Lessons from Ladies' Night: Comic Shops and Community-Making / by b.woo

In a recent Comics Bulletin column, cartoonist and comic-bookstore clerk Kate Leth writes about her experience hosting a ladies' night event at Halifax's Strange Adventures ( Jill Pantozzi). For one evening the store made like Y: The Last Man. The doors were closed to men, and female staff and volunteers organized artist appearances, treats, gift bags, and special deals for the hundred or so women who stopped by:

The event was a huge success; the shop was packed to the rafters with guests, volunteers, comic fans and newcomers alike. We had book signings, cupcakes, giveaways and an atmosphere unlike any other. I’d been hyping the event online through various social media, and some blogs were kind enough to post links to it and promote it. When people really took notice, though, was afterward. I put up a selection of photos taken during the event, and my inbox lit up overnight. A dozen-odd staff members and regular customers of shops all over the world were shocked at just how well-attended it was.

We can learn a lot from this initiative, both about how the comic industry might respond to the challenges they're currently facing and about nerd culture can become a more inclusive, welcoming space. In fact, I think those two goals are pretty closely are pretty closely related.

Why Comic-Bookstores (Still) Matter

Doing my research on nerd culture, I've had the weird experience of becoming a partisan for specialty retailers. I say weird because my institutional context and intellectual tradition are very suspicious of anyone making money off of culture—unless the money comes from a government grant.<1>

However, the more I hung around comic-bookstores and game shops for my fieldwork, the more convinced I became that they're worth defending. Not because they're perfect—or even necessarily all that great—but because they're part of the infrastructure that fan communities are built on top of.

The situation is particularly acute in the comic-book industry, which is a production oligopoly and a distribution monopoly. Stores have come under a lot of pressure from declining and fragmenting readership, as well as new competition with digitally distributed comics (whether legal or pirated). Current estimates suggest that the number of Direct Market comic shops in the US has declined by roughly one-half over the last twenty years.<2> Meanwhile, hopes that the manga boom or tie-ins from the big, Hollywood superhero movies would introduce bring new readers into comic-bookstores have proven largely illusory.

Some are willing to say good riddance, perhaps believing that, freed from the Direct Market, comics might once again become a mass medium with a broad, financially stable audience. We have websites and forums and social media now, after all. New media have proven themselves to be great tools for extending fan communities--especially for folks who don't have a comic shop in their town or can't travel to conventions. That much is clear.

But it's too early to say what would happen to our fan communities--let alone to the creative workers who currently rely on the Direct Market to publish and/or distribute their stories--if we threw specialty retailers (and other important local institutions) onto the garbage heap of history, as though Amazon or Comixology could pick up right where they left off.

Making Communities

Community is maybe an over-used word. That's partly because it has an almost entirely positive connotation,<3> and partly because it's so wonderfully vague. In fact, community is a subjective experience more than anything else, and it's produced when people orient to something as if it were a community. Community isn't a thing; it's something we do.

One thing that struck me during my research was that the game stores I studied were much more intentional about cultivating in-store communities than the comic shops were. There are a couple obvious reasons for this. They tend to have more space, and their owners believe that "supporting" the games they sell means organizing events for their players. These weekly or monthly game days and tournaments provide a focus for local gamers. Some players of the D&D miniatures game that I talked to, for example, said they played an online version of the game a couple times a week, but the monthly tournament at the store was pretty much the only time they got their miniatures out and played with other people. Thus, game stores are important venues for gathering and interacting, for creating a community of players that might not otherwise exist.

By contrast, the comic-bookstore owners and staff I talked to viewed shopping for comics as itself a social activity. Furthermore, many (though by no means all) of them profess a belief that the audience for comics is determined by external factors over which they have no influence--in the parlance of Actor-Network Theory, it appears as a "black box" to them.

Thus, they mostly let things play out naturally amongst the "Wednesdays Warriors." And there's lots to like about the informal chit-chat and debating that happens in most comic shops. However, the tendency to turn these conversations into trivia and referencing contests and to treat subjective, personal taste as objective facts makes it pretty easy to feel like an outsider in that space.

Just getting comics into people's hands won't build the audience for comic books. For that, we need to get them involved and invested in comic-book culture, and that means making comic-book culture a better place to be in.

Opening the Doors

This is also my not-too-subtle way of looping back to the issue of sexism in nerd culture, and maybe starting to think about what we can do about it.

After I posted my recent article on Cross Assault and nerd sexism, one of other players in my gaming emailed to share some of her experiences and to ask what I thought was the way forward. At first, I copped out and gave the "no quick fixes, more discussion" non-answer I've gotten used to providing as an academic. But that was, rightfully, not very satisfying to either of us. As we talked about it, I was reminded of something a comic shop owner said to me:

I remember a conversation I had with a guy in the bar where I used to drink when I was a young man. This would have been at least in the 1980s. And it was at the time when a local hotel became a gay hotel. And I remember saying to the bartender, "Well, how does a hotel turn gay?" And he said, "Well, it's easy. They just hire gay staff." And it sort of dawned on me, "Well, duh. You know, if I want girls to come in the store, I should hire some girls--or, women." By exercising common sense and having a mix of genders in the store, you sort of take away from that sort of frat club atmosphere that develops when just guys are working together. And so it's good for the store, and it definitely makes it a lot more accessible for women.

It seems simple--maybe even simplistic--but I think this is right on the money. What we need is people who are already well positioned in the culture--in the industries that support it, in the media that talk about it, and in local communities--to show leadership and help make sure that nerd culture is a safe space for everyone who wants to participate. Because nerd culture has heretofore been predominantly male--or, at least, its institutions have--that means a lot of men are going to have to take ownership in this process alongside the women who are already doing so much to remind us all that girl geeks deserve better from our fandoms. That feels weirdly anti-feminist, as though women need men to fix things for them. But when men are (part of) the problem,<4> then owning up to our role, correcting what we can, and getting out of the way when appropriate is the right thing for gentleman geeks to do.

Conclusion

Many people's image of comic-book culture is still shaped by the speculator boom of the '90s. To be a comic fan, they think, is to be a comic collector. We've got to ditch the collector mentality--and not in favour of some idea of comics as "Art" or "Literature" (as much as I love many comics made with that goal). No, we've got to recover the joys of connecting with others around comics, and make that central to comic-book culture. When people orient themselves to a comic-book community rather than to individual books or characters, they'll feel personally, emotionally invested in it.<5> They'll make comic-book culture a good place to be.

And there's an important role for comic-bookstores to play in building up an inclusive community of comic readers, fans, and creators. Free Comic Book Day is a good start, but many of the FCBD events I've visited are little more than sales--they may clear out some space in the store but I'm not sure how many new comics readers they attract.<6> And here's where Ladies' Night at Strange Adventures is an instructive template--both in holding an attractive community event in a comic shop and in extending a welcome to an often under-served component of the comics audience.

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  1. Not that I'm against the government subsidizing culture, mind. I just worry that government tends to subsidize high and upper-middle cultural products while neglecting many that are equally marginal or niche (and, thus, need at least policy and infrastuctural support if not direct financial support) because they're "popular." \r
  2. See my article “The Android’s Dungeon,” 127, 135n4. \r
  3. Raymond Williams, “The Importance of Community,” in Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989), 112. \r
  4. When I say men are part of the problem, I don't mean that every man is sexist, or even that a significant proportion are consciously or explicitly acting in sexist ways. But we are involved every day in a culture that, in a mix of intended and unintended consequences, produces outcomes that can only be described as sexist. Comic artist Paul Duffield has recently tackled this issue in a really thoughtful way. \r
  5. And encouraging people to identify with a community--thereby increasing the going rate for "integrity-dollars"--may be the most effective long-term strategy for pushing back against comics piracy. \r
  6. In one store I visited on FCBD, some kids came through carrying bags from a handful of other comic shops all over town. Is this a win? I'm not sure. \r