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Comic-Book Collecting: An Addiction for Many Ages

A bitter wind is blowing through Los Angeles on Saturday morning as I arrive in Santa Monica at Hi De Ho Comics and Fantasy. A friend has agreed to be my guide, provided I don’t name him, on this expedition to sample the mystique of comic-book collecting.

Yet I feel a little worried as we start out. It’s my friend’s 37th birthday, and it’s also only a few days since he’s been paid: a dangerous combination for a man who’s been collecting comic books for 20 years.

Older, Collectible

Inside Hi De Ho, rhythm-and-blues music plays loudly. T-shirts decorated with sayings such as “You’re Mine, Slime!” and “Skate or Die” cover a wall, near racks of post cards, baseball cards, comic books under slightly battered tin signs that plead “Hey kids! Comics” and “Wholesome Comics.” Many more new comic books fill wall racks, while high-priced older, collectible comics are displayed out of reach.

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“They’ve diversified since I was here last,” my guide murmurs, as he gazes wistfully upward at Planet Comics 67 ($100) and Journey Into Mystery “Introducing . . . The Mighty Thor!” ($240).

Southern California abounds in businesses catering to the dark desires of comic-book addicts and casual shoppers alike: stores, auctions, comics publishers, mail-order outlets and comics conventions. (For information about the Batman-themed Feb. 12 Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention, call (818) 954-8432.)

70 Area Stores

But fans are kept most steadily supplied by about 70 comic-book stores in the Southland, and Hi De Ho, my guide tells me, offers an unusually wide variety of materials: many Golden Age (1930s through early 1950s) and Silver Age (post-1956) comic books mixed with underground comics, books of comic-strip reprints, new comics and comic-related paraphernalia, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dolls.

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This morning, half a dozen young and middle-aged men--one with a baby in a carrier on his back--are browsing. As the morning wanes, a handful of young boys carrying skateboards wanders in.

Bob Hennessey, 39, established the store 12 years ago with his younger brother, Mark.

“We were a couple of over-age adolescent boys who didn’t give up our hobby,” Hennessey says. They now have two stores (the other one is in Venice) and a warehouse and keep about 750,000 books in stock.

“Adolescent boys are what American comic books have always been aimed at,” ever since the books’ debut in 1933, but today’s comic-book publishers also are “finally convinced that there’s a market other than 12-year-olds,” Hennessey says.

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Today, young adults spend more on comics than teen-agers do, he says. The books’ story lines aren’t getting any more complex (“Story lines in comics are good guys and bad guys and morals”), but some characters--including Swamp Thing, Batman and the newer anti-heroes--are gaining in depth and texture.

“Our best sellers remain the traditional comic books: X-men and Batman,” Hennessey reports. However, his personal favorites include the contemporary books “The Watchmen” and “V For Vendetta,” and a very recent comic book called “Brought to Light,” which is based on the Iran-Contra controversy.

Reaching for His Wallet

With a sinking heart, I notice my friend is at the cash register and he’s reaching for his wallet. “What is it that makes comic books so fascinating to so many men?” I ask. (Statistics on numbers of comic-book collectors are hard to come by, but one comic-book retailer estimates--perhaps wistfully--that there are “1 or 2 million collectors” as well as many avid, but non-collecting, readers nationwide. The majority of comic-book readers are male.)

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Hennessey pauses, looking slightly puzzled. Then he says: “It’s because they can adopt a character as their own and see right to the heart of the matter, without ambiguity. Or at least that’s why it has an attraction to adolescent boys, and to me--to traditional comics readers.”

Outside the store, I check to see how deeply into Hi De Ho’s stock my guide has delved. He has purchased seven books, one from the 1940s and six contemporary comics, for about $30.

Apprehensively, I drive on to the Valley.

The American Comic Book Co.'s main store in Studio City is a much smaller store than Hi De Ho. The company also has several warehouses and a larger store in Long Beach.

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Ready for Rummaging

Comic book racks line two long walls, and many long boxes sit in the middle of the room, ready to be rummaged through by collectors. Rock ‘n’ roll music plays softly.

Several large glass cases display collectible baseball cards, and behind the counter is a wall covered with comics and pulp magazines: The Mod Squad, Doc Savage, Donald Duck, Fem Force, Archie’s, Zap Comix, etc. Oversized paperback cartoon collections fill one bookcase near the door, and some comic-character toys and hardback books of old movie-poster reproductions are also for sale.

The store, which is 16 years old, is co-owned by David Alexander and Terry Stroud. Many of the older comic books in their collection are shown in a catalogue rather than on the shelves. Alexander estimates that he has more than 1 million older comic books as well as many comic-related materials in stock. Much of his business is mail order.

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Miraculously, we leave without buying anything. American has “a fairly strong old comic-book collection, but, unfortunately, you would have to request many of the books from the warehouse,” my guide broods.

Memorabilia and Auctions

Next stop is Collectors Showcase, on Vine Street near Hollywood Boulevard. Much of this store is devoted to movie memorabilia, but the company also is notable for its 10-year-old, 11-times-a-year comic-book auction, conducted through the mail and by telephone with 1,500 bidders around the world. Art from animated features and movie and comic memorabilia also are sold through the auction.

Collectors is geared more to the serious collector than to the casual browser, although there’s plenty to look at when you walk through the door. The comic-book section of the store is up a flight of stairs at the rear.

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The store has nearly 750,000 comic books in stock. My friend, who bids in almost every Collectors auction, has come to collect his loot from the last round. He pays an unspecified amount (“too much,” he grumbles) for four 1940s comics and 50 1960s Thor comic books.

We drive on to the Melrose Avenue location of Golden Apple Comics, which also has stores in Northridge and West Los Angeles.

Golden Apple keeps a wide variety of mainly contemporary comic books, both American and foreign, in stock. Store owner Bill Liebowitz, whose business card lists him as “President and Big Kahuna,” says his 10-year-old business ships in about 400 different comics each month.

In addition, the store maintains a 24-hour number, (213) 651-0455, with recorded information about upcoming special events. (On Sunday, for example, the West Los Angeles Golden Apple will host a free afternoon “baseball card trade-o-rama.”)

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“This is an adult store; it’s not a children’s store. This is for collectors and people interested in fantasy and science-fiction entertainment,” says Liebowitz, 47, who’s wearing a yellow sweat shirt that reads “World Class Wrestling Championship Title Match 1947.”

Many of Golden Apple’s customers favor all-black clothes, and several sport Mohawk hairdos. Hot items in the store are the slice-of-life comic book “Love and Rockets” and the futuristic “Yummy Fur,” as well as anything to do with Batman.

I try not to look when my guide materializes by the cash register, but I can’t help myself. He has two 1940s Smilin’ Jack comics, $17 and $25.

Average Age 25

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Liebowitz says that the average age of his customers is 25 and that the average household income is $25,000 per year. “Comic books’ appeal no longer is limited to collectors of rare, vintage books or to speculators hoping for future profit,” he says. In addition, Liebowitz says, 15% of his customers are female.

Some say collecting comics is a kind of addiction. Alexander of the American Comic Book Co. concurs.

For his part, my friend is hard-pressed to say why he likes comic books so much.

“It’s sort of like asking, ‘Why do you love chocolate?’ ” he says. “As literature, comic books are unique. They can be appreciated for their artwork and story lines simultaneously.”

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