There are many of us of multiple generations who have a story of being embarrassed for “reading funny books.” Maybe you were derided by a parent, maybe picked on by kids at school. Maybe, like me, you even defended someone on the school bus one day in high school when they were getting picked on for reading comic books.
My Comic Shop Country, directed by Anthony Desiato, is a personal film that manages to share a common story for so many of us: being a comic book nerd and hanging out at our local comic book shop. There are no Todd McFarlanes or Avi Arads in this documentary. This is a love letter to the physical places, the owners of those places, and their employees. Places where fans like us get our comic books and graphic novels. In these shops you will get passionate recommendations by these people, you will get turned on to new titles and you can pick up old favorites you have been missing.
The documentary shows a history of the comic industry that old-timers remember well. “Funny Books” as they were called by uncool people back in the day were often only available at drugstores, convenience stores (7-11, Circle K) and in a corner of Mom and Pop gas stations. The comic shop as a business didn’t gain traction in most areas of the US until the 1980s.
In My Comic Shop Country owners of shops relate a business model that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed for decades. Shop owners must gauge interest for titles that aren’t available for months and pre-order them on their own dime. Every comic shop has the “Holds”- folders or boxes- created for dedicated customers where their favorites are tucked in as soon as they arrive on delivery day. It’s the original “shopping cart,” but the comic shop depends on you purchasing the books in your folder every week. If you weren’t aware, comic shops are left with almost all comic books they order as inventory. There are virtually no returns back to the distributor. Shops live and die by their customers purchasing new titles regularly and also digging through the long boxes to purchase back issues which are almost always drastically marked down.
Anthony Desiato and crew zig-zagged across America, from California to Vegas, North Carolina to Delaware, New Jersey and beyond, visiting twenty shops with this Kickstarter funded project. We get to meet local characters in Desiato’s journey, including those from the shop he worked at, an “Alternate Realities” location in Scarsdale, New York. Desiato filmed the very personal story of the shop’s owner and the workers closing their location in 2015.
A thread that ties all of the shops together is their creation of welcoming spaces with a sense of community and camaraderie. Desiato’s film also shows the range in gender, diversity and ages in comic book fandom, which was woefully neglected in decades past. The diverse fans have ALWAYS been there; just as in other mediums and genres, they weren’t recognized or represented.
People are currently bombarded with media. The comic book shop is a shopping experience of something tangible being sold human to human. Shop displays are not designed by some corporate entity but curated by a fan for fans. The milestone for a young person of buying that “first comic book,” that all important gateway book, is a common story mentioned by many of the interviewees. By the end of the doc I feel even more love and admiration for these people. Watching shop owners and employees relate to their customers and friends and how important it is to share new titles (or older titles) with them reminded of my own good times spent in comic shops.
Scenes of people lining up for midnight releases and book signings feels even more poignant right now given the current Covid-19 pandemic. In the list of “Things I Want To Do When All This Is Over” I was reminded to add “go visit my local comic shop and spend some money.” I’m sending a wish to the Goddesses and Gods that it’s still open.
To celebrate My Comic Shop Country I was inspired to contact a buddy of mine, comic book artist Roland Paris, to get his take on the film.
Artist Roland Paris has worked for Marvel Comics on titles such as “Adventures of Spider-Man,” “She Hulk” “Black Panther,” “Squadron Supreme” and was a full-time artist at Cross Gen Comics in Tampa, Florida (RIP Cross Gen). He’s currently working on his own creator-owned project, at a snail’s pace, and he hopes to have it finished before the apes evolve enough to take over the planet.
Simone C.: You and I have known each other for quite awhile and we experienced those exciting upheavals in the comic book publishing industry in the 1990s.We also frequented our own local comic shop back in the day and you became really good friends with the owner. What can you tell me about your times at our old shop, Jokur’s Palace? How much were you aware of what a comic shop owner goes through?
Roland Paris: My time at the shop was a lot of fun. I was welcomed first as a customer, then as a friend. I hung around at the shop quite a bit, and eventually got hired on to work behind the counter. There was a great sense of camaraderie between the owners and the group of regulars that were there every Wednesday when new books came in, and who also hung out on the weekends. When I started working, I got to see what it was like to be behind the counter, recommending books, helping with the Diamond book, and just be an ambassador for the store and the industry. Even though the store closed in 1996, I am still very close with many people that I met there.
Simone C.: I just want to get this out of the way now: fuck that noise about calling an inker a tracer.
Paris: Ha! Thank you! I love Kevin Smith and what he does, but damn, those first 5 minutes of “Chasing Amy” has led to SO many people quoting that line at countless conventions that I am a guest at. Inking is definitely NOT tracing. I have to make decisions about line weight, shading, texture, and lighting. An inker has to know how to draw, because sometimes we get very loose pencils, and we have to decide all of the above things and more, including anatomy corrections and perspective tweaks. All while keeping the look consistent, and not overpowering or imposing my style on the original pencils. I’ve often said that I don’t want a reader to pick up a book I’ve worked on and say “Oh! I can tell Roland inked this!” I want them to say “Wow, this is the best this penciler has looked in a long time!” Pencilers and inkers work in tandem to produce line art, and when it comes together properly, that book is better as a whole.
Simone C.: This film is making me feel extreme guilt about my Holds folder I used to have at Jokur’s Palace and how often I neglected to pick up my books. Were you better about buying your Holds? Have you had a firsthand relationship with any other comic shop since the 90s that had to close? What were some of the problems they dealt with?
Roland: I picked up my books every Wednesday when they came out. I very rarely left anything in my hold folder for more than two weeks. I have shopped at many comic book shops over the years since Jokur’s closed. While some have been great, others have been awful, reminding me quite a bit of The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. When an owner or store employee has that mindset, it just pushed customers away, in my opinion. I’ve seen one store owner who berated and made fun of customers as soon as they leave, not realizing that those people were friends, or at least friendly with me. I’ve seen another owner go out of his way to make customers feel welcome, even giving away books to kids that didn’t have enough money to buy them that day. It’s all about how you treat the customer.
Simone C.: What are you reading right now? Who and what have you excited in comic book and graphic novel publishing?
Paris: I really don’t read a ton of stuff anymore. I’m currently enjoying “Conan The Barbarian” from Marvel. I am also a huge fan of “Low” from Image. And, you can’t beat anything by Terry Moore or Eric Powell.
Simone C.: Online comics: yay or nay? Why?
Paris: I’m not a huge fan of online books, because I love the feel of a real book in my hands, The tactile experience, the smell of the ink, in my opinion, can’t be replaced by a digital file. Also, as an artist, I know that some companies do not pay royalties to artists on digital books, only physical print books. So, that’s another reason I like the actual printed books.
Simone C.: I loved MY COMIC SHOP COUNTRY. Just hearing people talk about their first comic book buying experiences was making me emotional. What is your earliest memory of buying comic books? The first ones you “bought with your own money?
Paris: My first memories of comics WAY pre-date comic book shops. I got my first book from a grocery store in New Orleans in the mid-70’s. It was an issue of Aquaman. I’m not sure what the issue number was, but I do know that I still have it somewhere in one of many of my longboxes. Later, I would seek out books anywhere I could find them; convenience stores, grocery stores, 2nd hand book stores. Then, actual comic book stores started popping up, and I started shopping at various stores while in college, then at Jokur’s when I moved to Baton Rouge.
Simone C.: Have you had that moment where you flipped through a “Previews” just to find your work?
Paris: Oh yeah. It was a thrill seeing it the first few books I worked on. But now, I get a kick seeing a book I’ve worked on at a Barnes & Noble or something like that, somewhere other than a comic book store.
Simone C.: I’ve enjoyed seeing you hit the road for the past several years and do the cons. I’m going to age us again, but it’s mind-blowing to see whole conventions, films and events based on an art form we’ve loved since we were kids. And the fanbase has been changing. What have you noticed in the past several years about the fans coming to your table at a con or signing? Do you have any particular encounters that really touched you? Any negative ones?
Paris: I really have noticed that cons are now a family experience. When I first started attending, then doing shows, it was predominantly socially awkward guys with questionable hygiene. Now, it’s all inclusive. And that is so wonderful to see. Kids, moms, couples, people of all ages enjoying the show. As far as encounters that really touch me, it’s usually seeing the wonder in a kid’s eyes, or having them ask me for art advice, and having them really pay attention and soak it in. It’s also wonderful to have someone who may be impaired, or on the spectrum, come to me and I do my best to make them feel welcome and important. Even though society has become more inclusive, sometimes these fans still feel marginalized, and not understood. I may be the only person that day who has treated them positively, and to see them walk away happy and smiling, and better yet, come back to talk later or the next day, makes me very happy. Negative experiences? I try not to let things get to me, but the one thing that still makes me a bit edgy is the above mentioned line from “Chasing Amy”. I know a lot of the commenters think they are being clever or funny, but damn… I want to say to them “I’ve only heard that eight times today, thanks for bringing up again!”
Simone C.: Did you notice the guy in My Comic Shop Country who said “The biggest problem for the industry isn’t online sales….. it’s Marvel and DC?” I feel déjà vu, because, you know, the 90s. It’s like the indie boom (Image Comics, Valiant, and later CrossGen, etc) happened but didn’t even make a dent. Without biting the hand that feeds, what can you say about Marvel and DC?
Paris: Marvel and DC both have their place. They both are the biggest companies, with the most recognizable characters. They are the “fast food” of comics. They produce large quantity, not exactly mentally nutritious products (although there are always exceptions) and also offer the most exposure to writers and artists. Other companies like Image and Boom, produce books that are more like specialty restaurants. Not as widely palatable, but with more substance and variety.
Simone C.: The CGC grading system of back issues blew me away in My Comic Shop Country. I’ve been out of the game too long and didn’t know this was a bigger thing than it ever was before. I’m struck by the fact that someone can sell someone else’s work for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars and those artists aren’t getting any of that. How does that make you feel might be a corny question given that there’s no way to change the situation, but hey: how does that make you feel as an artist?
Paris: Well, I have to understand that as an independent contractor, I’ve been paid for that work, and the companies also allow me to keep my original art to sell. So, that allows me extra income from the work. My big problem with CGC books is that I feel that it over-inflates the value of the book. Also, it is a bit annoying to have someone come to a con and ask me to sign a book that they say they are immediately going to get slabbed and graded. I, and the writers and other artists, don’t put in all of that work to not have a book read, or even opened, just to preserve it for a high grade for re-sale or collectability. I’d much rather have someone bring me a book that I can tell has been read more than once, has a little wear and tear. That shows me that they appreciate what we do. I do, however, have no problem with slabbing and preserving books that are rare. So, it’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Simone C.: Is there still a market for original inked pages or has that changed since you’ve been working in the industry?
Paris: Oh, there very much still is a market for original art. I can usually sell a page for twice (or more) than what I was paid to do it. It is a huge part of supplementing my income as an artist. It is one of the main reasons why I do not do digital inking. You can’t sell a jpg. for a couple hundred dollars or more.
Simone C.: What was your biggest take away from My Comic Shop Country?
Paris: There were several things I took away from the film. One was the camaraderie that I remembered from my days at Jokur’s Palace in the 90s. I was also very aware of the “old guard” vs. “new guard” of shops. I’ve been in both, and it was readily evident how different they are from each other while providing basically the same product. One of the things I did not hear, that I wish I would have, was what I feel is the desperate need to have books back in places other than only comic book shops. The industry needs to start putting books back in convenience stores, etc. to grab that kid and make an impulse buy. I also think those books in the stores other than shops should be a separate line, and not just reprints like DC is doing at Walmart, printed on cheaper paper, and sold at a lower price. Then, once the reader is interested in wanting more, they can graduate to shops.
Simone C.: All time, desert island titles that you could never live without and keep going back to?
Paris: Easy: Moon Knight. Strangers In Paradise. The Goon. Kabuki.
Simone C.: Give me some links. Where we find you online? Where can we get some of your original art?
Paris: I’m sort of a luddite when it comes to that. I really only have a FB page. And it’s not even dedicated to specifically art. If you want original art, you can contact me there, and I can do commissions, or, if you know of a specific page that you want, ask about it, and I will let you know if I still have it for sale.
Roland, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to Tom Holland’s Terror Time!
When businesses open back up and you exit your cave, please hit up the shop and buy your comic book “Holds.” Support these havens of nerdom, our Paradise Islands, these Fortresses of Introvert and Extrovert Solitude — your local comic book shop.