Comics Go Mainstream

They’re not just for ‘nerds’ anymore

Dave Barfield

Fans, fanatics and collectors everywhere have set out to avenge their reputations, proving comics are not just a trend. 

 

The Flash. The Walking Dead. Daredevil. The Avengers. Doctor Strange. The list goes on and on. It doesn’t take super powers to see that movies and TV are obsessed with the comic book universe. Consider: About a dozen comic book-inspired TV shows are on the air, with more to come. In theaters, there are at least 20 films from the comic book realm planned through 2020. And it’s easy to see why: Comic book themes are hotter than X-ray vision.

Just on its opening weekend in May, “Captain America Civil War,” the third Captain America film released, grossed $179,139,142 (domestically), according to Box Office MoJo. As of August, the site reported, the Captain America film had grossed more than $407 million in the United States and more than $744 million overseas, for a total of more than $1 billion.

All that popularity gives longtime comic book fans a feeling of “vindication.”

“The nerds have won,” said Jeffrey Shanks, a member of Tallahassee’s Comic Book Club.

“What we’re seeing is that comic book characters have transcended that medium,” said Shanks, a National Park Service archaeologist, historian, scholar of early 20th century pop culture and comic book fan. “Most of us were probably nerds growing up, and this stuff we were fans of was marginalized and now it’s mainstream.”

Shanks was one of nine guys talking about comics over pizza at a monthly gathering of the Tallahassee Comic Book Club. 

Film Frame..© Marvel 2016

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War L to R: Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)

 

“This is a pretty nice time to be a comic book fan,” said member Wesley Dupont. 

The comic book club’s members range in age from their 30s to 50s and most share a nearly lifelong love of Batman, Spiderman, Hawkeye and other characters.

“Everybody has different interests,” said club member Jason Marconnet, 34, a Tallahassee safety consultant for construction companies. “A few buy and sell comics, some collect original art and we talk about movies and TV shows as well as comic books.”

Social media has made it easier for comic book lovers to connect and chat. Readers who once felt isolated can now easily be part of fandom, no matter where they live.

“There is a comic book culture in Tallahassee,” said Jeffrey Davis, who grew up in the comic book business. His dad, Tom, has been running The Bookshelf, one of the city’s oldest comic book stores, for more than 20 years.

The Bookshelf is one of five comic book stores in Tallahassee though one, GameEscape, at the Centre of Tallahassee is dominated by trading card games. Even the other local comic book stores are also packed with super hero art, figures, toys, posters, games and cards. 

“It’s the age of comics in all media forms,” said Emmaline Massaglia, a staff facilitator of the adult graphics novel book club at the LeRoy Collins Main Library. 

There’s also a club for preteens and teens. “We had so many kids and teens attending we decided to split into two clubs,” she said. “They’ve been an overwhelming success.”

An appreciation of comic and graphic novel storytelling is a growing trend, insiders said.

“Tallahassee certainly has passionate comic book fans,” said writer Craig Schroeder, who founded the independent, Tallahassee-based comic book publisher, Gentleman Baby Comics, in 2012.

 

“The first comic book I published was funded on Kickstarter (a funding platform for creative projects) and probably 75 percent of the donations came from Tallahassee comic fans who wanted to put their support into a local comic community,” said Schroeder, 28. “Several of my friends have used crowd funding platforms with huge support from Tallahassee comic fans.”

Schroeder is the author of HIT!, a six-issue story arc about Connor Connolly, a hitman for the Irish mafia in Boston. With local artist Daniel Hooker, Schroeder has produced two books so far, published in 2012 and 2014, and is working on a third. (Hooker is also writing his own comic book, called “Line of Ruin.”)

 “I’m finally writing something I like that makes me happy,” said Schroeder, who majored in creative writing at Florida State University and tried his hand at writing scripts. He has a day job as a state employee.

“It used to be that anyone who got into the industry was regarded as a geek or a nerd,” he said. “But it’s become a mainstream industry.”

It’s an industry that’s constantly changing. If you haven’t picked up a comic book in a few years, there’s a lot to learn.

You might be surprised to find that some of your childhood super heroes have different origin stories (see the DC Rebirth initiative). Obscure characters now have starring roles to take advantage of pop culture popularity (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord, Jessica Jones). And there are revamped superheroes (Black Panther, Ms. Marvel) reflecting our times, the way comic books always have.

“Comic books have been our modern mythology,” said Mark Wilkens, owner of Fallout Comics with his wife, Jennifer Hughes. “They’ve been an allegory for our society. They’ve kept up with social change or have been the front runner of social change.”

Comic book fans talk about propaganda Superman comics during World War II, X-Men as a reflection of the civil right movement, and the influence of the Patriot Act on Marvel’s Civil War. 

Now, there’s the new Ms. Marvel comic. Its featured character, Kamala Khan, is a typical teen from Jersey City who has shape-shifting abilities. And she’s also Muslim, a headline-making exception in superhero stereotypes. In one frame, Khan laments: “But how am I gonna cope if I can’t get corned beef bahn mi from the only Serbian-Vietnamese grocery in Jersey City?” That’s not a complaint you would have heard in Archie and Jughead’s Riverdale.

But then even Archie has been subject to drastic reinventions, including the “Afterlife with Archie” series, a zombie comic collection. Plus there’s a CW TV show in the works called “Riverdale” that will reveal a darker side of Archie, Betty, Veronica and their iconic pals.

 DC Comics has joined with Hanna-Barbera in a makeover of some of its famed characters. Fred Flintstone’s storyline will be “a little more grim than you remember,” said Tallahassee’s Sammie Michael, hosting the Hanna-Barbera Book Club on YouTube. “Fred is struggling with some PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and has to attend a support group for people who have been through the prehistoric wars.”

 Do we even want to ask about Bamm Bamm and Pebbles? Accepting drastic changes hasn’t been easy for comic book fans, said Michael, 23, who also produces her own YouTube show called “Sammie Reads.”

 “People make their own personal connection with characters, and if anything changes they can take it super personally,” said Michael, a junior at Florida State University. “It’s hard to balance keeping those longtime fans happy while bringing in new readers.”

On her YouTube show, which she said now attracts about 20,000 viewers, Michael offers entertaining reviews of new comic releases or just talks about related topics, like what it was like working in a comic book store.

Michael worked at Secret Headquarters before her boss, Brian Jacoby, a beloved figure in Tallahassee’s comic book community, died in 2014.
Jacoby “took me under his wing, and I started loving the (comic book) community,” she said.

 At an interview in a coffee shop, Michael was wearing Aqua-Man sneakers, a tribute to the first superhero she discovered when she started working at Secret Headquarters.

 “I think there’s something really special about the medium of comics because it can combine images with words in a way that no other medium can,” Michael said. “I think some people are very quick to write off that as childish. There are some extremely talented artists and writers who can communicate a really unique message. They’re good stories.”

 One comic getting a lot of attention is “Black Panther,” written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic. The Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream American comics in 1966.

Renowned author Neil Gaiman has returned to his fantasy/horror series, “The Sandman,” which he launched 25 years ago, with the first issue in his beloved series that he’s released in 10 years. The books followed Dream, a godlike character who ruled the world of dreams and came from a family of entities known as the Endless. The new six-part miniseries is called “The Sandman: Overture.”

Comic books may have become more sophisticated and mature, but kids are still discovering them, Massaglia said.

Young fans who can’t afford to spend $2.99 or $3.99 for a comic book — more for trade paperbacks or graphic novels — can find them at the library.

“It’s a great way to keep kids reading,” Massaglia said, noting that graphic novels are “circulating like crazy.” 

To clarify, a graphic novel, “generally speaking, is a complete novel-length comic story in a single volume (usually hardcover or perfect bound),” said Shanks, who specializes in academic research on the cultural history of pulp magazines and early comic books. His recent book on the influential pulp magazine, Weird Tales, was nominated for a 2016 Bram Stoker Award.

“Trade paperbacks or trade hardcovers are reprints of comic books in regular book format,” he said. “Comic books are a periodical in a magazine format (saddle-stitched/stapled) usually with serialized comic stories.”

Years ago, fans weren’t always willing to admit they read comic books.

“There was almost a kind of stigma against comic books,” Wilkens said. “People thought they were silly. Customers didn’t want people to know they were going to a comic book store.”

And parents didn’t always like the idea of their kids reading comics, said Bookshelf owner Tom Davis.

“When I was growing up and you were reading comics, people thought you were stupid,” he said. “But if you were reading a comic, you were reading.”

Davis sees comics as a bridge to a lifelong love of books. “Kids can read Batman or Spider-Man, then go on to read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ some Dickens, ‘Red Badge of Courage’ or ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Michael McCants, 30, said that philosophy worked for him. His parents bought him an X-Man comic (which he still has) along with a VHS tape when he was 10 years old. “It was an attempt by my dad to get me interested in reading something.”

Eventually, McCants became hooked on Spider-Man. “Comics are a merger of story and art,” he said. “But I wasn’t really aware of all that until I was an adult.”

McCants still frequents comic book stores to pick up new releases, which come out every Wednesday. On Tuesday nights at stores everywhere, staffers are busily pulling their customers’ special requests to ensure they’ll be available. 

Andi Taylor likes the fact that she sees the new titles before anyone else. She runs The Vault comic book store on North Monroe Street with her mom, Nikki. 

“I live and breathe comics,” Andi said.

Taylor, 21, was a customer at Secret Headquarters before owner Jacoby died. The store stayed vacant for several months and when it went up for sale, Andi and her mom, Nikki, decided to buy it and keep it as a comic book store, changing the name to The Vault.

“We want to continue Brian’s legacy,” Nikki Taylor said. “Some customers told us they stopped reading comics altogether after Brian died.”

Andi had been reading comic books since she was a teen and still tries to read “a little of everything,” though her favorite character is Marvel’s Hawkeye, the archer.

For Andi, comics provided a refuge when she was lonely as a teen. “We were a military family and we moved a lot,” she said. “I wasn’t very popular, so these characters became my friends during awkward times.”

Comics also provided a distraction from everyday life. “I didn’t have to be in math class,” Andi said. “I could be with the Avengers as they battled Ultron.”

Comic book fans generally speak of their favorite heroes with passion, even reverence. Comic books can be a comforting refuge from the disappointments of the real world.

“It’s the escape or the association with something bigger than ourselves,” said Jeffrey Davis. “When you read comic books, especially if you find that comic book character you associate with, you almost become that character.

“You put on the cape or you put on the mask,” Davis said. “These characters are doing the impossible. After a day of being told what you can and can’t do, they kinda give us the limitless.”

As for the business of comic books, there are limits, owners said.

Davis’ father, Tom, said the boom in comic book movies and TV hasn’t necessarily translated into sales. 

“There’s not as much impact as you’d hope,” he said. “After running The Bookshelf on South Monroe for more than 20 years, Tom Davis decided to close the store in the fall and work with his son in a second, much smaller shop in the Northeast, known as Bookshelf 2. They’re looking for a bigger location in the area.

At Cosmic Cat Comics, Ned Stacey echoes Davis’ view.  “Movies haven’t translated into sales,” he said.

Stacey, also an artist, has been in the business 35 years in different locations. Cosmic Cat in Railroad Square looks like a tiny shop, but open the back door and there’s a giant warehouse filled with thousands of comics and other items, and beyond that is an art gallery featuring his portrait work. He has another warehouse packed with older, more valuable comics. 

Stacey, who wants to sell his retail business, said he has seen a boost in some clientele. 

“We’re seeing an increase of girls and women coming in,” he said. “It’s a huge increase compared to what you would have seen 10 years ago.” 

Women are certainly no longer on the comic book sidelines as hyper-sexual drawings. Strong female characters are gaining prominence, including Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Agent Betty Carter, Star Wars’ Rey and Wonder Woman (although she still wears a pretty skimpy superhero outfit).

College-age women are also buying more mature themes like the graphic novel, “Saga,” and the comics “Rat Queens” and “Bitch Planet,” Stacey said. 

In fact, a December article on the MTV website promised to explan, “Why 2016 is the Year We Need to Stop Pretending that Women Aren’t Geeks.” 

But Michael said she believes “women readers have always been there. Young girls can get into comics just as easily as boys can.”

At the graphic novel club for teens/preteens at the Main Library, both young girls and boys come to the monthly meetings, said librarian Sally Lynn Mason, who oversees the youth club, which has a dozen members aged 8 to 15. Their choices include “My Little Pony,” “Pokemon” and even “Nancy Drew” graphic novels. 

“The state of the industry is strong, as strong as it’s been in many, many years,” said an optimistic Wilkens. “We almost lost the industry in the mid ’90s, but it’s recovered. I think a lot of that is due to the success from the movies. They’ve brought in a broader audience.”

One of his customers, Will McGlaughlin, backed up that theory.  He came up to Fallout’s checkout counter toting a Flash comic book. At his side was his wife, Brooke, wearing a Hogwarts T-shirt and pushing a baby stroller. “She’s the comic book reader,” said McGlaughlin. “But I like the TV show so I thought I’d try the comic book.”

But even at Fallout, a big part of the business revolves around a broad array of merchandise and events like the Warhammer 40k Tournament, a tabletop miniature war game. 

 Digital comics are another threat to stores, but owners and readers aren’t yet seeing a big takeover. 

Actual comics “have the collectability element through thick and thin and good and bad,” Jeffrey Davis said. “There are still people who like to hold a book.”

 That’s true of Marconnet, 34, who was showing some comic books he recently had “graded,” a system that judges the condition of books from 1 to 10, a service that can cost $40 or more per book. 

“You’ll never see a 10,” he said. Just as the value of a new car can drop the minute it leaves the showroom, a comic can get a nick or some flaw as soon as it leaves the publisher.

Marconnet’s most prized comic is a No. 2 “Amazing Spider-Man,” from 1963 (before Marconnet was born) autographed by Stan Lee. But what’s most valuable to him is owning that bit of Spider-Man history.

“You can’t replace what you see right there,” said fellow book club member Eddie Powe, pointing to Marconnet. “He wants that book in his hands.” 

Some of the most collectible issues are from the Golden Age of comics, from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and the Silver Age, from about the mid-50s to 1970. If you’ve been hoarding stacks of comics for decades, there may be value there, but don’t count on your comics for a financial windfall, fans said. 

“It’s not really an investment,” said McCants. “It has to be something really rare, like a comic book that survived the paper shortages of World War II.” 

Still, there is a lot of trading at comic book conventions, seen as a moneymaking part of the industry. 

Tallahassee’s comic book fans said they believe there’s enough interest here to host a larger comic convention than the yearly Alt-Con in Tallahassee.

“We’re talking about doing something bigger and more high-profile,” Marconnet said. 

The prospect “was unthinkable even five or 10 years ago,” Shanks said. “But there’s an explosion all over the country of regional comic conventions.”

Pensacola, Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando all have large comic conventions, many featuring “cosplay” —fans dressed like their favorite characters in a movie, comic book, video game or the Japanese genres of manga and anime.

But the appeal is still a simple one: sharing the comic book world with fellow fans. 

“There is a bit of vindication,” McCants said. “Ten years ago, friends thought it was kid stuff. There’s a feeling our time has arrived.”

But Michael said she believes “women readers have always been there. Young girls can get into comics just as easily as boys can.”

At the graphic novel club for teens/preteens at the Main Library, both young girls and boys come to the monthly meetings, said librarian Sally Lynn Mason, who oversees the youth club, which has a dozen members aged 8 to 15. Their choices include “My Little Pony,” “Pokemon” and even “Nancy Drew” graphic novels. 

“The state of the industry is strong, as strong as it’s been in many, many years,” said an optimistic Wilkens. “We almost lost the industry in the mid ’90s, but it’s recovered. I think a lot of that is due to the success from the movies. They’ve brought in a broader audience.”

One of his customers, Will McGlaughlin, backed up that theory.  He came up to Fallout’s checkout counter toting a Flash comic book. At his side was his wife, Brooke, wearing a Hogwarts T-shirt and pushing a baby stroller. “She’s the comic book reader,” said McGlaughlin. “But I like the TV show so I thought I’d try the comic book.”

But even at Fallout, a big part of the business revolves around a broad array of merchandise and events like the Warhammer 40k Tournament, a tabletop miniature war game. 

 Digital comics are another threat to stores, but owners and readers aren’t yet seeing a big takeover. 

Actual comics “have the collectability element through thick and thin and good and bad,” Jeffrey Davis said. “There are still people who like to hold a book.”

 That’s true of Marconnet, 34, who was showing some comic books he recently had “graded,” a system that judges the condition of books from 1 to 10, a service that can cost $40 or more per book. 

“You’ll never see a 10,” he said. Just as the value of a new car can drop the minute it leaves the showroom, a comic can get a nick or some flaw as soon as it leaves the publisher.

Marconnet’s most prized comic is a No. 2 “Amazing Spider-Man,” from 1963 (before Marconnet was born) autographed by Stan Lee. But what’s most valuable to him is owning that bit of Spider-Man history.

“You can’t replace what you see right there,” said fellow book club member Eddie Powe, pointing to Marconnet. “He wants that book in his hands.” 

Some of the most collectible issues are from the Golden Age of comics, from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and the Silver Age, from about the mid-50s to 1970. If you’ve been hoarding stacks of comics for decades, there may be value there, but don’t count on your comics for a financial windfall, fans said. 

“It’s not really an investment,” said McCants. “It has to be something really rare, like a comic book that survived the paper shortages of World War II.” 

Still, there is a lot of trading at comic book conventions, seen as a moneymaking part of the industry. 

Tallahassee’s comic book fans said they believe there’s enough interest here to host a larger comic convention than the yearly Alt-Con in Tallahassee.

“We’re talking about doing something bigger and more high-profile,” Marconnet said. 

The prospect “was unthinkable even five or 10 years ago,” Shanks said. “But there’s an explosion all over the country of regional comic conventions.”

Pensacola, Jacksonville, Miami and Orlando all have large comic conventions, many featuring “cosplay” —fans dressed like their favorite characters in a movie, comic book, video game or the Japanese genres of manga and anime.

But the appeal is still a simple one: sharing the comic book world with fellow fans. 

“There is a bit of vindication,” McCants said. “Ten years ago, friends thought it was kid stuff. There’s a feeling our time has arrived.”


COMIC BOOK SOURCES

If you’d like to connect with other comic book fans, here are some options;

Tallahassee Comic Book Club 

The club meets monthly in various restaurants. facebook.com/groups/tallahasseecomicbookclub/members

Graphic novel clubs at the LeRoy Collins Main Library

The clubs for adults and teens/preteens meet monthly. 200 W. Park Ave. (850) 606-2665
Contact Emmaline Massagia (adults) or Sally Lynn Mason. bit.ly/2bA4wTU

You can find comic books in a variety of places, including book stores, vintage shops and the library, but here are the prime comic book stores in Tallahassee.

The Bookshelf 

3852 Killearn Court
(850) 727-4355

bookshelf-tally.com

Cosmic Cat Comics 

625 Industrial Drive (Railroad Square)
(850) 224-5554
facebook.com/Cosmic-Cat-Comics-185346774837280

Fallout Comics 

1484 Apalachee Parkway
(850) 765-6654

facebook.com/Fallout-Comics-245223857710

GameEscape

Centre of Tallahassee,
2415 N. Monroe St.
(850) 325-6600

gamescape.com

The Vault 

2218 N. Monroe St.
(850) 999-8351

facebook.com/shqthevault

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