COMIC RELIEF : You Can't Call Them Funny Books Anymore and They Sure Aren't Kids' Stuff, Either

Times Staff Writer

It's Friday evening at Comics Unlimited in Westminster, one of the county's largest comic book emporiums.

A shipment of more than 100 new titles arrived this morning, a weekly event that causes the usual number of walk-ins at the shop in a Beach Boulevard shopping center to triple to more than 250.

And at 6, one of the busiest hours of the day, more than two dozen customers are bellied up to the long row of racks, thumbing through the latest exploits of their favorite characters.

But something's wrong with this picture.

Forget the stereotype of adolescents with their bicycles parked outside. Most in the largely male crowd are in their 20s--young adults stopping by the shop on their way home from work.

They are regulars, such as Jon Fields of Anaheim, a 24-year-old materials planner for an electronic computer board manufacturing plant, who spends nearly $30 for 15 comic books.

"And this is a small week too--I usually get 25 to 30 a week," he says. "I'll read everything while I'm sitting eating dinner or afterward while listening to music. TV's boring."

Dan Trieschman, a computer software engineer for Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, rings up $23 in comics, including such personal super hero favorites as "Excalibur," "Justice League," "Wolverine" and "The Flash."

"I collected them as a kid, but then I got more serious in college," says Trieschman, 25, who has more than 5,000 comics stashed in boxes in his garage.

With a laugh, he says: "I don't advertise it. I don't feel comics are for kids, but I realize a lot of people think that way."

That's true, but, as Trieschman and Fields illustrate, comic books are not just kids' stuff anymore.

Indeed, the great American childhood pastime has become an industry worth more than $400 million a year--double what it was 9 years ago. In that time, there has been an explosion in the ranks of new comic book publishers who have joined the Big Two--DC and Marvel--to produce more than 400 titles a month, contrasted with about 120 in the early '80s.

"One of the reasons for the explosion in comics is the comic book industry has returned to increasing realism," said Bob Matson, president of Comics Unlimited Inc. "Comic books used to be little morality plays, where the good guys always won and the bad guys always lost, and there was a lesson to be learned in how to live."

The byword today, Matson said, is ambiguity.

"People in comic books are no longer necessarily portrayed in absolute terms," he said. "Heroes have flaws, and villains can have their good sides. Comics have become much more sophisticated because the American public has become much more sophisticated and the stereotypes that readers would accept 20 years ago are simply not sufficient to entertain the modern reader."

Just scan the racks at Comics Unlimited, Adventureland Comics in Fullerton, Freedonia Funny Works in Orange or any of the nearly dozen comic book specialty shops that have sprung up in the county this decade. Mixed with such standards as "Archie" and "Superman" are comic books with a distinctly more mature twist:

* "The 'Nam," which deals with actual events during the Vietnam War.

* "Love and Rockets," a slice-of-life comic written about life in a barrio.

* "Team Yankee," which deals with the outbreak of World War III in Europe.

Even "Batman" is no longer written for children, dealing as it now does with themes that explore the darker realms of the human psyche. "It's a twist that has been developing over the past 3 1/2 years and has accelerated markedly recently," Matson said.

Such relatively sophisticated fare has not only caused young readers to continue their comic book habit into their 20s and beyond but has prompted former fans who have not read a comic book in years to return to the fold.

The under-15 set makes up less than 10% of the customers at Comics Unlimited, where the average age is 23 and some regulars are in their 40s and 50s.

"Adults buy comics for the same reason that adults read science fiction books or mystery stories or watch soap operas," Matson said. "Comic books contain a set of friends who will perform for you and talk to you and let you get to know them.

"In a way, it's a TV show in a book. And it's even better than TV because TV comes on only once a week, but you can see your comic book friends any time you want."

Of course, not every adult is willing to publicize his camaraderie with a comic character, regardless of how mature the themes.

At Adventureland Comics in Fullerton, owner Carol Lombard said some of her adult customers "come in in their three-piece business suits with briefcases and say they can't let their clients know they read comic books because they'll lose clients."

Lombard said that, for some adults, "comic books offer a fantasy. They allow you to be somewhere else, to be someone else. And they sort of put things more in perspective for some people."

Citing a recent development in Spiderman, in which the super hero and his wife have problems paying their rent and are evicted from their home, Lombard said: "That seems to be stuff that happens to real people every day. I guess they can relate more to comics than they used to when it was just Superman going out and saving the planet."

Those who have not bought a comic book since Ike was in office may be shocked to find that the cost of a comic book is now 75 cents to $3.50. Graphic novels, which are editorially and artistically more elaborate, range from $5.95 to $19.95.

Comic book specialty shops, which also sell an array of related items such as Betty Boop buttons and Popeye dolls, also sell back issues dating to the 1940s. (A 1955 mint-condition "Superman" goes for about $100, while a mint-condition 1955 "Beetle Bailey" can be had for $10.)

Although most customers prefer buying the latest issues, Matson said most comic book buyers would be considered serious collectors: " Serious doesn't have anything to do with the size of a collection or a purchase. It has to do with the level of commitment and interest the comic book reader has."

The new wave in comic books began in the early '80s with the arrival of new publishers who ignored the firmly entrenched Comics Code. The code was created by the industry in the 1950s in response to allegations that the topics of some comic books were corrupting the nation's youth. The code set voluntary limits on the type of material that could be in a comic.

The result was a sort of creative pabulum, a comic book world in which the good guys were all good and the bad guys were evil personified.

"A comic book was simply a medium to tell a story, any kind of story," Matson said. "But with the onset of the Comics Code, the comic industry produced almost nothing but super heroes comics for 22 years. Comics had been reduced to 'Bif! Bam! Sock! Pow!' Now they've expanded again."

Today, he said, "in the very best tradition, we're back in the days of the '40s. There are still super hero comics, but again there are Westerns, war comics, romance, adventure, science fiction, mystery and slice-of-life comics, which basically do what slice-of-life movies do: They take you inside somebody's head, and you get to live their experience with them."

First Publishing Inc. of Chicago is one of the leaders in the field.

The company began in 1982 with "Warp," an adaptation of a science fiction play about a bank teller who becomes God. Since then, First Publishing has released more than 900 separate comic book issues, in addition to 21 graphic novels, such as an adaptation of "Beowulf."

"When we started the company, we realized the world didn't need another comic book company for 13-year-olds, so we went after a much older audience," said Rick Obadiah, president and publisher of First Publishing.

One of the most popular First Publishing titles, particularly among younger readers, is "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," a graphic novel story line in which four turtles have become "heroes and protectors of humanity."

In 1985, the company introduced Japanese Manga (the Japanese word for comic) to America with its translated reprint of "Lone Wolf and Cub," which is about a renegade samurai and his child in 16th-Century Japan. The original series sold more than 262 million copies in Japan where, Obadiah said, "the comic book has a much higher stature than here."

First Publishing's latest venture, scheduled to debut in May, is an adaptation of the Emmy Award-winning TV show, "Beauty and the Beast."

The company also plans to reintroduce Classics Illustrated, a series of comic books that were introductions to the world's great literature for millions of children in the '40s and '50s. First Publishing, in partnership with Berkeley Publishing Group and Classics Media Group, will publish the first four titles in January: "Great Expectations," "Through the Looking Glass," " 'The Raven' and Assorted Poems" and "Moby Dick."

"Based on the growth of the marketplace, we are attracting novelists and major artists who have not necessarily worked in the comic book business before to lend a hand to guarantee that we'll be true to the original classics," said Obadiah, noting that macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson is doing the artwork for " 'The Raven' and Assorted Poems."

"Comic books used to be considered lowbrow, and people felt they inhibited people from reading," Obadiah said. "But today comic books are considered instrumental in getting young people interested in reading."

In a less literary vein, among recent entries into the comic book field are a series based on such hit movies as "Ghostbusters," "The Terminator" and "Fright Night." There was even a "California Raisins" series.

Such titles help attract people who might otherwise not consider buying comic books, Matson said. "If they like 'Ghostbusters,' they would be willing to read a story about 'Ghostbusters' in comic book form."

The impending arrival of the new Batman movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in June is expected to have an even greater effect.

"It's already had a tremendous impact on non-comic book merchandise," said Matson of Comics Unlimited, citing a flood of Batman T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs, key chains, figurines, clocks and posters. There are even Batman boxer shorts.

For all the relative sophistication of the current crop of comics, however, many of the classic funny books of yesteryear remain popular. Young girls, for example, still go for Archie, Betty and Veronica in a big way; young boys have a preference for "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers"; once they become teen-agers, they often start reading "Superman," "Spiderman" and "Daredevil."

And to the delight of many baby boomers, Gladstone Publishing has started reprinting some of the classic Disney comics from the '40s and '50s. And, Matson of Comics Unlimited said, "the people who buy 'Gladstones' aren't kids. They are guys who remember reading them as kids."

Unlike many of his counterparts in the comic book specialty shop business, Matson was not a comic collector who turned his obsession into a business. The 41-year-old former inventory control company supervisor had not read a comic book in 24 years when he went to work at Comics Unlimited 7 years ago.

Now even he is hooked.

After a long day at work, he said, "I pick up a Diet Coke, put some Mozart on the CD player and kick back in my lounge chair and read 'Uncle Scrooge' for 15 minutes. And when I'm done, I'm smiling again."

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