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Final Fantasy

Comic book culture is growing up and may be leaving a generation behind.



I shouldn’t have come back.

An alcoholic shouldn’t just wander into a bar. Every sound, every smell, every familiar image … they invite you back in like a warm hand on your shoulder.

But I need to know.

The spine is crisp, and color explodes from the cover. I open it … just for a moment. For research.

Just for a moment.

And in a matter of moments … I’m lost.

On a Saturday afternoon at Dr. Volt’s Comic Connection, the back room is buzzing with middle schoolers. They sit perched over their colorful treasures, animated chatter flying back and forth. “I’ve got three of those,” one says as another peruses a rare sample. “You can have that one.” A generation ago, the subject of this conversation would have been the comic books. Not now. Now it is trading/gaming cards with titles like Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh!.

In Hastur Games & Hobbies, kids take root at a dozen networked computers, playing first-person shooter games for hours at a time. Parents and grandparents try to pry them away, only to be greeted with pleas for another half-hour or even flat-out refusals to leave.

Welcome to comic book store culture, circa 2003.

“We’re right across from a junior high,” Dr. Volt’s owner David Landa says of his card-playing clientele, “and you’ve got to hook ’em on something so they keep coming back.”

But they too rarely, it seems, get hooked into the comics—despite the fact that characters from comics and graphic novels have never been more prominent in pop-culture consciousness. The WB’s Smallville keeps the Superman characters on the small screen. Last year’s Spider-Man movie made $400 million at the U.S. box office. This year has already seen an adaptation of Marvel’s Daredevil, with the X-Men sequel X2: X-Men United, The Hulk and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen all on tap for this summer. Even non-superhero graphic literature has crossed over, with recent film adaptations of From Hell, Ghost World, Road to Perdition, Bulletproof Monk and the upcoming Sundance award-winner American Splendor. Comic book culture should be booming, but instead it seems stagnant. Where are all the new readers?

Where are the kids?

I had known comic book culture at its zenith, during the early 1980s. It was a period when writers and artists broke free from the shackles of the traditional superhero comic, giving birth to longer form stories, often with more mature themes, that would be called “graphic novels.” Frank Miller reinvented Batman as a bitter retiree in The Dark Knight Returns. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons turned the world of masked vigilantes upside-down in Watchmen. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for turning Nazis and Jews into cats and mice in the Holocaust saga Maus. New publishers granted unprecedented ownership rights to their talent. Creatively, it was a new Golden Age.

Economically, things were looking pretty golden as well. Sales soared throughout the decade, fueled by a speculative market where people bought multiple copies of issues popularly perceived to be instantly collectible. Comic book specialty stores flourished. Everyone was lighting cigars with mint copies of “The Death of Superman.”

Until the bubble burst. Short-sighted publishers flooded the market with titles of inferior quality and made it difficult for readers to follow storylines by creating multiple titles featuring popular characters. Readers lost interest and patience in tales that demanded too much monthly expense for too little payoff. The speculative market collapsed. Marvel Comics—publishers of popular titles like X-Men, Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four—went into bankruptcy. Hundreds of comic book stores closed. Robert Scott, a San Diego-based comic book retailer who founded the Comic Book Industry Alliance (CBIA), says the industry had to embrace the gaming side of the culture during the lean years of the late 1990s. “Diversifying was something a lot of retailers had to do to survive,” he recalls.

The numbers made it look like the comic-book culture was about to become an anthropological footnote—and personally, I mourned. That subculture had been my place of adolescent refuge, a community that shared delight in both thoughtful stories and flights of pure fancy. Call it a piece of sociological research or call it a pathetic grab at a youth receding ever more rapidly into the rearview mirror. I wanted to reconnect with that community one more time, to find out what the culture had become in the years since I walked away.

Michael Braithwaite sports a familiar physiognomy. Apparently creeping into his early thirties, he carries a few extra pounds around the middle. Hair from the forehead and temples has migrated south to form a sketched-in beard. If he wore a ponytail, you’d swear Matt Groening had drawn him that morning.

“On The Simpsons, The Comic Book Guy?” he says, leaning back as comfortably as a plastic folding chair will allow. “No one’s really going to deny that persona. Yeah, that’s us. I’ve been accused of being Comic Book Guy.”

Braithwaite looks the part. Currently an employee at Hastur Games & Hobbies—and a veteran of other now-defunct Salt Lake Valley comic book hangouts, including the recently closed Comics Utah—Braithwaite is a comic book geek in the classic mold, and he has no problem with the designation. He notes with a self-deprecating grin the wedding band on my finger, saying, “I see that you’re married, so basically you’re an outsider. Sorry, but as soon as you got married …” He quickly qualifies the statement to include his married co-worker, store manager Roland Williams: “Roland’s a little unusual. He’s married, but she’s a comic book person, too.”

The “g-word” pops up with regularity when you talk with comic book fans and never with a hint of shame. Mimi Cruz, manager of Night Flight Comics, says of herself and her staff, “We love to make fun of ourselves and call ourselves comic book geeks.” Shane Nielsen, who operates a kiosk out of Dr. Volt’s Comics called Blacksmythe’s selling fantasy-themed weaponry and memorabilia, enthuses, “Yep, I’m a geek.” Nielsen is also married—to another comic book reader, just to further prove Braithwaite’s point.

Having returned to the center of comic book geek culture, I find every nuance comes rushing back. It’s more than a shared lexicon, though naturally insider terminology flies between comic book devotees. Shane’s wife Jennifer invokes the name of Gwen Stacy when discussing the recent Spider-Man film. She didn’t explain the reference to Peter Parker’s ill-fated comic book flame. She realized she didn’t need to.

There is also a shared accent, a manner of speaking that seems to appear whether the comic geek hails from California or Connecticut. Sometimes it’s a wide-mouthed turn of phrase or the use of exaggerated, precise diction; sometimes it’s the self-conscious, staccato laugh that punctuates a sentence. But it’s there, something that has evolved in an outsider subculture almost as a way of helping them identify one another, maybe the same way that stereotypical gay male vocal mannerisms emerged over time. Just because they don’t all sound that way doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

I knew them when I heard them. These were my people.

I was also, much to my surprise, part of a fairly typical demographic. The average face at the new release shelves in the comic book stores was not speckled with acne, but closer to 30-something. The comic book audience, everyone agreed, was graying. Why weren’t comics today attracting the 11-year-olds, like I was when I first fell in love with the adventures of the X-Men?

In part, the insiders blame the publishers. According to Braithwaite, since emerging from bankruptcy Marvel in particular has limited potential growth with an ordering policy that requires retailers to estimate sales two months in advance, without allowing the opportunity either to reorder or to return unsold books. “[The increase in interest] might happen if Marvel wasn’t being such creeps,” Braithwaite says. “When Spider-Man was coming out, we thought, OK, we should order more, there may be an upswing. But given the market, I was scared to order too much, because [Comics Utah] was hurting.

“If you’re a stockholder,” he continues, “they [Marvel] are making fantastic decisions. They’re not really too concerned about the collectors.”

And it’s not just Marvel, according to CBIA’s Scott. AOL Time Warner, which owns both Superman publisher DC Comics and The WB, has a golden opportunity to cross-promote in Smallville, but doesn’t take advantage of it. “When you sit down to watch Smallville,” Scott says, “you see advertising for Warner artists whose music was heard during the show. But nothing about Superman or Superboy comics.”

At the same time, comic book readers acknowledge that publishers are fighting an uphill battle against preconceptions about the medium—one that the industry may not be willing to expend resources to fight. Dr. Gene Kannenberg, Jr., a professor of English at the University of Houston and creator of, has his own view of the problem. “There is still a general societal bias against the comics form among the wider American populace,” says Kannenberg. “I see lots of adults walking around in $40 Spider-Man T-shirts, but I have my doubts if even half of them would consider spending $2.25 on a new issue of a Spider-Man comic book.”

Braithwaite summarizes the popular perception of comic books by recalling a cartoon he saw years ago of a man talking with a caricature of a matronly socialite. “He says, ‘Words on a page …?’ ‘Literature!’ ‘Pictures on a page …?’ ‘Art!’ “Words and pictures on a page …?’ ‘Absolutely horrible, obscene pieces of trash!’”

“Since the 1950s, there’s been this stigma that comics are not for literate people,” Night Flight’s Cruz agrees. “You can’t convince people who don’t want to be convinced.”

And the battle may even be harder when it comes to promoting the more sophisticated material that has reached a mass audience in some other form. Not many viewers were aware that last year’s critically lauded film Road to Perdition was adapted from a graphic novel by writer Max Allan Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner—perhaps because the studio wanted to maintain an aura of literary respectability for the production. As Robert Scott notes, studios may not be interested in trumpeting that a film is based on a graphic novel because “they don’t want to taint the apple and feel they might scare people off.”

Fair enough as it might apply to older audiences, but it’s hard to imagine the “stigma” of comics scaring off a 12-year-old. So why is it so hard to bring in new, young readers? Economics could be a factor, since prices have jumped to upwards of $2 for a regular monthly issue, but that’s nothing compared to the cost of new video game.

The picture returns to those kids intently trading their cards and playing their computer games, and a sad refrain emerges: Comic books involve reading. And reading is something too many kids just don’t do.

“It’s almost impossible to compete with video games, movies and the Internet,” says Cruz, who works vigorously to promote youth literacy.

Briathwaite adds, “Some writers do ask good questions, you know. And kids just don’t want to think about different issues. That, and I don’t know if they have the attention span for ‘tune in next month to see if Spider-Man gets out of this.’”

The kids themselves, perhaps predictably, are not terribly reflective about their lack of interest in comics, though one teen insists, “I read, just not comics.” Other responses run from a shrug of “I just never got into them” to a slightly more emphatic shrug of “They’re not my thing.”

Also not surprisingly, an industry that no longer sees an upside in reaching out to younger readers has made decisions that make it even less likely those younger readers will get drawn in. I discovered comics walking home from junior high school to buy a Slurpee, but the convenience store racks of my youth—wire carousels topped with a sign that yelled out a pitch of “Hey, kids! Comics!”—have all but disappeared, victims of publisher policies that made it economically impractical for non-specialty outlets to stock single-issue comics. Today’s teen might have to be driven across town to a comic book specialty store to have any sense for what’s out there.

Content, too, has contributed to the comic book generation gap. As the audience matured, so did comic book and graphic novel stories and art, resulting in material that may not be appropriate for younger readers. “As things get a little more edgy, more controversial, more graphic,” says Robert Scott, “it is possible that even if kids wanted to read that we have no product for them.”

“I’ve read some Spider-Man books that I’d be embarrassed for an 8-year-old to have,” Cruz concurs. “You never would have had that years ago. If we decide that we’re not going to carry things that a younger reader will enjoy, that’s our fault.”

“Marvel’s gone off the Comics Code Authority,” Braithwaite adds, referring to an advisory body that was created in the 1950s to oversee the appropriateness of comic book content for younger readers. “Marvel is purposely trying to kick it up a notch. So I’m basically stuck showing parents Archie and Sonic the Hedgehog, because there isn’t a whole lot that’s mainstream anymore that some parents wouldn’t find offensive.”

The comic book industry, it appeared, was fighting against an ever-shrinking pool of potential new readers. Most adults still viewed comics with either condescension or suspicion. And younger kids generally weren’t readers at all. It was like the punch line to some clichéd joke about sexually frustrated nerds: Comic book geekdom could be an endangered species because of an inability to propagate itself.

“If you look at the big picture and say, ‘We aren’t going to offer anything to younger readers, we’re going to appeal to the adult male reader,’” remarks Cruz, “that would really be limiting our future potential.”

The industry does seem to be taking baby steps. DC published 10-Cent Adventures featuring Batman and Superman as loss-leader efforts to attract kids. Last year, publishers and retailers joined forces for a national Free Comics Day tied to the release of Spider-Man, a rousing success that will be repeated this year as specialty stores try to get you hooked with a free taste on Saturday, May 3 (the day after X2 opens in theaters). Even city and county libraries will be getting the freebies thanks to Night Flight Comics.

Reading is at the heart of the comic book story and not just because you have to read them to know the story. Christine Sabo, a psychology student at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., wrote a thesis analyzing the comic book collector sub-culture and discovered that “the two possible values that seem to be held most highly and consistently among members of this group were creative fantasy, and an appreciation for art and literature.” The stories of comic book readers themselves are stories of falling in love with storytelling, often at an early age.

“I started as a child,” Cruz recalls of her own love affair with comics. “I was nine years old, growing up in Seattle, and a neighbor lady around the corner gave me a huge box of comics and Motown records. It was like the greatest treasure she could have given me. I learned how to read with comics.”

Cruz guides me through Night Flight’s Cottonwood Mall store, quizzing me on what I remembered from my own comic book youth before pointing me towards her favorite works. “Of course you knew Frank Miller,” she says. “You have to see 3000 [a graphic novel story set in ancient Greece].” I examine the book—an Italian language version—as she seeks out samples by other popular current writers like Brian Michael Bendis. She seems to smell in me the equivalent of a lapsed Catholic looking for a reason to return to the fold, and she’s eager to share the love—not merely as a prudent entrepreneur, but as a fan.

Shane Nielsen leans against his Dr. Volt’s counter, nattily attired in his own Spider-Man T-shirt and cap as he recalls his own first comic book experience: “I was actually six years old. I was playing piano, and my aunt, as a reward, gave me an Incredible Hulk.” He stopped collecting during his Mormon mission, got married, and was prepared to give up comics entirely until his wife Jennifer—previously an avid reader, but not a comic book reader—picked up a few of his back issues.

“Then she got addicted,” Nielsen says, “and we started back up … She said, ‘You can’t drop it, you can’t drop it.’

“Every time you try [to quit], you go, ‘But there’s this new, good story out. I’ve gotta read it. I want to read it again and again and again.’”

A conversation at Hastur Games & Hobbies turns to the crossover between the world of role-playing gamers and the comics world, and Michael Braithwaite dashes off to the shelves. He returns with Knights of the Dinner Table, a crudely drawn black-and-white comic book about the interaction between a group of regular gamers. “It’s a fantastically written series,” he beams. “The artwork is nothing, basically just a bunch of guys sitting around a table. It’s basically the same picture over and over. But the storylines and situations are absolutely hilarious.”

I begin to recognize something else familiar about that comic book fan “accent,” because I’ve heard that same manner in theater people. The members of both groups probably weren’t the Big Men on Campus or the prom queens, but they were people whose fascination with storytelling transformed them. The hands, the diction, the voice—they’re all part of continuing that conversation about intoxicating narrative.

It was through comics that I came to appreciate the power of storytelling, whether through words or images. I couldn’t resist a well-told tale. Statistics suggest that I was already an anomaly in 1978—that the average comic book reader in the late 1970s and early 1980s was well into his or her 20s—but the format was there to attract me.

Twenty-five years later, it is a world of Xbox and GameCube and PlayStation, a world of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic. The young geek culture that in years past would have found narrative even in its games—they played Dungeons & Dragons, creating characters who moved through a story—instead has to decide whether to hold an AK-47 or a 9mm handgun during a marathon session of computer gaming.

Comic books, scorned though they have been by generations of parents, have been a gateway drug for a passion for storytelling and for love of reading. As a lover of stories, I wonder what it means when today’s 11-year-olds are engaging their eyes and their carpal tunnels but not their sense of wonder.

In some respects, the comic book industry itself may be as healthy as it has ever been—though the absence of research into demographics makes it hard to nail down readership numbers beyond the observational. Comics Utah has closed—the victim, according to Braithwaite, of disinterested out-of-state ownership—but Night Flight has opened a new location in the new City Library Square and Dr. Volt’s recently expanded. The investor/collector boom period has been replaced by a time when those who buy comics actually read them, instead of stashing them away in boxes and Mylar sleeves like artfully decorated savings bonds. Mainstream bookstores like Barnes & Noble feature entire sections dedicated to graphic novels. A more diverse marketplace of titles and formats has begun appealing even to the long-under-represented female readers, slowly but steadily eroding the “boys club” atmosphere recognized by women in the hobby, like Mimi Cruz.

And then there are people like me—people who had drifted away for years but may be finding themselves attracted to fond memories. “What we’re seeing now,” says Robert Scott, “especially with the nostalgia factor, is parents who hadn’t looked at comics for 15 or 20 years who now have kids of reading age. They come in with their kids to show them what’s going on.”

But we’re mortal, we 30-something comic addicts of both the active and the recovering stripe. The newbies have to come from somewhere. More of them will be 21 than will be 11 and maybe that doesn’t matter for the comic book industry. I wonder, though, how many 11-year-olds will never learn to swoon over words and images that can transport them, exercising mental muscles no video game console will ever touch.

It’s not about “kids these days” as much as it is about a culture these days—a culture of parents who buy their kids video games but hustle them past a comic book store like it was a porn theater, unable to grasp how these silly stories of superheroes could be far more beneficial than they could ever be damaging. My 4-year-old son already knows Batman and Spider-Man. His games are games of imagination. Soon it will be his turn to learn to read, and I hope the stories he turns to will thrill him.

I’ll be back here soon.

I never should have left.