Five years ago I went into a comic bookstore in the South Bay and emerged from its shadowy depths with a sexist Lois Lane comic book from the '60s and the sense that I was definitely underrepresented and unwelcome. So when a female friend asked if I wanted to go shopping for comics in Santa Cruz a few months ago, I braced myself for the worst.
Our first stop was Comicopolis, a small storefront with bright windows near the rear entrance to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Front Street. Even though its location was off the beaten path, its doors were flung open to welcome any curious passersby.
Co-owners Troy Geddes and John Arnold welcomed us from behind the counter they share in the back. My friend struck up a casual conversation with them about the feminist reboot of Ms. Marvel as she picked up the most recent issue. With their proximity to UCSC, I was relieved to see we were not the first feminists they had encountered.
These comic book guys celebrate the fact that approximately 55 percent of their clientele are women. Arnold explains, “The traditional comic bookstore was definitely a boys club with a dungeon-like, dank feel to it,” but they strive to make their store open and friendly to everyone.
I now know that many comic bookstores cover windows with posters to protect their comics from sun damage, which can make them feel scarier than they really are. But even sunny comic bookstores can be overwhelming for the uninitiated.
Decoding missing issue numbers, different story arcs and trade paperback collections was tricky at first. Luckily, Geddes and Arnold make their customers feel comfortable enough to ask questions.
Our next stop was the larger Atlantis Fantasyworld on Cedar Street where I was pleasantly surprised to meet, Trisha Wolfe, who has worked there for the past eight years. She is just one example of the growing number of women working in the comics industry.
The first thing I asked Wolfe was if she had any recommendations for comic books with strong female leads. She immediately steered me towards the store’s independent section and handed me the cult favorite, Saga, the adorable Lumberjanes and the “all ladies all the time,” Rat Queens.
Wolfe believes independent comics have raised the bar for writing over the past ten years and that more readers are discovering comics through the writers and artists’ Tumblr pages.
Marvel has taken a cue from independent comic book publishers and diversified their representations of women and races, however, Wolfe laments that DC continues to push largely heterosexual white male superheroes for young teenage boys.
During a recent visit to Atlantis, a local family stopped in with their eight-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son to participate in Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ summer reading program. After reading a certain number of hours kids receive vouchers, which they can use to purchase more books from participating local businesses. The mother explained that the opportunity to get comic books from Atlantis was the main reason her children had wanted to sign up for the reading program in the first place.
Perhaps the next generation of comic book readers won’t even know there was ever a time when comics fans were ostracized as geeks or when only a certain type of person could be a comic book hero.
Thanks to many subsequent visits to Comicopolis and Atlantis Fantasyworld, I have amassed a collection of entirely un-sexist comics and I no longer feel like I need to work up the courage to brave the comic bookstore.
I've been feeling so heroic lately that I even returned to the comic bookstore that initially scared me away. This time I found new racks of independent comics and spotted a few more female customers. I’m not sure if this shows how much the comics industry has changed in five years or how much I have.
Comics can be a great unifying force that brings all kinds of readers together. But if you’re still nervous about shopping for comics you can check out websites like Girl-Wonder or Safe Spaces for Comics Fans, which map friendly comic bookstores for those who feel marginalized. And if you've had a good experience spread the word!