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PHOTO: David King

 The X-Factor

A good chat and a quick read can be found at comic shops, thanks to an older crowd

By David King


‘It’s the new coffee shop,” says comic-book purveyor Bob Lupe from behind the counter of Aquilonia Comics on Fulton Street in Troy. “No, seriously!” He says with a jovial smile. “That’s what you should tell them.” Bob pops his head up every now and again to make a clever quip to a customer or to ring them out, the image of an online videogame reflected in his glasses. And although there isn’t much jazz music here—just the sounds of various classic-rock stations—there is an abundance of caffeine in the form of cans of soda sold for $1. Lupe is not suggesting that his comic-book shop has the ambiance or hipness of some of the area’s java pushers. What he is suggesting is that if you are looking for conversation, the comic-book shop has of late become a new Roman forum of sorts. Unlike coffee-shop customers, the patrons of Aquilonia are not sealed in by their iPods, melded to their laptops, dominated by their multi-function cell phones and PDAs, emerging from their technological cubbies only to demand a “vente Americano!”

Instead, they peruse the comic racks that are stacked with bright books, featuring pictures of muscle-bound men and women, bantering back and forth with one another as they go. They carefully pick up and leaf through the delicately colored pages that seem to light up the room. Large posters featuring images of deity-like-superheroes peer down from above the comic racks like watchful roman gods.

Yes, Lupe knows what you are thinking, and no, the conversation at comic-book shops these days does not consist of excitable 12-year-olds hopped up on pop rocks and frappacinos debating the merits of Captain America and Batman. No, actually, you are much more likely to find 25- to 40-year-olds debating that topic. And yes, there is a good mix of conversation about film, television, politics and religion thrown into the mix, too.

“The average entry-level comic reader is late-high-school or college, and beyond,” says Lupe. “Impedances such as movies, television and Internet are what bring people into comic stores for the first time.” According to Lupe, the young audiences are disappearing because of distractions such as the online game Bob himself probably is playing right now. “They just don’t read as much as we used to, because there is so much else going on in their lives,” says Lupe, “such as sports and video games. Also, there just isn’t the amount of kids’ comics there used to be, comics such as Sad Sack, Richie Rich aren’t printed anymore, and I’m not sure they would even sell.”

On Wednesday from noon to 6:30 PM, if you are missing a slightly dorky, er . . . intellectual guy in your office, you might want to check one of the area’s comic-book stores, because Wednesday is lovingly referred to by comic enthusiasts as “new comic book day.”

It starts simply enough. A professional-looking, middle-age man darts through the door, gives Lupe a nod and casually slides over to the new-comic rack, which sits prominently at the front of the store. There might be a couple of younger guys yapping by the counter, saying things like, “Brubaker could write an instruction manual and I would read it” or “Hey, Bob, did you see X-3 yet? Don’t tell me you didn’t! What else do you have to do?”

The older man in the gray suit will run his eyes up and down the rack, slowly reach out to a book as though he isn’t sure he should even touch it. The younger guys will quiet down their boisterous conversation, and Bob will ask the gentleman, “Is there anything I can help you with?” And without fail, the older gentleman will reply something like, “Yeah, how has Superman Bat-man been? I haven’t picked it up since the first run.” Then, quickly, the suit and younger guys are absorbed in a conversation about a man with a cape.

On Wednesdays around noon, the suits come out in full force. Businessmen on their lunch break mingle with off-duty police officers, artists, students, musicians, mechanics, plumbers and professors. They approach the counter, are handed their weekly allotment of comics, put them down on a shelf or a rack and start sorting through them like a kid counting presents on Christmas. Then the banter starts. “Anyone read 52 yet?”

“No. Don’t ruin it!” someone will squeal.

“Aw, come on, man. Everyone knew this was coming!”

Then Lupe will interject, like a father separating toddlers, “Come on, man, don’t ruin it for everyone.”

But conversations can quickly take a more serious tone. And that has something to do with the content and topics covered in today’s comics. For example, Ex Machina, written by Brian K. Vaughn, deals with a New York City superhero who manages to save one of the twin towers, only to be persecuted by city politicians. He then runs and wins a race for mayor of New York City. Then there is Dark Knight Returns, in which an aging Batman fights against a fascist state organized by supervillains. Or Marvel’s latest big event, Civil War, in which the U.S. government declares that all superheroes must register as deadly weapons, and large corporations not only incite “superhero battles,” but also profit from government contracts to rebuild and clean up after them.

Lupe says it is this kind of well-written story that keeps older readers hooked after they show up at a comic-book store, spurred on by the latest comic-book-to-movie translation like Sin City or Batman Begins. “It is my responsibility to make sure that their first-time experience is a positive one and that they want to come back for more,” says Lupe. “Comics are like soap operas,” he adds. “They keep you wanting to see what happens next.”

Lupe insists that the challenge of running a comic-book store these days is not finding the best-drawn comic to present to fans, or the one with the most action. He says it is being able to consistently present readers with intelligent, captivating reads. “It is my firm belief that the big two companies, DC and Marvel, should better understand who is buying comics and gear those books towards them.” says Lupe. “I’m not saying they all have to be dark and dirty, but they must be written with intelligence.”

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