Behind The Counter: Tara Ferguson
I think an important part of our comic book experience are the people behind the counter who offer advice and help you find the right book for you. With that in mind, I decided to so a series of interviews with a few of these unsung heroes. I picked people who I felt had different areas of expertise and have unique viewpoints. First up is Tara Ferguson of the Big Bang who is in the unique position of being a girl working in a comic shop. I asked about her intro to comics, what it is like working in the shop and her opinion on the various issues around women in comics.
How long have you been a comic book fan? What first got you into them?
I’ve been a Marvel fan since I was tiny but that didn’t come up because of the comics, my introduction was actually through the Saturday morning cartoons on RTE. The 90’s X-Men cartoon was, and still is, perfect! So it was through TV interpretations and eventually whatever reprints I could find in Easons that I became a fan. I live a fair distance away from the city so Comic Stores weren’t a part of my life for years.
I was always aware that the Comic world was a lot larger than I appreciated and it wasn’t until I was 14 and they made a film of Watchmen that I actually started to look at things that didn’t involve members of the X-Men. Of course I was too young to actually go see the movie, but my local bookstore miraculously had a copy of the comic and had no bother selling it to 14 year old me. It all escalated from there!
You’ve been working at the Big Bang for a while now. What’s it like working there? It is kind of a dream job for a comic fan.
Working in Big Bang is brilliant, I’ve been there over a year now and like any job it’s hard work, but I love every minute of it. The customers are the best and, as everyone knows, the guys I work with are amazing. There’s always a fun atmosphere in the store, whether it’s a normal weekday, New Comic Book Day (Every Wednesday!) or any event.
What do you think is the most important aspect of your job?
Good Comic Book Stores shouldn’t be just shops. They generate a community, and it’s the responsibility of those who work in the store to maintain a safe, friendly environment for all who come in.
So many people come into the store everyday! Some just to browse, most coming in to pick up their pull lists, and then there’s all the people coming into the store for the first time. If a person comes into the store looking to buy a comic, who has never read one before, it is my job to help them find something they’ll enjoy. Not only is this an important interaction, but when you break it down it’s an amazing experience. The world of Comics is massive and terrifying and exciting. There is a comic out there for everyone, so when someone comes into the store for the first time, be it a young kid or an adult, and they want to start reading comics, I am responsible for making their introduction to this world as fun and comfortable as possible.
That is an amazing responsibility. These are someone’s first steps into a world that I live for and love, and I have the privilege of helping them along. Showing this person around the store, suggesting books and creators they might like, buzzing off each others’ excitement and knowing that they are happy with their stack of books as they leave, that’s the best and for me the most important part of the job.
Being the only girl working in the shop, do you feel you have a different role to play?
In certain situations, yes I think so. If a young girl decides she wants to start reading comics, her first step will be coming into the store. Comic shelves filled with back issues and the vast sea that are the new releases can be very intimidating for someone who has no idea where to start, and this young girl might feel more at ease seeing another girl in this environment. She might feel more comfortable asking for help from a woman, and because of the severe under-representation of women in comics I would be more capable of helping her choose titles she may like and with characters she may relate to, because I have been in the same position. I’m not saying any of my colleagues can’t or won’t help a female customer (and the amount of female customers we’ve always had certainly attests to that!) but my own experience as a female fan and retailer lets me connect with some customers a lot easier.
Also, given that I am a girl, it meant that I was able to join the Valkyries when I started working in the store. The Valkyries are an online group made up of women all over the world who work in Comic retail. It was founded by comic creator Kate Leth and currently has over 500 members, and I am the only member in Ireland!
I am also planning my own in-store events, that will be announced soon!
What books would you recommend to people?
There’s no set selection of books that I have that I recommend. There are a tonne of books that I love and that I would love to introduce people to, but when someone asks for a recommendation they are not asking for books that I like, they’re asking for books that they would like and this is one of the most important things about selling Comic Books!
If a customer has been reading comics already, they can tell me what books they’ve enjoyed and why. If they like a certain genre or a particular artist or writer I can try to recommend similar works, or books by their favourite creator.
If a customer comes in and has never read a comic before, as I’ve mentioned above it’s my job to introduce them to the comic world. If they ask for my help I’ll then ask them questions, get to know them a bit so I can know what they might like. I’ll ask what movies they like and what books they read, if they’re looking for beautiful artwork or engaging storylines, if they’re interested in one-and-done complete stories or long epic sagas, and from there I’ll start to suggest titles
Comics is considered a bit of Boys Club. Has that been your experience?
Maybe it was because I never got to visit Comic Stores as a kid that I never really felt that growing up. The first Comic character I ever loved was Rogue from the X-Men (the 90s TV cartoon version, of course) and she was a badass! She was tough, she never took crap from anybody, and she gave zero fucks about what anyone thought of her, so why would I have ever felt like I didn’t belong in a Comic Book Store, where she truly lives and breathes?
I was lucky that growing up it just never occurred to me that I may not be welcome in a Comic Book Store because I’m a girl, and I’m very proud that the Big Bang has never been and will never be like that.
Comics are definitely considered a “boys’ club”, I just wrote my BA (Hons) Degree Thesis on the state of gender-equality in current comics, so believe me, I am very aware of that harsh reality but my personal experience does not reflect that. I am very lucky, and I very much credit the environment that was already prevalent within the store when I began working there for that. I never felt like I was entering some boys-only world and I have never once been made feel like I don’t belong because of my gender. That’s just the way we are in the store, and despite making references I don’t understand because of my age and wearing an endless amount of cardigans, the guys really are the best there is at what they do. I have never had my position questioned within the store. When I got the job, NOBODY CARED that I didn’t have a dick. Not the guys working with me, and certainly not the customers. Which just shows how fantastic they are, and that’s exactly how it should be everywhere, whether you’re buying comics or you’re the person behind the till, it shouldn’t matter what gender you are. Comics are for everybody.
We are still seeing a lot of stories like Disney excluding female characters from their toy lines. We seem to have a long way to go in terms of equality. Do you feel there have been any progress?
The two big controversial stories about that recently were Black Widow being left out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s merchandise and the alleged exclusion of Rey from the Star Wars’ merchandise.
The uproar about Natasha not being fairly included in the merchandise from Age of Ultron was completely justified, Some of the cases in that controversy were almost as if Disney were taking the piss in how blatantly obvious Natasha’s exclusion was. In the Cycle Blast Quinjet Vehicle play set for example, taken from the scene in the film where Black Widow leaps from the Quinjet on a motorcycle, there is no Black Widow figure included! Instead we are given either Captain America or Iron Man to ride the motorcycle. She was also left out of the Marvel Legends Infinite Series figure set, which included all the male leads from the film (except Hawkeye), and all of the Hasbro multi-figure packs. This caused huge outcry online, highlighted by the Twitter hashtag #WheresNatasha. This is, however, coming from a film where the main female characters’ importance and self-worth was reduced to the fact that she couldn’t have children (which was included in the film in the most awkward and forced way, and is then completely forgotten as bluntly as it was brought up) and in a film that also fails the Bechdel Test miserably.
While the evidence of female exclusion in merchandises lines is undeniable when it comes to the MCU, I am not on the #WheresRey bandwagon at all. Yes, they’re both owned by Disney, but I think it’s pretty evident in the Force Awakens merchandise line that they have learned from their past mistakes. There is a TONNE of Rey merchandise available. I’m not saying that it’s perfect, she was clearly left out of the Monopoly set, but a lot of this perceived exclusion is down to misdirection purposefully done by Disney to keep her purpose in the film a secret until its release. There is a lot of Rey merchandise yet to be announced and released now that the film is out. At the end of the day Disney would not make a movie where the main character is a girl, let alone a Star Wars movie where the only member of the next generation of Jedi is a girl and then turn around and say “girls don’t sell”. I think that is bullshit. There was a story floating around the internet that said Disney had actually instructed toymakers to leave Rey out of the merchandise lines but there was absolutely nothing official tied to that, I highly doubt there was ANY truth to it. I call that the internet being the internet.
I see Rey as proof that we are making big steps in terms of equality in merchandise and toy lines, and in terms of films we have had both her and Furiosa in the one year, which is huge. In comics I think it’s also getting there. We have titles like Batgirl, Black Canary, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, a selection of female Spider-characters such as Silk and Spider-Gwen, Ms Marvel, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, A-Force and The Mighty Thor coming from DC and Marvel, and we have Image, Dark Horse and Vertigo publishing books such as Bitch Planet, Lady Killer and The Kitchen, all of which are popular and sell well. Again it’s not perfect, but we’re seeing massive improvements in terms of more female-led titles and effective redesigns of out-dated costumes (goodbye cleavage, hello comfort).
So yes, we do have a long, long way to go in terms of gender equality, but I think we are definitely making noticeable progress.
Of all the issues we see in relation to gender equality in comics, what is the first one you’d like to see tackled?
The online harassment suffered by female creators on platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr is awful. It’s already difficult enough for women to break into the Comic industry as creators without then facing yet another thing working against them. Creators use Twitter and Tumblr to communicate with fans, but when opening this door it also allows fans to communicate with creators, and that’s not always a pleasant experience. I’m not naive, I don’t think this is a female-only problem, but it is undeniable that the abuse female creators endure online is much more vicious than the abuse thrown at male creators
It has gotten to a point where it’s just expected now that if you’re a woman working in Comics you’re going to face harassment online, It has become such a common thing. It is extremely important that this issue is addressed, or the dark reality of the situation will dissuade women from wanting a career in Comics at all, and that cannot be let to happen.
If you had to pick an Irish artist to draw your life story, who would you pick?
I’d have to pick Sean Hogan, as he’s a good friend of mine and one of the most talented new creators to come up on the scene in years!