It is no great revelation to say that comic book retail is, at least in the popular imagination, a boys’ club. A much-cited ICv2 presentation at New York Comic Con in 2017 concluded that 63% of comics buyers were men, while 37% were women. While this isn’t quite the gender parity said to have existed among comic readers in the late 1940s, neither does it seem entirely dire. But the deeper one plumbs into the direct market, the more alarming the numbers become. Once bookshops (with their selections weighted toward the far more gender-balanced readership of manga) are subtracted, leaving only the patrons of direct market comic shops, fully 72% of comics buyers were men. No surprise, then, if the culture of comic shops has historically followed a kind of self-perpetuating cycle of dude-bro culture: male owners hiring male employees to sell manly books to men.
But there are signs–anecdotal and tentative, perhaps, but signs nonetheless–that cracks in the testosterone armor have begun to emerge. Morgan’s Comics in Asheville, North Carolina is one of them. When Morgan Albritton went from comic shop employee to owner of her now-eponymous store five years ago, Morgan’s Comics became the only female-owned comic shop in western North Carolina. It’s a distinction that Albritton herself, with her deliberately theatrical and unstintingly boisterous presentation, doesn’t shy away from. If little about Morgan’s Comics suggests an overtly feminist (or feminine) attitude, that in itself is a telling fact about the store and the industry. That a shop can be squarely positioned in the mainstream of self-described geek culture, and yet still be owned by (and welcoming to) something other than aging boys, seems in itself a hopeful sign of things to come. So I chatted with Morgan on a July afternoon, to find out what her life is like in comics retail.
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The Comics Journal: How did you first get into comics retail?
Morgan Albritton: I guess it started when I was a little kid hanging out with my dad on the arm of his recliner, watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. And then as I grew up, I loved reading, so I was always on the school bus near the window reading books by myself. And then when I got older, I got into drawing and theater-- and that added a whole element to the store, so it's not as quiet as a bookstore typically is. Always something going on in here all the time. I add theatrical elements to everything we do in the shop.
But initially I was an event planner doing weddings, and charity events, and fashion shows. And then I saw a listing that this guy was looking to create his own comic book store in West Asheville. And I knew about nerd stuff, and I knew about management and planning, so I offered to help him do it. Fast forward two and a half years, and the relationship between the investor/business partner and the operating owner dissolves, because the operating owner is like Satan incarnate - he’s a really bad guy. That was almost exactly five years ago. And [the former owner] let me know he was going to liquidate [the shop], and I asked him to let me try to save it. And I stayed here and found enough friends in the community that we were able to save up and vanquish evil, like a real origin story. And my silent partner is a woman also, so we're a totally woman-owned business, and the first [woman-owned comic shop] in western North Carolina.
That’s pretty remarkable, because of course women-owned comic shops are a pretty small minority anywhere in the industry. You must have known that was unusual going in: did it mean anything significant to you?
Oh no. I was just terrified that the Evil One, which is what we call him here, was going to be go good on what he said, that he was going to put me in jail, or destroy my family, or hurt my kid or something. He's a really bad person. But now it’s me also choosing to not be an abuse victim anymore, and to stand up and fight, and create this business.
What’s the comic scene like in Asheville? Tell me about the customers who come into the shop.
The scene? There are a lot of nerd shops. It's a great community. I guess our inventory changes depending on what's exciting at the time, or what we are into, or what customers ask to see more of. I have a pretty set rule that I almost never see other comic shops in town, because I don't want to inadvertently end up stealing their ideas. So I'm friendly with all of them, and we talk at conventions and over Facebook, but I don't go there. I enjoy the authentic feeling that our store actually is what we're making it ourselves. Everything it’s turned into is from local writers and artists - like the murals on the outside of the building. It’s hard to come up with that.
When you first pull up in our parking lot, there’s a giant Batman mural that’s the whole side of the building. And then behind it is a giant storage shed that has a giant Frank Miller-style Joker on it. And then the back of the store has all four of the Ninja Turtles with the red [bandanas], like they were in the comic books. And those are all just local artists who want to help the shop do better. They have subscription folders here, and they did the murals for free. And the inside of the store is like that too. We have sticker artists, and we have different prints that people have, and wood carvings, and posters, and original paintings: all kinds of stuff inside the shop, like all of our brand-new Five Year Strong Morgan’s Comics t-shirts.
You have your own t-shirts?
Oh yeah. The artist who made one of our stickers made the character Morgan, which is, I would say, loosely based on me at this point. But in the pandemic time period, we were delivering comics to little kids on their birthdays. And the only costumes we had, since Amazon wasn't shipping, were little kid’s short capes from our basement. So we took our storage boxes that had these little capes, and made little superhero costumes—makeshift of course, just with what we had available—and went to deliver these comic books to kids. And I had big heels while I was doing it, and I usually dress, I guess, eccentrically colorful. And so it made it on the national news, and then some artist started making that person into our own superhero. And since she looks so strong, we asked if we could make that into our t-shirt for our anniversary this year. So those are the shirts we just got in a couple of days ago.
This all sounds like what you were talking about, with bringing a sense of theatricality to the business. Has this all just come naturally out of your personality, or has it been a deliberate strategy for your shop?
I just don’t like being bored. And part of that is, I wanted the store to have a lively feel, not a sleepy, quiet bookstore feel. I wanted it to feel like you're welcomed into this party environment. And it just worked. Like when people walk in, I say, “Welcome to the Nerd Sanctuary,” and I do this little bow. And when Todd McFarlane came in, he said, “Thank you, thank you. So glad to be here.” And it was like he was walking onto a TV show.
So you feel like people have been responding positively to that?
Well, because I love Mister Rogers so much, I've always said that it's that my mantra is that you don't have to do shady things to succeed. My goal is to prove that you can make an honest living. You don't have to be loaded, but make an honest living, pay your bills, enjoy your life, and not be dishonest to people. I treat everyone fairly: even when we buy merchandise, we have a set formula. But since I do have such a big theatrical background, and I'm a writer and a visual artist myself, I feel like it's it's very natural. It’s always been part of me.
You mentioned making deliveries during the pandemic shutdown. How did you come up with that, and what else were you doing to make it through that year?
Well, it was definitely pretty scary. I have pretty bad asthma, so a lot of people who were on the other side would say that I was being really selfish to my children: that I could have been sacrificing my life by continuing to run my shop. But I felt like I had fought so hard to have this store, and I couldn't just give up now. And Buncombe County was very careful during the pandemic, and most people—I'd say the vast majority within our little blue bubble here—are very into wearing their masks and being aware of everybody else's six-foot distance rule. And we all had to be closed for eight weeks, so that really hurt us financially in the very busiest time that the store has out of the year.
But during that time, a lot of our customers were super-sad, and they needed someone to talk to. And I don't know if it's a bartender vibe or what, but a lot of people would come here to vent and talk about their problems, like getting fired from work, or grandma doesn't like their boyfriend, or whatever it is. And all of a sudden they had nowhere to go. And so I tried to talk to people through [Facebook] Messenger, but one-on-one through Messenger was hard to do. And I tried to do [virtual] walkthroughs of the shop, so that it would be kind of comforting to see that we were still here; that we were just waiting for them to come back.
But then eventually we started doing live shows so that I wouldn't be so lonely either, because no one was allowed in the store with me, and it was scary for me too. And I'd play games, and read stories, and then a customer asked if we could start doing deliveries, and suggested that we dress up as superheroes. And so Matt pulled out his guitar and came up with a tune-- I don’t know if I mentioned, but Matt was my postman five years ago, and he didn't have friends in town for him or his little girl. So I invited them to do board game night, and then he got to be so good at it that he started leading it. Then it turned out he was so cool that I decided to marry him one day. So he teaches Pokémon here regularly, and that's how he ended up becoming buddies with Big Boi from Outkast. He’s been in twice in the past few months, and both times he gave us free tickets to his show, and this last time he invited us to his tour bus afterwards.
That might be the coolest thing I’ve heard about one of the comic shops we’ve spoken to in this series.
You should see it. We've got a framed picture of him on the wall holding up a bunch of his Pokémon cards with us.
These last few years, starting with that pandemic shutdown, have seen some major changes in the direct market, with the profusion of different distributors alongside Diamond. How has that been for you?
Well, I'd say in fairness, Diamond used to mess up a whole bunch, and they've been at it for a really long time. It was frustrating to have our orders constantly damaged, or never arriving on time, or never having our complete order in them. I think absolute power corrupts absolutely. So having some competition out there, so that they had to up their customer service game, was an excellent idea. And Lunar, who took over in our region for DC Comics, has been fantastic. The ordering system's really smooth, and the orders are always super-early, so you have time to go through them and see if you're missing any of your products. They're almost never damaged. I just don't have any complaints about it at all. And I hear that Image is probably moving over to somebody else, too. [Image announced in May of 2023 that they had signed an exclusive comic shop distribution agreement with Lunar]
And what about Penguin Random House, who work with Marvel and now Dark Horse?
I haven't actually signed up with them yet, because I've been able to get almost everything I need through Diamond on that side. I was looking at an account with them yesterday and considering. The biggest thing for me is that I get plenty of Marvel individual issues, but the trade paperbacks are pretty weak. So if I can get a good amount of those from Penguin, then that's where we'll switch over to. But we're very DC and indie over here, I'd have to say, and that's just because DC always seems to have their trades available.
Are trades selling more than single issues for you?
No, [single issue] comics are still the biggest thing we sell, and then Pokémon cards, and that’s partly because we teach Pokémon too.
So trades are more of a supplement to single issues than a replacement for them.
And what about manga? You have all this interest you’ve been seeing in Pokémon, so it seems like that might be a natural complement.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And it makes me happy, because when I was a kid, all of my favorite characters were boys, because they always had the coolest story arcs and the coolest powers. And the girls were always, like, their main skill was being good thieves, or sneaky, or sexual in some kind of way. And there are so many better strong, female characters to follow now, that when I see these little lady nerds come in, I'm thrilled. There are kids that come in to pick up their first comic from me that didn't even exist yet when the store opened. I got to know their mom during her pregnancy, and see them in a stroller when they were babies. And I feel like it's what we’re here for.
Does it mean something significant to you to be a female comic shop owner?
It does, really. One, because it just hadn't happened here before, but two, because since I was raised around brothers, and I had so many guy friends growing up, I didn't have a lot of lady nerd friends. And now I've got a whole crew of strong, female, lady nerds that shop and hang out here all the time. And it's huge to have people that you have so much in common with, and that you can relate to on that level. Because I love my guy friends, no lack of love to them, but there's certain things that fellas aren't going to understand because they haven't had to go through it, you know?
When I was pregnant, my guy friends treated me like a fragile, breakable glass the whole time: like we couldn't hang out anymore, or do anything, because I was so weird and different now. And that was very isolating. And now I get to make sure that people who move into town aren't in that place I was in for four years, where I didn't know anybody here, and it took me a long time to find my people. And when people come in here, and they're like, “I just moved to town and I want to make some friends,” I'm like, “You came to the right place.” A customer came in recently who said that the woman's touch to the store maybe was multi-level lighting, so it doesn't feel boxy and basement-y. It doesn’t have as much Cheetos dust in the books as most comic book stores.
What has you most excited about the comics business right now?
We do monthly and weekly events here: Pokémon night, and board game night, and Thursday art day, where people can get together and draw and do creative projects together. And every month we throw in different events, like taking a picnic basket and some comic books out to a waterfall, and we go on a hike together and hang out. And then we go to a movie almost every month as a big nerdy team, and anyone can go. We have a big van that will carry people if they need a ride there and back. It’s been huge, as far as the community-building and the theatrical aspects of it. And I feel like the wave of what happens in the actual comic industry kind of ebbs and flows, but what we're doing in the store, we get excited about.