The storefront windows of Sanctum Tattoos and Comics are covered, for now, with crinkled brown butcher paper. The only indication of what lies behind them comes from the black banner hanging behind the shop’s glass door. Under the words “COMING SOON” in bold red letters, there’s a monochromatic image of a hooded skeleton reading from a wrinkled comic book. The comic book, in turn, appears to be shooting beams directly into the skeleton’s brain.
It’s a chaotic image, and a far cry from Sanctum’s relatively spartan interior. The store is divided into two distinct halves. The front is dedicated to comic books and graphic novels; a central shelf features mainstream titles from publishing titans DC and Marvel, while the walls are lined with significantly headier fare, from classic titles like Watchmen and V for Vendetta to pulpy cult classics like Hellboy and Preacher. Even the space’s small amount of clutter carries a certain personality; the front counter features two hand-knit dolls of Rick and Morty’s titular characters, while the cowl of Darth Vader’s helmet rests casually on a couch. The back half of the store — partitioned off by a wall featuring a slew of framed drawings by tattoo artists — is mostly empty, save for a small tattooing station that occupies a single corner. A life-sized, black-and-white print of DC comics creature Swamp Thing looms over the chair where customers will get inked.
Sanctum is the brainchild of its two owners, Wess Gregg and Aaron Hamilton, who have been planning the business since June. They’ve occupied the physical space, in a strip mall on the eastern side of Avondale, since September — and they’re prepping for the store’s grand opening, which will take place on Friday, Nov. 25.
“We’re huge comic book fans,” Hamilton said, leaning in the doorway between the store’s two halves. “We go to conventions. And after nearly every convention, we always talk about how we should do something to get more involved in the comic book world, whether it’s creating something or publishing something or whatever.”
Gregg and Hamilton both had worked at comic book stores in the past, and for the longtime friends, creating their own seemed like a natural fit. They decided on a name for the venture, Sanctum, which means “holy or sacred place,” Hamilton said, which was meant to foster a sense of security and community among patrons. “Wess and I come from punk rock, which is huge on community, and I felt like that [name] would create a community space,” Hamilton continued.
For Hamilton, integrating his profession as a tattoo artist into the shop seemed just as obvious. “I tattoo for a living, and I figured that if I was going to open a comic shop, I couldn’t run back and forth between two businesses,” he said. “So we just put it all together, and [the two halves] would kind of help fund each other.”
Hamilton easily lists off some of his favorite comics artists that serve as his artistic influences, including prolific artists like Alex Ross and Paul Pope and American Vampire co-creator Rafael Albuquerque. “Art in comics is so broad and all over the place,” he said. “It’s not typical things that people think about when they think about comics. It’s definitely inspiring.”
Hamilton’s less-than-mainstream inspirations are reflected by the comic book half of Sanctum’s inventory, which features a wide diversity of titles and genres.
“I think Aaron and I both come from similar perspectives, where we grew up reading superhero comics, and we love superhero comics still,” said Gregg. “They’re all over the shop. But as we’ve gotten older, we’ve definitely found our way into the more alternative realm of comics. In the middle [of the shop], you have your standard superhero stuff, and then along the walls you have more alternative [titles] that do a lot of interesting, different stuff for the medium than what you see being made into movies all the time.”
In addition to the weekly titles that the store will receive — including the latest issues of standard superhero fare as well as the latest issues of Marvel’s various Star Wars titles — Gregg said that the store will be featuring content from alternative publishers like Vertigo, Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics and Oni Press. Sanctum will also be the only store in Alabama to distribute releases from Radiator Comics, a Chicago-based company that distributes small-press, D.I.Y. zines.
It’s that focus on the alternative side of the comics world that Gregg and Hamilton hope will bring in new customers. “I really like the idea of having something to read for everybody,” Gregg said. There are a number of comics, he said, that he hopes to get in stock as the store expands: “There’s a really cool comic out right now called Bitch Planet. It’s a sci-fi feminist comic book. It has its own independent story, and every issue is backed up with feminist essays.
“[And] I’m going to be carrying a series called For Beginners that I’m really excited about. It’s a nonfiction series about different philosophical, historical and artistic movements that I think is going to be fantastic to have here. I want someone to be able to walk in here and be able to find something compelling, no matter what their interests are.”
The goal of Sanctum, Hamilton said, is to be a comic store with “a different perspective” — focusing more on the experimental, genre-pushing possibilities of the medium than on stereotypical ideas of what a comic book can be.
“We still like superheroes, though!” Gregg added.
Sanctum Tattoos and Comics will host its grand opening on Friday, November 25 from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. The store is located at 4410B Fourth Ave. S., and the event will feature giveaways, live music by DJ Sinkhole, art by Jonathan Brandon Sawyer, beer by TrimTab Brewing Company and food by Tropicaleo. The event is free. For more information, visit facebook.com/sanctumtattoosandcomics.