By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun
12:04 PM EDT, September 23, 2011
He was always a skateboarder and action-movie fan, not to mention a punk-rock enthusiast, but from the time he turned 12, nothing excited Steve Anderson more than the approach and arrival of his favorite day, Wednesday.
That was the day the newest issues of his favorite comic books arrived at the local shop, Alliance Comics in Bowie, giving him a reason to drop in, hang out with the owner and schmooze with the other customers.
"Someone would always talk to you and say, 'Hey, check this [new comic] out,' and you'd take a look, maybe take it home and get started," Anderson says. "You built a rapport. It meant a lot to me growing up."
Now 29, Anderson, the co-owner of Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, and a partner, Annapolis native Ben Penrod, hope to offer comics fans a taste of similar camaraderie when they unveil Annapolis Comic-Con, the first comics convention held in the state capital, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
"Conventions as a whole have gotten so much bigger over the last 10 years or so," Anderson says. "This year's Baltimore Comic-Con was the biggest I've ever seen it. It was a great show, as always, but our mission statement is to be the hard-working little brother of these bigger shows — to offer the kind of intimate environment that sometimes gets lost."
The 12th annual Baltimore festival, boasting appearances by Spider-Man creator Stan Lee and a range of panel discussions, drew more than 25,000 to the convention center over two days in August, which qualifies it as one of the nation's largest.
Anderson and Penrod have reserved Elks Lodge 622 in Annapolis, where they hope to draw a crowd of 500 or more. The day will feature 10 local and nationally known artists, 20 comics dealers from six states, a costume contest and other events.
The pair say it's shaping up to be just the right size.
"We're going all-out in the things we know we can do," says Penrod, 28, a comics nut who owns Ninja Pirate Gear, an online shop based in Waldorf. "I don't want people to show up expecting another Baltimore Con. But in its own way, it's going to be madness."
Some historians trace comic books — that is, narrative tales told in successive illustrated panels — to the 1840s, when a series of previously published comic strips, "The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck," appeared in hardcover form in New York.
The form blossomed in the late 1930s, when Superman first appeared in a volume called Action Comics No. 1. It acquired nuance during the 1940s with the appearance of Disney's "funny animal" comics, and in the 1950s and 1960s, when the heroes began showing self-doubt.
It became a full-fledged cultural force in the 1990s and 2000s with the emergence of comics-based Hollywood hits like "X-Men" and "Iron Man," video games like "Aliens Versus Predator" and the emergence of dozens of fan conventions across the country.
But for two guys who make their living in a multibillion-dollar industry, Anderson and Penrod are living proof that the appeal of comics is still a very personal thing.
When Anderson was a kid, he recalls, what thrilled him more than anything was knowing his favorite artists and writers were out there creating new episodes — and that four weeks after they finished a book, he'd get it in his hands.
"There was this anticipation, a sense of discovery you didn't get anywhere else," he says. "These stories and pictures came out of nowhere and grabbed you."
He got a job at Alliance Comics at 19, worked there for six years, and eventually scraped together enough money to set up his own shop, with his wife, Patricia Rabbitt, as co-owner.
When they opened in 2008, they named the new place after a bookshop the artist Alan Moore created in his 1998 comic series "Saga of the Swamp Thing."
"I thought it would be 'meta' to bring The Third Eye into the real world," Anderson says, using the "geek culture" term for "self-referential." "It's a pretty obscure reference, but once in a while, one of my customers gets it."
Penrod, too, turned the fantasy of comic books into reality.
He discovered the form at 13 when he wandered into a grocery store, spotted a book that pitted DC and Marvel Comics superheroes against each other, and found himself hooked.
"I finished that book, went back to the store and bought everything else they had," says Penrod. "I spent all my money on comic books. I still do."
Over the next few years, as he, too, worked in a local shop, he amassed a collection of more than 50,000 comics, from vintage-era stuff like early Batman to series starring The Flash (DC Comics), and The Punisher and Wolverine (both Marvel).
"I see that [cable TV] show 'Hoarders,' and I have to admit I can relate. I never wanted to throw anything out. There's always this thought, 'I might want to reread that,'" says Penrod, who eventually turned his obsession — and his stash — into the stuff of his current business.
The comic book mavens figure they probably crossed paths as teens, but they know for certain that they met about four years ago, when Penrod, looking for a good local shop to hang out in, discovered Third Eye.
The place was so well run, featured so many signings and other events, and had such a loyal fan base that it felt to him like home.
"I wouldn't try this venture [Annapolis Comic-Con] with just anybody," Penrod says. "But I've known for a while that Steve knows what he's doing. That's one reason I'm sure it's going to work."
Both friends know firsthand how the comic-books industry has exploded. Before he was tied down at a store of his own, Anderson was a regular on the convention circuit, setting up shop at galas from New York to California.
Penrod still attends annual conventions in Philadelphia, Orlando, Fla., Richmond, Va., and elsewhere, lugging 20,000 or so of his specimens to sell and keeping an eye on what's happening in the field.
Last year, he even made it to the granddaddy of them all, Comic-Con International in San Diego, an event that started out small in 1970, when 300 comic-book lovers gathered to talk about their hobby, and morphed over the years into a pop-culture phenomenon spotlighting toys, fantasy novels, TV shows and soon-to-be-released Hollywood blockbusters.
Celebrities including Francis Ford Coppola, Pee Wee Herman and Peter Jackson made the 2011 version, which drew 125,000 fans a day over four days, and generated nearly $170 million in business for the community.
Penrod had a great time — "Who wouldn't? It's San Diego," he says — but the experience was as double-edged as a He-Man sword.
"It's almost depressing. It takes you half an hour just to get to where the comic books are, and when you do, the crowds aren't that big. You're thinking, 'This isn't about comics anymore.'"
Annapolis Comic-Con won't be that way.
A few years back, Penrod noticed a trend: In most of the cities that hosted one of the recognized mega-conventions, someone has decided to set up a smaller, more intimate show at a different time of year.
They're "more modest in size, but still vibrant and fun," Anderson says. "Greg realized no one had tried that in Maryland." They envisioned an Annapolis event that would complement Baltimore's in size, and finally got around to planning it this year.
As they filled in the details, things fell together nicely.
Penrod wanted to showcase comic artists who work locally, and he quickly landed two of the industry's finest. Baltimore native Greg LaRocque, famed for updating and reworking the classic comic "The Flash" during the 1990s, will be signing, sketching and selling prints of his art. So will Steve Conley, a D.C.-based artist perhaps best known for the comic "Astounding Space Thrills."
"That's another thing that's great about the comic book world, or a convention," Anderson says. "Not only can you meet the artists, but you can walk out with something they created just for you. It's as though you go to an Elvis Costello concert, and he writes a song just for you."
Eight other artists will be on hand, including Dan Nokes, a Lusby artist who publishes his own lines of comics, and Chris Flick, the Virginia-based creator of the webcomic "Capes and Babes" ("A Strip Mall, A Comic Book Shop and One Crazy Werewolf").
So will dealers from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and Maryland, including Anderson, who will sell hard-to-find books from the newest DC Comics line, "The New 52," wherein the comic book corporate giant recently restarted every one of its 52 continuing series from scratch.
The show will be small enough that visitors can see everything it has to offer in a day, yet varied enough, Penrod says, to interest fans of all stripes, including those who enjoy comics-related collectibles, Japanese anime, even dressing up as their favorite characters or bidding at a live auction.
They're hoping to pack the Elks Lodge, of course, and if all goes well, to expand attendance from one year to the next, ultimately drawing as many as 5,000.
For now, both are content to provide something like what Anderson used to love each Wednesday years ago — and what his customers enjoy now when they come to Third Eye for new-comics day, which still falls on Wednesdays at shops across America.
"Ideally, we'll bring out people from all over the state, give them a venue for socializing, maybe even a good place to bring their families," he says. "Maybe it will be their first time at a comic books convention. If so, I think they'll go home happy. We're all geeks about something."
If you go
What: The Annapolis Comic-Con
When: Sun., Sept. 25, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Elks Lodge 622, 2517 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis
Admission: $5 for adults, $1 for active military or in costume; children under 10 free
Costume contest will be held at 1 p.m., live auction at 2 p.m.. For more information, visit annapoliscomic.con com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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