Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column.
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon at my church on how much churches are like comic book shops. Not many of my parishioners have ever dared step into a local comic shop (LCS), so I don’t know if the illustration connected to them. But with the supposed decline of mainline Christian denominations, and also the supposed decline of LCSs, I wonder if there are any similarities in how both of these institutions are reaching new people.
This past week, I have heard many comic fans online talk about their experiences at their LCS for Free Comic Book Day. FCBD is such a great idea, hoping to bring new readers into stores as well as treating long-time fans with sales, discounts, signings by comic creators, and a lot of free stuff. However, despite FCBD being such a great idea, I hear many mixed reviews on the experiences people have. It all depends on the store. Lots of people exclaim over the many things they get, while others complain about only getting one free comic and a lot of hassle from LCS employees.
Here’s my experience with FCBD. For two straight years, I attended a conference in the New York City area which happened to fall on FCBD. I went to many different stores in order to capitalize on the goodies. Plus, I’m not in New York very often, so being there for FCBD is a dream for a fanboy who lives in rural Georgia. Most of the stores I went to had people greeting customers at the door. One even had someone giving out bags for folks to keep all their stuff in. These folks also ushered me to where to get my free comics. There was a huge table with all the free books on display. It was easy to pick them up, and there was no limit to how many you could get! Paradise indeed! One other store even had goody bags made up that you could pick up which had 15-20 random back issues in it. And it was good stuff, not crummy 90s comics from every back issue bin. These were recent books that hadn’t sold, so this store just gave them away! Also, all the stores I visited had awesome sales. 70% off trades, 50% off back issues, 25% off toys and other merchandise. There were cosplayers all around, being friendly, taking pictures, and just making comic book collecting fun. It was great, and I left feeling good about my experience and my fanboyness. I’ve since been to other stores down here in Georgia which have good FCBDs, and in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad FCBD.
The good thing about these LCSs is that they had friendly and passionate people who love comics just as much if not more than any collector. Their stores were easy to navigate, you could get what you wanted, and it was a bright and happy place. It made you feel good about being a part of the comics community, no matter if you were picking up an X-Men book, or the latest Archie comic, or the most obscure indie book out there. One shop even donated some of their proceeds to help people who were victims of the tornadoes that hit the South a few weeks ago.
Let’s compare this with some other experiences that I have heard about. Many people frequently talked about the limit of free comics they could get. Some talked about the lame discounts that were more than what they could get online. Some stores didn’t even have sales or discounts! One guy talked about a person who sat at the table making sure you didn’t get more free comics than were allowed. There were stores with the usual unfriendly employees who are less than helpful. Some stores were disorganized and messy. Other stores advertised characters showing up, but either they didn’t show, or they were incredibly lame because the person dressed up didn’t really care. I have heard that many of these places were in towns and cities with only one LCS, so they didn’t have to put on much of a show because people didn’t have an alternative. Of course, this is not true of every smaller city, but there are those places out there.
We’ve all been in good LCSs and horrible LCSs. The good ones have life and energy. They are bright and exciting. They make you proud to be a comic fan. Others are dark, dingy, with smelly old books, unfriendly employees, and difficult-to-find merchandise. There are super-friendly employees who will help you find exactly what you’re looking for, or will strike up a conversation about the latest comic movie. There are those who act like they know everything there is to know about comics and you’re just stupid if you disagree. With the ease of which people can get comics online now, it’s crazy to me that there are still those kinds of shops out there.
Now, in my experience as a Christian, I could just about go through the above paragraphs and replace “LCS” with “church.” People are leaving churches in droves these days. I find it’s not because they don’t believe in God or anything, but it’s because they just don’t feel welcome. The buildings themselves (much less the people) are old, and uncared for. Some are dark, musty, and are filled with old books that no one reads. It’s hard to navigate where the bathroom is in some. The worship services themselves are uninspired and cold. It’s not that people can’t learn how to worship in liturgical or non-liturgical churches, but when the people around them give off that cold, uninviting vibe, it begs the question if the worship is having any effect on people. I have been in churches where people have instructed a newcomer not to sit in a certain pew because “that’s where so-and-so sits.”
In my last parish, a well-meaning older member told a young mother with a squirming child that she wasn’t sure if she knew, but there was a nursery available for her child. The woman wanted to be in church with her child, but this presumptuous instruction made it sound like kids weren’t welcome!
People want to connect in their church, both with God and with other people, yet it almost seems like some churches would rather not even bother with either. Some churches become cliquish. Some are filled with people who don’t really care about their faith, and just go because they’re “supposed to.” Some churches have “gatekeepers” who make sure all the rules are followed, much like the LCS with the free comic book Nazi. Some churches are more interested in making sure everyone agrees with them because they know everything rather than appreciate the diversity of opinion God gives us. Many churches focus on the sin and not on the grace, so people leave feeling defeated, unworthy, and unholy.
Some churches are just outdated. So are some LCSs.
The churches I see that are healthy and growing are the ones who look more like those awesome LCSs we’ve all been to. The people are friendly and interested in who you are. They provide hospitality and greet you at the door with a smile. They show you where things are. They engage in sending funds to people in need like the LCS that donated their proceeds to tornado relief. The buildings are clean, bright, and easy to navigate. The worship services are user-friendly, and people leave feeling happy about who they are and inspired to continue their growth in faith. Many churches have events, much like how FCBD serves LCSs, that bring people in and allow them to see the best of what the church has to offer.
Rodger Nishioka, a theologian from Columbia Theological Seminary, notes that especially in young adults, which is the quickest-leaving group in the church, people are looking for people to understand, to care, and to love them for who they are. He said in a recent podcast that young adults were connecting to churches who really cared. Churches who showed up for them in times of crisis, who displayed a faith of “resilience in the face of terrifying times,” were churches that attracted young adults. According to Nishioka, it’s not about flashy worship services or relevant small group discussions, it’s just being there, appreciating people for who they are, and serving them. That’s what church should be about.
Comic book communities are the same way. If we can truly care about comics and create an environment that allows for the growth of comic book interest, then places like the LCS will not be in decline, but will grow and make new readers every day. In the same way, if churches can care for one another and create an environment that allows people to love others the way they say they do, then the church will also grow. We say in my profession that the church is not a building, the church is people. The same is true for the LCS. What makes an LCS great are the people we connect with. Let’s get on with the business of being the church and the LCS and see what happens!