Copacetic Comics Succeeds In Being An Outlier In a Business Filled with Caped Crusaders
The Copacetic Comics Company in Polish Hill, a tiny store full of small press, self-published and alternative comics, is revered by enthusiasts far beyond Pittsburgh.
Two floors above Kaibur Coffee & Cafe in Polish Hill is a 750-square-foot shop — about half the size of a tennis court — densely packed with comics alongside books, DVDs and CDs.
There’s no Batman or Iron Man in sight.
Owner Bill Boichel sits at a desk to the right of the entrance. He greets customers as they enter, often asking, “Are you on any particular mission today?”
If a customer is looking for something in particular, Boichel will rise from his seat and zip to the item’s location. If a customer doesn’t know what to buy, Boichel is prepared to quiz them on their interests and point out recommendations with a thorough explanation of the items. If a customer just browses and brings a few finds to the register, Boichel will sing the praises of at least one item. He carefully curates the entire store’s stock, so he knows everything.
This is The Copacetic Comics Company, a shop that focuses on small press, self-published and independent comics that generally have an artsy flair. Copacetic is revered by the world’s independent comics enthusiasts as a champion of comics off the beaten path.
“He just has all this awesome stuff,” says David Bronson, 46, of Manhattan, who regularly buys online from Copacetic. “And sometimes, there’s stuff that I really wanna get that four people might have — and Bill is one of them, usually.”
Boichel, of Forest Hills and in his early 60s, says he became deeply interested in comics at a young age, reading everything he could get his hands on. He was the most fond of Marvel Comics as a kid but fell in love with indie comics as a teenager.
When the long-running, beloved comic series “Love and Rockets” — an early example of complex, literary, character-focused storytelling in indie comics — launched in the early ’80s, it cemented Boichel’s love of the independent side of the industry. After years of selling comics at conventions and operating another comic store in Wilkinsburg, he opened Copacetic in Squirrel Hill in 2001; he moved the shop to Polish Hill in 2010.
Copacetic has a strong online presence; Boichel estimates that for 2022, a third to a half of his stock was sold via the internet to customers around the world. The store predominantly sells comics but also other media because Boichel says he wants to position comics within the context of art, literature, film and music.
He completely rejects the norms of mainstream comic stores. Comic shops generally do much of their business on Wednesdays, when the major publishers release their single-issue stories. Copacetic isn’t even open on Wednesdays. One of the biggest business days of the year for comic shops is Free Comic Book Day — usually the first Saturday in May — when the biggest publishers give shops free comics to give away to complement big sales. Copacetic generally doesn’t do much for Free Comic Book Day. And, perhaps most notably, comic stores usually flood the shelves and boxes with stories featuring recognizable DC and Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man, Superman and Captain America.
Customers can find some of those at Copacetic, but they’d have to look really hard.
“People tend to associate or conflate the medium of comics with superheroes or cartoon funny animals,” Boichel says. “And so my whole thing was, ‘No. It can be anything.’”
Recent comic additions at Copacetic include “Movements and Moments,” a collection of feminist short comics from Global South cartoonists; “Joseph Smith and the Mormons,” a thick nonfiction comic from Noah Van Sciver that tells the story of Smith and the Mormon church; and “Ultrasound,” a graphic novel from Conor Stechschulte and Boichel’s pick for the top comic of 2022.
“It’s a very complex analysis of, basically, deception and control,” Boichel says. “The story is just this made-up story that’s very particular and small, but when you think about it, the operational mechanics of what’s happening is a doorway into understanding how all of us are being manipulated by deceptive information …It’s very, very interesting. Sophisticated.”
Boichel discounts most merchandise between 10% to 20%, with 15% off being the most common discount off the retail price (except for self-published works). The shop can afford to have so much stock at lower prices in a major city because of its location and size, Boichel says.
“Because our per-square-foot rental costs are lower, therefore, the store business model can afford to have comics sit in boxes unsold for years — because [they] eventually will sell,” Boichel says.
A table labeled “Made in Pittsburgh” contains a range of comics with local ties — from mainstream work, such as Marvel comics from Forest Hills comic artist Dave Wachter, to strictly independent work from cartoonists such as Nate McDonough, who self-publishes his series “Grixly.” McDonough, of Lawrenceville, creates, prints and distributes his comics himself; he got his start selling at Copacetic and now is one of a few volunteer helpers of the store, Boichel says.
The most significant local comics creator, Boichel says, is Swissvale resident Frank Santoro. Santoro’s work has sold better at the store than any other cartoonist, and his graphic memoir, “Pittsburgh,” is the single best-selling comic at the store.
Many credit the store for opening their world to this genre.
“I see people who are 10 years older than me that were inspired to get into comics because of Bill — [and they’re] still doing it,” says 35-year-old cartoonist Daniel McCloskey. “Part of that, I think, is Bill’s work and effort encouraging people and keeping people excited about a genre of literature that, when he started, did not have the kind of respect it carries today.”
McCloskey lives in Oakland, California, but previously lived in Pittsburgh; he first visited Copacetic at its Squirrel Hill location about 17 years ago. McCloskey’s father was preparing to teach a course at the University of Pittsburgh on comic book history, something out of his wheelhouse; he visited Copacetic to learn more and brought his son. There, Boichel sat at a desk in an even smaller shop.
“It was so small he could reach basically every book in the store from behind his desk … it was pretty amazing,” McCloskey says. “When my dad asked him for something, he just stood up and reached in all different corners and made a stack of books, and he’s like, ‘I could get you more, but this’ll be enough for your semester.’”
John Porcellino, a Wisconsin-based cartoonist known for his series “King-Cat Comics,” runs an online distribution website commonly used by indie cartoonists called Spit and a Half. Boichel regularly orders comics for Copacetic through Spit and a Half — and typically knows exactly what he wants, according to Porcellino.
“That guy, I don’t know how he does it,” Porcellino says. “He just seems to know about everything that’s going on. Before I do, usually.”
A visit to the shop in 2016 that 30-year-old cartoonist Audra Stang made as part of a residency program while attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, actually convinced her to move to Pittsburgh in 2017, where she lived for a few years.
“The first time I went, I literally cried, because I had never been in a comic store like that,” Stang says.
Danish cartoonist Emil Friis Ernst, who recently relocated from Denmark to France, lived in Pittsburgh for a semester while interning with Pittsburgh cartoonist Santoro about six years ago. And in 2019, he stopped at the shop for an event promoting his first graphic novel, “Dr. Murder and the Island of Death.”
He loves the shop. “It feels like stepping into Bill’s brain.”
Matt Petras is a freelance reporter and professor based in the Pittsburgh area.