Comic books bring artistry, imagination and a tactile experience to a digital age

Glynnes Pruett was raised on comic books. When she was a child, her father would take her and her siblings to various trade shows, conventions and swap meets to sell the books as a hobby.

"I learned to read with comics," said the 29-year-old owner and founder of Comic Book Hideout in Fullerton. "I have grown up with them my whole life."

Pruett is not alone in her longtime passion for comic books. The medium has not only survived various economic downturns over nearly a century, but even appears to be surviving — some might argue thriving — in this age of gadgetry and all things digital, to become a billion-dollar industry in North America alone.

The picture in Orange County, seemingly a microcosm of the larger trend, reveals a healthy list of comic book shops — many also featuring games and other related hobbies — with a mix of devoted fans alongside new faces. The influx of blockbuster comic book films has often helped fuel the local industry, but there's also something else:

That very tactile experience of holding a freshly printed comic book that beckons with an artistry and imagination that many readers find truly unique.

"Comics are great at getting big ideas across in a relatively small amount of space and time," said Ed Zybul, 39, who has been a comic book patron at Comic Quest in Lake Forest for decades, even after his move out of Orange County a few years ago.

"Text and imagery can be combined to accomplish far more than the sum of their parts. If the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words is true, someone making a comic can add a hundred words to an image and give the reader closer to a hundred thousand words worth of story than the one-thousand, one-hundred words that would seem to add up to.

"I like that a good comic can occupy many different aspects of my attention at once, and I can get a good story-reading experience in a fraction of the time a movie, novel or video game would take, though I enjoy all of those mediums as well."

 

The history of the genre

Comic books, which offer words and pictures in a sequential storyline, originated in the U.S. in the late 1800s, according to randomhistory.com, which calls them more than entertainment for kids but rather a "serious and sophisticated art form."

The Yellow Kid was introduced by Richard Felton Outcault in 1895 in "Hogan's Alley," considered one of the first Sunday supplement comic strips in an American newspaper.

Many notable characters followed, including Buster Brown, Krazy Kat, Katzenjammer Kids, Popeye, and Mutt and Jeff. Most all of the strips in the first decades of the 20th century were humorous, hence the term "comics" or "funnies," according to randomhistory.com.

The period from about 1930 to 1950 is commonly known as the Golden Age of comic books. The superhero archetype was created during this time, and readers were introduced to Superman, Batman, Captain America and others. Soon the comic book industry would be dominated by the two major publishers of superhero books — Marvel and Detective Comics (DC).

The genre was buffeted by societal changes in the ensuing years, but by the late 1980s, the industry was poised for an upswing, with new issues involving characters such as Spider-Man and X-Men.

Last year, Comichron, a website that bills itself as a resource for comics research, blared this headline: "Comics and graphic novel sales top $1 billion in 2015," referring to sales in the U.S. and Canada.

Events like the annual Comic-Con International convention, founded in 1970, also speak to the strength of the fan base. San Diego reported a nearly $180-million economic impact in 2014 from the city's role as host, according to the Voice of San Diego.

Demand has led to Comic-Con's sister show, WonderCon, which started in Oakland in 1987 but is now based in Anaheim.

In Orange County, comic book shops — some stores have been open as long as 30 years — have been affected throughout the years by economic downturns, including the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Comic Quest owner Don Allen said his store lost half its business within a year during those dark days.

"As much as we think that we can't live without them, when you lose your job, it turns out you can live without them," Allen said about comic books, adding that for about a month or two after 9/11, sales were 20% to 25% of what they had been. "Things go through cycles, things change."

At the moment, several of the local store owners report that business is good. Kenny Jacobs, owner of Nuclear Comics & Skate Shop in Laguna Hills, said the past two years have brought him the best sales in 22 years.

Besides comic books and related merchandise like figurines, posters and T-shirts, many local stores cater to other hobbies. Comic Quest, for example, is half game store. Nuclear Comics is also a skateboard shop, and Comic Hero University in Fullerton has an arcade in the back and also hosts game nights. Comic Book Hideout offers music, creative writing and art lessons, art shows and live music performances.

"You have to try to create some diversification," Pruett said. "In reality, we're all selling the same thing: comics. I strive to make my store unique."

Mike Kadin, owner of Comics Toons N' Toys in Tustin, said his store has been helped by the Marvel and DC movies and TV shows.

"We can always tell when people are excited for a new film or show, because we'll see increases in individual comic/graphic novel sales, and the store will be abuzz with casting rumors, plot theories, etcetera," he said. "You can hardly turn your TV to a random channel or find a movie trailer nowadays that doesn't have its root in comics."

 

Educational, communal benefits

Wednesdays are big days for comic book fans because it's the day new comic books are delivered to stores.

Jacobs describes it "almost like a local bar-type session" with regulars gathering to see the latest and share their thoughts.

"It's not like a convenience store when people just pick up their stuff and go," he said. "It's very much a sense of community."

Comic book stores further encourage that community feeling by hosting special events like free comic book giveaway days. Comic Quest recently held a "The Walking Dead" day, offering a free "Walking Dead" issue No. 163 to guests, along with free "zombie food" and a sale on zombie items as the staff dressed like zombies.

According to Allen, his store's No. 1-selling comic is the "Saga" series, which he describes as "a space soap opera." He adds that 60% of his patrons wanting that comic are women.

"The Walking Dead" series is another popular comic that was a big seller even before the AMC TV hit show, he said.

"There's just a big influx of writers and creators that struck out and wanted to do their own material," Allen said of the diversification into various other topics besides superheroes.

"Right now, my favorite comic to read is 'Archie,'" said Enrique Munoz, who owns Comic Hero University. "Really fun, wholesome comics."

He's also really enjoying film-noir-type comic books and "slice of life" stuff as of late.

"It's literature," he said, likening the quality of the writing to Shakespeare.

Epics like "The Three Musketeers" and "The Last of the Mohicans" have been translated into comic book form, he said.

Munoz believes that comic books are the perfect medium for children to learn how to read or improve their reading skills. It worked for him. When he was a child, with Spanish as his first language, he had trouble learning to read and speak in English. Comic books helped him.

Comic books also contain lessons within the storylines that can be beneficial to young minds, according to Pruett.

As an example, "X-Men" comics — one of Pruett's favorites — are about diversity, equality and acceptance of others.

"That's something that I feel especially in these past few weeks is something that we need a lot more of," she said. "Teach[ing] basic morality and right from wrong in our children has been something that comics have been doing since the '40s."

It's one of the things she tries to teach through the comic book creative writing classes that she offers at her store and throughout Fullerton.

 

Loyal fans and newbies

The Orange County comic book fan base is a mixed bag, depending on the store. Some business owners have seen the number of female fans grow, while others have seen a larger adult audience. Yet others have always catered to adults.

"Adults are the only ones who can afford a comic book habit," said Jacobs, adding that a "regular" can spend $25 to $50 weekly on a stack of comics.

And the regulars are nothing if not devoted. Many of the owners and employees of these shops were customers and fans first.

Madeline Des Jardins, 26, of Anaheim, who started reading comics in early high school, began frequenting Comic Book Hideout in 2014 "and fell in love" with it. She now handles the store's social media and marketing and occasionally assists customers.

"To me, a comic book shop is a very special place, or it can be," she said.

Jamie Orque, 28, of Westminster has been visiting Comic Hero University regularly since 2014.

"I'm just a sucker for a good story," Orque said. "Not all are hits, but I love how writers who [have] been around can still wow me."

Hunter Delaney, 23, of Yorba Linda, also a regular at Comic Hero University, started reading comics as a child because he wanted to be a comic book artist. He lost interest for a while but started again four years ago.

"Comics are such a draw for me because it's the most compelling form of literature in my mind and offers something that film and television can't," he said. "It's emotional, immersive, spectacular and intuitive as an art form, and I think it gives creators freedom to take their stories to a very exciting and interesting place that other mediums don't allow for."

Jeff Davis, 32, of Placentia visits Comic Hero University at least once a week. Some weeks he'll visit a second day with his son, who plays in the arcade.

Mark Bushik, the store manager at Comics Unlimited in Westminster, has worked for the company for 32 years. He was originally a customer at the Hawaiian Gardens store in the early '80s before becoming an employee there. The Westminster location opened in 1986.

"Although a large portion of our customers are regulars, there are always casual readers and curious people stopping by. We've been here 30 years and every day people are discovering us for the first time," he said.

 

Feeding the demand

To keep the business running, it takes talented comics illustrators and writers, like Stan Lee and Frank Miller.

And Marv Wolfman of Orange County.

"I've been writing comics since December 1967, which makes this year my 50th anniversary as a full-time professional writer/editor," Wolfman said. "As a writer, I've written most every character published by DC or Marvel, including Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Nova, Superman, Batman, Teen Titans, 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' and hundreds more."

He started as an avid comic book fan growing up in New York. (He moved to California in 1986, and he and his wife have been in Orange County for the past five years.)

"I first started reading comics when I was about 6 years old," he recalled. "My friend and I were watching an episode of 'The Adventures of Superman' on TV, and at the end it said it was based on the comic book. We ran to the corner candy store and bought our first comics."

But going from a kid who "made up my own stories, and they often included characters from the comics I read," to full-time writer of comics, can be a hard journey.

Passion and perseverance seem to be key.

"As a teen, I published fanzines, which were fan-produced magazines," Wolfman said. "I had a ditto machine, and I typed or drew pictures on a stencil, then printed off maybe 100 or so copies of each page. I sold the books for 25 cents, which included the envelope and postage.

"Needless to say, I probably lost money on every issue, but I didn't care. I loved doing it. I published 'Super Adventures,' which was a superhero fanzine with drawn stories, 'Stories of Suspense,' which featured both illustrated and also prose horror stories, 'The Foob,' which was a humor fanzine, and 'What Th—?,' which was an opinion fanzine.

"One of the editors at DC Comics liked my horror stories and asked me to submit ideas for it. Shock of shocks, they bought it."

Despite his success, it seems that Wolfman is still a fan at heart.

"My likes are all over the place," Wolfman said about his current comic favorites. "For superheroes, I like Batman, Daredevil, Superman, Spider-Man and many others. I like some of the more adult books like 'Saga,' and I also like a lot of the more kid-friendly comics such as 'LumberJanes' and others. These days there are so many wonderfully produced comics for people of all ages." 

Comic Book Stores

•Comic Book Hideout, 215 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton; (657) 217-0624, comicbookhideout.com

•Comic Quest, 23811 Bridger Road, Suite 100, Lake Forest; (949) 951-9668, comicquest.org

•Comic Hero University, 140 E. Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton; (949) 4-C-HERO-U, comicherou.com

•Nuclear Comics & Skate Shop, 24741 Alicia Pkwy., Suite J, Laguna Hills; (949) 581-1566

•Comics Toons N' Toys, 13542 Newport Ave., Tustin; (714) 730-2117

•Comics Unlimited, 16344 Beach Blvd., Westminster; (714) 841-6646, comicsunlimited.com

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