A pair of dimes, spent while moving with his family to Charleston, put Vernon Washington on the path to art school. The year was 1972, and tired of staring out the side window of a U-Haul, he plunked down his money at a gas station.
"The comic book I picked up was the first issue of Swamp Thing," he says. "Everything about it fascinated me — the story and especially Bernie Wrightson's artwork. I read it and I wanted more."
Later, he received exactly that, courtesy of an uncle who shipped a trunk full of Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Thor, and Avengers comic books right to his doorstep.
"What grabbed me most was the lore and legend of the superheroes," he says. "My uncle told me story after story about them and about why he loved comic books. I thought it was great."
Jeff Turner, who works part-time at Captain's Comics in Charleston, discovered comic books around the same time. Every week, he and his friends rode their bikes to 7-Eleven, pulled stacks of fantasy off the spinner racks, and devoured them — with Slurpees on the side.
"Comic books were a constant for me," Turner recalls. "With my dad in the USMC, we moved around a lot. But I could follow the same characters and stories wherever we went. It was escapism, sure, but it helped me."
For many, their experiences with comics involve nothing more than a few scattered issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Hot Stuff, Betty and Veronica, or Sgt. Rock paged through in childhood.
For others, comic books are a veritable lifestyle. Ask a lifelong comic reader how many issues are in his or her collection and the number may run into the thousands or tens of thousands — all meticulously inventoried, bagged, boarded, and stashed away in specially designed boxes.
"There seem to be two phases in a comic collector's life," says Mike Campbell, owner of Captain's Comics. "The first is when you're a kid and you read whatever your grandpa gives you. The second is when you're older, and you discover comics that are slightly outside expectation, like Y: The Last Man or The Walking Dead. That's when you really get hooked on the stories."
For some, that hook sinks deep. Many a writer or artist has admitted to early inspiration from comic books. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union) has gone on record regarding his early love for the medium, as has Stephen King.
The comic book industry itself, though (in particular the top guns, Marvel and DC Comics), has a reputation as a particularly tough nut to crack in terms of giving budding artists and writers a shot at the big time.
In the 1980s, Charleston native Jimmy Baldwin moved to New York City intent on getting his artwork noticed. Upon arrival outside the offices of Marvel Comics he was advised thusly: get a night job, be available all the time during the day, and wait until someone either drops dead or drops deadline.
In the meantime, Baldwin set to work, illustrating his own take on classic adventures à la Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) or Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian). "They were master storytellers," he says. "You just lost yourself in their pages."
It was in New York that Baldwin learned the art of using a brush for inks from industry icon Joe Sinnott, who worked on Fantastic Four from the '60s to the '80s. "He looked over my shoulder and said, 'Nice work. Want to make it better?' I said uh-huh," Baldwin recalls. "He put a sheet of tracing paper over my pencils and went at it with a sable brush. Everything just came to life and popped off the page."
Baldwin ended up only doing one assignment for Marvel, a back-up story in the black-and-white, more adult-oriented Savage Sword of Conan, but the connections he made paid off with later work from imprints like the now-defunct Eternity.
"Back in the early 1990s a lot of the publishers were moving toward movie tie-ins, and that really wasn't my thing," he says. "It was hard for me because I wanted to be in comics, but I don't want to just do whatever happens to be popular. I want to do what works for me."
Still, Baldwin has taken notice of the proliferation of comic book forms in recent years: small press books, graphic novels, and a greater diversity of formats than ever before.
"I'm re-reading all my old books and getting a new feel for the stories," he says. "I recently downsized my life specifically to spend more time drawing and getting this down on paper. It's a long process, working in pencils and finishing in ink, but it's amazing how it feels when each piece is done."
For Vernon Washington, though, the comic books he fell in love with as a child were less of a goal in and of themselves and more of the initial inspiration that prompted him to begin studying art.
"If I wanted to show someone how good comics can be, I would show them the early John Buscema issues of Silver Surfer," he says. "There's so much energy in the art."
Sketching, practicing storytelling techniques, and studying the work of artists like Buscema and Neal Adams (Green Lantern/Green Arrow) enabled him to produce a portfolio that gained him admission to the Atlanta College of Art. There, he roomed with Craig Hamilton, who went on to illustrate Aquaman for DC Comics.
Washington himself, however, ended up veering away from comic book illustration after college. Moving into the field of fine art, he began specializing in painted scenes of African and South American wildlife. Even so, he still makes regular visits to the local comic shop and fills sketch pads aplenty with drawings of his favorite superheroes.
Jeremy Dale, an artist currently living in Columbia, grew up surrounded by superhero stories and fantasy art in his father's comic book specialty shop in the Midwest.
"I was inspired by many of the comic book greats as well as the animation guys from Disney and Dreamworks," he says. "I love everything from Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, New Gods) and Will Eisner (The Spirit) to Jeff Smith, who does Bone, a beautiful book. Herobear and the Kid by Mike Kunkel. Really, I find something to take from just about anything I can put my hands on."
Though Dale also does children's book illustration and design work, his primary occupation is comics. He was assigned illustration chores for many of the comics accompanying Hasbro's 25th anniversary line of G.I. Joe action figures and has also done work for Miserable Dastards, Absolute Zeroes, Space Doubles, and HOPE: New Orleans.
Dale has been a featured guest at conventions, such as MegaCon and HeroesCon, and will be the special guest this year at Captain's Comics for Free Comic Book Day on May 3.
"Meeting with fans and just hanging out, learning about the culture, is the best part of the job," he says. "It's just a matter of finding the time to do things like that."
Comic book culture has been an especially popular subject ever since Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay lent an artistic polish to some of the legends and lore of the early years of the American comic book industry.
Before television, rock 'n roll, video games, and the internet, comic books and pulps flourished. They were the stuff of sheer imagination, bubble gum for the eyes in many instances, but a melding of prose and pictures in which a few visionaries saw unlimited potential.
So naturally, that potential had to be hobbled.
As journalist David Hadju describes in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, there were mass comic book burnings in the 1950s thanks to fevered sermons and Senate hearings pinning the blame for "juvenile delinquency" on the medium.
The industry survived by policing itself (the infamous "Comics Code Authority") and entered a creatively sterile period in which only stories absolutely incapable of offending anyone in a position of authority were allowed to see print.
The 1960s saw an early glimmer of new possibility as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko unveiled a strange new crop of heroes set in a world a bit closer to our own: Spider-Man (an awkward adolescent), the Fantastic Four (a bickering family), and the Hulk (a man struggling against a monster inside).
Readers began organizing fan clubs, buying and selling back issues of comic books at flea markets, and paving the way for an onslaught of creative energy a few decades later. From the 1970s onwards, as the rules of the Comics Code relaxed, an underground chic began surrounding comic books.
In the 1980s, with business booming thanks to red-hot titles like Uncanny X-Men, New Teen Titans, and Daredevil, comic book shops were popping up everywhere. Sales were skyrocketing.
Shelton Drum, owner of Heroes Aren't Hard to Find (a specialty shop in Charlotte that has grown into one of the largest comic book retailers in the United States), witnessed that rapid rise — as well as the crash that followed.
"The first time we really noticed the influx of new customers was right before the first Batman movie," says Drum, describing the boom times. Back in 1989, heavy promotion of the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson blockbuster brought renewed public interest to comic books and their characters. "At the time, we could sell anything that had Batman on it."
It was around that time that former readers who decided to catch up on the latest stories made a strange discovery: Comics had all but disappeared from their usual spot on spinner racks at grocery or drug stores.
What happened was the direct market. Rather than ship comics to traditional newsstands where unsold product could be returned for credit, publishers found that comics were better sold at a discount to specialty shops on the condition that they were non-returnable.
That proved a double-edged sword. The specialty market, catering specifically to diehard fans, allowed the price of new comics to climb well above what a casual reader might pay and made rock stars of top comics artists like Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City) Jim Lee (X-Men), and Todd McFarlane (Spider-Man, Spawn). But it also meant that only those who specifically sought comics out would find them.
The bubble burst late in the 1990s, in part due to inflated print runs and rampant speculation from those hoping to score a high return on "hot" books they felt would rapidly increase in resale value.
Two out of every three comic book specialty stores in the United States closed in the 1990s. Long-standing industry leader Marvel Comics was on the verge of bankruptcy.
"[Marvel's brush with bankruptcy] was the closest the industry came to a complete 'Oh God, it's over' point," says John Mayo, a podcaster and online columnist for Comic Book Page and Comic Book Resources. "Marvel accounted for roughly a third of the sales. A lot of comic book specialty shops are mom-and-pop-type places that don't have deep pockets. If Marvel had gone under or even just ceased publication for a few months, all these stores would have seen their income drop by a third. It would've been a ripple effect."
It was an important lesson in how taut the web that locks publishers, distribution, and specialty shops together in the comic book world had become.
The industry beat the odds, however, through a combination of savvy marketing, the recruitment of noted novelists and television writers, and a steady stream of blockbuster summer movies like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman Begins. The upcoming Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight will certainly keep the characters in the public eye.
In that marketing push, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has proved to be a dynamo of industry (and self) promotion, launching one mega-event after another in the Marvel Universe, making a string of appearances on The Colbert Report and even bequeathing the shield of Captain America to Stephen Colbert after the death of the superhero icon.
Though the industry is currently chugging along with a good bit of steam under it, the margins are still precariously thin in places.
"Many retailers are cash poor and strapped for operating capital," Drum says. "They will buy just enough books to cover their tried and true subscribers and a few walk-in customers. There's not a lot of extra stock on the shelves. That's not any way to expand an audience."
Despite the popularity of the superhero characters that are their bread and butter, the comic book industry hasn't always found it easy to hold on to monthly readers.
"A lot of people out there have a casual interest in the characters, the movies, and the free comics," says Mayo. "But they don't have enough of an interest to keep coming back for the monthly books." In some circles, traditional monthly comics are called floppies. That's got to sting a little.
"These days, you pay $2.99 for a comic that you'll get 15 minutes of enjoyment out of and usually it's just one chapter of a story," he explains. "Somebody who is used to watching TV for free or going to a movie might feel that the money they are putting in and enjoyment they are getting out of a comic book don't quite measure up."
A variety of alternatives to floppies are already available: inexpensive "just the essentials" paperback reprints, online comics, DVD-ROMs collecting hundreds of issues, and even archival quality editions reserved for the crème de la crème: Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier, Alan Moore's The Watchmen, or Miller's Dark Knight.
Some argue that trade paperbacks, which gather a complete story arc under one cover and are already commanding large sections at major booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million (as well as specialty comic book shops), may well be the future of comic books.
It's an interesting twist to the tale. Though the formats derived from it seem to be doing quite well, the $2.99 monthly 30-odd page comic book (which had been the $1 comic book in the late 1980s, the 50-cent comic book in the very early '80s, the 25-cent comic book in the mid '70s, and the 12 or 10-cent comic book earlier), may actually be nearing its own final crisis.
"We will absolutely see a shift," Mayo says. "The change has already started to happen. The publishers just haven't caught up or just aren't ready to concede the fight."
Regardless of how long the floppies resist being thrust aside by thicker bound or digital competition, there's a steady stream of young blood pouring into the business, ready to contribute creative talent or business acumen to whatever future paths comic books take.
"This is my million dollar dream," says Mike Campbell, who has been owner of Captain's Comics for a year and still describes it as his ideal job. "When the chance to buy this store opened up, I knew I had to take it."
"I love being in the business of comics," he adds. "Actually, collecting comics when I was young taught me a lot about how to take care of things so that they wouldn't lose their value. It taught me how to trade with others and how to save up for what I wanted."
That's the kind of sentiment that artist Jeremy Dale might appreciate. "It was a lot of work, getting those first few art assignments, but having seen so many comics from so many different eras, from the 1930s to present day, I felt I had a good handle on what to look for in my own work."
"From a very young age, I had access to all these adventures and fantasy tales, these great myths," he adds. "That's why I fell in love with the art form in general."
"If you focus on storytelling, put your work out there, and keep bringing new work out, eventually someone is going to notice you. And, along the way, you are going to get better."
Local Free Comic Book Day Events
1209-D Sam Rittenberg Blvd.
On May 3, Free Comic Book Day, look for at least 25-percent discounts on almost every item in the store in addition to the free comics, as well as sketches by guest artist Jeremy Dale and a visit from a certain Dark Knight from Gotham City.
SoundWave Records & Comics
2139 N. Main St, Ste. B
SoundWave will have a table set up at Regal Azalea Square Theatres to make sure everyone knows the story on Iron Man when the film hits the big screen on May 2. The next day is FCBD, so it'll be a busy weekend for SoundWave. "Comic books are how I discovered reading," says owner Greg Woodard. "We're a relatively new store, but we have big plans for comics, including local work."