Story and photo gallery by GREG HOUSE
It’s Wednesday and for those in the know, that means new editions of their favorite comic books are hitting the shelves at Black Cat Comics, located at 2261 Highland Drive in Salt Lake City.
The walls of Black Cat Comics are brightly colored, seeming to come from the comics that line its shelves. Customers walk in and out throughout the day and Greg Gage — the man behind the operation — greets many of them by name, often with a prearranged stack of new arrivals set aside for the customer to purchase.
Gage grew up reading comic books, but gradually stopped as he got older.
“I kind of got back into them on a whim,” he said. “I picked up a couple of books I used to read and was like ‘God, this is cool,’ and after that, it was over.”
Gage reintroduced himself to comics as a young adult and he saw that the stories being told were not just the shallow, fun superhero romps he remembers from his childhood.
“There’s some real, honest-to-God literature in here,” he said. “It’s not just people jumping around like idiots punching people. There’s more to this than I thought.”
When he decided to open his own comic book store in 2004, he knew that creating a welcoming environment for his customers and hiring employees who understood that were both key ingredients for this business, which celebrated 15 years in business in May 2019.
With such a wide selection to choose from, there are many reasons why fans like Kyle Jackson keep reading comic books.
“I like reading a lot of different titles that show characters who are something to aspire to,” he said. “Not that I think I can learn to have superpowers, but the people underneath the masks are what is great to me.”
Taylor Hoffman used to shop at a different comic book store. But, after feeling like her reading choices were being judged by some of the employees, she started shopping at Black Cat Comics. She said she found the sense of community she was looking for.
“I immediately felt so much better, like I had a place to go,” she said. “After I graduated college, I kept coming by until Greg hired me and started paying me to stick around and talk about comics.”
As an employee at Black Cat Comics for more than five years, Hoffman tries to make sure that even younger readers feel like equal members of the community.
“I just love picking out things for little kids,” she said. “Especially younger girls because I wish I had that when I was a kid.”
Over the years, Hoffman has seen some of the store’s regular customers come in with their newborn babies and as those babies grow up she starts to recommend comics for them as well as their parents.
The all-ages section of Black Cat Comics is home to books featuring characters from Saturday morning cartoons as well as child-friendly versions of heroes who might otherwise be considered too violent.
“This is my baby,” she said, motioning to the all-ages section of the store. “I try to read all of these so I know how to talk to the kids who come in.”
It isn’t hard to see why a child would enjoy a weekly trip to the comic book store and Hoffman thinks comics can be an educational tool for them as well.
“Comics are such a great medium for younger kids to get into the habit of reading because there’s the picture books without as many words and then they graduate into [books with] more speech bubbles,” she said.
However, comic books are not just a children’s medium any more. A wide variety of heroes means there is a character for everyone, especially with the bigger publishers like Marvel Comics, who are pushing for more diversity in their mainstream lineup of characters.
Whether it is a young woman of color taking over the mantel of Ironman, now Ironheart, or a revelation that the X-Men team member known as Iceman has come out of the closet as a gay man, diversity plays an increasingly important role in today’s comic book landscape.
Sina Grace, who wrote the now concluded Iceman series for Marvel said on a public Instagram story post about writing inclusive stories, “To my knowledge, no publisher puts something out simply cuz it’s LGBTQ friendly,” he wrote. “Even Iceman, the reasoning was: there’s a story to be told about a man dealing with a secret he’s kept for 10+ years, not THAT he’s gay.”
When Gage first opened his store, he wanted to create a place where everyone can feel welcomed, regardless of their identity or background.
“Inclusivity makes more people feel more welcome in this space,” Gage said, “and that’s what I want, both from a business standpoint and a community standpoint.”