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The comics fandom has become contentious of late. Are modern comics too political? Or have comics always been political, and fans just don’t like the kind they’re getting lately? Is a prominent DC Comics artist a secret Nazi? There’s nothing the Internet loves like drama, after all, and in some comics circles you can barely breathe for hashtags.

Do I have an official position on all this? No. I don’t have a prayer of keeping up with the ongoing arguments, and not being inside that particular industry, I don’t have any special information to contribute. But some of the talk centers around sexism in the nerd-o-sphere, and that’s gotten me thinking about the role of comics in my own life–and how my neighborhood comic shop shaped me as a writer and a female geek. ‘Cause at the end of the day, it’s about the stories.

As with most things in my life, I came at my interest in comics from an odd angle. When I was small, the only superhero comic in the house was the 1965 Jules Feiffer compilation Great Comic Book Heroes, which was part Golden Age one-shot issues and part history of the early comic industry. I remember picking through it at age five or six, trying in vain to follow an atmospheric Will Eisner story about the Spirit hunting a cursed jewel, and coming away from it with only one real memory: the Spirit didn’t wear socks.

I knew of other comic book heroes, but they were mainly familiar as street art. Our neighborhood comic store–Variety Comics, a basement storefront on Western Avenue–had enormous painted murals of Spider-Man, Batman, Spawn, the Thing, Doctor Doom, Superman, and the Hulk, each in subtly different styles that must have come from comics decades apart. They were, quite literally, larger-than-life heroic figures, and when I walked past, I could feel their eyes on me.

But when I got old enough to be given a little money and finally visit the comic shop on my own, I didn’t go looking for Spider-Man or Spawn. Money was in short supply, after all, and a single issue of a modern comic would cost me two or three whole dollars! Luckily, Variety Comics had just the thing: blind bag deals, ten comics for four dollars. True, you had no idea what you were getting, and good luck hoping to follow a multi-issue story–some of these comics were ten or fifteen years old, musty newsprint dredged up from God only knew what primordial stockroom. But if you wanted a crash course in the sheer breadth of the superhero comics industry, those blind bags were the place to start.

I remember:

Magnus, Robot Fighter: I wasn’t even certain I had actually encountered this one until I Googled it last week. To my adult self, it sounds like something my kid self had made up out of boredom. But no, it was real. I remember only vague images of a man in yellow or red, with a magnificent ’80s mullet, karate-chopping robots in a gleaming futuristic city.

Power Pack: By the time I got them, the Power Pack issues were years old. These were different from the X-Men comics I sometimes got: the idea of the youngest child possessing the most destructive power stuck with me, and I wanted to know more. Luckily, my older brother found more issues, and we were able to put together a set of about twelve consecutive Power Packs–one of the first complete comic arcs I read.

Ragman: One of my blind bags had the very first issue of a Ragman run. The story stuck with me in a way few others did: a suit made of rags, invested with golem-like power to protect the residents of the Jewish ghettos during World War II. It seemed to be the next logical phase in the Isaac Bashevis Singer stories I’d heard as a small child, and I always hoped I’d find more Ragman in my blind bags. Sadly, it never happened.

Flaming Carrot: I had no idea what the heck I was reading at the time, but all the women had awfully big breasts. Now, almost twenty years later, I can appreciate the self-titled “World’s First Surrealist Superhero”–who else is going to feature a story about a giant, self-aware, malevolent chicken wing?

Marshal Law: Quick, think of an ’80s/’90s comic that isn’t suitable for a sheltered twelve-year-old Catholic schoolgirl. Did you think of Marshal Law? No? Well, you should have, because this satirical superhero comic featured rape, bondage, more rape, more bondage, and, of course, quite a lot of graphic violence. Like Ragman, I only ever found one issue in the blind bags; unlike Ragman, I didn’t go looking for more. I was hardly traumatized, just confused about why everyone was wearing masks with zippers over the mouth.

Today, I have two large shelves in my library devoted to trade paperbacks and comics encyclopedias–mostly mainstream stuff, X-Men and G.I. Joe and similar. But I’ve never forgotten those blind bags, or the musty smell of newsprint and plastic when I’d step down into the half-basement where Variety Comics was headquartered.

As a writer, I’m always looking for a new angle. I like stories about the out-of-the-way and the odd: my instinct is always to look slightly to the side of the hero, trying to see the person in the shadows who helps make things work. I like support personnel, fish out of water, monsters with day jobs, heroes making the best of a bad hand, and henchmen. (Especially henchmen. Marvel, call me: I have an idea that’ll knock your socks off.) In short, I like stories that haven’t been told as much, or characters that haven’t gotten the love they deserve.

And that, I think, was the lesson of those blind bags. It’s too easy to look at superhero comics as just being the Avengers or the Justice League: big names, iconic faces, high-profile stories. But when I went picking through my latest acquisition from Variety, I never knew what I was going to find or who I was going to meet. It might be Ragman (where’s the next issue, dammit?), or Magnus, Robot Fighter (what’s a Harbinger?), or even Marshal Law (that outfit looks very uncomfortable). Could be a man, woman, child, alien, or lunatic wearing a giant carrot mask. It was, in its own way, an experience of complete democracy and equality. It said: there’s room for everything in comics, and the world is so much cooler and weirder when we just let everyone go for it and see what happens.

A snapshot of social media shows me that some women find comic shops and game shops an uncomfortable environment. A similar snapshot shows me that some men would like those places to be uncomfortable environments. But for every jerk who’s trying to make the local shop his own private fiefdom, there’s five who just want to sell comics, buy comics, talk comics, write or draw comics, or recommend good comics to the woman who’s just come into a new shop for the first time and isn’t sure what she’s looking for. Because at the end of the day, comics are for everyone.

I hope my fellow geeky women aren’t discouraged by the current drama in the comicsphere. In fact, I think now’s as good a time as any for us to go buy some comics. Pick a few titles at random and see who you meet: they might surprise you!

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