LadiesCon 2018, Women in Comics, and Community Engagement

This past weekend, I tabled for the store at LadiesCon, an annual event organized by the Ladies of Comicazi.  As can probably be surmised from the name, this community event (free and open to the public!) focuses on the many non-cisgender-men who work in comics in some capacity.  The featured guests this year were Marjorie Liu, Erica Henderson, Ming Doyle, and Kristen Gudsnuk.  I even got to be on two panels!  “Women In Comics Retail,” which I’ve been on a couple times before, and “Manga and the Women Who Make It,” which I debuted there with my good friend Juliet Kahn.

Here in the Boston area, we’re really spoiled when it comes to the comics community.  We have many excellent comic shops, all of whom staff women.  And not only do we have the incredible, and incredibly important, LadiesCon, but we also play host the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), which is also family-friendly, free, and open to the public (and which this year is featuring, among others, the young reader powerhouse creators Vera Brosgol and Tillie Walden).

One of my favorite aspects of these shows is that they always remind me of the Artist’s Alley at an anime convention: full of passionate people of all genders, colors, and creeds who have come together to share their work with like-minded fans.  Anime cons have always been some of the queerest, most diverse spaces I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of, and it’s very gratifying to see that kind of representation making itself known to the general, curious public.

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about the community aspect of comics lately.  To the outside observer, it can seem quite divisive — and it certainly can be!  I know how lucky I am and have been to encounter mostly kind, open-minded individuals in this space who trust my judgment and who believe in uplifting instead of shooting down.  I can’t overstate how important it has been for me to have friends within the comics community who have been able to share in my joys and commiserate when I encounter those aspects of comics that aren’t as pleasant.

In somewhat related news, for those of you who don’t follow my various social media maneuverings, I finally sent the first Manga Maven Monthly email, which you can find here.  The response to this project has been very positive, even when I was just making super-long Facebook posts in various retailer groups.  It’s very validating to have people you really respect, who have been working in comics retail a long time, sincerely thank you for your suggestions and talk about how they have positively influenced their businesses.  It’s been really great to feel that, if nothing else, here is at least one thing I know I’m doing well.  So thank you to everyone who has signed up!  I hope to keep giving you fruitful suggestions for a long time!

On Recommending Comics

When the Preacher television series came out, I had customer after customer provide me with the fandom theatre of being shocked that I had never read it, and then immediately insisting I amend that as soon as possible. Putting aside the fact that I was a literal baby when Preacher was first running in single issues, it seemed so unfathomable to everyone that despite the fact that I was sitting behind a counter selling them their comics every week, I might not have taken part in this very specific rite of comics passage.

Preacher is not necessarily something I wouldn’t read; indeed, I think the Morgana I was in high school would be very interested in the violence and the symbolism of it (I say, having still not read it). But out of curiosity, I flipped through the first volume after getting enough pushback from folks, just to see what the fuss was about. In no short order, I saw amidst the pages someone getting their face peeled off.

Knowing nothing about me, scores of men (they were all men) told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to read this comic. Scores of men have told me to read Berserk, and not a single one of them have ever mentioned that their are depictions of sexual violence — I just found that out recently through a thread on Twitter. When these people have given me their “recommendations,” it has been more about them pushing their interests on me, than about considering what I might enjoy, or trying to convince me of their value while also alerting me to things I might not like about them. Who recommends graphic violence porn to a stranger! Jesus Christ, guys, get it together.

I have had customers who have confessed that their “friends” belittled them for not having engaged in certain media. Forcing, shaming, belittling…these are really, really ineffective ways to convince someone that what you’re recommending to them is worthwhile. How can they be expected to start, if they keep associating the title with guilt and pressure, and on their inherent “unworthiness” as a fan?

Coming up against my distaste for being told what to consume, I find myself in the position of getting paid to tell other people what to consume. Giving good recommendations isn’t easy. My initial desire is the same as everyone’s: to recommend the things that I love. I don’t think this is a bad gut instinct — something is enjoyable, and you want more people to experience that, and you want to support the creators and the publisher. That’s great! But what works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone else. There’s a comic for everyone, but not every comic is for everyone.

This means I have to know how to talk about even the books I didn’t like, or that I haven’t read. I have to not use negative language about books I found boring or bad, because the person I’m helping might be looking for exactly that kind of thing. I have to try to figure out what a customer wants through asking endless questions, and there is nothing more frustrating than someone saying “oh, I’ll read anything!” (Especially when I then recommend ten different things and they turn every single one down!)

It is hard to know what people enjoy, even if youre familiar with their tastes. There are books that I thought I’d love that I just didn’t, so even for myself I can’t always pick ’em right! But I really, really think it’s important to be able to let go of the fact that not everyone is going to like the things you like, and that doesn’t make them a less good consumer of media. And when you’re really dead-set on giving a recommendation, it’s important to be able to give some insight into why it’s worth the time and effort, and maybe a caveat if there are some, uh, upsetting facets of it.

Basically, I want people to read comics, so I feel that it’s always best to be kind and cautious. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I’d love it if we were all a little more generous with our thoughts, and less concerned with checking off the boxes of cultural currency that allegedly make someone a “real fan.”

Free Comic Book Day, and the Plight of the Local Comic Shop

Last week was extremely busy for me. On Tuesday after work, I went to Nick Cave’s Q&A show; on Wednesday I scrambled to go see Avengers: Infinity War after work because I didn’t want someone to spoil me on FCBD; and Thursday and Friday were, of course, all prep for said FCBD.

There has been a lot of discussion about how Free Comic Book Day is not free for comic shops. This is true, we buy tons of comics for slightly less than our usual cost with the sole purpose of giving them away with our sticker or stamp on them in the hopes that people might pick up something they really like, remember where they got it, and come back to get more. It’s part goodwill gesture, part advertising — and it can be an awful lot of work.

I’m not here to suggest alternative solutions to the current FCBD model, though I welcome such discussions. What I want to talk about is a conversation I had with a gentleman who just knew, somehow, that comics readership was up because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After we went back and forth for a while, he apologized and recognized that his information was anecdotal, and honestly I don’t want to spend too much time talking about him in particular because he was actually very nice and clearly did care about comics.

But prior to our conversation, there were two things that he believed: that the MCU got people into comics, and that perhaps a lot of those people were getting their comics from libraries instead of buying them in shops.

I can tell you all, without hyperbole, that just about every single comic shop, even if they’re doing fairly well at the moment, feels the grip of Amazon closing in on the throat of their business. Every retailer I’ve talked to is finding ways to add alternative merchandise to their stores, or lean really hard into a niche they already have (I’m always going for “gay manga store,” myself). The only comic book films that have sparked any small interest in comics, that we’ve seen at my shop, have been Wonder Woman and Black Panther, and I think that speaks a lot more to people finally seeing themselves reflected in media and being hungry for more of that, than to any specific interest in superheroes or comics specifically.

I can also tell you that last I checked (which admittedly may have been some time ago), the best-selling Marvel trade paperback collections were Ms. Marvel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on Black Panther. That’s two YA titles starring characters that haven’t yet been in a Marvel movie, and a comic run written by a well-known author who made his name outside of comics. These aren’t necessarily the Marvel trades that do best in our shop, but I’m willing to bet good money that they’re the ones that are getting checked out of your local library most often. (And I would absolutely LOVE some insider info from a librarian on how their graphic novels perform.)

So every year, FCBD gets to feeling more and more desperate as retailers all over the country (and indeed in other parts of the world) continue to throw money, effort, and time into giving away literal tons of free comics in the hope that they’ll gain a larger portion of the community — whether that community already reads comics elsewhere, or whether they’re completely new to the medium. I could say, too, that we’re not being helped by certain publishers who seem to be substituting quantity of titles for quality of writing, but I’m not sure that would be completely fair as I’m not a “superhero person,” and I haven’t been keeping up with a lot of current material.

I hate feeling selfish and petulant when I remind people to shop locally (and ideally, I’d love for us all to be able do all shopping locally, not just comics). I understand what it’s like to not have the means and the funds (I work retail, remember?). But as I was telling my husband last night, unless something dramatic changes in society or we finally get the Y2K we were promised twenty years ago, I don’t see brick and mortar shops — of any kind — surviving. The “frivilous” shops will go first: the comic shops, the toy stores, any niche specialty store. I honestly can’t say whether that’s good or bad on a grand scale, but it certainly does make me sad and worried for my own livelihood and the livelihood of so many wonderful, smart, dedicated people I know who put so much of themselves into their businesses because they were once a young person who just really loved comic books.

And completely appropos of nothing, I’m getting really tired of people saying “it’s backwards” every time I hand them a free manga sampler. But I reckon I could construct another whole post just about how reticent people are to try new things…though I will say, a remarkable number of people I offered free comics to yesterday said “oh, I don’t read comics.” So maybe that’s part of the problem, too, that people can’t see themselves reading comics, or don’t know all that comics have to offer, in these days where superhero action flicks are breaking records at box offices around the world.

“Yeah, I saw the Avengers, it was great! But….no, I don’t read comics.”