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Panels Discussion
By Peter Hanson
Photos by Joe Putrock

Faced with a maturing fan base, comic books ditch the kid's stuff and tackle themes that appeal to adults.

It’s a quiet Friday afternoon, and Mischel Nivins is holding court at Albany comic store Earthworld. Her hair is black today—although it’s just as likely to be red or multicolored depending on her mood on a particular day—and she’s clad in her signature dark clothes. Briefly setting aside the acidic wit that makes her a colorful part of life at Earthworld, Nivins explains that she was introduced to comic books by her mom, who read underground comics in the ’60s. “They were just part of the household,” she says.

Nivins emulated her mother’s interest in the medium by delving into the alternative comics of the 1980s. “I remember starting to read Hate comics when they were coming out, and Eight Ball and Love and Rockets,” she says. “They had, like, real situations with real people, and I loved the artwork. I prefer reading independent comics. I just don’t like a lot of superhero comics in general. They don’t speak to my life.”

Nivins, who says she consumes the books of Camus and Sartre as eagerly as she digs into new indie comics, takes a low opinion of people who take a low opinion of comics. “It’s reading,” she says. “I don’t see how anybody can put down reading in general. Those are the people who’d rather sit in front of the TV and the PlayStation 2.”

Before long, other Earthworld regulars join the conversation, including store owner J.C. Glindmyer and former employee Mike Witt, both 42. They jump at the opportunity to dislodge the stigmas attached to the medium they’ve enjoyed since childhood.

“I think it’s one of the most underappreciated art forms,” Witt says.

The American art form,” adds
Glindmyer.

“Oh no, not again,” moans Nivins, who apparently has heard this discussion before.

Perhaps the most pervasive cliché about comic fans is that they’re undersexed young men who get off on reading about muscle-bound heroes and bubble-breasted heroines. And while the racks at Earthworld feature plenty of titles that cater to the
hormone-crazed, Glindmyer stresses that not every comic fan has the same taste. “I’m not into books that are pandering,” he says. “Some of the things I carry because I feel obligated to—mindless, shock-value stuff.”

All three Earthworlders offer examples of distasteful titles the store has carried in the past, and it’s generally agreed that an issue of Verotic put together by heavy-metal musician Glenn Danzig was particularly repulsive: The story depicts a man who pays to have his daughter kidnapped and raped, then masturbates while watching a video of her subjugation.

“I hate carrying stuff like this,” says Glindmyer, a father of three. “There are times when I open up boxes and wince.”

But there’s a big difference, the Earthworld staffers say, between exploitation and entertainment. Nivins praises the work of Adam Hughes, a so-called “good girl” artist who draws sexy images of heroines like Wonder Woman, and points out that some indie artists who depict beautiful women do so realistically, by addressing issues like weight fluctuation.

The tastes of the staffers vary greatly, and some of the titles that a majority of them enjoy are surprising. Haw! Horrible, Horrible Cartoons by Ivan Brunetti is a store fave because it uses a cartoony style that echoes whitebread strip Family Circus to depict scenes such as youths being warned by their mother not to use
“Daddy’s good cock ring.” Even high-minded comic fans aren’t above puerile thrills, but it helps if the thrills have an air of subversion. As one staffer says with a grin: “If lovin’ Haw! is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”

‘Kids don’t read comics any more,” observes Matthew Smith. “The market reality is that people who read comics right now are 18 to 30 years old, and comics are rising to meet that audience. So you’re seeing more complex stories in what used to be fairly simplistic power fantasies.”

Gone are the days when Superman trounced Lex Luthor month after month with nary an introspective trance. Today, the genre with which comic books are most closely associated—superhero adventure—is filled with mature themes like sexual diversity, political strife and even religious conflict. Smith, a comics professional based in Delmar, just finished drawing Nightcrawler, a four-part series for major publisher Marvel Comics in which the
demonic-looking superhero of the title grapples with, among other things, his new identity as a priest.

Edgy concepts have been explored sporadically in comic books throughout the medium’s history, but the consistency with which adult themes are appearing today represents a revolution of sorts. Particularly at Marvel, the publisher of such enduring characters as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the extended family of mutant superheroes known as the X-Men, storytelling has become more sophisticated and daring than ever before. Writers from other mediums are penning best-selling titles—Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski is behind the hit relaunch of The Amazing Spider-Man, and Clerks director Kevin Smith is handling the popular DC Comics title Green Arrow—and out-there books from smaller publishers are helping to keep adult readers interested by evading juvenile themes and concentrating on things like characterization and social consciousness.

As some observers note, however, the maturation of comic books is an economic necessity. The history of the medium is filled with dark periods during which various factors threaten the existence of comics, and one such period occurred not too long ago. In the early ’90s, a boom period occurred in which comics with apparent resale value—notably the issues comprising DC’s “Death of Superman” storyline—were distributed in unprecedented quantities. New buyers, called “speculators,” jumped onto the comics bandwagon in the hopes of making a killing by selling these popular comics at jacked-up prices. Publishers, in turn, badly overextended themselves to meet new demands. So when speculators realized that they couldn’t unload all the comics they had stockpiled, they pulled out of the business and caused a huge downturn in sales.

The aftershocks of those seismic shifts are still being felt. “Earlier this year, they listed the 30 best-selling comics, and 21 of them were Marvel,” notes local collector-entrepreneur Rocco Nigro. “Yet Marvel is always on the verge of bankruptcy. In the realm of entertainment, comics have always been the bottom of the barrel.”

Nigro felt the industry shakeup personally, because the downtown Albany store he co-owned, Crypt-O-Comix, was one of several local shops that closed in the late ’90s. The downsizing of the industry was so severe that even FantaCo—the area’s oldest comic shop—shut its doors in 1999 after 20 years in business. Today, the owners of stores that survived the changes of the last 10 years are encouraged by publishers’ realization that the comic audience has matured, and also by the prominence of such projects as the WB series Smallville, about the early days of Superman, and the upcoming big-budget Spider-Man movie.

Nigro suggests that the industry survives the vagaries of the marketplace because comics offer a unique form of entertainment.

“That whole word/visual thing—you can’t get that in any other medium,” he says. “A great example is Little Lulu. So much happens between the panels that you’re adding information with your mind, and when they did it as animation for HBO, it didn’t work, even when they used the same stories that John Stanley did. So much has to do with that visual pacing. . . . I still buy a lot of old books; it still piques my interest to find some hidden treasure. And there are a lot of great new books to read. I just read the first three issues of the new Catwoman relaunch, and those are beautiful.”

While the superhero genre
dates back to 1938, when a pair of Cleveland teenagers created Superman, comic books had been around for some time prior to the Man of Steel’s arrival. The first comics were cheaply produced compendiums of previously published newspaper strips, and the pre-
superhero comics that contained original material dealt with pulpy subjects like crime, war and cowboys. After Superman became a cottage industry—he was featured in radio shows, movie serials, novels and more—costumed do-gooders achieved terrific popularity.

By the mid-’50s, comics had diversified to include everything from gentle humor titles to stomach-churning horror titles. In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a screed called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed that comics were corrupting kids, and his attack led to censorship and even the death of a popular line called EC Comics. The reactionary climate caused a creative tailspin that didn’t turn around until the early ’60s, when new blood at DC Comics, and the emergence of Marvel Comics, refreshed the superhero genre. Comics grew up even more with the famed social-issue stories of the late ’60s and early ’70s, notably the Green Lantern/Green Arrow storyline in which a DC superhero’s sidekick got hooked on heroin.

Around the same time that Speedy shot smack, comic fans got savvy to the idea that superhero stories might be worth money. “By the time Silver Surfer No. 1 and Conan No. 1 are out, you have people who are going to newsstands and buying comics solely for the purpose of reselling them,” notes Nigro. By the mid-’70s, such phenomena as comic conventions and specialty comic stores were commonplace.

Once publishers began selling directly to fans via stores like Electric City Comics in Schenectady—which is now the oldest continuously running comic shop in the area—they began experimenting with new storytelling techniques and more mature material. Yet until the late 1980s, boundary-pushing stories mostly were the province of the so-called “underground” publishers who nurtured the careers of talents like Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer winner for his Holocaust-themed comic Maus, and legendary eccentric
R. Crumb.

In 1989, comic fans got a hint of things to come with the release of Sandman No. 1, which launched writer Neil Gaiman’s sweeping exploration of a mythical universe in which the title character belongs to a family of godlike creatures that also includes Death, the Sandman’s sardonic sibling.

Walt Curley, 35, an Albany record-store employee who has collected comics since he was 9, remembers cracking open the first issue of Sandman and getting caught up in Gaiman’s dark, literary storytelling—despite being a lifelong superhero fan. “It’s not really something that I normally would have read,” he recalls. “I was taken aback by it. Neil Gaiman put in just enough DC continuity that I could fit it into the universe I knew.”

Curley’s experience speaks volumes about where comics are at right now, because today’s edgy titles succeed not by supplanting everything that came before, but by adding provocative new wrinkles to previously existing mythology.

Whereas a great many fans
stop reading comics in high school or college, ditching superheroes in favor of more “adult” interests, Curley has read comics for most of his life. “I never really had the dropout,” he says. “It was just a hobby I enjoyed, and I didn’t see a stigma attached.”

Once he finished school and started working, Curley put his hobby to work by taking a job at October Country, a now-defunct comic store in New Paltz, near his hometown of Kingston. “I started reading more because I had more time and I had more money to blow on comics and records,” he recalls. “I also think I read even more because I had access to books I could read and not worry about buying—especially on those long shifts where you didn’t have a lot to do. That’s probably when I peaked out. It was almost like working in a library.”

While working at the store, Curley branched out from the superhero titles he grew up on and began reading indie titles such as Yummy Fur and groundbreaking mainstream titles like Sandman. Yet through it all, he stayed faithful to franchises like DC supergroup the Teen Titans. Over the years, Curley has soldiered through relaunch after relaunch, reading variations like The New Teen Titans, Tales of the New Teen Titans and Team Titans. “I think I stay with that one more out of loyalty than anything else,” he says, “because it’s had more bad years than I can count.”

While Curley has numerous friends within the comics field, including fellow fans as well as professional writers and artists, he acknowledges that his hobby isn’t inherently social—which suits him just fine, because he enjoys spending long stretches of time alone with his collection. “It is more of a solitary thing,” he says. “It does lend itself to the stereotype, and there’s a lot of truth to it. There are a lot more people like the comic-book guy on The Simpsons than anyone would like to admit.”

Witt is another collector whose troves of comics and action figures are a big part of his life—“I have one U-Haul space completely full of toys and one U-Haul space completely full of comics,” he says. He even credits superheroes with helping him become literate. “The only way my father could get me to read was to sit me down and read comics to me,” he recalls.

Watching the traffic in and out of Earthworld, it’s clear that the devotion Curley and Witt have to comics isn’t out of the ordinary. The folks who pass through the store include everyone from young kids who peruse the 25-cent bins to graying boomers who unflinchingly drop hundreds of dollars on hardcover volumes containing reprints of stories they read as children. The customers are racially and ethnically diverse, and the staffers say that more women read comics now than ever before.

Glindmyer calls the books in
the bargain bins “shake and bake” comics—they’re titles that didn’t sell well upon publication and haven’t increased in value since, so he tries to sell them in bagged bundles or at garage-sale prices. Despite prevalent delusions to the contrary, most comics don’t become collector’s items, and the ones that do gain value because of their scarcity. So if you’re a former reader whose mom tossed out all your old Superman issues when you were a kid, don’t fret. (“I hear that story at least 10 times a day,” Nivins says.) If everyone who bought a copy of Detective Comics No. 27 still had their copy of Batman’s first appearance, copies wouldn’t be worth what they are now. Which, by the way, is in the neighborhood of $241,000.

“When I had my store,” notes Nigro, “I always said ‘Do you go to Barnes & Noble and buy Anne Rice and Stephen King books and then bring them back and say “I want to sell this, and get more than cover price?” ’ It’s just that mentality. People are so used to it.”

Nigro was a speculator before the term was coined. He started working at FantaCo when he was 16, and he used his employee discount to stock up on the hot titles of the day, like The Uncanny X-Men. But instead of trying to cash in on his investments, he traded items from his stash for older comics with which to supplement his own collection. Likewise, Witt recalls dropping $600 for a copy of Superman No. 2. The collectors who stay with comics tend to stay because they love the medium, not because they love making money off the medium.

And as in any hobby, there are levels of elitism. Nivins, who grew up loathing the X-Men comics her brother read, was aghast when underground writer-artist Mike Allred—known for the edgy series Madman—took a job drawing an X-Men spin-off called X-Force.

“At first I was like ‘I cannot believe Mike Allred is doing an X-book,’ ” she says. “For years, I could not read a Marvel book. But I picked it up and went, ‘Wow—there’s guts and blood and naked supermodels—this is my kind of comic!’ The best part of X-Force now is the letters section—people are like ‘If you don’t change this book back, we’ll never read it again.’ ”

The demented aspects of X-Force may be a shock to fans who started reading comics after seeing the blockbuster X-Men movie a couple of summers ago, but Marvel’s willingness to tweak the formula of its most lucrative franchise—the X-Men family of titles includes numerous books, and features one of the company’s most popular characters, Wolverine—is indicative of how things in comics are changing for the wilder.

Back at Earthworld, Witt—a member of the Earthworld inner circle known as the Avengers, after the Marvel superhero team of the same name—takes a seat behind the store’s counter to sing the virtues of his home away from home. “We treat everybody that walks in the door like family,” he says.

“And I hate my family,” Nivins adds, laughing.

“I think it’s a fun place to socialize,” Witt says, “because people come from all walks of life, and we talk about comic art and stories and crossovers into TV.”

“I’m probably the only one of my friends who likes going to work every day,” Nivins says. “I’d really rather be here than home.”

Asked which comics they value most in their personal collections, the Earthworld staffers slip into a kind of cheery reverie. Glindmyer describes his copy of The X-Men No. 1, which is signed by writer Stan Lee and which has three holes indicating that a previous owner kept the book in a three-ring binder. “I know that one’s mine,” he says.

Nivins talks about the day a friend bought her a vintage copy of Sandman No. 1. “We were reading it with the hot-dog tongs because we didn’t want to touch it,” she says.

Glindmyer recalls a fan who didn’t treat his treasured comic quite so gingerly. One day, a customer dropped about $10 on a Spider-Man back issue, then removed it from the plastic bag in which it had been carefully stored since publication, rolled it up and shoved it in his back pocket. Other collectors present in the store at the time were aghast. “But that’s a comic fan,” Glindmyer says with a shrug. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Comic fans come in all shapes and sizes, and their appreciation for the medium often manifests in unexpected ways.

“I was watching Weakest Link with friends,” Nivins says, “and the question was, like, ‘Billy Batson turns into superhero Captain Marvel when he says what?’ I was, like,
‘ “Shazam,” you motherfucker!’ Everybody looked at me.”


Back to the Drawing Board

Matthew Smith is proud to say he got kicked out of college.

After graduating from Bethlehem Central High School, Smith enrolled at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, to study theater. But not long after he got there, an old hobby caught up with him when he began dating a girl who read
avant-garde comics such as Moonshadow and Sandman.

“Here I was, a theater major going ‘What I’d really like to do is what I wanted to do when I was a kid, which is comics,’ ” Smith recalls. “I was so busy drawing comic books that I didn’t have time to go to classes or do homework. My junior thesis project was a comic book.”

Smith eventually landed in Los Angeles, which he describes as having a vibrant community of comic fans and creators. After a brief detour into the multimedia business—he spent a year designing video games for Disney Interactive—Smith finally got a gig drawing superheroes. Even better, he got to work on a cutting-edge DC Comics series called Starman. Although Smith now cringes when he looks at his Starman work, the job started him on a six-year journey of freelancing for major publishers as well as independents.

“The biggest accomplishment of that period was doing the DC crossover Day of Judgment, which had an enormous cast—Superman, Wonder Woman,” he says. “I got to play with all the toys.” During this period, Smith apprenticed with highly regarded writer-artist Mike Mignola, whose stylized, moody style is a big influence on Smith’s artwork. Smith contributed to Mignola’s Hellboy series, and cocreated a recurring character called Lobster Johnson.

Eventually, however, the irregularity of freelance income took its toll, so Smith moved back to Delmar. He now splits his time between working at an area bookstore and laboring on comic projects at a drafting board in his family’s
suburban abode. Smith, 30, most recently penciled an X-Men spin-off called Nightcrawler, and he’s developing a revival of a defunct Marvel Comics series.

“I’m at an interesting period in my career,” Smith says. “I’ve been out of the field for about a year, and I’m reestablishing myself. I’m right on the cusp of doing what I think will be the best work of my career. The projects I’m developing now for Marvel are all things I’d be writing and maybe not even drawing. I’m lucky in that I seem to have been given the equipment to tell stories.”

The stories that Smith wants to tell lean toward the dark side of comicdom, because his favorite fictional genre is horror. And while some of the titles he dug as a kid were mainstream escapism—“I used to sneak out of the house on my bike and go down to the convenience store to dig out the new issue of the Star Wars comic”—he remembers being enthralled by an apocalyptic storyline in the DC Comics title Legion of Super-Heroes. Smith says he hopes to emulate the scope and gravity of that series in his own work.

As in other branches of the entertainment industry, Smith says, the trick to succeeding in comics is making the right connections. “The big part of it is networking—having the right people like your stuff and really coming through for an editor,” he explains. “I think a lot of the artists are trying so hard to do something new that the deadline isn’t important to them, but it’s still important to the editor. So it can be tough. There are a lot of guys who just pure and simply want to do comics, and a lot of people want to use this as a stepping stone for another career, whether it’s storyboarding for Hollywood or illustrating children’s books.”

Interestingly, Smith says that becoming a comic professional initially dampened his enthusiasm for the medium. “I went through a long period when I just couldn’t stand reading comics—this is after I started working,” he says. “In the last six or seven months, I’ve
really started devouring comics.”

Smith says that by comic-illustrator standards, he’s already “middle-aged” at 30, but he adds that his relatively low profile in the industry may work to his advantage. Because he hasn’t been overexposed by drawing or writing a regular monthly title, he’s poised to “surprise” readers when he unveils the Marvel project that’s percolating in his brain. And for Smith, being surprised is a big part of the fun of working in his chosen field.

“The neat thing about comics being a multi-person enterprise is that every so often the person you’re working with will take your idea to some place you never expected,” he says. “It’s incredible when you’re surprised. You feed off each other—a good partner is always challenging you to raise the bar and come up with new things. The interesting thing about the process for me is the moment when everything comes together—when all those ideas in your head come together and create something new.”

—P.H.



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