Since his earliest memories, Anthony Desiato has been a comic book fan. And like most fans, this love of comic books was shaped by comic book shops. While in law school Desiato was inspired to pick up a camera to and document the comic book store Alternate Realities. This project became his first documentary My Comic Shop DocumentARy. (The full film can be viewed here.) Desiato’s latest project was an examination of comic book shops and the communities they foster. Titled My Comic Shop Country (Twitter – @mycomicshopdoc, Instagram – @mycomicshopcountrymovie), the documentary can be found on Amazon and Apple TV. Wanting to learn more about Desiato and his latest project, I was able to interview him for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some comic books you loved? Do you still enjoy revisiting any of those stories?
Anthony Desiato: I got into comics at age 5 with “The Death of Superman” and spent my childhood reading the Superman titles of the 90s. While I don’t revisit much from that era on a regular basis, I do periodically reread “The Death of Superman” and its aftermath. Not only do I still enjoy those stories, but it’s fascinating to revisit something I first experienced as a young child with an entirely different perspective now.
Yanes: You went to law school. What is your favorite entertainment related court case?
Desiato: I specialized in Intellectual Property as a law student, and the first course I took in that concentration was Survey of IP, which offered an overview of four key areas within the field: trade secrets, patent, copyright, and trademark. It gave me a fantastic foundation.
Yanes: You also make documentaries, and your recent one is My Comic Shop Country. When did you decide you wanted to pick up a camera and document a story?
Desiato: During law school, actually. I picked up a camera the summer after my 1L year and turned it on Alternate Realities, the comic shop where I worked throughout high school and college. That film, My Comic Shop DocumentARy, ended up playing at film festivals across the country. Although my new film, My Comic Shop Country, is not a direct sequel per se, it does sort of bring everything full circle for me as far as chronicling comics retail.
Yanes: On this note, what was the inspiration behind making My Comic Shop Country?
Desiato: Sadly, it was the closing of Alternate Realities. That really set me on this path to explore other stores, examine their inner workings, and see whether the sense of community I found at my shop existed elsewhere.
Yanes: While doing research for this project what were some things you learned that surprised you?
Desiato: The robustness of the vintage back issue market, for sure. There’s a decent chunk of the movie devoted to it, and I think it’s eye-opening for the viewer to see some of these comics and hear how much they sell for. Plus, on a personal, note, I got to hold an Action Comics #1 during filming (and the scene is actually in the trailer and the movie). As a Superman fan, holding his first appearance from 1938 was an unbelievable opportunity.
Yanes: What comic book stores do you think are intelligently evolving to survive?
Desiato: This is not me avoiding playing favorites, but I have to say: I think most, if not all, of the shops I picked for the doc are doing something to adapt and stay relevant. It takes a different form in each place, whether it’s community-building events, a more diversified product line, vintage back issues, and so on.
Yanes: If you wanted to start your own store or go into comic book store consulting, what are some common mistakes comic book stores make that you would avoid?
Desiato: Small business is tough to begin with, and then comic shops face numerous challenges unique to that industry, and we break all of that down in the doc. This could be a very, very long answer, so I’ll focus on one thing in particular and say that I would try to know the market as much as possible. And by that I mean, I would try to stay plugged in with what the publishers are doing, reading as much as I can, and so on, but then I would also try to learn my particular audience–their tastes and buying trends–as much as possible and focus my ordering accordingly.
Yanes: Comic book stores frequently deal with people who have pull-lists, but who never come in to buy these comics. What is the best way to shame those customers?
Desiato: Ha, well, the word you used (“shame”) is one way to go. I know a lot of shops have taken to social media to shine light on this plight and spur delinquent customers to action. Personally, I think it’s key to set a policy–it might be that the customer has to come in every 3 weeks, for example–and then actually enforce it. Delinquent customers will always be an issue, but I do believe that sticking to a policy at least helps mitigate the damages. For anyone reading this who wonders why stores don’t just keep a credit card on file, that’s generally not the custom in the industry. I’ve spoken to retailers about this, and many have specific reasons why they don’t.
Yanes: Marvel and DC are owned by two of the biggest media companies in the world. Additionally, Diamond Comic Distributors has a business model that has been largely unchanged for decades. What moral obligations do you think they have to help comic book stores stay afloat?
Desiato: That’s a question I’ve been trying to explore between the film and my podcast, My Comic Shop History. It certainly feels like shops carry a disproportionate amount of the burden relative to the other players in the industry, especially when you consider that most shops are mom & pops and the publishers are subsidiaries of these massive conglomerates. Now, in fairness, players at all levels in the industry bear risk, but I still think my original point stands. I don’t know that a moral obligation is enough to get Marvel and DC to do more. But, if I were to try to nail down an argument to appeal to them with, it would be that one of the reasons their characters have survived and made the leap onto the big screen is that, for decades, passionate retailers who genuinely love the material have been handselling it to customer after customer.
Yanes: Building on the previous question, what business reasons do you think these major companies should do more to help comic book stores survive?
Desiato: When you look at the really great shops and retailers, they’re true ambassadors of comics to the public. They’re the ones interacting with the buyers of these comics on a daily basis and have a sense of readers’ tastes and purchasing habits that can only be forged through that interaction. That’s tremendous value.
Yanes: Reflecting on all the stores you visited and all the research you conducted, did you notice any regional trends for comic book stores? For instance, did you observe an urban vs. rural divide? Do you find West Coast stores to be different from Midwest shops?
Desiato: Interestingly, I did not really see much in the way of geographical variations. That’s not to say they don’t exist, of course. But in terms of my experience, what struck me most was how much shops have in common, despite where in the country they may be.
Yanes: When people finish watching My Comic Shop Country, what do you hope they take away from it?
Desiato: For the comics fans who watch, I hope they find it’s a fun, accurate, and thorough peak behind the curtain of all these shops. I’m sure it will call to mind their own comic shop experiences and hopefully conjure warm feelings. But ultimately, what the doc taps into is the ability of the comic shop to build community–to foster true relationships in the unlikely setting of a retail space–and I hope that in particular speaks to anyone who watches, even if they’ve never read a comic before.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Desiato: The My Comic Shop History podcast is gearing up for a new run of episodes and is available on most major podcast platforms. I’m also very excited to launch a new podcast series called Digging for Kryptonite: A Superman Fan Journey later this Fall.