comic shop as a collection of people who, through emotion and personal desire, embrace an evolving and unstable place in the commercial world of pop culture.

RATING 7 / 10