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June 22, 2004 > Hidden Treasure

Hidden Treasure

Treasure Island Comics in Irvington

Communication between people probably began with gestures and pictures. Cave dwellings of prehistoric peoples show paintings of events and Egyptian hieroglyphics are visual narratives. Words were absent, but symbols boosted the narrative flow. The ease of communication was significantly increased by the development of the press and printing techniques. Transferring words and pictures to paper was a huge step in preserving a portable record of people, events and transactions.

The precursor of "comic books" can be traced to several authors - the earliest, called The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, originally published in several languages in Europe in 1837, reprinted in New York on Sept. 14, 1842 for Americans, making it the first comic book printed in America. However, it is generally accepted that the first widely known comic book was The Yellow Kid by Richard Fenton Outcalt in 1896, which introduced a new element to the picture...the balloon. Within this space - a bubble with a tail that approached their mouth - characters could talk to the reader. Most of these creations were humorous in the first decades of life and were therefore referred to as "comic books." These books were reprints of comic strips from newspapers.

As "comic books" flourished, the themes were primarily about children and pets. Following the stock market crash of 1929, comic books took on a new tone...adventure. Known as "The Golden Age," stories revolved around three basic themes, science fiction, detective stories and jungle adventures. Tarzan roamed the jungle while Dick Tracy battled crime and Flash Gordon flew to distant planets. Prince Valiant explored medieval times with historic accuracy and in a few other countries such as France and Belgium, comics flourished as well.

American super heroes appeared on the scene in the forties with Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and the World War II icon Captain America. The magazine format was introduced during these years and comics began to discuss common, everyday challenges and problems. The fifties was a dark era in politics and censorship. Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote The Seduction of the Innocent, pointing to comic books as the root of youth corruption and delinquency. A Comics Code was created to restrict subject matter and control the comic media. Horror titles were removed and political content vigorously scrutinized. A survivor of this era, Mad Magazine, remains today.

Social and political comments were woven through apparently innocent comics such as Peanuts and Pogo. Intellectual commentary is woven through the fabric of seemingly innocent stories while some cartoonists such as Jules Feiffer used a much more direct approach. The sixties resurrected the super heroes, many with a weakness or defect in opposition to their powers. Characters such as Silver Surfer, Thor, Hulk, X-Men, and Dr. Strange appeared along with the frail and shy teenager turned super hero, Spiderman.

Although often found in the background, adult comics burst on the scene in the sixties with Barbarella, Valenina and Fritz the Cat. As the seventies unfolded, these sophisticated and adult themes grew. The seventies saw the rise of Heavy Metal and along with the underground nature of the genre, comics responded with fantasy, science fiction, acid trips, rock'n'roll, naked bodies and innovative use of color and design.

While comic books have a long and interesting history, in the last couple of years the number of comic book stores in the Tri-City area has diminished. Specialty shops at the NewPark Mall and the Hub have packed up and moved out. With easy access to other forms of entertainment, the attraction of comic books, especially to younger generations, appears to be heading down the path of extinction.

Alex Johnson, owner of Treasure Island Comics in Irvington, commented on the perils that face the industry today. "It's a shrinking market," he explains, "There are about five [comic book stores] in the Tri-City area. The market has been in decline every year since the 80s." Video games have replaced comic books as a dominant form of entertainment for younger generations. Their fast action, combined with sights, sounds and problem solving have supplanted many other passive activities.

"I grew up with comic books, says Johnson. "I got into comic books because when I was a small child, my grandmother wanted me to read Superman comics because he was very American with his slogan of Truth, Justice and the American Way." She wanted him to know that "Anyone can do what Superman does because he always chooses to do the right thing." At the time, computers and their accompanying games were, if thought of at all, viewed as science fiction. Dick Tracy's radio watch was considered a wonderful novelty more fanciful than reality.

Currently, some blockbuster films have been based on the exploits of comic book heroes such as Spiderman and Batman. However, without major marketing efforts, many kids are unaware and uninterested in comic books. Alex says that he does see younger readers because it's the only reading they enjoy. Parents are happy bring to bring them in because they want to encourage reading. He adds that although comics were not available in specialty stores when he was younger, they were many drug stores with magazine racks that sold comic books. "Now, he says, "it's a niche market."

The price of comic books can also be a problem for young buyers. The once inexpensive magazine format has mushroomed in cost to an average of about three dollars per issue. Alex adds, "Comic books are periodicals so the cumulative cost can be prohibitive. Buying a couple of comics every month can be expensive." But, he adds that when compared to a fifty dollar video game, the price is reasonable.

Despite the trend in younger generations, Treasure Island has a sufficient customer base to survive. "There are new faces every year, says Alex. Although some express a causal and passing interest, occasionally, people enjoy and begin to collect comics. He adds, "The writing and art is really good."

Alex thinks it is likely that the popularity generated from such recent comic book films as Spider-man, X-Men, The Punisher, and upcoming films like Spider-Man 2, Catwoman, and next year's Batman Begins will be enough to drive more new buyers to the comic book stands. "There are loads of new films being based on comic book properties lately. Hollywood has hit on the comic book idea. As it becomes more popular, we will see more and more comics on the big screen."

The industry has expanded into more than just films. Comic book characters are appearing on T-shirts, in cartoons and video games, on the shelves of toy stores and even in board games, reaching a broad range of potential readers. The reverse is also true. Video games including Deviol May Cry and cartoons Transformers and G.I. Joe are now available in their own comic book titles. Johnson believes that this newly generated popularity and the high quality of the comic books (paper, art and story) will revitalize the genre.

Johnson says, "Comic books have become 'cool' in the last few years. Video games, film, straight to video film, cartoons are all relating the comic book concept to a larger audience. In return, more people may come into the specialty shops to check out books with the original stories. Once people are open to checking it out, they will get into comic books at some level."

Nostalgia is always a huge selling point for comic books. Lately, high-grade comic books have been selling for tens of thousands of dollars on the auction house circuit. "Comic books are good for me because they're nostalgic," says Johnson. "It's part of childhood, an extended childhood, or a second one. For me, it's comfort entertainment. I love the art; I love the layout and the sequential storytelling. It is an art form, and people really do appreciate it. The writing has got to grab you and make you feel warm inside."

"Comic books allow you to have a quiet moment with a friend or two - Superman and Batman, for example. If you read regularly, you can catch up with your favorite characters and enjoy the show. You know how and why they operate, so it's easy to enjoy the adventure. They are fun, scary and exciting just like 'real' books, but better illustrated."

On Saturday, July 3, Treasure Island Comics in Fremont will join thousands of comic book shops around the world to celebrate the unique American art form of comic books. The day, dubbed "Free Comic Book Day," has as its goal to introduce as many people to the wonders of comic books as possible.

"[Free comic book day] started three years ago. It's like a good will event to get new people into the shop to be turned on to comic books. We're competing with other entertainment stuff, either cartoon-based stuff or video games, which are huge in the kid market. A few years ago, the publishers got together and decided they would produce a select number of titles at greatly reduce rates so that [proprietors] could buy them really, really cheap to just give them away to foster good will and promotion," explains Johnson.

In the course of Free Comic Book Day, stores will give away millions of comic books, ranging in subject matter from high-flying super-hero adventures, intense slice-of-life stories, and crime noir tales, to kid-friendly humor and family reading. "When you visit Treasure Island Comics on July 3, you'll will find a great variety of free comics," continued Johnson. "There are comics for children, for families to enjoy together, for adults, and especially for people who think they would never read a comic book... Along with our fellow comic shop owners around the world, those of us at Treasure Island Comics want to spread the word that comics are alive and well in 2004," Johnson continued. "We invite everyone to come to Treasure Island Comics on July 3 and see for themselves how vital, relevant, powerful, and just-plain cool comic books are. Better yet, you get to do it for free!"

In addition to the comic book giveaways (5 per customer) from an assortment of popular publishers, Treasure Island Comics will be host to Ryan Sook and Mick Gray, the new artists for DC Comic's Hawkman. Sook and Gray, two local artists whose first issue of Hawkman hit shelves on May 19, will be in store for the day signing books, doing sketches, and selling original art.

Free Comic Book Day kicks off at 11 A.M. and runs until 7 P.M. at Treasure Island Comics in Fremont at 40819 Fremont Boulevard in the Irvington Palms Plaza (across from the Chapel intersection), three doors down from Roundtable Pizza. Call (510) 770-1168 or visit treasureislandcomics.com for more information.

Regular updates, information about comic books, and lists of participating publishers (and their comics) are all online at http://www.FreeComicBookDay.com.

More detailed information about the history of comic books can be found at: www.geocities.com/Athens/8580 and www.collectortimes.com/~comichistory

 
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