Two women drive past a comic book store. (No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke.)
Woman 1: Oh, hey, a comic book store, let’s check it out!
Woman 2: Oh, yeah, I hope they have the new Harley Quinn!
The pair park and enter the store. The formerly buzzing store immediately goes quiet as all, notably male, eyes turn on them.
Woman 1: (side-whisper) Uh…this is awkward.
A male employee eagerly approaches.
Male Employee: Hi, looking for anything in particular?
Woman 1: No, just browsing.
Male Employee: Okay, over here we have Marvel, DC, lots of New 52, New 52 is DC’s most recent reboot…
Woman 2: (communicating telepathically because they are best friends) Is he really explaining New 52 to us?
Sound familiar to any of our female-presenting readers? Yeah, in fact, this scene felt like something out of an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the male wolves’ eyes pop out of their head as they cry out “girls!” Except picture guys playing D&D, utterly confused at the presence of two female twenty-somethings in a comic book store.
Fortunately, More Fun Comics and Games, a comic book store in my hometown of Denton, TX (between Dallas and Fort Worth) is not this kind of store. More Fun Comics and Games’s is located off the historic Denton square smack dab between an Irish pub and an old-fashioned candystore. After getting a ginger beer from the candystore and a comic from More Fun Comics and Games, you can go sit on the lawn of the historic Courthouse and read under the shade of an oak tree. Yes, it is as perfect as it sounds.
But, it’s not just about the location. Walking into More Fun Comics and Games is refreshing. The store, though small, is bright and high-ceilinged. You will often see a parent flipping through the latest Batman while their kid checks out the latest My Little Pony. The staff is friendly, enthusiastic, and never condescending.
I have visited many comic book stores similar to the one in the opening vignette. Even when the people there are eager to help, their “help” often begins with the presupposition that you, a female, are new to comics and therefore unknowledgeable and/or only interested in “female-centric” titles and series. And let’s not even get into mansplaining.
I have talked about this all too common experience with Tim Stoltzfus, the owner and manager of More Fun Comics and Games. Tim and I met through one of my grad school professors who taught classes on the rhetoric of superheroes. I jumped at the chance to interview him about his open and inviting store for The Local, WWAC’s coverage of local comic book scenes.
First of all, why comics? Where did this begin?
I got into comics when I was a kid, picking up Transformers and G.I. Joe comics back in the 80s. I enjoyed them, but really fell in love with the medium in the early 90s via books like Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Animal Man.
How long have you been doing this?
The current stores I am running are going on 11 years now. When I was 17, I opened a store briefly and then managed another store for a while after that. I spent a few years in the “real” work world, then in the late 90s spent five years working at a hobby distribution company before opening the first More Fun Comics and Games in Lancaster back in 2003.
When I visit your store, I usually see a pretty diverse crowd from what I often see in other comic book stores. What do you do to make what is often considered “just for geeks” more open to the variety of folk interested in comics?
It’s a combination of stock and attitude. One of my goals is to make sure that when a family comes into the store, there is something for every member of the family to look forward to checking out. If a father comes in with his young daughter, you can have exactly what he is looking for, but if she spends the entire visit pulling at her father’s shirt because she is bored, he had a bad experience. However, if she comes in and finds a comic like My Little Pony to engage her attention, then the visit becomes an enjoyable experience that they can look forward to engaging in together in the future.
When it comes to attitude, the entire team understands that we need to be engaging to the entire family, and that everyone who is coming in is looking to have fun. We’re a business that people come in to take a break from the day to day, and we need to communicate that we’re always excited to see them.
Women are the biggest growing demographic in comic book readership. How do you think this is impacting the industry?
We are seeing a much wider variety of titles selling decent numbers than we used to thanks to this shift in the customer base. There’s a very broad number of comics that sell healthy, sustainable numbers that didn’t exist as little as five years ago. Personally, I’m thrilled to see the variety!
What are some other changes you are seeing?
The biggest thing is that publishers are really starting to grasp how broad the demand is for comic material now. They’re providing books that are appealing to a very wide variety of customers.
Do you think comics are becoming less niche?
Honestly, I think comics will always be a relatively niche, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. The only time when comics were a “mass” medium was in an era of small black and white TVs. There’s many more entertainment options so that comics aren’t likely to become a blockbuster medium. However, they deliver a unique experience that no other storytelling form can replicate, which means they aren’t going anywhere any time soon, either.
What do you think the industry could do better?
Promotion. The biggest problem within the industry is that publishers are pumping out titles with little or no promotion and then act surprised when a book doesn’t sell. Word of mouth and a Twitter account can only go so far. Real, actual promotion has always been the weak spot of this business. To this day, people come into my stores and say “They still make comics?” When there’s a significant portion of the customer base that isn’t even aware the product exists, that is a critical failure on the part of those who are behind promoting the books.
Tell me about the comic book scene in Denton? How is it similar and different from others that you are familiar with?
From my point of view, Denton has a very enthusiastic comic scene that is growing rapidly. As Denton has grown beyond a town with just a couple colleges in it, the year round enthusiasm for comics has grown as well.
The biggest difference I see compared to other towns is the fact that there’s not a lot of people who are preordering comics well in advance, which isn’t a bad thing, just different. The customers are much more casual. They love reading comics, but they don’t necessarily come in asking for a book coming in two months. They’re much more likely to come in and pick up the first three issues of a series they have heard good things about. Honestly, I enjoy that. It makes what is a fun hobby an enjoyable business, as well.
So you must know a thing or two about comics, what are your favorites and why?
I could type an endless list here, but I’ll limit myself to just a few for the sake of brevity!
All Star Superman is probably my single favorite book of all time. It’s just brilliant and touching and everything that makes super hero stories matter in one volume.
Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol is a great run of comics that completely changed how I looked at the possibilities of the comic medium. It is mind-bending work that I recommend regularly.
Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde is a must read. It’s a searing account of the Bosnian War that still resonates and expands the boundaries of what can be done with the comics art form.
Locke & Key is one of the best comics to come out recently. It’s a gripping horror story with great characters and, it turns out, a great heart.
Currently, my favorite books running are Saga, Batman, and Southern Bastards.
That said, I read new fantastic books all the time. This is a modern creative golden age of comics. The average book is so much better than what the average comic was twenty years ago; it’s remarkable.
Any other comments?
Overall, comics are very healthy. Are things perfect? Nope, but nothing ever is perfect. It’s worth remembering, though, that while every other “physical” entertainment medium like magazines, newspapers, books, and music has been experiencing constant shrinking sales, comics and graphic novels have seen consistent growth for years. We may never see a single comic sell a million copies again. However, there’s room in pop culture to sell 50k of a whole lot of different titles!