Stereotypes about comic books run deep. Conventional wisdom sees them as light, disposable amusements for children or adults who refuse to grow up.
Their readers are portrayed as greasy egotists, noses upturned at the naïve intrusions of an uninitiated public — a superiority long channeled by Hank Azaria’s Comic Book Guy character on “The Simpsons” and more recently by the social misfits of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Chicagoans could be forgiven for assuming the abundant stores that dot their neighborhoods are nothing more than dank, poorly lit enclaves with un-swept floors and employees hostile to outsiders.
They’d be wrong.
As the third largest city in the U.S., Chicago claims great museums, great food and great theater among its merits. It can also claim great comic book stores.
These are not the grungy establishments of popular myth. These are air-conditioned, smartly curated, convivial places that are more than happy to greet curious window-shoppers with a smile and a recommendation. They host community events, like “drink and draws,” card game tournaments and free comic book days. They carry every conceivable type of story imaginable, from fantasy to crime thriller to memoir.
They don’t shun comic book virgins — they welcome them.
Take Quimby’s, for instance. Located in the heart of trendy Wicker Park on the 1800 block of North Avenue, it practically prides itself on smashing comic book stigma. Inside a warmly lit brick building, patrons are greeted by a new-releases table that features regular books alongside the latest graphic novels. Indie titles like the sci-fi epic “Prophet” sits next to “Our Revolution” by Bernie Sanders and coffee table book “The Official Making of Big Trouble in Little China.”
It’s meant to ease folks into the store, and it does — but the ordinary and mundane is hardly what makes Quimby’s worth visiting. Venture further inward, and the true nature of Quimby’s mission to catalogue “the unusual, the aberrant, the saucy and the lowbrow” emerges. Sections labeled “Outer Limits (Cryptozoology, aliens, ghosts)” sit alongside “Vegan books” and “Books about weed.” There’s a wall of specialty art magazines, moleskin notebooks and, in the back, hundreds of small-press “zines,” homemade comics made on a limited budget and for limited distribution.
“We have a big consignment policy,” a sales associate, who did not want to provide his name, said. “We try to give a room for the ‘weirdos,’ the things you might not be able to find in your normal, traditional comic shops.”
Not far from Quimby’s, in Bucktown, is another store that prides itself on its selection: Challengers Comics at 1845 N Western Ave. Open since 2008, Challengers’ bright red shelves and huge selection of graphic novels is also extremely kid-friendly, with an all-ages “Sidekicks Space” next door. It’s stocked with kid-appropriate fare like Jeff Smith’s “Bone” and Raina Teigmeir’s “Smile,” along with plenty of other books and a giant Batman mock-up.
Co-owner Dal Bush, clad in a gray suit, said Challengers is a comics-first store that specializes in approachability.
“We wanted to have a smaller version of the store just for kids to maybe experience comics and graphic novels at their level — something they can really engage with, and feel in possession of, and also we do a lot of events,” Bush said.
Upcoming authors coming to do signings include local artists Gene Ha and Ryan Browne, along with writers Amber Benson and Sara Kuhn.
“Hopefully we provide an experience that people enjoy, above and beyond the comics they’re going to pick up,” Bush said.
Over on the 2600 block of North Kedzie in Logan Square, G-Mart comics presides over an enormous inventory and a wide variety of comics product, including tabletop games.
“We have a very strong female clientele, which adds some nice diversity to the group,” sales associate Pat Loboyko said. “That means that some of the titles we have aren’t just capes and tights — ‘Lumberjanes’ is really popular here, ‘Ms. Marvel’ is really popular here.”
G-Mart has over 185,000 books in back stock, and subscribers get a competitive 35 percent discount on the comics they choose. But the store prides itself on being a place where anyone can stop in.
“You can order stuff on Amazon or whatever, you can get comics cheap. But everybody here knows a lot about comics,” Loboyko said. “People come here to talk about comics, to get recommendations, and that’s something we pride ourselves on. I would put our customer service up against anybody else.”
In Lakeview, behemoth Graham Crackers Comics sits across the street from the Laugh Factory on the busy 3100 block of North Broadway Street. With 11 stores total, including nine in Illinois, it has been a Midwestern staple for over 30 years.
“The Graham Crackers franchise is the namesake of Jamie Graham, one of the owners. That’s why we have the bakery-sounding name,” assistant Manager Dan Browner said.
So what makes the Lakeview location unique?
“That crazy basement,” Brower said, gesturing to a door in the back. Behind the smiling visage of Wonder Woman lies a set of stairs leading to the overstock area, free for customer perusal. From overprinted ’80s and ’90s titles to full graphic novels and maybe even a hidden gem or two, it’s all available for cheap.
“If you need a cardboard cutout of Spock, it’s down there,” Brower said.
Stores like Graham Crackers, Quimby’s, Challengers and G-Mart are indicative of the comic book retail scene in Chicago. The standard they set in terms of cleanliness, quality and friendliness isn’t unusual — it’s the norm.
If Comic Book Guy were to relocate his fictional “Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop” to Chicago, he would find himself with some very steep competition.
If you’ve never set foot in one of Chicago’s comic book shops, it might be time to sweep aside the stigma and give it a try.