Comic Book News: Pandemics, Diversity, and Oh Yeah…Comic Books!

by Eric Onkenhout

With perseverance and hard work, scrappy comic book shops fought and scratched to stay open in the wake of a pandemic.

This year’s San Diego Comic-Con at home is now in the history books. And even though it was really well organized with plenty to offer everyone, there wasn’t any groundbreaking news. Yes, Marvel’s Empyre will have an impact on the Marvel Universe, but that was pretty much it. SDCC 2020 focused on bringing fans a multitude of lowkey panels. One of those panels,  Comic Shops: Persevering Through Crisis, gathered together four comic shop owners from around the United States to talk about how they stayed in business during a pandemic. It’s a fascinating discussion that is unique to this comic-con. It gets down to the core of what comic-con is all about. SDCC started out as a comic book convention, and comic book shops are where it all started.

With this in mind, I interviewed my local comic shop owner to get an idea of what’s going on in the world of comic books at a time when they’re needed more than ever. I’ve known Jay Pillarella since I began shopping at his store Rubber Chicken Comics in 1992 when it was located in Milford, MA. Jay is extremely knowledgable about the genre and loves to talk comics. We discussed a variety of topics such as DC leaving Diamond, diversity in comics, and what he’s doing to attract more female customers. This is what went down:

EO. Jay, can you give me the background/history of Rubber Chicken Comics? How did it all get started?

JP. My dad started the shop back in Milford in 1990, He wanted to open a sci-fi collectibles shop because he loved all the old and new sci-fi movies and then decided to add comics to the mix to make it a sustainable business. My dad ran it with me and my older brother Steve for ten years, managing until 2000, until my dad decided to get out of the biz. Steve and I took over and moved to Bellingham, MA. About a year later, I took over, and ten years after that, I took on a partner, Joe Medeiros. We moved into a bigger store, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

Left to Right: Joe, Steve, Jay, and J.T.

EO. What got you into comics?

JP. My dad used to bring my brothers and me to Bop City Comics in Framingham, MA. It was there that I found TMNT #6, and my love of comics would begin.

EO. Which comics are popular right now? What are your best sellers?

JP. Everything that has been popular is still popular. From DC Comics, we’ve got Superman and Batman. The biggest thing going on right now is The Joker War. The biggest thing coming up is The 3 Jokers, where they tell the tale that there apparently have been three Jokers in and out of the timeline. And that’s coming out in less than a month. For Marvel, you’ve been reading it: Empyre, that just started this summer. As always, the X titles are huge. Hickman brought them back to life. X-Men, Wolverine, X-Force. All excellent titles—all are flying off the shelves. Absolutely anything that Donny Cates touches turns to gold, including Venom and Thor from Marvel. Donny Cates is easily the most popular writer in comics today.

EO. How do you feel about adaptations.? And what’s you’re favorite?

JP. Love them if they are done well. I love Watchmen, Scott Pilgrim, 300, and Sin City.

EO. How did you cope with keeping the shop open during the shutdown? Did you have to close?

JP.  Our shop was closed, but I still came in 5 days a week to do eBay and mail order sales and Facebook specials. Luckily we have the best customers in the world, so they all kept us busy during the lockdown by buying gift certificates and just giving us $50 and asking for a variety pack of comics. So we never got close to actually closing, although it did get sketchy the last couple of weeks before the reopening.

EO. Is it safe to say the customers are your favorite part of your job?

JP. Absolutely! Returning customers and I love seeing new customers as well.

EO. Okay, the topic everyone in comics is talking about; DC leaving Diamond. Thoughts?

JP. #bananaland. DC went from being one of our best business partners to our worst enemy over the pandemic. The way they straight out lied to us on a weekly basis will stick with EVERY retailer out there and won’t soon be forgotten. It’s a pain in the butt for us, but nothing really changes for the customer, so that’s good.

EO. Did you catch any SDCC?

JP. Not really, I will over the next couple of weeks.

EO. Politics is always a touchy subject, so let’s touch it. What can comics offer to help get us through these times?

JP. It’s escapist entertainment, and it always will be. Just like books, comics can transport you to a different universe and take your mind off the stress and anxiety of the day.

EO. How are you planning for the changing industry into which comics are becoming more and more digitized?

JP. I love digital. It gets new people into the shop that have never been before because they want to see what this world is all about.

EO. How are you adjusting to a digital world?

JP. Digital will NEVER replace actual print comics, and all the publishers know that even though they would rather be all digital.

EO. Do you have to take measures to attract customers because digital comics are becoming more popular?

JP. I am always hoping to attract new customers, and I believe digital will eventually send them into my shop.

EO. What are the advantages of staying in print?

JP. You can’t beat the feeling of opening up a comic and reading it, digital will never be able to capture that feeling.

EO. What are some lesser-known comics you can recommend?

JP. Invincible from Image Comics written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Ryan Ottley, It ended last year but still one of my favorite reads.

EO. Who are some standout women in comics?

JP. Fiona Staples from Saga, Laura Allred just put out the BOWIE hardcover. Amber Benson writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amanda Connor has written a ton. Becky Cloonan, Gail Simone, Wendy Pini, Coleen Doran, and honestly, the list goes on.

Sanford Greene

EO. Can you recommend writers/artists that are people of color?

JP. Sanford Greene and Valentine De Landro are both artists, just to name a couple.

EO. What are some measures you’ve taken to make Rubber Chicken more inviting to female fans/customers?

JP. Just be a great host to EVERYONE. Be helpful and kind and try and connect with everyone on a level comic playing field.

EO. What’s the future of comics and comic book movies?

JP. I’d love to say it will be amazing forever, but we don’t know the future of this business, I will say that I will always try my best to have the greatest comic shop out there. I believe we will continually get more and more comic related movies forever because they now know if they give us, the fans, great scripts, then we will almost certainly love the films.

EO. Lastly, if you weren’t a comic shop owner, what other professions would you choose?

JP. Stuntman, Actor, or Rockstar… In that order.

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