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Abstract

Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the rituals and communicative practices that simultaneously create community, out-groups and perceptions of stigma at a local comic book retail organization through autoethnography. As such this piece explores personal identity, comic book culture and how this comic book shop acts as important third place as defined by Oldenburg. Design/methodology/approach Autoethnography allows for the simultaneous research into self, organizations and culture. As a layered account, this autoethnography uses narrative vignettes to examine a local comic book retail organization from the first person perspective of a collector, a cultural participant and geek insider. Findings The term geek, once brandished as an insult to stigmatize, is now a sense of personal and cultural pride among members. Various rituals including the “white whale” moment and the specialized argot use help maintain community in the comic book shop creating a third place as categorized by Oldenburg. However, these shared communication practices and shared meanings reinforce the hegemonic masculinity of the store, leading the author to wonder if it can maintain its viability going forward. Originality/value This autoethnography was performed at a local comic book shop, connecting communicative and ritual practices to organizational culture, hegemonic masculinity, geek culture and personal identity. It also argues that one need not be an embedded organizational insider to perform organizational autoethnography.
Communication and ritual at the
comic book shop
The convergence of organizational and
popular cultures
Andrew Herrmann
Department of Communication, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City,
Tennessee, USA
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the rituals and communicative practices that
simultaneously create community, out-groups and perceptions of stigma at a local comic book retail
organization through autoethnography. As such this piece explores personal identity, comic book culture and
how this comic book shop acts as important third place as defined by Oldenburg.
Design/methodology/approach Autoethnography allows for the simultaneous research into self,
organizations and culture. As a layered account, this autoethnography uses narrative vignettes to examine a
local comic book retail organization from the first person perspective of a collector, a cultural participant and
geek insider.
Findings The term geek, once brandished as an insult to stigmatize, is now a sense of personal
and cultural pride among members. Various rituals including the white whalemoment and the
specialized argot use help maintain community in the comic book shop creating a third place as categorized
by Oldenburg. However, these shared communication practices and shared meanings reinforce the
hegemonic masculinity of the store, leading the author to wonder if it can maintain its viability
going forward.
Originality/value This autoethnography was performed at a local comic book shop, connecting
communicative and ritual practices to organizational culture, hegemonic masculinity, geek culture and
personal identity. It also argues that one need not be an embedded organizational insider to perform
organizational autoethnography.
Keywords Stigma, Autoethnography, Hegemonic masculinity, Organizational communication,
Popular culture, Ritual
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
You collect comic books? STILL?Mom says as we walk into the shop.
Yeah. I have been for years.
I had no idea. Geez. I didnt think anyone read comic books any more. I mean when I was growing
up all we read was Archie.
Mom they still make Archie.
I rifle though the shelves for a moment and hand her Afterlife with Archie, depicting the zombie
apocalypse in Archies home town of Riverdale, with an (un)dead Jughead on the cover.
Ok. Thats just gross.
Yeah, but its sorta funny. I collect mostly Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Strange comic
books. I know people would consider it a big fat waste of money and time.
Charlie would,Mom says, referring to my ever-frugal stepfather, who has kept every broken piece
of lawn equipment and broken small kitchen appliance in his shed. You know, just in case he needs
a spare part.
Journal of Organizational
Ethnography
©EmeraldPublishingLimited
2046-6749
DOI 10.1108/JOE-06-2017-0027
Received 1 June 2017
Revised 9 January 2018
Accepted 3 May 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/2046-6749.htm
Ritual at the
comic book
shop
Yeah. Ive run to the local comic shop in all the towns Ive ever lived in, pick up comic books, read
them, bag them and board them, and file them away in specially designed Comic Protector boxes.
There they will remain until I die.
Son. You are a big geek,Mom says laughing.
Q1 This organizational autoethnography seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy)
personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)(Ellis et al., 2011,
p. 1). The first person stance positions autoethnography as personal, more existential than
speculative, and shows organizationally embedded life in action (Denker, 2017; Hunniecutt,
2017). Furthermore, as a critical autoethnographer I use personal experience to identify
Q2 harmful abuses of power, structures that cultivate and perpetuate oppression, instances of
inequality, and unjust cultural values and practices(Manning and Adams, 2015, p. 193). The
combination of critical autoethnography and organizational research turns personal stories
into critical investigations and interventions, about power, of difference, and for
organizational change(Herrmann, 2017b, p. 7, emphasis in the original).
Doloriert and Sambrook (2012) suggested there are three streams of organizational
autoethnography. The first is autoethnography embedded academics do on higher
education. The second is previous workautoethnography on the organizations academics
were embedded in before becoming academics. Lastly, there is autoethnography as an
embedded member in other organizations. I do not disagree with these streams. However,
this schema suggests only those fully immersedcurrently or in the pastwithin an
organization can do organizational autoethnography. As organizational scholars contend,
however, individuals are connected to organizations in numerous ways and placed into
positionalities on a continuum of identifications with said organizations. For example,
employees often identify more with their organizational units than the overall organization
(Cheney, 1983). Stockholders may not identify at all with the organization whose shares they
own (Herrmann, 2007). Customers, clients, volunteers and consultants all have differing
degrees of identifications with organizations (Bhattacharya and Sen, 2003; Kramer, 2011;
Schrodt, 2002). The requirement for full immersion excludes persons with these
identifications from writing organizational autoethnographies.
In this piece, I write from the standpoint of a comic book store customer and geek
cultural member, rather than as a fully embedded organizational participant such as an
employee. I follow Krizeks (2003) injunction: doing ethnography necessitates I go out into
the world to study culture, but simultaneously and reflectively study my self.Through a
layered account utilizing narrative vignettes (Ronai, 1995), I examine King Comics, my local
comic book shop. I explore how the term geek,once brandished as an insult has been
reappropriated, now providing a sense of personal and cultural pride. I consider how comic
book shops act as important third places (Oldenburg, 1999). Furthermore, I investigate how
communication and rituals create shared cultural and organizational beliefs (Carey, 2009)
and how these same processes perpetuate King Comicshegemonic masculine culture.
Finally, I put on my consultants cap,pondering the future of King Comics, and how
autoethnographers might be able to assist organizations.
As such, this autoethnography is written from the acafanstandpoint. An acafan is a
person who combines personal passion with scholarly writing, research and teaching,
negotiating the uncomfortable boundary between participant and observer, detached
scientist and squee-emitting enthusiast(Peloff and Giles, 2013, p. 75). Put more simply: I am
an organizational autoethnographer researching my own comic book collecting subculture
in my local comic book shop. To protect the guilty and the innocent, I have utilized
pseudonyms and have blended characters (Ellis, 2004):
You dont know the half of it,Linda says to my mom, smiling. He came in and bought out almost
our entire Buffy stock, even the photo covers and the variants.
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What does that mean?
It means I got issues that have different covers on them.
Are the stories inside different?
No Mom. Same stories.
Wow. You really are a big geek.
Yeah. Well you raised me. And just think, if I never get married and have kids, Garrett gets my
whole collection,I say referring to my nephew. He can probably pay for college with what I have.
Dear Lord,Mom mumbles.
Popular culture, organizations and ethnography
From Fredric Werthams (1954) diatribe in
Q3 Seduction of the Innocent that caused a moral
panic against comic books in the mid-twentieth century, to the comic book speculative
bubble that burst in the 1990s (Last, 2011), to the polymediated narratives of contemporary
properties on film and television (Herbig and Herrmann, 2016; Herrmann and Herbig, 2016,
2018), comic books remain integral to popular culture. The history of the comic book
industry is a story of creativity, oversized personalities, overlooked opportunities, neglected
creators, spectacular integrations and exiting drama (Batchelor, 2017; Salkowitz, 2012). The
wild history of comics is itself the stuff of a comic book (Van Lente and Dunlavey, 2012).
While one might think comics are childish and silly, they have an outsized impact on the
current cultural landscape (Radošinská, 2017). Many of the highest grossing films of the last
ten years were based on comic book properties, including The Avengers,Doctor Strange,
Logan,Wonder Woman and X-Men, to name a few. Popular comic-based television series
include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,Arrow, NetflixsJessica Jones The Defenders, and HulusThe
Runaways. The web series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot, won a Webby Award, and there
are multiple other properties in development. The Marvel Cinematic Universe alone
generated over US$11bn worldwide. That sort of money is not kids stuff.
The influence of comics goes beyond the screen. Fan conventions such as DragonCon in
Atlanta and MegaCon in Orlando are big business. Since 2007 over 125,000 people trekked
to San Diego Comic-Com (SDCC), the largest geek convention in the world (Salkowitz, 2012;
Tornes and Kramer, 2015). That is over 125,000 annually. It is estimated that SDCCs annual
economic impact for San Diego is bordering on US$200m. These conventions are massive
spectacles catering to every kind of fan from gamers, to steampunks, to comic collectors, to
Trekkies and more. Individuals participate in their fandoms, buy collectibles and have them
signed, get photographs with their favorite actors and artists, and perform their cosplay.
There are as many different types of geek as there are things to geek over. As Dunn and
Herrmann (2013) noted, over the years, geek culture has become pop culture(p. 4).
There are multiple ethnographies and qualitative studies on these conventions (Bolling
and Smith, 2014; Coppa, 2014; Tornes and Kramer, 2015). Ethnographers and
autoethnographers have examined numerous other popular culture organizations and
artifacts (Boylorn, 2008; Herrmann, 2013; Krizek, 1992; Kramer, 2011; Tyma, 2017). Despite
this research into popular culture and popular culture organizations, few examine local
comic book stores from an organizational autoethnographic perspective. This is a serious
oversight, given that situated in the middle of the drama, the million dollar movies, the
high-rated television series and the spectacle of the geek conventions, sits the local comic
book store doing its relatively mundane business:
Were sitting in a semi-circle near the main counter discussing the movie Batman vs Superman:
Dawn of Justice. These conversations are continual, arguing the merits of comics and their prodigy.
Everyone gets a chance to pontificate. I have the floor and Im on a roll.
Ritual at the
comic book
shop
There were two really stupid things in that movies finale.
There were more than that,Alex says.
Truth, but lemmie finish. You got Batman, Supe, and Wonder Woman fighting this thing, and
the kryptonite spear needed to kill it gets thrown underwater. Right? Who goes to get it?
Superman. So dumb! Why would the one guy susceptible to kryptonite go get it? There are two
other superheroes there. And I think DC blew it big time. That moment was the perfect time for
Aquaman. The spear was underwater! Could you imagine, Jason Momoas arm coming up at that
moment, spear in hand?
That would have been awesome,Aaron says.
They did do Wonder Woman justice in that movie though,Bobby says.
Yeah,Brian agrees And Im hopeful that they wont screw her up. We need a good Wonder
Woman flick.
It blows my mind that Marvel can have a successful movie with a tree that only repeats I am
Groot,yet its taken DC almost 30 years to get its female icon on the screen. Shit, they started the
Wonder Woman script in the 1990s. Its like no one knows what to do with a woman in DC world.
They probably spent too much time masturbating in their parentsbasements and have no idea
what to do with a woman, never mind Wonder Woman,Steve chimes.
We crack up at the geek stereotype: a stereotype about us.
From an organizational and retail business perspective, comic book stores exist in a strange
liminal space (Krizek and Herrmann, 2013). Comic books stores sell new and used and
collectible items. This makes them different from a regular retail bookstore, such as Barnes
& Noble, or a locally owned used bookstore. They are purchasing new comics in bulk,
ordering back issues for patrons, sifting through collections that individuals bring in to sell
and keeping an eye out for the rare collectible comic that a customer has been looking and
longing for. Despite this liminal positionality and the spectacle that is geek culture fandom,
comic book shops remain the heartbeat of the comic book industry (Salkowitz, 2012). Comic
book stores act as a space for people to argue over the intricacies of their favorite heroes and
villains, various plotlines and reboots, and to discuss how the comic-based movies are
similar, but also different, than the original pulp publications. Some of those discussions
speak to larger issues.
Geeks on parade
Walking downtown toward King Comics, Im not surprised to see a line out the door. It is the first
Saturday of May. That doesnt mean anything to most, but for comic book aficionados, it is Free
Comic Book Day, a tradition that started in 2002. Its not exactly Golgotha in Jerusalem on Good
Friday, but getting in line with friends has become an annual ritual participated in rain or shine.
The line is long, and I stand in it pretending to play with my iPhone. What I am really doing is
taking ethnographic field notes.
What I dont understand is why Marvel bothered to do the Civil War storyline,the man in the
faded Green Goblin t-shirt behind me says. In the previous series Iron Man and Captain America
hashed out all their differences regarding national security, freedom, and secret identities.
Listen Chad,his friend begins, Just because two people agree on things in principle, doesnt mean
that when the government actually institutes a policy saying that all mutants have to register in a
government database, and all secret identities have to be unveiled, they will maintain their peace.
Thats nonsense. Secrets are what governments are in the business of doing.
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Yeah, I get that. But you know comics often reflect whats going on in society. We have no-fly lists,
and terrorist watches. We have crazy immigration debates. We have people that want all the
Muslims in the country to register with the government.
To pass a law to make peoplesuperheroes or notexpose their secrets should never have
been allowed.
Thats my point. Marvel tackled this with the Superhero Registration Act, which was supposed to
make all superheroes work within the confines of the government and the law, and register as
human weapons of mass destruction. Hell, the series even touched on Gitmo and unending
imprisonment.
I listen to them argue about the merits of the Superhero Registration Act. Its like watching a
conservative and a progressive talk, without the partisanship that so dominates the political
landscape. Their arguments are thoughtful and detailed.
Man are we a couple of geeks or what?one of the men behind me says.
You say that like its a bad thing.
Geekwas originally used to stigmatize those where were manifestly different. Freak
shows, with their geeks, mollified the onlookersself-doubt by appearing as their
antithesis(Thompson, 1997, p. 65) as a means of improving a normalindividuals feeling
of self-worth by establishing standards for segregating the deviant from the normal
(Adams, 2001, p. 15). As Goffman (1963) wrote, By definition, the person with a stigma is
not quite human(p. 5), stressing stigma is a social construction, not an essential attribute of
individuals. Falk (2001) concluded we and all societies will always stigmatize some
condition and some behavior because doing so provides for group solidarity by delineating
outsidersfrom insiders’” (p. 13). The stigmatized is no longer identified as an individual,
but as a member of an outside-the-norm-category, and devalued in the process.
Eventually geekbecame synonymous with persons who collected comic books, were
interested in computers, and otherwise engrossed with topics considered outside the
mainstream. One theme permeating studies of comic book and other fans is that cultural
discourses marginalize, cheapen, and stigmatize various fandom members, groups and
subcultures. As Jensen (1992) noted, the fan is characterized as an obsessed loner, suffering
from a disease of isolation, or a frenzied crowd member, suffering from a disease of
contagion. In either case, the fan is seen as irrational, out of control, and prey to a number of
external forces(p. 13). To outsiders, comic book collectors and fans place elevated value on
cultural objects and practices that are considered lowbrow or strange, and participants
become the focus of negative social stigma. As Joss Whedon (2015) wrote, Its hard being
weird. Noits hard living in a culture that makes it weird(as quoted in Day, 2015, p. x).
The strange doctor
Hey! Lets ask The Strange Doctor!Steve, the owner of King Comics says as I walk in. He gave me
that nickname because of my affinity for all things Doctor Strange. And because I have a PhD.
Since I moved here, Steve has helped me rebuild my comic book collection, much of which was
destroyed by a tornado almost 20 years ago. The rebuilding process has been slow.
Oh Lord. Now what?Everyone starts laughing.
Its actually related to Doctor Strange. What do you think about the casting of Tilda Swenson for
the role of The Ancient One in the movie?
Oh geez.I take a deep breath. I know people are blasting that choice cause shes not Asian.
I disagree. The Ancient One is supposed to be almost timeless, an above-it-all, sort of asexual,
deeply spiritual and mystical figure. Swenson is just so damned esoteric and weird that I think
Ritual at the
comic book
shop
shes perfect for the role, even if shes not Asian. Or male for that matter. Hell, it was the original
portrayal of the Ancient One as an aloof, bald, monk-like Asian male that was the stereotype. But
people have to have something to bit.[To be continued ]
At the shop we have various goofy geek nicknames for each other. Tom, who stands all of
55, is Ant-Man. Craig is 64and huge, which is how he got the nickname Dr Manhattan
from The Watchmen. Carl wears a cowboy hat every day. We call him Caaaaarrrrrul,
referring to the character Carl Grimes from The Waking Dead, which began as a comic long
before the television show started. And ImThe Strange Doctor.King Comics can be
considered a third place. Oldenburg (1999) coined the term third place to represent public
places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of
individuals beyond the realms of home and work(p. 16). Like most third places, the comic
book shop I visit is an independent, locally owned, small-scale establishment operated by
peoplein this case Steve, his partner Linda, and their sole employee Jameswho seem to
know everyone in the neighborhood.
Oldenburg (1999) suggested main streets, pubs, cafés, post offices and other third places
are the heart of a communitys social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy.
These third places bolster ties though communication, discourse and interaction. They help
create shared localized meanings, shared responsibilities for safety and security and
cultivate community commitments (Herrmann, 2016; Jeffres et al., 2009). Although comic
shops are not on Oldenburgs list, King Comics has a cast of recurring regular customers
and every time I go visit there is basically the same gaggle of people gathered around the
front counter pontificating with Steve. It is like the bar Cheers, except for comic book geeks:
[Continued] But people have to have something to bit.
She bursts through the doorstout, older, sporting eyeglasses and short curly hairwith a gait
that says she has a purpose. Ive never seen her before. She walks across the room, picks up an
X-Men comic off the shelf, and shakes her head.
You know the Xon the X-Men is Satanic,she says. The sideway Xis a perversion of the cross
of Jesus! Not only are people wasting their money on this crap, but the entire idea of mutants is
anti-Christian!
Steve remains on his stool behind the counter. I can tell hes at a loss. The woman throws the comic
across the store and storms out.
What the hell was THAT?!I ask.
That womanor someone like hercomes in here every couple of months,James says. I used to
try to argue, that the Xcross is not Satanic, that it is a symbol for Saint Andrew, among other
things. And that mutants stand in for all of us who feel different or ostracized. You know? But they
have made up their minds about comics and comic book collectors, and nothings gonna change
their attitude.
I am reminded that in some circles we are still stigmatized.
As stigma is socially constructed, it also has a temporal quality. Something stigmatized at
one time may not be stigmatized at another time(Falk, 2001, p. 25). Therefore, what was
once considered geekis often now considered mainstream. Fans have reappropriated the
term and are now happy to wear the term geek as a badge of honor. This is a clear example
of social identification with what was once thought of as a marginalized group but now is at
least perceived by its members as socially acceptable if not even meritorious(Dunn and
Herrmann, 2014, p. 12). While we call ourselves geeks freely, we are reminded that here in
the rural South we are sometimes still stigmatized, and that in some cultural milieus there is
still a stigma attached to comics. For some, comic books and their odd characters will
always be a source of youthful corruption, or as the Christian Television and Film
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Commission called Doctor Strange,a dangerous introduction to demonic occult deception
(Ong, 2016, para. 3). Yet, comics have been used as evangelistic tools for decades, and
numerous stories from the Bible come in comic book form (Thielman, 2016).
While those outside the comic book shop might stigmatize us, we are proud of our
geekdom within our community. The deeper the conversations, the more in-depth the
communication, the more the discussions become ritualized arguments over minutia,
the happier we are in our store.However, our community, communication and rituals in
the comic book store have material effects. One of those effects is that the stores culture is
decidedly masculine.
Hegemonic masculinity
I am completely confused by Marvels Original Sin mini-series,Eric says. Hes frustrated. They
have three teams trying to find out who murdered The Watcher, and it seems like theres so many
crossovers and pointless stories within the narrative that I just got lost.
Thats a problem Ive been talking about for years,Steve says. The story could have been a simple
one where its about a murder mystery and an investigation led by Nick Fury or The Punisher.
Exactly,says Craig, They turned it into this gobblety-gook mess. You cannot get new readers if
every plotline is spastically threaded all across everything. If you dont collect Daredevil, but you
want to be an Original Sin completest, you still have got get Daredevil issues six and seven.
As they continue talking, I look around, noticing once again that everyone in the shop is
white and male. Almost 15 years ago Jones (2004) noted comic book fans are
overwhelmingly male, mostly middle class, mostly Anglo or Germanic or Jewish, and
mostly isolated(p. 33). While female customers are not as rare as seeing a penguin in
New Jersey, in my six years as a patron I have noticed that the King Comics clientele fits this
description. It is hegemonically masculine. As Herrmann (2017a) noted, hegemonic
masculinity is the socially constructed, discursive normative framing of the culturally
honored way of being a man,and, as such, it legitimates and reifies the subordination of
women and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) community to the
hegemonic discourse(p. 4). Hegemonic masculinity is a continuing concern for
organizational and business scholars (Denker, 2017; Hunniecutt, 2017; Watson, 2017).
It is well known that geeks are discursively positioned as a subordinated form of the
masculine ideal (De Visser, 2009). Even so, much of geek culture remains hegemonically
masculine, which can be seen in our texts through the hypersexualization of women in
comics and video games, the practice of killing off women in comics, known as women in
refrigerators,and other forms of overt sexism (Behm-Morawitz and Mastro, 2009; Garland
et al., 2016; Grady, 2017). Outside of comic book texts proper, the masculinism of geek
culture can be see online, in cosplaying, geek journalism and the GamerGate controversy
(Chess and Shaw, 2015; Kendall, 2000; Malone, 2017; Reagle, 2015). Unsurprisingly, like the
entertainment industry in general, recent revelations confirm that a masculinist culture
pervades not just comic books, but the comic book industry as well (Baci, 2017).
Unfortunately, television portrayals of geeks often contribute to the reification of geek
masculinity (Herrmann and Herbig, 2015; Salter and Blodgett, 2017). Due to the hegemonic
masculinity of geek culture, I keep one of my favorite fandoms secret for years:
Confession: I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was on the air in the late 1990s. I never
missed the show, and I was glued to my television when it was broadcast. Id tell my girlfriend not
to call me between 8 and 9 oclock on Tuesday. I wont pick up the phone.I would break out my
bag of Twizzlers, and make a bowl of popcorn, heavy on the butter. Id grab a Diet Pepsi. I would sit
in front of the television, with the lights off, and the shades closed, and watch the Chosen One and
her Scooby Gang take on the forces of evil. For an hour it was the Scoobies and I, with the rest of the
Ritual at the
comic book
shop
world closed off. I was enraptured, enthralled by the concept of a strong woman who could kick the
bad guysasses. It was funny, it was smart, and it completely captured my imagination.
I do not tell anyone about my Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom. I dont want the stink of stigma on
me. I am an adult, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is sometimes like a comic book: a little cheesy, a
little campy, definitely off the beaten path. Secondly, and lets be honest, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
was a show about a high school girl, and I was a grown man in my thirties. Call it the creeper
effect.Sure Sarah Michelle Gellar is gorgeous, but that was never my impetus for watching the
show. From Twin Peaks to Kolchak to Alien to Army of Darkness, I have always loved horror and
the weirdly supernatural in my popular culture consumption. Furthermore, I was interested in the
metaphors, the discourse, and interpersonal relationships between Xander, Willow, Giles, and
Buffy. And yes, I enjoyed the fights with the big badslike Spike, Glorificus, and Caleb. Finally,
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a feminist series. I was already a geek, and did not want to be further
stigmatized and branded a gender traitoras well. (Baglia, 2005)
I stopped caring whether people knew how much I cared about the show, about my Buffy the
Vampire Slayer comic collection, about my Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figures, my trips to
conventions to meet Buffy the Vampire Slayer actors, or the rest of my Buffy the Vampire Slayer
geekdom. I discovered there was an entire subculture dedicated to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that
the Whedon Studies Association existed, and that a lot of people smarter than I were doing
academic research on the series. I was no longer alone as an acafan, who admires a show as a fan,
yet is attentive to the many details of interest to scholars(Herbig and Herrmann, 2016, p. 753).
This, along with the realization that some of my academic friends also loved Buffy the Vampire
Slayer, helped lift the stigma. It seems foolish now that I look back on it. As The Smiths (1985) sang,
I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible.
Despite the continued masculinist problem, over the years as geekdom itself has expanded,
there has been simultaneous increasing gender parity among comic book fans and other
geek fan bases (Scott, 2012). More women than ever before are letting their geek flags fly
(Day, 2015). Although the numbers are hotly contested, female comic heroes are strong
sellers, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer,Ms. Marvel, Jessica Jones and Wonder Woman.
Moreover, female fans make up between 30 and 40 percent of all comic book readers and
geek television and movie audience members (Berlatsky, 2014; McNally, 2015). However,
like tax cuts for the wealthy, this gender parity has not trickled down to our local comic
book shop. One reason is the material and physical layout of King Comics itself, which can
be considered hegemonically masculine.
Scholars established that the use of space is an important characteristic of study for
organizational and ethnographic inquiry (Warren, 2012). King Comics is not what one would
call inviting,particularly for the uninitiated. When I first walked into to King Comics,
I was intimidated by the vast rows upon rows UPON ROWS of back issue comic books,
shelves of new comics and graphic novels, and multiple display cases of collectibles,
including comic-based toys, games and figurines. As the largest comic book store in the
region and with its high ceilings, it is cavernous. It is also dimly lit. Posters adorn almost
every inch of the walls. The rare and expensive comics are behind glass cases or behind the
counter, like old high school sports trophies. There are stacks of back issue comics
everywhere, so it looks cluttered and disorganized, even though those comics are boarded,
bagged and sorted so they can eventually be filed in their proper places.
The shop looks and feels like an overgrown man cave, with almost all of the symbolic
and rhetorical trappings of masculinity on display (Moisio and Beruchashvili, 2016).
The only items missing to make it a stereotypical man cave are a college football game on a
gargantuan television, a nude centerfold on the wall and a cooler full of cold beer on ice. Is it
any wonder few female customers are drawn to this particular shop? Orme (2016) noted that
women have to deal with dual stigmatization, not only as comic book fans, but as female
comic book fans in a hegemonically male dominated culture. As Shimabokuru (2013) put it,
So many women, who are secretly fangirls in their heart of hearts, wont admit it, because
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they are afraid that if they do, that some screaming fanboy or (God help us) expertwill tell
them that they dont know what theyre talking about and to go away(para. 7). As my
confession about my Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom illustrates, it is not only female fans
that feel they might be stigmatized for breaking comic book cultures hegemonic gendered
norms. And yet, paradoxically, I participate in those norms myself, through geek culture
argot and rituals.
Rituals and the creation of community
I gotta tell you. That first edition Doctor Strange #169 I took to the Louisville Convention a couple
months ago?I say.
Yeah.
The one I had Stan Lee sign?
Yeah.
CGC certified and graded it. I just got back in the mail. They graded it as a 5.0. Im
happily surprised.
Wow! Thats great,Steve says. Thats in the Very Good Finerange. You told me you thought it
be graded a lot lower than that.
Yeah. Im pretty stoked.
CGC is short for the Certified Guarantee Company, the independent comic book grading
organization, which analyzes the condition of comic books on a scale from 0.5 (poor/
damaged) to 10 (mint) (Seddon, 2015). For comic book collectors, conversations about
grading and CGC are important and ritualistic, and those conversations occur often at King
Comics. Furthermore, rituals are an important point of connection and kinship in third
places. From a communicative perspective, the ritual is the sacred ceremony that draws
persons together in fellowship(Carey, 2009, p. 15). The lines that form outside of comic
shops on Free Comic Book Day can be considered such a ritual. As such, ritual as
communication, is linked to terms such as sharing,’‘participation,’‘association,
fellowshipand the possession of a common faith.This definition exploits the ancient
identity and common roots of the terms commonness,’‘communion,’‘communityand
communication’” (Carey, 2009, p. 15). There are many different rituals in the shop:
Hey. I have something for you, Strange Doctor. It just came in.
Its a Facebook Messenger notification from Steve. I throw myself into my car and head downtown.
Strange Doctor! You are not going to believe it.He pulls a bagged and boarded comic from behind
the counter, keeping its cover away from my view. You are going to want this!
He flips the comic book over. I see the cover. I blink twice. I cannot believe what my eyes are telling
me. Its Strange Tales #110. Steve smiles a big smile.
I am Ahab. This is my white whale.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.
My hands start to shake. Imonemotionaloverload.Withinthisrarebookfrom1963isthefirst
appearance of Doctor Strange. Taking the comic, I pace around the store, examining the cover. Going
over to a quiet corner, I gently pull the tape and slide the book from its bag. I carefully open it,
inspecting each of the pages. Itsnotinthebestcondition,butIknowthismightbemylastshottogetit.
When I look up, Steve, James, Bobby, and a group of regulars are staring at me smiling. They
each have had their own white whale experience. Theyve each undergone the white whale
Ritual at the
comic book
shop
inspection ritual. They each have had this big ridiculously stupid smile on their faces. They know
exactly how I feel.
Ill take it.
The group erupts in a cheer, hands slapping my back. Congratulations and handshakes all around.
This is a comic book shop ritual that helps create community.
An hour later, Joefull-bearded and barrel-chestedsaunters into the store. Hey Joesring out
from the group, momentarily stopping our argument about how Joss Whedon is going to tackle the
new Batgirl movie.
Hey guys,he says in his laid back, quiet tone. Steve, can I see my stack?
Yeah man,Steve says ducking behind the counter, disappearing momentarily, and popping back
up with a stack of comics. Joe lays out his comics. I watch as he separates them, first by title, and
then by comic book number. This ritual lets comic book collectors examine the comics, and assures
them that there are no skipped issues.
Hey Steve, can you look up the price of The Defenders #10? I have two and someones interested in
buying one. I want to be fair to him.
Whats the grade? Best guess.
About a six,Joe replies. Steve pulls out his Overstreet Guide, and then hops onto Ebay, checking
prices online.
Its from $50 on the low side to $85 on the high side,Steve says. The consensus is about $60.
As scholars noted, interpersonal relationships, cultural factors and communication
networks influence economic participation (Ruccio and Amariglio, 2003). Joespricing
ritual shows the difference between a comic collector and a comic speculator. A speculator is
interested in making the most profit. Although collectors will make some profit, they are
predominantly interested helping like-minded collectors enhance their sets. This is similar to
the activities in other alternative economic systems, such as garage and yard sales, farmers
and flea markets (Miller, 1988).
The ritual performance of the white whaleat King Comics is a continuation of a long
tradition, as are the rituals of sortingand pricing.Even the mundane discussions about films
based on comics are rituals. Communication as ritual is not necessarily about sending and
receiving messages. Aritualviewofcommunicationisdirectednottowardtheextensionof
messages in space but the maintenance of society in time []nottheactofimparting
information or influence but the creation, representation, and celebration of shared even if
illusory beliefs(Carey, 2009, p. 33). Communication rituals construct and constitute the social
world, including selves, relationships, cultural practices and organizations, expanding the notion
that collective identities are created in part through the narratives participants themselves author
(Brown, 2006; Herrmann, 2011). These rituals maintain the long and rich traditions of community
at comic book shops. However, as noted, they can also support and reify hegemonic masculinity.
Denouement and discussion
As an organizational autoethnographer I recognize that all possible conclusions are
localized and situational. And of course autoethnographic research is inherently biased in
certain ways, as the research itself is, in part, about the researcher. As such, rather than a
conclusion, I present a denouement and discussion. I start with various barriers to entry
created through language and communication, and then turn to dilemmas regarding the
economics of collecting. Throughout, I present ideas King Comics and its customers could
utilize to overcome various barriers to entry. Lastly, I discuss autoethnography as an
applied organizational research method.
JOE
The communication and the rituals at King Comics create the cohesive atmosphere of a
third place. As Carr (1986) noted, group continuation is not that different from the story
told about it; it too is constituted by the story of the community, of what it is and what it is
doing, which is told, acted out and accepted in a kind of self-reflective social narration
(p. 150). Through our participation in these communal rituals, we continued our stories as
collectors, the organizational story of King Comics, while also fitting ourselves into the
larger cultural narrative of geekdom. The slang, jargon, obsessiveness and deep-seated
knowledge of comics and all things geekand the various rituals performedcertainly
create an in-group community.
For example, in this text I used the terms baggedand boarded,mentioned comic
protector boxes, and CGC grading. For in-group members there is no need for explanation,
for they have been socialized into this specialized language. While this may be a positive for
in-group camaraderie, it is not necessarily good for business. For the uninitiated, this argot
simultaneously creates various out-groups. Expert jargon is a way of asserting insider
status and upholding doctrinal boundaries: I know the insider vocabulary, so Im a comics
fan [] and youre not(Fischer, 2010, para. 30). As a customer and a collector, this is
bothersome, for it creates one barrier to entry for new potential fans and customers.
However, the communication at the shop is problematic in a deeper more resonant way.
Researchers note that fandom and geekdom are constructed in ways that are classist,
heterosexist, masculinist and white (Stanfill, 2010). Some shops are broadening their appeal,
making themselves more invitational to women, differing ethnicities, children and the
LGBTQ community. These types of comic book shops are booming (Andrews, 2016). King
Comics does not fit that description. The type of comic book store that caters primarily to
middle-aged white men is problematic and possibly not sustainable as an ongoing business
venture in the future (Salkowitz, 2012). Since organizations are communicatively
constituted, they are gendered, raced and classed through ongoing social interaction
(Ashcraft and Mumby, 2004; Ashcraft et al., 2009). It is necessary to not only espouse an
inclusionary approach, but to be inclusionary in our everyday communicative praxis and
performances, where the recognition and acceptance of difference is valued. Such an
approach is not only dialogic and ethical; it is also related to positive organizational and
cultural change (Roberson, 2006; Stevens et al., 2008). The King communityand I include
myself, for I too am culpableshould be aware of how our own communication and rituals
ostracize others. We should examine how our communicative practices contribute to the
elitist and masculinist organizational culture.
From an organizational consultants standpoint, there are other issues. We are in the
midst of the retail apocalypse(Peterson, 2018). Established brands are struggling and over
9,000 retail stores closed in 2017 (Morgan, 2018). Despite this, consumption related to
hobbies, including comics, continues to rise (Van Dam, 2018). King Comics does have a
number of strengths that maintain it as a viable operation: the massive size of the store, its
seemingly bottomless selection, its dedicated customer base, its relatively solitary location
and sheer sales volume. How long this is sustainable is to be determined. From an
organizational perspective, King Comics could leverage these strengths and maintain its
viability going forward by helping to eliminate two other barriers to entry.
The first barrier to entry is associated to the narrative complexity of comics themselves.
The discussion above regarding the Original Sin series is instructive. There are numerous
cross-pollinated narratives in comics. Likewise, there is a confusing array of titles.
For example, in 2017 Marvel published eight different series that included a Spidey
character. Spideyalso appears in various team-ups, annuals, one-shots and crossovers. It
is overwhelming. If I was a neophyte, I would be lost. Related to the first barrier is a second:
cost. Popular culture is one of the ways by which we organize and make sense of our
selfwithin our communities in our consumer society (Manning and Adams, 2015;
Ritual at the
comic book
shop
Herbig et al., 2015; Herrmann and Herbig, 2016). Collecting is one source of identity and
cultural capital, and collectors want to have as close to a complete collection as possible
(Serchay, 1998). This means one must have disposable income. With an average range
between US$2.50 and US$5.99 per issue, often with multiple issues and tie-ins per month,
collecting comics quickly gets expensive. To be a completest, you have to have commitment.
This is not your grandfathers US10¢ throw-away comic.
These two barriers to entry may be mitigated in a number of ways, all of which fall under
the auspices of personalized shopping (Morgan, 2018). One possible solution is a series of
discussions given in the shop itself, presented by the owners or regular customers,
introducing (or re-introducing) various characters, plotlines and universes. Similarly, the
shop could have comic reading club, much like those held in coffee shops and bookstores. As
new issues are published on a regular basis, those with the same subscriptions could come
together in the store for Coffee and Comicsto discuss the strengths and weaknesses of
their favorite series and characters. Likewise, local acafans could be invited to give
presentations discussing aspects of comics and comic culture.
Each of these options would entail having to re-organize the material layout of King
Comics itself. The store would have to create a space for these activities. One possible
location is near the back of the store where there is some space and movable displays to
accommodate such activities. Based on customer interest, King employees could make
individual recommendations to current customers, while also helping to create new
customers. For example, they could suggest specific characters or comic book lines, or a
trade paperback collection chronicling the most important stories from a characters history,
or given the new Hulu series, the original run of The Runaways.
Finally, organizations themselves are searching for new and better ways to collect
qualitative data to understand their personalized customer initiatives and preferences
(Patel, 2017). The most prominent forms of qualitative data collection include focus groups
and interviews. The relatively recent growth of ethnography as a method to study retail
(by retailers themselves) is a positive development (Elliott and Jankell-Elliott, 2003; Healy
et al., 2007). Organizational autoethnographers
Q4 can propose our method as yet another
qualitative research data point for retail establishments. Who knowsand can
critiquethe customer experience better than those of us who are embedded in the
cultures and connected to the organizations we relate to?
If autoethnography begins with aperson, an individual researcher, who interrogates
their self and their positionality(Herrmann, 2017b, p. 1, emphasis in the original), then it is
not necessary to be a fully enmeshed organizational participant to write organizational
autoethnography. In this organizational autoethnography I used my position as a customer
of King Comics, demonstrating one way we can expand our research. This serves as a
compliment and as an extension to Doloriert and Sambrooks (2012) three organizational
autoethnographic research streams. In fact, given the various positions each of us holdas
clients, customers, patients, volunteers, etc.as well as the different identifications we have
with organizations, broadening the scope of organizational autoethnography is a next
important step.
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About the author
Andrew Herrmann (PhD, University of South Florida) is Assistant Professor of Communication
Studies at East Tennessee State University, where he teaches organizational communication,
communication technology and autoethnography courses. His critical communication research focuses
on identity and narrative at the intersections of organizational, mediated and cultural contexts. He
co-edited Communication Perspectives on Popular Culture (Lexington, 2016) and Beyond New Media:
Discourse and Critique in A Polymediated Age (Lexington, 2015). His publications can be found in
Journal of Organizational Ethnography,Communication Theory, Journal of Business Communication,
Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, Journal of Computer-Mediated
Communication, and Qualitative Inquiry, and others. Most recently, he edited Organizational
Autoethnography: Power and Identity in Our Working Lives (Routledge, 2017). Andrew Herrmann can
be contacted at: andrew.f.herrmann@gmail.com
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