Building a Bigger Sanctuary

This week on the internet and in public spaces like NYCC there has been a lot of discussion of the toxic culture that surrounds comics especially with regards to race and gender/sex. Over the past few years, it feels like these issues flare up every few months or so, go dormant, and then return, prompted by a bad cover, a creator insisting that criticism is the same as censorship, or—as in this case—a retailer articulating a rather unpleasant rejection of so-called Social Justice Warriors.

On the tails of this particular event, one of the ensuing discussions focused on the atmosphere of the local comic shop. As near as I can tell it was kicked off by twitter impresario TaskvsTheWorld ( who pointed out that most fans have to go the LCS for their books which often requires a dig in some unpleasantness for “non-traditional” (traditional being us white 20-40 year old men) fans and collectors.

Predictably people objected and heartily.

I get it. For many “traditional” fans, the comic shop was a place of refuge during awkward years, especially those of us who were collecting in the years before the current super hero movie renaissance and general victory of geek culture becoming mainstream culture. I don’t think more people are reading comics—and the sales charts bear me out on that one—but I sure hear, “I’m thinking about reading some comics,” from my peers a lot more often than I did when I was, say, 14.

Anyway, back before these golden years, reading comics was not cool for most and many of those reading comics felt pretty uncool. And then there was the comic shop, where people loved the same stuff and knew the trivia you knew and you could hang out and feel safe and understood and maybe, for a few minutes, cool. So how could this place that makes you feel cool make someone else feel uncomfortable or judged or rejected?

I get that confusion but let’s start here: it does make some people feel that way. It doesn’t make me or you or your friends feel that way but it does make others feel that way: new fans, women fans, fans who’s skin is darker than yours. They aren’t just saying it for hahas, they mean it. For many, some comic shops are not welcoming experiences. You might never see or hear it at your shop—which is great!—but it happens. Just take them at face value on that because, well, why the hell not? It’s not the kind of thing one says just for the sake of saying it.

Two, no one is asking us to feel guilty. Speaking as someone who carries comically large sacks of guilt through his day-to-day life, guilt is a largely useless emotion. It is paralyzing not activating. Too often our reaction to criticisms of things we love or that involved things that were done by people who looked like us is, “What? Am I supposed to feel guilty because (Southerners owned slaves, I’m a whit guy who likes comics, I’m attracted to women, etc)?” And for the person who wants you to understand about the legacy of slavery or how it feels to be a woman in a comic shop, or what objectification is like, the answer is, “No! I don’t give a damn if you feel guilty. I just want the damn thing fixed.” So don’t worry about feeling guilty or not feeling guilty for LCS atmospheres in the past. No one is being asked to regret the years that felt safe in their comic book store of choice. They’re just asking you to widen that cone of safety.

Any subculture can tend towards isolationism and exclusion. Anyone who has come to love any kind of non-mainstream pop music can tell you that. “Oh yeah, what’s your favorite album? Favorite single? Oh, big surprise the one that was on the radio,” and so on. And it is all nonsense. For punk, for comics, for film noir. To get into a subculture, you need to start somewhere. Everyone needs to start somewhere. My first comic feature Green Goblin, the Harry Osborn Green Goblin. It would be YEARS before I read a Norman Osborn Green Goblin comic. And yet, my affection for Spider-Man was a 100% real.

Comics and comic shops should not be like the hottest club. There should be no barrier for entry, no need to have the right clothes or to know the right people. Man, woman, girl, boy, non-binary, every race, every sexuality should be allowed in the door and welcomed. From the guy who only reads anime to the woman who really liked Logan and wants to try some comics—we all belong there. This isn’t an attempt to steal our sanctuary by outsiders, it is them asking us for a little bit of refuge too. And it’s the least we can do. Remember yourself at 10 or 11 or 12 and remember finally feeling like you belonged. Then give someone the same bit of grace.

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