View From the Bay Area: Isotope and Comics Relief


The storefront of Comic Relief, on Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue.

I’VE JUST RETURNED FROM A short vacation in Berkeley and San Francisco, and while I was there, I did a mini-tour of some of the area’s several famous comics stores. I only made it to two, but they were impressive enough that it seemed worth writing a bit about them and showing off some pictures I took.

Isotope: The Comics Lounge, located on San Francisco’s Fell Street, has an unassuming storefront, but it gets across what it’s about with its striking logo and the diverse set of graphic novels in its bright, clean windows. The store is narrow, not much wider than the display windows, but extends a ways into the building. Immediately inside, the store earns its “lounge” designation with a sleek design and a nice arrangement of couches, complemented by another in the store’s upstairs section, inviting customers to sit, read, and relax, much like many bookstores do.

Some of the couches that earn Isotope its “lounge” designation.

The day I came in, the store was manned by Kirsten Baldock, the writer of Smoke & Guns (illustrated by Fábio Moon) and member of San Francisco’s Writers Old Fashioned collective, who explained some of the store’s features, including several original covers from 100 Bullets hanging above the shelves—still there from the store’s wrap party for the recently concluded series—and the minicomics lounge in the upper section.

Row after row of minis, each stacked at least ten deep, fill a couple of racks, ranging from $1 photocopied larks to elaborately hand-assembled works of art. A selection of minicomics this large can be overwhelming, as the bulk of unfamiliar names and art styles provides little to go by beyond first impressions. On the other hand, minis are quirky enough, and generally cheap enough, that it can be a lot of fun to gamble on a handful, even if some of them disappoint. I went through them for several minutes and picked out a few interesting-looking ones.

Isotope’s minicomics lounge.

Next, Baldock pointed out Isotope’s famous gallery of toilet seat art lining the walls near the ceiling, beginning by the front door with Brian Wood’s seat, the one that started it all. I’d heard about the toilet seats before, and even seen pictures, but I wasn’t sure exactly what the story behind them was. As Baldock explained it to me, it can be traced back, like so many things, to booze.

After an event at the store involving heavy drinking by all involved, Wood used a Sharpie to draw on many of the surfaces in Isotope’s bathroom. His work on the toilet being declared the best, it went on display. Rick Remender requested to do the same at another event, and the toilet seat art became a tradition. Dozens now grace the walls all over the store. I asked if Isotope buys toilet seats in bulk, and Baldock confirmed that they buy them ten at a time, earning them “some strange looks at Home Depot.”

A few toilet seats from Isotope’s famous collection.
On the left is Brian Wood’s, the one that started it all.

The layout is clean and streamlined, divided into a few clearly distinct sections. Comics are arranged into a rack of new releases, both stapled and with spines, a larger rack of the last few months’ worth of stapled comics, and graphic novels on bookshelves toward the back. The graphic novels are divided into major publishers and independents, with a shelf highlighting books by local authors. Nearby, more shelves hold an assortment of all-ages graphic novels, with a smattering of stapled offerings.

The selection of new comics at Isotope.

Overall, Isotope has a very fun and inviting atmosphere. The selection of comics isn’t as extensive as you’ll find at some stores, but the galleries of art, toilet seat and otherwise, the many events, and the great assortment of minis make up for it. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d likely do my back issue shopping elsewhere, but I’d definitely come by for events and check in regularly to check out the art and see what new minis had come in.

Isotope’s graphic novel shelves, complete with space suit.

Incidentally, Baldock is looking for an artist for her new graphic novel, which we talked a bit about, she describing it as “Jimmy Stewart in a Blade Runner-type world.” So, hey, artists, get in touch with Kirsten Badrock. It sounds like good stuff.

Kirsten Baldock at Isotope’s front desk. Behind her is Darwyn Cooke’s toilet seat art.

Across the bay in Berkeley, Shattuck Avenue’s Comic Relief also lives up to its own title, “The Comic Bookstore.” The atmosphere is much more like a well-stocked independent bookstore than any comic shop I’ve been to, with an open and well-lit space, and a huge selection that leans heavily toward comics with spines. Books are arranged along the outer walls, and a collection of islands spotlight particular categories like new books, clearance books, and others. Oh, and there are cats.

Comic Relief’s layout is pretty expansive, making room for all the stock and islands with plenty of clearance for people to walk around and browse. During the time I was there, there were always several people looking around, with a fairly even balance between men and women. The age range skewed to people in their 20s, not surprising with the store’s proximity to UC Berkeley, but people of a variety of ages came and went while I browsed.

Comic Relief’s Fiction and Literature section.

The store’s many books are sorted by genre, which include Fiction and Literature, Children’s, Superheroes, Comic Strips, Art Books, Manga, Erotica, etc. Most sections are alphabetical by title, but the Fiction and Literature section contains an island in which a selection of popular books are arranged alphabetically by author, and throughout the store, other islands spotlight particular authors such as Alan Moore and Osamu Tezuka (a sign in the Tezua section advertised a free Black Jack poster with any Tezuka purchase). Each section is well-stocked, mostly with new books, but some used copies, including the odd out-of-print volume, are mixed in.

Two of Comics Relief’s endcap displays: comic strips and Osamu Tezuka.

A nice, bookstore-like touch I noticed as I walked around were how many notes were taped to various shelves, especially in the New Comics section, where notes pointed out standalone issues that represented good jumping-on points, the beginnings of new storylines, the participation of a particular writer or artist, and other helpful details.

My favorite of the many notes posted around Comic Relief.
This one’s in the Erotica section.

I didn’t talk to the staff as much as at Isotope, but from eavesdropping they seemed knowledgeable and helpful when other customers had questions. I didn’t notice staff walking around the store much, but they were positioned at desks in a few different areas, so a store employee was never far away when people had questions.

Comic Relief is very successful in its mission of being a comics store in the style of a bookstore. A result is that it’s less lively than a store like Isotope, with less of a unique feel, and no calling card like Isotope’s toilet seat art. Not that that’s a terrible thing—looking and feeling just like any of a number of bookstores is actually a huge step up from the average comics store. However, the bookstore atmosphere actually makes Comic Relief feel cozier than Isotope, despite being quite a bit bigger. The layout begs for lengthy browsing, and while I bought less than I did as Isotope, I spent a lot more time at Comic Relief. I can imagine it being a frequent hangout for lots of UCB students.

I’d have liked to have hit a few more of the area’s stores on my tour, but these were the two that worked out. While I was wandering Telegraph Avenue, I was reminded that the venerable Comics and Comix has been closed a few years. And I almost visited Comics Experience in San Francisco as well, but I made it to Isotope at the end of my only full day in the city and, with Baldock’s help, determined that Comics Experience was already closed, so I’ll have to try it out next time. I’ll also be back to both Isotope and Comics Relief.


2 Responses to “View From the Bay Area: Isotope and Comics Relief”

  1. Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources - Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes Says:

    […] | Brendan Wright visits Comic Relief in Berkeley and Isotope in San Francisco. [The Wright Opinion] […]

  2. Comic Books Online Says:

    Great BlogI’m a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to reading comics.

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