Michael Pandolfo’s childhood comic store was dark, dingy, and intimidating. He remembers the shop was full of the condescending comic book fans he calls “rules lawyers”—comic book experts who show disdain for non-experts. It wasn’t a welcoming place for any but the most shunned, resentful reader. This old store, where he bought his first issues of Conan the Barbarian, loomed large in his mind when he opened his own comic shop Dr. Comics & Mr. Games on Piedmont Avenue in 1988.
Now 14 years later, he sits in the cluttered upstairs loft above the entrance to his shop, looking with satisfaction at the well-lit store with colorful posters, superhero cardboard cutouts and comics lining every wall. He had a plan, he says, to stand out from other comic book stores from day one.
The very first thing he did?
“We painted the walls,” he says. “White!”
He envisioned a bright, all-welcoming space where comic book fans and novices could comfortably browse through all types of comics—from Archie to manga. “This is a very different comic store from most comic stores,” says Pandolfo. “We’re radically different.”
You won’t see a sneer if you’re new to comics, says Pandolfo. You will see a small army of tiny figurines in brightly colored capes and masks lining shelves of graphic literature, welcoming you as you walk in. Navigating the island displays of staff-selections, sale books and action figures, a handful of customers thumb through the store’s dense library of content. Tee-shirts hang from the railings of the upstairs loft sporting recognizable geek-culture logos: Green Lantern, Doctor Who and Tintin. The store is watched vigilantly by a life-sized Spiderman mannequin in an action-ready stance in the back of the shop.
In addition to comics and figurines, there is also an extensive section of games—from simple standards like Monopoly and Battleship to advanced, contemporary games like Settlers of Catan. Having mass-appeal games side-by-side with the more esoteric, serious-gamer titles helps diversify the crowd in the store, says Pandolfo.
“You’d be shocked to see the mix of clientele that comes in,” he says. The store serves customers of all ages, demographics and walks of life. But it’s not only Dr. Comics’ customers who are getting more diverse, he says, it’s all of comic fandom—especially in the Bay Area.
Pandolfo says the Bay Area is a uniquely diverse market—not only in readership, but also as a hotbed of comic creation. As residents of the Bay Area, he says, we’re exposed to too many different cultures and points of view to be stale in our reading or writing. “When you live here, you see the diversity, you see the open-mindedness,” he says. “It drives creativity in different directions and to a different level.”
Pandolfo says the stereotype of the comic book fan is changing, but it’s not gone. The cliché of The Simpsons’ sour “Comic Book Guy” is well known to the Dr. Comics owner. You won’t find Comic Book Guy at Dr. Comics, but many people still expect comic fans to resemble that fat, ponytailed TV character. Even though comic-culture is becoming more appealing to the mainstream, he says, there is still a lot about comics that is misunderstood by the average person.
So what are the biggest misconceptions comic shop employees want to set straight?
- Comics are not only about superheroes. Dr. Comics employee Rachel Tougas wants to make a clear distinction: “Comics are not a genre,” she says, like superhero movies or horror movies. “Comics are a medium,” says Tougas, like film. She says the kinds of stories told in comics have expanded significantly in the last decade, and that superheroes no longer constitute the bulk of content.
- Comics are not only for men. “That’s not true at all anymore,” says Dr. Comics employee Nick Rowe. “That’s something that’s changed very dramatically within the last five years especially.” He says there are more women comic readers than ever before. Not only that, but there are more female protagonists in graphic literature every day, and a growing number of women authors in the industry.
“There are all kinds of stigma and stuff associated with comics,” says Rowe. “But none of that is true, none whatsoever.” Rowe, a sandy-haired twenty-something in plastic rimmed black glasses and a checkered button-up shirt, shakes his head. “They’re all misconceptions,” he says.
Dr. Comics and Mr. Games is located at 4014 Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. You can visit their website here.