Mental Health & Comics: Community and a Safe Place
Updated: Sep 30
The Social Value of A Comic Store
Welcome to the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series that focuses on different elements of mental health as related to comic books and pop culture. Sometimes the focus will be on the value of the medium of comics in regard to aiding in the general well being and promotion of mental health in audiences. Sometimes I'll want to focus on the role of comic book shops in their communities. Other times I'll want to shine a spotlight on the toll the comic book retail industry can take and some recommendations I may have if you decide to work within it.
This is a series to discuss and bring to focus certain elements of the medium and industry that I don't think many people take much time to reflect upon. At least, not until something really terrible happens and it becomes a hot topic for a while until it's buried by the next terrible thing.
Something to keep in mind is that I am just a former comic book retailer, so I don't have the perspective or experience of a trained social worker or therapist. I just feel that after 25 years of experience I may be able to share some insight on some of the things I've seen and worked through in regard to trying to maintain and grow a comic storefront that we tried our best to make welcoming and socially progressive.
I propose that there's a certain point where a retail comic store evolves into being more than just a place to purchase comics and more of a social hotspot. Depending on a variety of factors (square footage, layout, brightness, inclusion of all-ages material, a broad spectrum of representation), a comic book store can quickly become a nexus for people of all walks of life to find a sense of community and hopefully safety.
One of the key issues of any comic store is to overcome the unfortunate tendency for them to become the archetypal 'boys club'. Statistically the majority of comic stores are male owned and operated, and depending on the size of the store and local community there may not be much room or budget for much of a staff. The store will reflect the personality of those who run it, so unless it has a rather large and diverse staff or the sole operator is especially progressive or savvy enough to realize that broader appeal means better business, then the stores chances of lapsing into a cartoon parody of itself are unfortunately a bit higher.
Between digital comics and Amazon and other online sellers offering graphic novels and more at a bargain, there's very little financial reason to shop at comic stores. If you decide to go, you are generally doing so because you A) want to support local shops, B) have a preference for physically selecting your products, and/or C) want an actual person-to-person connection in your experience. This is why you've spent the time to hopefully shop around and find the store that's the best fit for you and your tastes, where you feel comfortable and enjoy the atmosphere.
Depending on the store, this is where a lot of the community building starts to happen. It can be nurtured through special events, book clubs, signings, Free Comic Book Day, whatever.
It can very well just be developed one person at a time as well, there's really no set method in creating this kind of place. The important thing is that through a series of mutually agreeable interactions, customers have (hopefully) embraced a retail storefront as a part of their neighborhood/city and that the store (also hopefully) enriches that community.
Despite the enormous strides of comics and other pop culture have made in becoming mainstream over the past few decades, this sort of fiction will always find its strongest foothold in the minds of the excluded. The escapism inherent in most fantasy and sci-fi lends itself to being readily embraced, and as the superhero genre expanded to include more representation (albeit slowly) it opened the floodgate to more readers seeking to identify with a broader range of voices. When comic fiction champions the stories of the other it acts as a beacon that can draw in a readership that is starved to see itself represented and to feel comfortable among others who enjoy and seek out the same material.
One day I noticed an online review of our store where the person explained that they would come in to our store after school to escape bullying and felt safe being in a place of like minded people. That struck me because while I had realized we were a place people could feel comfortable in, I did not realize we had ever been or could ever be a place where someone sought any sort of sanctuary. I think it was at that moment that I conceived that there was a significant difference between being a 'good place' and being a 'safe place'.
The reasons people may view a comic store as a sanctuary are just as varied and unique as the people themselves. The most common reason I've encountered is that the comic store is simply a place to decompress and be surrounded by one of your hobbies or passions, and people who share those same passions. Another reason could be that you're just beginning to be exposed to the medium, and the store you've gone to may possibly stock a more varied range of books that includes something with an element of representation you can identify with and find empowering.
I've had a staggering number of customers who have mentioned that it meant a lot for them to see and purchase a book featuring some level of queer representation, or something with a prominent black hero, or a book that doesn't treat women as fantasy sex objects, or something else along these lines. To see yourself in the fiction you look to for escape or inspiration is a powerful thing, and it's amazing that we still have to repeat this common sense to the publishers and companies that still don't hear or understand it.
The impact of seeing oneself reflected in the material they are reading is one of the many reasons our store became a non-profit with the goal stocking libraries and classrooms with comics. That lesson of representation is not lost on the educators we gave grants to, and it was a joy to stock our all-ages sections and the rest of the store with as much a range of representation as we could. This increase in stock also in turn raised the profile of the material to the regular and irregular customer base, as we saw some amazing movement on all-ages titles which in turn meant that we could see an increase in families and younger readers. And you know you've become a safe place when you see how many kids leave your store happy with the fact that they have something new to read.
One of the aspects of people coming into a store like ours so that they could feel better is that they may be dealing with various levels of anxiety, depression, or other forms of distress. And while I'll leave a lot of that discussion about the profound effect comics may have in dealing with those issues for another time, it's worth mentioning that often times simply being surrounded by the material without even having to purchase it can aid greatly in one's mental health.
The act of socially engaging in a place that makes you feel safe, a place that's literally dressed in your preferred media and art aesthetics, can create an invaluable buffer against the stress of the world. Whether it's a form of distraction or simply a means of reducing the outside factors that can enhance stress in a social setting, finding and fostering that safe place can make all the difference in helping someone in processing their various anxieties and more.
Once that safe place can be found and can possibly become a part of a social routine, then that person can also partake of the possible various community aspects that place may have to offer. Maybe they have a low-key book club and you can participate. One thing we always stressed about our book clubs is that you didn't actually have to have read the book we were discussing, but you could participate and learn more about it. Perhaps the store has gaming nights, or a robust online community (this is the era of Covid19 after all). Regardless of what, the store may offer more than one doorway to engaging with other like minded people in such a way as to lessen any social anxiety.
A comic book store is a place of business, but in general it's also a passion project. This industry is so difficult to survive in that it takes that element of passion to see any value in pursuing it. When pursued with inclusiveness and empathy, that store has a very real chance to become more than just a store and more to the community around it. When a store becomes a safe place for its customers and community members it can become another home of sorts, as well as a waystation to meet other like minded individuals and possibly new friends or more.
This was all sort of a long road to say hey, support your local stores. You never know, it could end up being a place where a kid can hide from bullies and find some peace.