Comics and their collectors are both showing signs of growing up COMIC ATTRACTIONS


When the traders, dealers, browsers and collectors gather at the Baltimore Comic Convention tomorrow, there will be a lot of little kids in the group.

Some of them will actually be little kids, bored parents in tow, hot on the trail of the latest Aliens vs. Predator or Incredible Hulk or Little Mermaid comic.

But some of them will look and act like grownups, with jobs and bills and maybe kids of their own. They will be hot on the trail of the latest "X-Force," or maybe a set of collector cards or some original artwork from the legendary Frank Frazetta, or the elusive "Star Wars" issue No. 107 -- or maybe a manga, Japanese for comic book, translated into English.

That is, they will be hot on the trail of whatever mysterious appeal attracted them to comics in the first place, some 15, 20, even 30 years ago.

"I've been collecting for years, since I was a little kid," says Rickey Shanklin of Baltimore, an independent comics writer and entrepreneur who owns the Mindbridge store in Dundalk. He arranged his store, in fact, to be what he wanted when he was young: everything in one place, back issues available, a "holding" service so no one has to miss an issue while the allowance builds up, or until he or she can come in to pick it up.

"I've been into comics ever since I was 5 years old," says Peter David, who writes "The Incredible Hulk," "X-Factor" and the "Little Mermaid," among others. "I would terrify my mother as I walked across a busy street with my face buried in Action comics."

Mr. David lost interest in comics for a few years ("I discovered girls, which unfortunately happens to a lot of our customers"), then rediscovered them in high school. He ultimately went to work in the sales division of Marvel Comics in New York, then moved over to the writing side.

"There's a stereotype that people have of a comic collector," says Pete Hoefling, a Baltimore-area promoter of trade shows, including comic book conventions. "I mean you generally think of a kid in high school who has no friends -- but really it's high school football jocks, grandfathers, 6-year-old kids that are smarter than 30-year-old men when it comes to a good investment, housewives, mothers, rich people. . . . Conventions are the closest thing you have to a club."

Shows like the one Mr. Hoefling is promoting tomorrow at the Sheraton International Hotel at BWI, or those that Bob and Georgene Horn of Elkton put on regularly at the Quality Inn in Towson, are popular because they bring in different dealers. Some collectors are specialists, Mr. Hoefling says, collecting only comics with a certain character, or only comics from before 1960 or only comic books put out by DC (along with Marvel, the two superheroes of the industry), or only those that are TV- and movie-related.

"You'll find some things at a show you can't find at a store -- especially older comics," says Georgene Horn. She and her husband have been putting on comics shows in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia for a dozen years. "Each dealer has access to different comics -- what one dealer has, another can't find."

"It's a chance for fans of comics to get together and buy and sell and trade," Mr. Hoefling says. "They get to talk to artists, and to dealers, and the dealers talk to people. . . . It's a lot of fun if you like comics."

Comics fulfill different needs at different times, says Mr. David. "When you're a kid, you're interested in reading about characters who are essentially powerful kids in costumes." But now, he says, he enjoys comics for the same reason he enjoys television or books: "It's an entertaining story-telling medium with its own strengths."

But Mr. Shanklin has another theory about adults' fascination with comics. "They're facing 30 or 40, or whatever scares them," he says, "so they're buying back things they had when they were kids that their mothers threw away, or because they have kids and want the kids to have what they had.

"They're trying to buy back their childhood."

But there is some evidence that the comics, at least, may be growing up.

First there is a willingness to explore controversial themes. A couple of characters -- Northstar, of Marvel's "Alpha Flight" series, and the Pied Piper in DC's "Flash" series -- recently announced they are homosexual, a move that met with subdued approval from some comic-store spokesmen and representatives of gay organizations.

The Northstar story also confronts the issue of AIDS, as Northstar adopts a baby who is HIV-positive.

Mr. David finds the discussion of adult subject matter "very refreshing to see." He points out that comics have always been written by adults, and now they're writing about things that are important to them -- and things that kids need to understand.

And then there is the money.

Bob McLeod, a Pennsylvania artist who draws "Superman," among others, and who will be at tomorrow's show, laments what he sees as a depressing trend. "It used to be that the only people who read comics really loved them, loved the artwork and loved the stories." But now, he says, "Kids about 10 years old come up and they're all excited . . . but what they really want to know is how much a comic will be worth in 10 years."

As well they might. A copy of "Detective Comics" No. 27, in which the character Batman first appeared (in May 1939) sold at a New York auction in December for $55,000. The buyer, Harold M. Anderson of Florence, Ala., told the New York Times, "I think comic books are on the ground floor of an explosive market."

A little earlier, an "incredibly well-preserved" copy of that same comic owned by Steve Geppi, president of Diamond Comic Distributors of Woodlawn, sold privately for $75,000, according to an article in the trade journal Comics Buyers Guide.

Marketing director Roger Fletcher says most Diamond employees, including Mr. Geppi, are "big comic fans who got into the business because of their love for comics." The company is currently involved, with DC Comics, in producing a ** series of educational comics that star DC superheroes -- and that the company hopes will attract new readers to other comics.

(Mr. Fletcher also says 10-year-old Diamond is "the largest comic book distributor in the world," with 23 distribution centers in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and 1991 gross sales "just shy of" $100 million.)

Not everyone is impressed with the big tickets. "Prices go up, but they come down, too," Mrs. Horn says. She recalls the early '80s, when independent comic producers entered the market in force. "It opened up the market for lot of creativity," she says. "Unfortunately, investors also got in on it -- just because it was new -- and it was very volatile. I'm sure a lot of people lost money on that."

At least for now, however, the market is having some influence.

Mr. McLeod says, "A lot of the artists and writers are going for 'pin-up' pages" -- artwork that doesn't advance the story but shows the characters in striking poses -- "because that's what collectors want." He worries that catering to collectors will drive away the fans.

Mr. David agrees. "There's a trend in the industry -- and I think it's a very unhealthy one -- of putting multiple covers on books or offering trading cards, things designed to appeal to the collector."

Appeal they do. Twenty-two pages of original "X-Force" artwork recently sold at auction for $44,000, Mr. Shanklin said. "It's not a little kid's game anymore."

Comic book show schedules

Comic book fans and collectors can seek out their favorites at two shows coming up shortly in the Baltimore area:

*The Baltimore Comic Book Convention, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow at the Sheraton International Hotel on Elm Road at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Special appearances by Bob McLeod, Tom Morgan and Fred Schiller. Admission is $3 per person. For more information call (301) 791-8159.

*Serendipity Comic Book Show, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. March 8 at the Quality Inn on York Road in Towson. Artist Mike Zeck will be a guest. Admission is $3. For more information call (410) 398-6685.

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