Comics haven’t always been cool. Like most pop culture phenomena, their status has waxed and waned, vulnerable to the socio-economic and political changing variables of the decades. Unlike many fads though, comics never truly disappeared—they just went underground, laying dormant, waiting for Robert Downey Jr to come along and breathe a kind of rockstar life back into their pages.
Brisbane was never previously cool, but it’s definitely coming out of puberty. Interesting things happen most weeks now and the exciting people have quit their former mass exodus patterns. However, two comic book shops opened within about six months of each other this year and that isn’t just coincidence. Junky Comics and Secret Identity Comics are different breeds too. Not only from the stereotypical white-teen-male den-of-nerds comic shop, but also different from each other.
Vlada’s band Major Leagues toured supporting San Cisco this year and she opened Junky Comics in the music hub of West End, right across the road from local legend Jet Black Cat vinyl store. Handmade zines sit on shelves beside the Batman section and after hours, the store becomes a gallery for local illustrators. “I really wanted to have a home for people who’ve read graphic novels for years,” she says from the couch in the back of the store, “People study Persepolis in schools now, you know? There’s a place in the world for it. I want to show that there is this whole other side to what people normally think about comic books.”
The spike in popularity that comic books are currently enjoying is undoubtedly connected to the waves of comic-based movies released in the last three to five years. Last year, six of the top ten grossing films of the year were linked to a graphic novel, not to mention huge TV shows like The Walking Dead.
Secret Identity Comics opened just over a month ago and owners Tash and Christine said the final catalyst for starting the business was finding their current CBD location. “It encapsulates every single thing that we want our comic store to be,” explains Tash, “because of the wideness of the space and the lack of shelves, when we opened up we saw people coming in and talking to each other and just starting conversations with strangers.” Christine adds that the community they’re trying to create is one where people can discuss comics freely and that Secret Identity Comics is a symptom of a progressive approach to the medium.
Looking more broadly to sci-fi and fantasy literature, it’s hard to argue coincidence is responsible for both a greater diversity of people represented in comics, and the fact that the latest Star Wars movie has a female lead and a black leading support character. “Comic books are exploring different markets more than ever now too—not just superheroes—and the stories are much more diverse and reach a much wider audience.”
The fad factor hasn’t escaped Vlada’s attention and she gets excited talking about how comics are “super trendy” now, but is quick to explain that her clientele is a mixed bag. “I get half young people who are trendy and really want to find the latest cool new thing, but then the rest are like men and women in their 50s and 60s who want stuff with social commentary, who have been collecting alternative comics, like Robert Crump, for decades.” Being in the CBD, Secret Identity Comics also describe a half-half mix of customers, but with the split being suits and non-suits.
All three owners admit that the best moments are when customers come up to the counter and make recommendations. The shelves in these stores are filled with highly-curated stock, each title hand-picked and read cover-to-cover at least once before being offered for sale. “People come in who have been enjoying comics for 50 years, and they know so much more than me,” says Vlada, “and they make the best recommendations.”
Both businesses may continue to see success by offering something online purchases can’t—a real life experience. After all, community, conversation, and connection are the only things keeping bricks-and-mortar retail running this century. Vlada points to the carpet at her feet and explains that sometimes she turns around and there are a bunch of kids sitting together reading, pointing things out to each other, “and that’s the greatest.” Secret Identity Comics also have an events calendar heating up, but Tash says there’s something undeniably “tactile” about comics that’ll keep people coming back.
Both stores have solid trajectories. Passion is, after all, infectious.
- Words and photography: Bri Lee