Comics Relief

It is a shopworn stereotype that comics shops are dank holes of nerddom, in which flabby, ponytailed men argue the finer points of Spider-Man’s relationship with Mary Jane over a game of Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering. More recently, though, there’s a new breed of shop on the scene, one that offers a selection of indie comics and graphic novels—books that have been appearing with increasing regularity in literary-minded publications.

The established fact of this transition in comics retailing is best illustrated by its appearance on television (for when, in recent memory, has a trend first been introduced on network TV?). In a 2007 episode of The Simpsons, the venerable Android’s Dungeon, owned by the irritable and corpulent Comic Book Guy, is given a run for its money by a new shop, the aptly named Coolsville Comics & Toys, a brightly lit, spacious store that carries books like Tintin, Asterix, and Alan Moore’s Lost Girls and features modern art on its walls. Some viewers may even have noticed a rocket ship on the shop’s sign. Surely this wasn’t overlooked by Alex Cox and Mary Gibbons, the proprietors of Rocketship, Brooklyn’s real-life analogue to Coolsville.

Their shop offers an impressive variety of mainstream and indie comics, graphic novels, manga, reprinted strips, minicomics, cartoonists’ sketchbooks, illustrated classic tales, and children’s comics, as well as periodicals such as Juxtapoz and the Comics Journal. Each month, the shop hosts at least one event (they’re almost always packed), and a rotating exhibition of drawings and sketches is displayed on the walls. Like any quality bookstore, where the shelves are a pleasure to browse and the selection seems catered to each visitor’s taste, Rocketship’s proprietors dote on their clientele. Their goal is to make shopping for comics a friendly and inviting experience for first-time buyers, while also stocking the books and monthlies purchased by regulars.

After meeting at St. Mark’s Comics in Brooklyn Heights (Cox worked there for roughly seven years, and Gibbons for four), the pair opted to go into business for themselves. Brooklyn seemed the most likely spot for their venture, and they found a storefront in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill, part of a larger area underserved by comics shops. Financed by only a few small bank loans, Rocketship officially opened in August 2005. “I wanted to have a store that I would shop at,” Cox explains. This meant eschewing the typical setup—dim lighting, character cutouts in the windows, and row upon row of long boxes packed tight with back issues—in favor of accessibility and a focus on the more literary side of the medium. For the first six months, the shop’s inventory was low, and it took Cox and Gibbons about a year to fill the shelves. Nevertheless, Cox enthuses, “Business was way beyond our expectations right from the start.”

The secret of their success is deceptively simple: They run their comics shop like one would a local bookstore. In terms of organization, books are arranged by genre, while monthlies are stacked neatly at waist level and underneath the shelves. “A store I used to work at shelved things by publisher,” Cox muses. “It’s like going to a video store and looking for things by Paramount. It makes no sense.” Instead, the pair take each book on its merits, shelving it where it makes the most sense. Additionally, though Cox and Gibbons have added a table to the center of the store that features a cornucopia of “Staff Favorites” and, more recently, a couple of spinner racks, the aisles are generous, providing more than ample room for the neighborhood’s many stroller-encumbered comics fans.

The pair track monthlies closely so that they tend not to overstock, and they keep a low volume of books. Their inventory, however, is broad, and this is one of Rocketship’s most distinctive qualities. Developing a shop mainly around graphic novels seemed a natural evolution of the market. “We were paying attention,” Cox explains. “Periodical sales have their own niche market, and it seemed that books and graphic novels were attracting a wider audience.” Their belief is that everyone loves comics, even if they don’t yet know it. “If it’s comics, we’ll carry it.” Cox says. “We really try to respond to the local market more than anything else, and we focus on books that we feel there’s a demand for. That’s always going to make us slightly different from another store. Traditionally, stores have stayed very narrow in their focus, and now more than ever there’s so much material that it’s easy to have this kind of range as long as you pay attention and keep it stocked. If we have a full family come in— the grandmother down to the kids—we would be able to find something for everyone pretty quickly. Having anything that’s more than just the expected material is good.”

The neighborhood is perhaps best known as Jonathan Lethem’s childhood stomp-ing ground and home to The Fortress of Solitude’s own brand of superhero, the “flying man.” Cox and Gibbons pride themselves on carrying a generous amount of local work. In fact, some of the most popular books are by locals, including Lethem’s current run on Omega the Unknown, Paul Auster’s graphic adaptation of City of Glass, and Brian Wood’s DMZ, which imagines Manhattan as a bombed-out no-man’s-land caught between the warring United States of America and the Free States. (The book’s gritty art and that of another of Wood’s collaborators were recently on view in Rocketship’s exhibition space, after a signing there by the two artists and Wood.) In 2005, the store was the only one on the East Coast to carry Adrian Tomine’s New York Sketches, a beautiful collection of his ink and watercolor drawings of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The children’s section has expanded exponentially since the shop’s opening, and the demand for these books—which range from Tove Jansson’s Moomin to Jeff Smith’s Bone to a variety of Classics Illustrated—has taken Cox and Gibbons by surprise: “We should have known that there are a lot of kids in this neighborhood, but we didn’t think they’d be as interested as they are.” The explosion of kids’ comics in the last year and a half includes any number of manga titles, and at Rocketship, DCs new line of Minx books is popular among the young female clientele. A comics jam in 2006, organized by localites Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, drew crowds of adults (the free Brooklyn Lager probably didn’t hurt) but also attracted children, who weren’t shy about scratching out their ideas on paneled paper.

Readings and signings were also a part of Rocketship’s operations from the outset. The store’s opening day was host to Cartoon Brooklyn, an art show featuring the work of Madden, Abel, Josh Neufeld, and Dean Haspiel, and it has since hosted events with Gary Panter, Bob Fingerman, Ellen Forney, Brian K. Vaughan, Becky Cloonan, Paul Hornschemeier, Alison Bechdel, and many others. Last December, Paul Karasik offered a slide-show presentation of the work of Fletcher Hanks, on the occasion of the much-anticipated monograph I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, and last July, critic Douglas Wolk gave a PowerPoint presentation on politics and World War Hulk to promote his book Reading Comics.

The exhibitions, too, are an attraction. Though comics art is fast becoming a regular sight in museums and stores, it was once difficult to view it outside of dedicated locations, like New York’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. But Cox and Gibbons knew from the start that they wanted to use their space for showcasing great work: “It acts, at the very least, as a draw—it gets people out here. It also communicates that we promote the artistic aspects of comics, that we believe that comics are more than just a commodity, more than just the pages of books—that they’re an art form.” Many of their exhibitions have featured the work of women artists, and though selecting artists according to gender wasn’t deliberate, it was important to Cox and Gibbons to encourage a wider range of comics. “Once you make a conscious decision to showcase more types of material,” says Cox, “you start to see more Megan Kelsos and more Lauren Weinsteins, because these different artists come from broader backgrounds and their stuff is so unique in its approach.”

A 2007 Village Voice readers poll named Rocketship the best comics-book store in New York (this, among some seventy). Though it seems a feat to be marveled at— and certainly the accolade is much deserved—the fact remains that there are no other shops like Rocketship in the city. It attracts fans from every borough and has proved a draw to tourists (a couple visiting from France browsed while I was there). Still, as Cox summed it up, “It’s sad that having a store that’s accessible is not the norm, and it’s always so surprising to me that people love Rocketship. I just wanted to own a nice comics store. We get so many people that aren’t regular comics fans. It’s easy to come and browse and find something for everyone.”

Nicole Rudick is managing editor of Bookforum