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Escape to Desert Island: Comic Book Paradise

By Pollyanna Macchiano

The world of comics is a pulsating mass of ink, humor, personal stories, and punk rock edge with a side of cuteness. I’m not talking about Hollywood superheroes in spandex. I’m talking about the underground, indie scene of zines and self-made publishers looking to share their work and get their stories out there. Only a few establishments cater to this ragtag crowd of creative folk.

Enter Desert Island Comics.

Gabe Fowler opened this store in 2008 with one goal in mind: to present the world with real comics made by real people.

When I asked why he chose the name Desert Island, Fowler says it came from the common game of, “If you were on a desert island, what would you bring?” For him, it implies a carefully selected group of material. “Additionally, the desert island scenario is a popular setting for gag comics—so much so that the New Yorker actually banned them for decades.  So in that sense, a desert island is almost a pre-Internet meme.”

Nestled in the middle of historic and now hipster Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the modest store contains fresh and new printed art covering a wide array of topics in all sorts of formats, as well as vintage rarities. Regular serial and indie comics, illustrated children's books, art books, graphic novels, handmade artists' books, vintage Mad magazines, and much more are here.

But why comics? Fowler is a self-proclaimed fan of “stupid jokes” and loved reading Mad as a kid. He went to art school at the Art Institute in Chicago, where he discovered that “comics weren’t considered real art,” and he didn’t agree. He discovered more types of expressive art as he went to school, and decided to fuel his interest in counterculture art. When he moved to New York, he expected tons of indie comic book stores but only saw a few. That's when he decided to bring back comics in the only way he thought appropriate: by opening up his own comic book store, with no business background and only his passion for comics to guide him.

Fowler curates his print art with the sole purpose of presenting the best the comics world has to offer. Striving comic artists, indie illustrators, and self-publishers can also sell their work through the store. Fowler is democratizing the marketplace for artists trying to make a living from their work.

“Any artist can bring in their printed work to Desert Island and they can sell it here without any judgment from me,” says Fowler.

Always on the lookout for new work to feature, Fowler scours the print world for work that appeals to his countercultural tastes while also representing the artists who may not have otherwise been seen or heard.

“Comic stores are more important than art galleries to me. Stores make art accessible—a teenager can walk in and buy a comic. I wanted to make a cultural store.”

Desert Island Comics is a haven for independent comic creators and fans. Founder Gabe Fowler also created this newspaper, called
Adrian Tomine

In addition to opening up Desert Island, Fowler also started a comic-centric newspaper called Smoke Signal.

The name ties into the store's overall theme. “I thought, if you were sending a message from a desert island you would have limited means, such as a smoke signal. A smoke signal is, of course, an archaic communication method—kind of like newspapers.”

The newspaper is filled page-to-page with comics from a variety of artists and illustrators. Fowler's sole experience with printing was from an offset printing class in art school, but he quickly realized that using Adobe InDesign was easier. One awesome thing about this newspaper, which comes out a few times a year? It’s totally free.

Adrian Tomine's

Rounding out Fowler’s mini-empire of comic art is the annual Comic Arts Brooklyn festival, which draws thousands of print enthusiasts and features more than 70 artists selling their work.

Admission to the event is free; Fowler frequently emphasizes that he isn’t in this for the money. His ultimate goal is to showcase art of cultural value so that it's widely accessible to anyone who's willing to take a look.