San Diego, CA circa 1999
She walked into the Comic Book Shop wearing baggy jeans, a No Fear T-Shirt, and a thin camo jacket even in the Summer Heat of Southern California. With a backpack slung over one shoulder and 20 bucks in her pocket, she’s a girl on a mission. And that mission was to buy some goddamn comics.
But there’s a snag in the plan. And as she searches over the back issues the first question comes.
“So you read comics?”
She shrugged. “Not really. I watched the cartoons when I was younger.”
“So why are you here?”
She shrugged again. “‘Cause I’d like to start.”
“You should read Batman.”
She made a face. “I like the Tim Burton Flims but Batman’s not really my thing.”
“What about Superman?”
She shook her head. “Naw. Not my thing either. He’s mad OP.”
“What? You’re gonna read Supergirl?”
She didn’t notice the disgust on his face so she grinned. “There’s a Supergirl?”
He groaned and walked away, muttering, “Fucking chicks.”
She walked out soon after and didn’t buy a book.
It’s hard to believe that was almost 20 years ago. Hard to believe that I was so put off by that experience that I didn’t go to comic book shop for years after. And even then I usually went with backup. Because when I didn’t, there was always some neckbeard at the ready to quiz me as I perused the back issues and New Release Wall.
“What’s the first Batman issue you read?”
“Name five characters in his Rogues’ Gallery.”
“Who shot Thomas and Martha Wayne?”
“Other than Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn, I don’t care.”
It became a constant battle, fighting for space in a community that was supposed to allow anyone in. All you had to do was be a nerd. And I was. I threw dice on the weekends, I wrote porn — I mean fanfiction, I’ve had heated debates about the Jedi and the Force. I thought I had my geek credentials all in order — but I was wrong.
To be honest, the comics of the 90s weren’t my bag anyway. A lot of dude-bro stories with gratuitous action (by sacrificing story) and a lot of over-sexualized women that serviced to be arm candy for their male counterparts. But I couldn’t even get my foot in the door without being needled constantly just to make sure I was the “right kind” of nerd so I could even make that judgment.
Years later, telling my guy friends who grew up with comics in a way that was inaccessible to me, they couldn’t believe that it was this hostile for me. They were under the impression that a woman’s experience in a comic book shop was like Penny’s in the Big Bang Theory. And I’m sure if I looked like Kaley Cuoco it would have been different. But I walked in looking like every bit like the kind of girl that didn’t want a boyfriend and these fanboys were not kind. They were not welcoming. They treated me like I was an other, an outsider, someone who didn’t belong. And for a bunch of nerds, who supposedly had been picked on all their lives for being nerds, it always struck me as odd that I wasn’t allowed to come to the table.
There were exceptions. Men that created space for me, that had my back, that provided insulation from the barrage of gatekeeping. They allowed me to immerse myself in comics. To find books that I enjoyed that were beyond the dude-bros. Books that were philosophical, political, ultra-feminist, and queer. Stories that touched me.
This still happens because I keep my circle small and I weed out the neck-beardy types. And that’s how I found out about Jook Joint, House of Whispers, Shuri, and the upcoming Ironheart. Comics written by women for women. Comics featuring people that look like me. Comics that help me get through the day when it seems like I’m being swallowed whole by the Patriarchy. Comics that speak to me on an almost spiritual level.
It’s strange to me that people debate on what’s happened to the comics industry, why people aren’t buying comics anymore. And a lot of people have many answers, except for the obvious one. The community isn’t evolving. It’s not changing with the times. It’s not allowing this to be a safe space for everyone. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why. Why do I have to pass a pop quiz for a seat at the table when my male friends do not? Shouldn’t me being interested be enough?
It’s not to say that all comic book shops and all fanboys are bad. When I go back home, I always go to the comic book shop a mile away from where I grew up. It’s in the heart of Hillcrest, a notoriously queer neighborhood, and when I walk in, I can ask my questions and buy my comics without feeling like I don’t belong. And they get my business when other shops don’t because they aren’t safe havens for nerds that look like me.
Think of what the Industry could accomplish if we made room for everyone.