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PROFILE : Serious Business : Ralph Holt says comic books aren’t just kids’ stuff when it comes to readership or prices.

Captain America hit The Red Skull hard enough to kill his whole wretched family. But it didn’t. So Captain America beat on him some more. But what’s this? Here comes The Red Skull’s mindless minions to defend their boss.

Even Captain America, tough enough to knock Mike Tyson into next week, sees the situation is hopeless, so he snags The Red Skull’s personal jet plane and high-tails it off to Skull Island, narrowly avoiding his untimely demise.

But what’s that thing in The Red Skull’s gloved hand? It looks like a detonator, and The Red Skull is laughing hysterically.

“Captain America believes he has won. But little did he know that during the heat of battle I managed to tape a miniature A-bomb to the back of his neck!”

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As Captain America streaks away, The Red Skull begins to press the detonator with his thumb only to find that--the story is CONTINUED UNTIL NEXT MONTH!!! What’s going to happen? Who knows? Comic books are like that.

Superhero comics generally have two major character types: villains who want to rule the world and heroes who want to save it. And they invariably end with some cliffhanger situation, which it’s hoped will cause the reader to purchase the next issue.

Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura is the one-stop shop for collectors eager to find out that Captain America got out of it--again. Ralph Holt, 36, an incorrigible Giants/A’s/Niners fan, has been selling comics in Ventura for 10 years. Comics don’t cost a dime anymore--the average price is $1.25 and up. And up. The comic book business is big business.

“One day I just found myself on the other side of the counter,” said Holt, much smaller than the mighty Thor. “I used to read a lot as a kid, but my parents didn’t think comic books were very respectable. I had a lot of early ‘60s Marvels; just about everything from Fantastic Four 2 (second edition) on up--about $20,000 worth of comics by today’s prices. I ended up trading them for postage stamps.”

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But it wasn’t until his college days that Holt began getting serious about comics.

“I moved from the Bay Area in 1972 to go to UCSB. I was a chemistry major. I lived in an apartment in Isla Vista with a couple of roommates. Anyway, one day, I looked in the mirror and I asked myself if I wanted to be behind a test tube all my life and the guy in the mirror said, ‘nope.’

“My roommate at the time had a bunch of comics, DCs mostly. And I started reading them, stuff like Mister Miracle and The New Gods--I’d never been exposed to DCs before--I was a hard-core Marvel fan. Stuff like Superman really made me a DC fan--I ended up buying my roommate’s comics for a dime apiece. And I started buying every Marvel title too.”

Ten or 15 years ago, there were very few comic book shops, and none in Ventura County. Getting all the comics for a given month amounted to a road trip from Stop N’ Go to drug stores to liquor stores because a single store seldom had all the comics. Distribution was hit or miss, at best. But on the good side, comics cost 15 cents, and later a quarter off the rack.

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“Since there weren’t any comic shops in Santa Barbara, I found myself going to the Cherokee Book Store in Hollywood every couple of months to get back issues. For some reason, the people at the store thought I was somebody else, so they used to give me all these half-price deals. I used to spend a hundred bucks or so; and back then, you could get a lot of comics for a hundred bucks.”

Holt was working as a gardener in those days and making the comic convention circuit on weekends. At one convention, he met a guy named Dave Debovis from Santa Barbara. “We sort of hit it off,” Holt said.

“It was then that I went from being just a collector to a seller. We joined forces and started doing the convention circuit around California. And the prices of comics were just starting to jump.”

When there wasn’t a convention happening, Holt and Debovis would sell comics at the Santa Barbara swap meet, and, he said, gradually began to build a clientele because there were no comic shops in Santa Barbara.

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And Holt and Debovis would have the comics sent by UPS directly from the wholesaler. “This gave us a month’s jump on the stores, and we did pretty well. One thing led to another and it came down to, ‘Hey, let’s open a store.’ ”

In 1979 they opened the The Andromeda Book Shop in Santa Barbara.

“We sold comics, but also science fiction books and baseball cards. We did OK, not great because there weren’t enough comic collectors and comics weren’t that expensive then. You had to sell a lot of 50-cent comics. It’s a lot different now: there are $4.95 comics, posters, books and T-shirts.”

But the two entrepreneurs quickly found out that they got along only slightly better than Captain America and The Red Skull. They parted company in 1980.

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“He got the store, and I got most of my comics,” Holt said. “I had a great summer; I lived at the beach. I squandered all my money, but I had a great tan and lots of comics. My roommate was going nuts, there was no room in the apartment--there were comics piled up everywhere.

So he opened a store in Ventura basically, he said, because there was no room at home for all his comics.

“My shop was located inside this junk store called Our Stoar (now Bonnie’s) across from The Top Hat on Main Street. The rent was only $60 per month, and I was only open three days a week because I had a small landscape maintenance business on the side. The comic business kept getting better and better however, and in a few months I doubled my space for $100 per month.”

Ralph’s Comics Corner was only slightly bigger than The Red Skull’s heart. Three people in the store was about as cozy as you, William Conrad and Shelly Winters in a Yugo.

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“If I had a hundred-dollar day, it was something to shout about. But I had to close by 4:30 p.m. every day because that’s when the store closed. So I moved into my own store, which I did in 1982--on Main Street down from Seaward, not far from Ventura High School.” Last month, he moved across the street to a bigger store.

“Now a large percentage of people who read and collect comics are adults. First Comics did a survey last year and discovered that the average age of their readers was 25--that blew their mind. It’s not just the superhero stuff that people buy anymore, but more adult comics such as Nexus, The Badger and Japanese comics such as Akira are real hot right now.”

“There’s over 300 different comic titles issued each month, many of them cost about two bucks each. It’s never too late to start collecting comics, but it’s too late to start collecting everything, unless you’re rich.”

Probably only The Red Skull could afford to collect all comics, but he’s too beat up to push those automated teller buttons.

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UP CLOSE: RALPH HOLT

Vocation: The guru of comics.

Location: Ventura.

Worst Day on the Job: “My monthly comic book order.”

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Biggest Misconception About the Job: “That comics are for kids; and that comics are like the old ‘Batman’ TV show.”


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