NEW YORK – Stereotypical comic book stores are seen as dusty, dungeon-like places run by surly men a la The Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons.
To many women, these shops are nothing but creepy boys' clubs where clerks leer at them rather than offer help.
But forward-thinking retailers and the group Friends of Lulu are dedicated to debunking that stereotype and recapturing 50 percent of comics' potential readers.
After all, comics have had large female audiences in the past. Grandmothers may remember reading Wonder Woman or the romance comics of the 1940s and 1950s. And Archie, Casper and Wendy the Witch were read by girls as well as boys when comics could be purchased on newsstands.
But these days, women are rarely seen thumbing through such testosterone-driven titles as Spawn, Vampirella and Witchblade in comic book stores.
"There are never women in the stores I go into," said Jenny Miller, 29, a Web developer in Washington, D.C. "I usually just browse around a bit, but unfortunately I don't know anybody who could tell me what's worth buying."
The Lulu book, How to Get Girls (Into Your Store), available on www.friends-lulu.org, provides retailers with hints on attracting new customers and choosing products that appeal to women and kids.
Some of the tips seem like Marketing 101: keep stores clean and well lit; use signage to distinguish between genres; and employ an approachable, knowledgeable staff.
But many owners approach their comic book stores as an extension of their own collections, making the places look more like a teen-age boy's bedroom than an inviting place to shop, according to Liz Schiller, president of Friends of Lulu.
In a Lulu survey, many women said they've been treated like potential dates rather than customers, reporting not only flirting, but also rude behavior from staffers and other customers.
The key is to be friendly to customers "but not too friendly," Schiller said.
Stacey Martin, 23, made her first trip to a comic book store in her hometown of Utica, N.Y., after learning that 1995's The Maxx Animated Series on MTV was based on a comic.
As the lone female customer, "they kind of stared at you when you walked in," she said.
"But in New York [City], [where she lives now] there are way more girls shopping," said Martin, who drops up to $50 on trips to the comics shop.
But in less urban areas, women are still under-represented. Kira Bucca, 18, of Huntington, Md., says she's in the minority when she browses for comics.
"I think the only girls I see normally are the ones that I bring in with me," she said.
For "tagalongs" — women accompanying their boyfriends, brothers or sons — the comics shopping experience can be intimidating.
Staff should be familiar with comics for new readers and put an issue into the hands of a woman waiting for her companion, Schiller writes in the handbook.
And being women-friendly can help convert new fans, which ultimately helps retailers.
Sarah Blackwelder, 26, of Brooklyn, N.Y., became interested in comics after accompanying her high school sweetheart into a local store.
"The Maxx was really great for females to read because it had a lead female character that looked realistic," Blackwelder said.
Despite their male-dominated reputation, many stores are making progress, Schiller said, especially in Chicago, New York, California and Washington, D.C.
Comic Relief in Berkeley, Calif., has a diverse clientele because of its specialty bookstore approach.
"I got a little razzing in the industry from people that said we were putting on airs," said owner Rory Root.
But his selection and service has proven successful.
"Comic Relief is a prime example of diverse stock and nice environment," Schiller said. "I've dropped wads of cash there myself."
And female-owned Cat's Meow Comics & More in Manchester, Conn., actually bills itself as a woman- and kid-friendly store, stocking everything from Garfield to cat collectibles, Sailor Moon to Spider-Man.
Comic book stores shouldn't "ghettoize" what women and girls read, Root said. "Women can like everything."