Hella Novella will feature comic books from female and minority artists


Her space is small — the size of a walk-in closet at a medium-sized house. But Sketch Smith’s new comic book store might yet have a big impact in the Mission. Smith is the owner of Hella Novella, a new comic book shop that just opened last week at 2301 Mission St. at 19th, with the aim of featuring local minority comic book artists.

Smith, a self-taught artist and comic book fan, originally sought to open a shop for her other business, an airbrushing company called Airbrush ‘N’ Stuff that takes orders and sells airbrushed items for corporate events. But her plans shifted when she realized that, at many comic conventions, people of color can still feel like outsiders. At San Diego Comic Con, for example, Smith said she would feel like it was hard to fit in and be the “model minority.” 

“People are very nice, but you’re kind of the odd person out. It feels like duck-duck-goose,” Smith said. 

Realizing how important it was to have media that represents the underrepresented, Smith decided to open Hella Novella, where the work of women, people of color and local artists can be sold. An avid comic artist, tabletop gamer and costume design enthusiast, Smith said she wants to be as inclusive as possible with her comic book store and is even reserving a rack for Spanish language comics. 

Though she just opened the store, Smith said she wants to emphasize comics from female artists who tell stories from a woman’s perspective. She has an entire rack devoted to these books. 

Running a comic book store is a difficult game. Just down the block, between 18th and 19th Streets, Mission Comics and Art, at 2250 Mission St., has resorted to setting up a Patreon page to help raise funds and keep the store open. That store’s owner, Leef Smith (no relation), told Mission Local last month that although comics are more visible and attractive than ever, popularity sometimes does not translate directly to sales. 

His shop has more books and toys for sale, and it’s even a bit crowded inside. But Leef Smith sees a flipside: the burgeoning collection of books and figurines on site.

“The other side to that is that’s all merchandise that hasn’t sold,” he said. 

But Sketch Smith is committed to the philosophy of Hella Novella. 

“I feel like a lot of businesses move into the Mission and they don’t make a way to be inclusive for everyone,” she said. 

She got the idea in 2016 when she was introduced to Afro Comic Con, a comic book convention held in Emeryville that is organized by African American artists. Smith said that at Afro Comic Con she did not have to worry about public perceptions of a black person in costume or having to conform to a broader scene. 

Smith is working on a comic book series of her own. Calling it Dust Dead: The Ballad of Sydney Graves, Smith’s comic is about a black woman who traverses the Wild West 20 years after the end of the Civil War. In her travels she runs into crooked mayors, bandits, bounty hunters and racist zombies. 

When she was a child, Smith got her introduction to comics when she saw a copy of Conan the Barbarian at a newsstand. She bought the comic book, and comics became one of the only constants in her childhood. Her family life was turbulent and, by her estimates, she lived in perhaps 170 cities by the time she was 20 years old. 

When she first came to San Francisco in 2005, she was homeless until she was able to obtain low-income housing for herself and her son. Eventually, she landed a job working an airbrush booth for the San Francisco Arts Commission. 

It allowed her to make a living and devote time to school at City College. Then in 2015 she moved the business online. Today Smith lives in Bernal Heights with her teenage son.

Smith said she’s teaming up with HOMEY to launch a program to train youth to become airbrush artists and teach them how to turn art into a sustainable business model. But those plans are still preliminary and Smith said she expects the program to start in January 2020.

She hopes she can grow Hella Novella into a place where artists and writers can meet and work on projects together. That might be a challenge, as the actual floor space is tiny. 

“The more artists there are around, the more art you create, because it gives people permission to do art,” Smith said.