Columbia comic book shop prioritizes community through inclusive collections
Walk through the doors of Distant Planet Comics and Collectibles in Columbia, and you’ll be met by a bright, eclectic store.
The shop is lined with neatly organized shelves, a well stocked young readers section, colorful posters and an assortment of Funko Pops. There to greet you is the store’s equally bright managing owner, Brandy Cross.
Cross affectionately describes herself as an old school ‘90s punk who has had the same purple hair since high school. Her love of comics stretches all the way back to her childhood, with her first comic being “Archie.” Cross didn’t start out as an expert in comics, though.
She graduated with a master’s in business and worked as an accountant after graduating. However, she hated sitting at a desk all day and knew that something had to change.
So, Cross sat down with her partner, Gabriel Halicks, and longtime friend Alfonzo Lawhorn. They bounced multiple ideas around, including opening their own bakery, before arriving at the idea for a comic book shop.
“We’re like, ‘Hey, you know, we don’t really have a comic shop that we feel is geared towards us in town,’” Cross said.
Thus, the idea for Distant Planet was born. The three opened the store off of Business Loop 70 in 2015.
Since then, the trio has navigated changes in the comic book industry and the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Cross said that the store has had three record years in a row, with Distant Planet earning around $150,000 in annual revenue.
This is consistent with what the comic book industry has been experiencing overall. North American sales in 2021 jumped to a record $2 billion, a 62% increase from 2020’s $1.28 billion in sales according to Comichron, which gathers data in the industry.
Distant Planet is one of a handful of comic book stores in the mid-Missouri area. Cross said she’s had customers drive up to two hours to visit the store.
For customer Vance Shook, walking into Distant Planet for the first time “felt like home.” He had previously owned his own comic book shop in Germany in the ‘90s. Shook said that Cross and Distant Planet is exactly what he would have wanted his store to be: welcoming to all, bright and family-friendly.
“I can’t imagine the store not being here and filling a hole in the community that it does,” Shook said. “There’s just enough stuff within the community that the store is here for a reason and they’re filling a niche.”
Another customer, Joe Goforth, said Distant Planet is a place where anyone can feel like they belong.
“A lot of people, especially comic book people, I think they feel like they’re outsiders to begin with,” Goforth said. “...they come to comic book shops and say, ‘Oh, there’s people like me here.’ So that’s a great thing about this place.”
Cross built the store with inclusivity in mind. One example is its “Be a Better Human” shelf at the entrance of the store. It showcases works that are anti-racist, anti-facist, books focused on emotional and mental health well-being and LGBTQ+ books.
Distant Planet’s modus operandi of being a caring, inclusive space is reflected in its customer base as well. In the past, the community has rallied around the store to raise funding for a customer’s hand surgery, which he couldn’t afford by himself.
“For us, community is there if you need somebody,” Cross said. “We’re here to celebrate each other, and we’re here to help each other and hold each other up.”
That was put to the test during the pandemic. In 2020, Distant Planet closed three weeks before Boone County implemented stay-at-home orders for safety concerns. However, Cross still tried her best to interact with the community. She began posting daily quarantine videos about her cats, new releases and general life updates to stay connected.
“You know, just anything I could do to still give them that interaction that they needed,” Cross said. “To give them a laugh or a smile. To let them know that ‘We’re still here for you, even if you can’t come in and see us.’”
Not only was Cross tackling the challenge of staying connected during the pandemic at the time, but she was also weathering a series of changes in the comic book industry.
For comic books, distributors often act as the middleman between publishing houses and stores. Diamond Comics Distributor had been the leading powerhouse for over 25 years as it was the sole distributor for DC and Marvel comics.
DC went on to partner with the two of the top online competitors to Diamond to create its own distribution company. That move sparked a chain reaction in the industry. Instead of ordering from two distributors, Cross suddenly had a multitude of different distribution companies to keep track of.
“We had all gotten used to just getting our single issues from one place,” Cross said. “Everything was pretty streamlined.”
Three years later, Distant Planet is still adjusting. Cross and Lawhorn cite miscommunication over shipments, higher prices and series cancellations as continued problems they face.
“Even after all this time, there’s still more hiccups with it than we would like,” Lawhorn said.
Cross expects that the industry isn’t quite finished changing yet. While the dust is still settling from the distributor hurdles, she is excited by the influx of new ideas and first-time comic book readers.
“I just feel like (in) comics, we’re in this position where we’re gonna just blow wide open and finally be what we need to be, or we’re gonna die,” Cross said. “And I’m of the opinion that we should just lean into blowing wide open and go for it because that’s the kind of store I want to be anyway.”