From the early 1960s to the modern day, Dan Gearino has complied the story of comicbook stores. But Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us A New Geek Culture is more about the economic industry of comics than it is about comicbook shops themselves. It’s about the start of comic shops and how they grew, the competition between distributors, and the evolution of the relationship between shops and publishers.
Comic Shop isn’t a book on how to run a comic shop, or how all comic shops will eventually come to an end because the market is doomed. It’s a testimony to the endurance of not only the medium but also the people who love it enough to turn it into a business and a livelihood. Many of them are collectors finding out how much they love selling comics and opening their own stores. Stores become sub-distributors to other shops in the area, and, in some cases, into major distributors. It is a book about how these stores evolved into legitimate businesses thanks to people who were innovators and brought practical business practices with them, and thanks to some encouragement from Marvel.
One of the major things that Gearino mentions is the boom and bust cycles of the comics industry. The opportunistic publishers of the ’80s flooded the market with bad comics hoping to cash in on the black-and-white comic trend started by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead, this led to the first modern comic bust. The lateness of comics being shipped by Image and Marvel, and their poor quality of art or story, didn’t help the market in the ’90s. But one thing that was consistent in both busts was the mindset of collectors who picked up books for their collectability rather than their quality. Often what was considered to be a hit and one day valuable ended up in the $1 bins.
I really liked how Gearino also took the time to talk about the role of women in comics as customers and staff. He interviewed Jonni Levas about her role in Sea Gate Distributors, and Wendy Pini, the co-creator of Elfquest, about being a female comic creator and how comic shops helped her independent comic succeed. Gearino talks about how the staff of the Laughing Ogre comic store is mostly female. I like how he takes the time to talk to each person about their experiences and their membership in the Valkyries (an online group of women who work in comic stores and libraries, acting as a sort of exclusive club which has now disbanded). Carol Kalish worked in the distribution sales department for Marvel and had many pet projects, one of which was to encourage comic shops to become more traditional in their business practices, like owning a cash box or even advertising. Comic Shop also touches on the buying habits of women in comics, which tended toward independent titles like Love and Rockets and Elfquest.
Probably one of the best things about Comic Shop is its easy-to-read style. It’s not a chronological account of when comic shops opened or closed, or when which distributor signed an exclusive deal with a publisher. It’s not a history book. It’s a narrative of the people who love comics and how they kept working to keep comics and their stores alive.
Comic Shop: The Retail Mavericks Who Gave Us A New Geek Culture is the story of the comicbook industry as we know it today. From the rise of comic shops and Diamond Distribution, Don Gearino sheds light on how comics have survived through near collapse, over and over. This book is about the rise of shops as newstands failing to give collectors the issues they need, the turf wars between distributors, and how the current comic landscape we have now is one conceived as far back as the late 1960s.
Comic Shop contains a list of notable comic stores throughout North America and a short biography of each. If you are interested in checking out a store, perhaps one of these is near you.