Comics are serious business

Chris Vetter

When some University students get tired of reading biology, physics or Shakespeare, they turn to Spiderman, Wonder Woman or the Flash.
Comic books are no longer just for kids. The stories provide more complex stories with romance, adventure, heroes and villains for their readers. They also include more adult themes, with more sexual, violent and graphic artwork.
Many University students stop by Dreamhaven Books and Comics in Dinkytown, and they often buy several comics a week.
“The average is three to six (comics) a week,” said Lance Smith, the comic buyer at Dreamhaven. “But some people will buy a whole stack.”
But comic books continue to grow more expensive as their popularity rises, hitting all-time sales peaks in 1993-94. Most comics cost about $2, with many readers spending $10 to $20 a week on comics.
The two major comic companies are Marvel, producers of Spiderman and the X-Men, and DC, of Superman and Batman fame. The old standbys still dominate the comic market, but many small independent companies, such as Image, Dark Horse and Impact, have comics that are hot sellers.
“Johnny the Homicidal Maniac’ is one of our better sellers,” Smith said. He said Dreamhaven sells more unusual titles to its customers than other Twin Cities comic stores because most of its regular customers are college students, Smith said.
“It has a lot to do with college kids, with different tastes than other readers,” Smith said. “We sell more of the black and white stuff.”
Other hot sellers include “Spawn,” an independent comic about a reincarnated, dark hero living in the streets. Spawn received his powers from the devil, and often fights “good” angels who are trying to destroy him.
The most popular mainstream sellers are known as the “X-titles,” such as “X-Men,” “X-Force,” and “Generation X.” These comics are so intertwined in their storylines that a reader missing one issue may not understand what is occurring in the other issues.
Comic books have gained notoriety for their ability to have serious overtones. The comic book “Maus,” with a World War II theme, is a two-volume epic in which Jewish characters are drawn as mice and Germans as cats. Art Spiegelman, the author, won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for “Maus.”
The comic is a tremendous story, said Laurie McKiernan of Dreamhaven. “It’s amazing. It’s an absolutely fantastic book. It made me cry,” she said.
Yoonie Helbig, an employee at Dreamhaven, said comics like “Maus” show that comics can be used for serious matters.
“The way (“Maus”) was done could not have been done in any other format,” Helbig said. “It uses the medium the way it should be done.”
Serious adult themes are present in today’s comics. In one comic book, a friend of the Incredible Hulk dies of AIDS. In another, a superhero called NorthStar comes out of the closet and announces he is gay.
DC has a series of comics known as DC Vertigo, which are comics specifically aimed at adults. These comics, like “Swamp Thing,” are dark in tone and are for serious readers.
College students turn to comics for entertainment they don’t find anywhere else, Smith said.
“Good art and good stories is something (comic readers) don’t get from other sources of fiction,” Smith said. “Superheroes are unique to comics. You don’t find them anywhere else.”
Son Pham, an Institute of Technology graduate, said he has read comics for years.
“It’s fun. It’s not realistic. It makes my imagination run wild,” Pham said.
The stigma of comic books being “just for kids” was illustrated by students wishing to remain anonymous. One such student said comics are “a lot like cartoons I watched when growing up.”
Comic books are still the domain of men, but a growing number of women are buying comics as well.
Even though comics are fictional, writers often draw parallels between reality and their stories. The presidential election in the Marvel universe was held two weeks ago, with the leading candidate assassinated on election eve in the “X-Men.”
Comic popularity is growing in the United States but is already quite large in other nations. Japanese comics are quite popular, and often very thick.
But the appeal of comics lies in the fact that they are generally fanciful, Smith said.
“It provides an escape from reality,” he said.