Comic books make strong showing

Comic-book superheroes stand as enduring icons.

By Michael Bober

“Some people go to these books for the characters, some people go for the writers, and some people go for the artists. I like a balance between the writing and the artwork, because that’s what I think a comic book should be: a marriage of those two things.” So says John Papp, a Fitchburg State College student and admitted comic-book fan.

Now more than ever, Papp seems to be in good company. “More people are reading comics that at any time during the past two decades,” comic-industry Web publisher Milton Griepp told the Boston Globe last year.

Yet many small stores are being pushed out by chains such as Newbury Comics and That’s Entertainment, both of which have turned to peddling other wares to stay afloat. Papp fondly recalls buying his comics at the now-defunct Knight’s Quest in Gardner, “which was more of a Magic: The Gathering role-playing card place, but that was my main outlet for buying comic books.”

But when that establishment closed over a decade ago, Papp confessed, he started going to That’s Entertainment. “That particular store isn’t limited just to comic books, although it used to be,” Papp said. “Now they sell DVDs and games, but it’s definitely a comic-book store.”

“The employees at the places I’ve frequented over the course of my life are very laid-back,” Papp said. “It’s like any other business, but it’s definitely not like ‘The Simpsons,’ where the comic-book store guy is like, [imitating a British accent] ‘Oh, don’t touch that. That’s a signed copy rahrahrah.’ Employees basically just want you to buy stuff from them so their store won’t close down.”

Papp said the comic-book stores he’s been to are good places for fans to congregate. “It’s a friendly atmosphere,” he said. “There are some people who keep to themselves, and it’s mostly older customers who like to get into conversations, but I like to chitchat.”

With the technological advances of the last couple of decades, comic-book distribution has taken a turn – some say for the worse. “Comic distribution over the Internet is making a huge splash because people won’t buy them anymore,” Papp said. “They’ll download them – torrent, illegal peer-to-peer stuff. It’s definitely paving the way for the future.”

Indeed, comic-book publishers are making use of the Internet to combat online piracy. Marvel Comics, the largest publisher, offers a vast online archive to subscribers, although users will have to wait six weeks to view new issues. DC Comics, a close second to Marvel, does not offer a similar plan but does offer some free comics on its site, as does Dark Horse Comics, a smaller publisher.

Like audiophiles who bemoan the age of the MP3, many comic-book collectors loathe the electronic format, while others welcome its advantages. Papp understands both sides. “When it comes down to it, I really think the electronic format is easier to manage,” he said. “Books tend to stack up and create all sorts of clutter. I have a lot of comic books, and they’re all over my room- literally, all over my room. So, resource-wise, the electronic format saves space.”

 While Papp admires the compactness of the digital medium, though, he is not alone in bemoaning the loss of the tactile experience of reading a comic book. “It is hard to read a comic online, because you can’t turn a page virtually. You have to hit the space bar. But you get used to it.”

Indeed, technology has changed the industry in other ways than online distribution. “When comic books were on newsstands, stories had to be very self-contained,” Papp explained. “You couldn’t publish an eight-issue story arc and expect people to know what’s going on. So with the death of that direct market and the rise of stores, you get story decompression.”

Some people think that’s a bad thing, he said, because they don’t see the point of telling a story in eight issues when it could be told in one. “But other people feel, and I tend to agree, that it allows room for more characterization,” Papp said. “It allows everything to breathe more. On the other hand, you’ve gotta wait eight months for a story to get completed.”

How does Papp account for the enduring popularity of comic books? “Superheroes are our modern-day mythology,” he said. “Superman, for example, has been this one character for 80 years. Superman is never going to end. People have written the last ‘Superman’ story, but that character will endure forever.

“People are drawn to that type of icon, like Superman or Batman or Green Lantern or whatever. People are interested in seeing what their favorite heroes are up to. It’s easy to get caught up in that.”

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