I don’t remember the first time I walked into a comic shop. It should have been a monumental moment in my life, considering that I now help run three shops in the Triangle and help put on three comic-book conventions in North Carolina. But the truth is, because I grew up around comics, I failed to file away that memory as important.
My dad devoured comics as a child. Then, like everyone else, he started collecting again in the ‘90s. My childhood was filled with days spent digging through the huge plastic bins tucked away in his closet, reading and rereading every issue he had.
But despite their presence in my life, comics didn’t feel wholly mine. I always tied them to my dad. He was the coolest person I knew, and to me, comics were one of the secrets to becoming just as cool one day. Trips to the comic shop were mainly an excuse for us to connect.
Then junior high hit. I didn’t know it yet, but I was experiencing my first crush on a girl. She was in all my classes, super smart, and I had no idea why, but I desperately wanted to be her friend. When we found out we both liked comics, a friendship was born.
The only problem? She was a DC fan, and I grew up in a strict Marvel-only household. I felt completely out of my depth. I went straight to my public library and borrowed the entirety of their DC graphic novel section. By the time I was through, I had read decades’ worth of Batman continuity, and came to two realizations: I loved comics, and I might be sort of gay.
I was fourteen and terrified. So I did what any nerdy teenager facing an Identity Crisis would do: I turned back to the library. I researched queerness like I could understand everything if I just read enough. Comics had been part of the initial revelation, so I tried to make them part of the solution to my newfound questions. Unsurprisingly, the library’s queer graphic novel selection was pretty sparse, consisting solely of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. It was time to journey back to the comic shop.
There were two local comic shops in my area. The first could best be described as the tomb of a very specific kind of hoarder. Comics littered every inch of the store, with no organization system known to man. There was no indie section, no one to ask for help.
The only thing I remember about the second shop was how uninterested the staff was in helping a teen with a bunch of questions. I asked for Brian K. Vaughan’s hit series Runaways, which featured a lesbian superhero, and they scoffed. It turned out comic shops were not the Meccas of cool that I thought they were, so I stayed away.
Then, in college, I found Chapel Hill Comics. The whole shop was an indie section. I practically lived there freshman year, spending my days wandering the stacks and talking comics with the staff. I hung around so much they eventually offered me a job. That was where I discovered Love and Rockets, Dykes to Watch Out For, Marvel’s Young Avengers, and other works that transformed my understanding of queerness. I came out, got a girlfriend, and above all kept reading comics.
After the unfortunate closing of Chapel Hill Comics, Alan Gill, the owner of Ultimate Comics, hired me to work at his shops, and I haven’t looked back. As operations manager, I help manage all our locations throughout the Triangle, and spend my days doing my favorite thing: talking comics. My goal has always been to make the shops the antithesis of the shops of my childhood. That means making them as inclusive as possible and working to carry a breadth of titles and genres.
Comics and queerness have always been intertwined in my life. I never want a kid looking for themselves in comics to come up empty handed, the way I had. At Ultimate Comics Cary, I’ve started building an LGBTQ section with a focus on a diverse selection for all age groups. Here’s what I’ve learned in five years as a retailer curating queer comics:
Having LGBTQ identified staff is probably the best and simplest way to have a great LGBTQ section. Queer staff members will be passionate about developing the section and will have suggestions on what to include. They’ll also be there to put the books in the hands of customers. Had any of those shops I visited as a kid had any queer staff, I know that I would have realized how important comics were to me at a much younger age.
It’s also important to remember that the LGBTQ community is not a monolith where one representation fits all. The queer community is made up of a wide array of people with different sexualities and gender identities, not to mention races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. When ordering for the stores, I try to make sure my selection is reflective of such a diverse community.
This means carrying books that feature diverse protagonists. It also means carrying comics that can be read by customers of all ages. Being a young queer kid can be a tough, alienating experience. Seeing people similar to you in stories can make a world of difference. The one title I managed to find at my public library, Fun Home, is an amazing graphic novel, but it wasn’t the book I needed at fourteen. Those were Lumberjanes and Young Avengers, comics I wasn’t able to get my hands on until college.
In truth, there isn’t necessarily a science in curating LGBTQ comics. The secret to success is caring enough to make the effort. It doesn’t hurt that we’re in a golden age of LGBTQ comics. There is finally a wide range of diverse stories being told. Jeremy Whitley, a comics writer and Durham native, is one example of a creator whose work is featured prominently in our LGBTQ section. His young-adult friendly titles Raven: The Pirate Princess and Marvel’s Unstoppable Wasp both feature queer themes and diverse casts and are well-loved by the younger readers in our shops.
Comics are, at their simplest form, a storytelling medium. But to me, they’re much more than that. They’ve been vital in understanding who I am as a person, and without them, it’s unlikely I would have come to terms with my queer identity the way I have. At Ultimate Comics, I work to make sure all our stores can serve as a haven for anyone who walks through the doors, especially the queer kids who come in looking to find the stories that will help them better understand their own.
This story was adapted from an article in Selling Comics, a publication for retailers by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which fights censorship in comics.