This story originally appeared on CW33.
You could call it nostalgia, but that word implies a bittersweet tinge, which isn’t quite accurate. Whatever the adjective is, for many walking into a comic shop has the ability to elicit very specific thoughts and feelings, or at least assertively let you know where you are.
Perhaps the sights and even smells remind you of frequent trips as a kid with a parent; for most, it’s also an enjoyable space for the present. The former is what I experienced the first time I walked into Zeus Comics here in Dallas, Texas – an immediate rush of familiar sensations and memories, even though by that point it’d probably been 10-15 years since I’d entered a comic shop.
The intent here isn’t to just wax poetic about a comic store. However, for kids and adults alike, they can be very important spaces for hobbies and also for much more significant reasons.
Unfortunately, they can also be a space of intimidation and harassment. Look no further than the hostility of Comicsgate, a reactionary movement against diversity, similar to Gamergate, which usually targets women and minorities within those spaces.
Given their focus on creating a welcoming space for anyone — from seasoned comic fans to curious new readers, for kids, adults, women, men, the LGBTQ, and people of color — and for their work creating workshops, clubs and events to foster community and inclusion, Zeus Comics is undeniably a community change maker.
More than just a comic shop, owner Richard Neal and his team harnesses superheroes and pop culture to be a beacon of inclusion, diversity, and of course fun, within the Dallas-Fort Worth community as a whole.
A comic store might not be the first place you think of as community-builder or change maker. But when you consider that even fictional stories are a reflection of ourselves and identities, it starts to make sense. With the field of comic characters and creators becoming more diverse, so is the fan base. Zeus Comics is an integral part in creating a space for that community and addressing the issues that still plague it.
“We can be that place where they don’t have to put up a barrier or wall”RICHARD NEAL
Richard Neal opened Zeus Comics in July of 2000 and it’s become much more than just a retail store. It serves as a sort of comic book bar, a confessional, and a community space.
“One of Zeus’ primary missions is to just make an environment that is welcoming for everybody that is into comics and fandom” he says, “that’s been the biggest challenge to overcome for a lot of stores.”
And after 19 years, it very much is that welcoming and inclusive place, regardless if you’re there to just buy a comic or connect to the community. Some people come in and talk about the latest happenings in a fictional universe, others come to connect and open up on a deeper level.
Richard says “sometimes we end up being a little bit of a confessional. We sometimes tend to be a transformative place for people as well.”
Trans-gendered customers have come in and talked about their family and what they’re going through in their home life. Other’s find it an outlet to process death and loss.
“We can be that place where they don’t have to put up a barrier or wall” he says. “It’s nice to be able to provide people some comfort sometimes.”
Girls and Women Welcome
The comic industry itself, like many tied to cultural expression, has it’s fair share of issues both past and present. A lot of work is needed, and is being done, with issues such as the portrayal and objectification of women and the lack of diversity in characters and creators.
“It is not always welcoming, and that’s why we work so hard to make sure everyone feels comfortable”KELI WOLFE
This also trickles down to the experience people have when they walk into a comic store.
Keli Wolfe, Zeus Comics’ manager, knows first-hand the experience woman in particular have had and the unwelcome environment created in shops and online.
“It is not always welcoming, and that’s why we work so hard to make sure everyone feels comfortable” she says, “because of experiences of having walked into a store and been uncomfortable. Being followed around, being leered at, or even disrespected because why am I there if I’m a woman?”
Keli and the store have created a space where girls and women are welcome and can connect with other females in the industry. Zeus Comics have created and hosted workshops for Girl Scouts to learn about comics, how to create their own, and meet women working in the industry. All culminating in the girls earning their comic book badge.
After the success of the Girl Scout workshops, Wolfe and the volunteers started their own comic book club, The Birds Of Prose. Anyone who identifies as female is welcome, and the group regularly hosts meetings and Skype sessions with female creators or creators of female protagonists.
She says “we can meet at Zeus, close the store and we can meet and have a moment to be women and talk about women’s issues with these creators. What they’ve gone through, what they overcame and how many glass ceilings they’ve broken. It’s really inspirational.”
Describing the response from starting an all-women book club, Keli recalls “there’s still Twitter and Facebook in the world. So having a women’s book club, I did get a lot of harassment on Twitter.” When the harassment inevitably does come, the community is there. “You build up a good armor and you have the people that support you which is the store, the customers, the women, and they will come to bat for you and they did.”
Wednesdays mark new comic book day — the day of the week new titles go on sale at retailers. Traversing “the wall” of new comics can be a weekly ritual for many. Up until recently, however, something was missing from that wall for some readers – themselves.
That too, is changing.
“We now have openly gay characters in comic books, which is fantastic,” says Richard. “Is there enough? No, there’s not enough. But if you walk down the wall, and somebody were to come and I can say ‘I’ve got a comic book for you, I’ve got a character that represents who you are.’ That’s where we need to move.”
Along with their efforts to create an environment welcoming to women and girls, the team at Zeus have started clubs and events to foster a community for LGBTQ fans.
Richard: “We’ve done LGBT mixers in the past, we did one just this past year, we have a women’s book club, we have an LGBT book club going on right now.”
It’s all comes back to creating the space that has previously not existed for many.
“All of these small things that we can do to put ourselves out in the community” he says, “and to be a place that the community wants to come to is super important to us.”
“Anytime you get to tell your story, it matters. So comics matter.”KELI WOLFE
Comic Books Matter
It could be argued that for many, in the end, the superheroes and fantastical worlds really aren’t why comics are important. They’re important because it’s a chance to express your imagination, to be a part of a community and see yourself in these stories.
“That’s what we want to see on these covers. We want to see ourselves” says Richard.
For Keli — “anytime you get to tell your story, it matters” she says, “so comics matter.”
So building a community around these stories, matters. That’s what Zeus has done and continues to do so as the characters and fans become more diverse and representative.
“There’s something about a comic book shop that is so ingrained in the community, that makes it worthwhile” says Richard. “It’s so rewarding, to be apart of it.”