Ralph Mathieu, Owner, Alternate Reality Comics
Doesn’t matter what age or gender you are. If you’ve got the faintest blip of imagination, you’ll get a heady dose of comic-store buzz when you walk into Alternate Reality Comics — you know, that juvenile surge of anticipating fantastic escape into other worlds. Stories seem to riot for your attention from the shelves — here a superhero smash-’em-up, there a bloody noir tale of crime and lust, here a moody, sprawling space opera, there a poignant, personal retelling of an epic historic event.
“For anyone who likes to read, there’s a comic,” says owner Ralph Mathieu. “Autobiography, history, humor, horror, crime fiction ... I’ve designed my store in such a way that people can see the different kinds of stories that comics can tell.” Indeed, it might be more accurate not to call Mathieu’s shop a comic book store — that sounds so niche, so outdated — but rather a shrine to visual storytelling. (And yes, there are action figures, too.)
Once the geeky realm of hypertrophic heroes and villains, comic books have gone through several revolutions. With the ’60s came counterculture comix that skewered square America; in the ’90s, comic books gained literary cachet with graphic novels, such as Pulitzer-winning Maus, grappling with serious subject matter. Today, the medium’s commercial impact ripples across the pop-culture spectrum. If you’re a fan of “The Walking Dead,” Guardians of the Galaxy or even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thank comics for the inspiration — that’s how they originated. Mathieu himself used to troll local 7-Elevens to get his fix of pow! bang! bam! fare, but soon started to crave something more sophisticated. “One of my first favorite writers who showed me that comics could be something other than superhero slugfests was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck.” That would be the misanthropic man-duck who was the mouthpiece for Gerber’s social satire of the ’70s. “Howard was just out of sync with the rest of the world, and that really spoke to me.”
You might say Mathieu was out of sync with the world, too, until comics came to the rescue. In the ’90s, he was doing the slacker thing, clerking at a convenience store, taking classes here and there at UNLV. His lifelong love of comics had inspired him to try his own hand at writing and drawing but, he says, “I quickly realized I didn’t have the chops.” He set his sights instead on someday owning his own shop. When an opportunity arose to buy a local comic book store, he leapt at the chance, opening Alternate Reality Comics (alternaterealitycomics.net) in the University District in 1995.
There’s an art to selling comics. The elfin Mathieu is charmingly diffident and halting in casual conversation, but as soon as customers come through the door, he turns into something like an English butler — subtly ever-present but never hovering — peppering them here and there with questions about their favorite movies, stories and comics. He darts away to take a phone call; the customer, a regular, is calling to riff on the latest issue of Thor, in which a female protagonist wields the legendary hammer. Diversity in the world of comics reflects the same trend among readers. “Comics have a much more diverse readership today,” says Mathieu. “The superhero movies are drawing both guys and girls, and younger people are coming back into comics as well. It’s also really fun to see people who were kids as customers bringing their own kids in.”
Mathieu’s personal kryptonite? Not enough time in the day for all those countless page-turning adventures. “The number of TV shows I watch is minimal, and I don’t play video games. Reading comics takes so much of my time. I really live and breathe comics,” he says. An understanding sidekick helps. “Fortunately, my wife enjoys the medium, too, so I can take my work home with me.”