In 2010 Anthony Desiato began his chronicle of Alternate Realities, a comic shop in southern Westchester, where he had once worked, manning the counter along with a cast of characters that is not easily forgotten. He would follow My Comic Shop Documentary with a series of short features and My Comic Shop History, a podcast that explores one store’s place within the broader framework of the comics industry at large. In his latest feature, My Comic Shop Country, he sets off on an odyssey to discover what makes some of the best local comic shops in America so great.
Anthony was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new project over email.
Graphic Policy: You’ve spoken a lot on your podcast about how you became interested in comics but my impression is that you’re almost as much of a film guy as a comic guy. What was it that got you interested in making films instead of say creating comics?
Anthony Desiato: It’s hard to say why I never really felt that pull to try my hand at writing a comic (at least not yet). As far as film, though, Clerks was a big early influence in my thinking that maybe I could make my own movie one day. Couple that with my journalism background in undergrad, and I think the path to documentary filmmaker gets a little clearer. And since most of my creative output as a documentarian has involved comics, I’ve been able to combine my two greatest interests.
GP: One thing that struck me about the proprietors of a lot of the stores you visited was that very few seemed to have much, if any, retail experience prior to opening up or being hired at their shops. How much do you think that has helped them to succeed or held them back?
AD: I loved putting that little sequence together where some of our retailers reveal their backgrounds. We have a former teacher, house-builder, and insurance salesman, to name a few. I don’t think the lack of formal business training is necessarily a roadblock, especially since the comics retail model is sort of its own beast. I think the harder task is taking your hobby and turning it into a career and finding the balance between fan and businessperson.
GP: You and I both grew up in Westchester County between the early nineties and the early 2000s, you in Scarsdale and me in New Rochelle. We both remember the vibrant community of shops that existed throughout the county in those days and which has since contracted quite a bit despite its proximity to the heartland of comics publishing in NYC. Did you notice a similar pattern in other areas you visited where a large number of shops had been whittled down to a few?
AD: Not particularly, though I can’t say I was investigating that angle in a significant way for this project. To your point, though, the Westchester comics scene was certainly something to behold, and it’s striking to see how much it’s changed. It’s weird to think that you once had Dragon’s Den and 1 If By Cards 2 If By Comics across the street from each other and Alternate Realities half a mile up the road, and now only one of them (1 If, now American Legends) is still operating and only does a little bit of comics. Westchester is quite the microcosm for the industry as a whole in terms of its contraction.
GP: One thing a lot of comic shop programming like Comic Book Men or You Tube’s Comic Book Palace tend to focus on is talk about actual comic stories but your features have tended to focus on things like personalities or business rather than whether Plastic Man is better than Punisher. What’s the thinking behind this more sociological approach?
AD: It’s definitely a conscious effort on my part to chart a different path, and there are a few factors driving this approach. At my old comic shop, Alternate Realities, we certainly all came together initially over a shared love of comics, but in terms of what fascinated me about that place, the comics were really secondary. It was the personalities, particularly of the owner and some of our more colorful community members. So that was my starting point: the people. For me, comic shops have been a wonderful backdrop and vehicle to tell human interest stories, and I suppose that’s where my ultimate interest lies. Regarding that Plastic Man v. Punisher debate in Country, I’m far more interested in the fact that those guys are having that conversation, and why they feel comfortable to do so, than I am about the specifics of their argument. Also, as much as comics fans are the natural target audience for my projects, I genuinely believe they can speak to a wider audience, and the more sociological approach, as you put it, is sort of aimed at that.
GP: Were there any stores you would have liked to include but couldn’t due to timing, travel issues or lack of a personal connection to the store owner?
AD: I’m genuinely pleased with the mix of shops in the film, and I 100 percent believe I was able to tell the story I needed and wanted to with them. Would someplace like Mile High Comics been cool to visit and include, especially given the sheer size of their operation? Sure. But no regrets on the casting front.
GP: This is a time unlike any other in the history of the comics industry. How are the stores you profiled coping with the pandemic and the hopefully temporary implosion of the comics distribution system? What’s the most interesting response you’ve seen to Covid-19 as you’ve followed up with your subjects?
AD: Almost every shop I follow is adapting in some way, whether it’s curbside pickup, mail-order, live video sales, or some mixture. They’re spotlighting older content, making mystery boxes, and engaging more via social media (and video in particular). It’s legitimately inspiring to see what they’re doing to keep product moving. I don’t know that there’s any one thing I can point to as most interesting per se, but I have been very impressed by the speed with which they’ve adapted. Necessity is the mother of invention, of course, but still. I tip my hat to them. And it’s amazing to see customers rally around these efforts.
GP: Now more than ever change is inevitable. What do you think is the biggest change that is needed for the American comic book store as we know it to survive? What does the future of comic book retail look like in 2025?
AD: There’s a lot to unpack there. People always seem very quick to declare the comics retail industry dead. I certainly do worry about shops weathering this, especially smaller, younger stores with maybe a small customer base or lack of reserve funds. But overall, I think shops will endure as they have in the past and as they are right now. We’ve seen shops pivot in so many creative ways during this time when they’ve had to keep their doors closed and didn’t even have new product flowing. I definitely think that many of these innovations–Facebook and Instagram Live sales, online ordering, and so on–will become a regular part of the workflow. I am curious about whether DC will continue to distribute through other channels besides Diamond once this crisis has passed. Big-picture, though, as far as what change I feel is most needed? I’m sure a lot of retailers would point to returnability or something along those lines. But I genuinely think there needs to be a large-scale awareness campaign about comics undertaken not even by publishers, but by their parent companies. Improving efficiencies in the day-to-day of the comics retail industry is certainly needed, but really taking a wide view, there needs to be true growth.
GP: Do you think that there is anything more for you to say about comics after three documentaries and 6 seasons of the podcast? What other topics would you like to explore within comics and without?
AD: Ha, are you saying I should give it a rest? Candidly, I’m currently weighing my options about where to take the podcast in the future as well as where to turn my attention film-wise. On the film side, I don’t necessarily see myself doing something shop-centric again. I feel I said what I needed and wanted to say about shops in Country. Looking ahead, I was developing an idea for another film elsewhere in the comic book world, but the pandemic and its fallout have made me rethink it a bit. As far as the podcast, you know I like to shake up the theme each season. I definitely feel like I told a full-circle story on the podcast from 2015 to 2020. What the next story is hasn’t quite revealed itself to me just yet, but I’m sure it will. The aftermath of the pandemic sure seems like the obvious choice, but I think there may actually be a different path forward.
GP: If Alternate Realities were to somehow return from the dead in true comic book fashion as a permanent store, what would be the perfect location for it to return assuming its old spot were unavailable?
AD: While the spirit of AR could theoretically be reborn anywhere, in my ideal scenario it’d be somewhere on Central Avenue in lower Westchester. While rents tend to be quite high there, it’s such a major artery in the area that you can pull folks in from all parts. And given AR’s long history on Central, its return there would make quite a splash.