On Monday, Nov. 1, Fremont’s Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique will celebrate its fifth anniversary. This is a momentous achievement; while Seattle has actually gained independent bookstores over the last decade, the number of local comic book stores has declined at a fairly steady clip, with beloved mainstays like downtown’s Zanadu Comics and Wallingford’s Comics Dungeon closing their doors in recent years.
Jill Taplin, the founder and CEO of Outsider, designed her business to correct some of the classic failings of comic book stores. She fell in love with comics through graphic novels that intelligently explore adult themes, like Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series. But when she tried to visit comic shops to find more books to read, Taplin says over the phone, “I realized that there weren’t any stores that I really enjoyed being in. They all felt very transactional, and maybe just not super welcoming spaces.”
For decades, comic book stores tended to be superhero-obsessed boys clubs, with staff and clientele almost exclusively composed of white men. Anyone who didn’t resemble that demographic often felt unwelcome — and many stores actively pushed away newcomers through obsessive gatekeeping and even harassment.
At the same time, Taplin knew there was a huge audience out there. Graphic novel sections in independent bookstores were exploding, and comics were becoming a billion-dollar business. She set about creating a more welcoming space, “focused on graphic novels with LGBTQ and BIPOC stories.” (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning. BIPOC refers to Black, Indigenous and people of color.)
The Seattle-area comic book stores that have thrived in recent years did so by becoming more welcoming to a nonwhite, nonmale audience, and also by expanding their business models to incorporate multiple revenue streams. Golden Age Collectables in Pike Place Market is a full-fledged pop culture emporium, for instance, and Capitol Hill’s Phoenix Comics & Games offers a wide array of board games and in-store gaming opportunities.
Taplin knew it would be wise to incorporate a second revenue stream into Outsider, and she settled on selling fashion. “I started looking at apparel and gifts, like candles and locally made enamel pins and patches and stickers,” she explains. The plan seems to be working. “The boutique aspect of the store really helps balance out those occasional months where maybe the book sales aren’t so great,” she says.
The geek fashion industry is booming, with small businesses around the country producing leggings, shirts, dresses and basically every item of clothing imaginable with nerdy flair. Taplin says women-owned American manufacturers like Nooworks are expanding the idea of nerd fashion beyond simply slapping a Superman logo on a boxy T-shirt and calling it a day, instead opting for quality fitted pieces with bold prints featuring stylish elements of fantasy and science fiction.
Printed leggings are a perennial Outsider bestseller. “Seattleites wear a lot of black and gray and brown,” Taplin says. “And a lot of what we carry in leggings are very vibrant and colorful. It’s a good thing for some people because they can just wear it under something black” for a splash of color and personality.
Other items that do well for Outsider are candles from the locally produced Nerdwax Candle Co., which come in fanciful scents like Unicorn Tears, and “people can’t get enough fancy dice” for role-playing games, she says, including shiny and colorful varieties.
But Outsider’s success is ultimately based on the same foundation as any beloved neighborhood bookstore: good old-fashioned bookselling. “We focus on people who have never read comic books,” Taplin explains. The shop’s five-person staff curates the store’s stock with an eye to first-time comics readers of all ages.
Taplin says many of Outsider’s first-time visitors are families of tourists who have just completed the tour at the Theo Chocolate factory around the corner. “We’ll talk to people about what they’re interested in, because comics is a medium, not a genre. We try to find ways in for folks who are maybe totally new to the format,” she says, and they tailor their suggestions to meet the reader.
For Outsider, that means treating the traditional American superhero comics as just one genre out of many. You can find Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and all the familiar superheroes on the shelves at Outsider, but there are equally large sections of romance comics, comics in translation, a growing section of comics for young readers, nonfiction comics and a huge wall of comics from local authors.
By basing Outsider on the foundational premise that comics are for everyone, Taplin has built exactly the kind of comic store she always wanted to exist in the world. “I’ve had people come in and say that they’ve never felt so comfortable or so seen in a comic book store, which just warms my heart. It reminds me why I’m doing this,” Taplin says.
What are Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique customers reading?
“The one book that is our bestseller over the last five years is called ‘The Prince and the Dressmaker,‘” Taplin says. “It’s this lovely book about a prince who discovers that he loves fabulous dresses, and dressing up in them, and looking amazing.” The story uses classic fairy tale elements to tell a broader story of self-acceptance, being open with your family, and “marching to your own drum and doing what you’re interested in,” Taplin says.
Outsider carries a wide array of role-playing games, and “we do great business with one called Thirsty Sword Lesbians,” Taplin says. The game, which sees teams of three to six players take on the role of sword-fighting lesbians in a sci-fi/fantasy setting, places equal value on combat and flirtatiousness.
Kat Leyh’s comic “Snapdragon” is “a spooky, witchy story about a woman who lives alone in the woods,” Taplin says. When the hermit falls into the orbit of a local witch, their friendship threatens to uncover long-held secrets. And Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s “Monstress” series is set in a world where arcane creatures have been enslaved by humankind. The protagonist of the series, an arcane creature who can pass as human, “has wild, fantastical adventures,” Taplin says, “and it’s all drawn in this beautiful punk-gothic style. It’s futuristic and fantasy, all at once.”