The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

By Nancy Powell

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Posted July 21, 2011 in Feature Story

There was a time when many thought that comic books would get kicked to the gutter the way LP records, 8-track and cassette tapes had been. After the many times that Superman and Batman died heroic deaths only to return, the fact was that with the arrival of the 1990s and early 2000s, super heroes seemed destined for early graves because of declining comic book sales and poor writing. Slowly but surely, the veil of death lifted, the grim reaper’s grip loosened and a new age of superheroes was born. Blame Sam Raimi, if you will, or even Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Fact is, comics are here to stay. Permanently.

The Return of Geek Culture

“It’s popular to be a ‘geek,’” says Tim Samra of Super Bad Action Figures, the new 4,000-square-foot store in downtown Redlands that opened in June. “Geek is a mainstream thing.”

While stores were closing left and right in the Inland Empire, a select few who kept the faith thrived. Here lies Tim Samra’s store, a museum-like emporium that pays homage to the Inland Empire comic book geek; Four Color Fantasies in Rancho Cucamonga, whose three-year staging of “Free Comics Day” succeeded in drawing more than 2,000 people for the one-day event; and finally, there is Comics Quest’s Jason Washburn, who has witnessed a renewed interest in indie-driven comics in recent years.

“I’ve been at the store for seven, close to eight years,” says Washburn. “Comics have always had a hard following. It evolves. For a long time, we had mainstay customers who were in their 50s. We’ve now switched to college-aged [customers] in the 20 to 25 year-old base, so we’ve had resurgence in that fashion. We see a younger audience coming up, and right now, it’s a lot of the indie comics.”

A New Movement

At the center of the Inland Empire comics explosion sits A.J. Herrera, creator and writer of indie books Zombie Kill Squad, Security and The Hotel, president and owner of the independent comics publishing company Forbidden Panel and founder of the Inland Empire Comics Expo.

“I’ve been a huge fan of comic books my entire life,” recalls Herrera on a breezy Sunday afternoon. “About six years ago, I got burnt out on reading and re-reading story lines of the same stuff, so I decided to start my own comic book company and write comic books that were different from the mainstream.”

Thus, the seeds of Forbidden Panel sprang forth, spawned from discontent and disillusionment with the industry and genre. Herrera became a local celebrity of sorts to the writers and artists living in the community. His company provided a much needed forum and platform for those whose voices had been silenced by industry suits and the death of recycled and stale characters. Forbidden Panel became the sanctuary and savior for many who sought to earn a living creating geek fantasies and with this new infusion of local talent, the Inland Empire has become a hotbed of comic book activity. The upbeat, believes Washburn, lies with the renewed interest in author-driven stories.

“Indie fans are one the rise,” says Washburn. “Authors and illustrators are writing personal stories that relate to a new audience, or author-illustrators are doing something off the beaten path—like Scott Pilgrim. There is an author-illustrator trend right now that brings in a younger, fresher audience.”

Herrera, who grew up immersing himself in such horror greats like Stephen King and quintessential comic books genius Chris Claremont, does what any good father does. He spends his waking hours marketing, promoting and organizing the local talent pool he has curried.

“Nobody locally knows about the talent that surrounds the area, which is sad,” says Herrera. “We need to start locally in order to enhance our exposure and show neighbors that ‘Hey, I’m a comic book writer and creator.’ If we can’t be successful in our hometown, how can we be successful elsewhere?”

What’s a Con without the Comic?

Back in the day, before BlizzCon showed up on Anaheim’s hallowed halls or the Long Beach backwaters, the San Diego Comic-Con ruled as king of all pop culture cons west of the Mississippi. However, recent years has seen an emphasis shift from what its progenitors originally spawned, and more into a Hollywood blockbuster and red-carpet spectacle. Where comic book vendors and artists used to walk, there were now toy companies, gaming companies and film studios taking up center stage and relegating the writers and artists to a less frequented corner of the exhibit hall, the reaches afforded to X-rated books and memorabilia. It is a marginalization most longtime attendees of Con have been loath to accept.

“Last year at Comic-Con, I found some amazing artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarland, Crystal McCage, who were put off in a random corner,” recalls Herrera.

Samra agrees, noting that Hollywood has taken over the San Diego Comic-Con and turned it into more of a technical show with big screens, movies, loud booming music and little of the industry footprints that spurred its growth.

“Honestly, it’s not the same show that it used to be, and I think everybody agrees on that,” says Samra. “It’s become an entertainment show and less of a comics show. As far as how this show has an impact, what’s missing in the Con altogether is the ‘comic’ part of it. We’re missing the ‘Comics’ in ‘Comic-Con.’ We’ve got lots of cons—lots of working guy cons, lots of merchandising cons, lots of film, TV and movies cons . . . It used to be a really cool mix of everything—really good, healthy amount of pop culture in one good show, and it’s not really that anymore.”

If You Build It, They Will Come

Because ticket prices and availability locked many Inland Empire denizens out from attending, Herrera decided that the time was ripe to create a venue closer to home, a venue that would support local talent and take the Hollywood brouhaha out of a true comics convention. On Feb. 4, the Inland Empire’s first comic convention rolled into the Redlands’ Fox Event Center. It included booths set up by vendors, artists, publishing companies, costume fetishists and others. Appearances were made by John Narcomey (GhostFace); Javier Hernandez, whose El Muerto is being translated into the big screen starring Wilmer Valderrama; Jeff Campbell and Wes Huffer, whose artwork graced the home of Edgar Allen Poe. Merchandising was restricted to two local companies—Super Bad Action Figures being one of those.

“What A.J. is trying to do with the Inland Empire Comics Expo is put more of the art and artistry of comics into the show,” says Samra. “He got all these different comics [artists] together and sold the show to people. He’s getting way more interested vendors and artists-illustrators next time more than this time. The area is dying for something like this, a geek super show. And with the growth of the Inland Empire, A.J. is thinking about doing two shows a year to promote indies. Artists appreciate the quality of what the show is.”

However, not everyone has felt positively about the success of the Inland Empire’s fledgling enterprise. Washburn, for one, doesn’t feel the talent pool or monetary resources exist to sustain such a following.

“[The Expo] needs a name,” says Washburn. “You[‘ve] got to have money to bring in artists or authors. I don’t see that happening in the IE. At the same time, you have the big conventions in Anaheim, Long Beach, as well as the San Diego Comic-Con. It’s almost next to impossible to compete with the Comic-Con.”

Samra disagrees with Washburn’s opinion about the significance of the Comic-Con. He believes other cons will supplant the importance of the San Diego event, citing the tight-knit closeness of the art community and their desire to get their work shown.

“Unless Comic-Con shifts gears, a lot of independent shows will get bigger. It’s whatever pleases fans.”

The Future Is Now

Talk to any one of these individuals two years ago—Samra, Washburn or Herrera—and they might have told you that comics were on the down cycle. Now, they feel more hopeful with the recent influx of comic book blockbuster movies creating demand in action figures and collectibles, and renewed interest in the books themselves. While traditional books have found a welcoming audience digitally with the birth of Nooks and Kindles, print comics, they believe, will never go out of vogue.

“I rely on the fact that fans cannot interact with their favorite creators, writers, artists or whatnot, unless they can hold it,” says Herrera. “They still love the feeling of print between their hands, of going to the conventions with those books and meeting with their favorite creators and artists who sign books or do sketches. That will help print stay.”

Samra agrees, describing that the magic of actually holding a comic and flipping through its pages makes the experience unique. The color of the pages, the smell of newsprint, it was what comics were meant to be. However, for the comic book to succeed in the future requires invention, creativity, and the staying power of characters. Comic books need to remain fresh in order to bring in new audiences; and to stay fresh, creators need to have faith in their creations.

“There are only so many times Spider-Man or Batman can be killed and come back. The big companies need to start creating new characters and change what they’re writing and putting out,” says Herrera. “We need to stick with story lines that they create and bring something new to the table. Otherwise, it’s just going be to the same stale stuff over and over and over again.”

Best places to play card tournaments:

Gameology

9742 Central Ave., Montclair, (909) 626-6926; www.gameologyshop.com.

IE Comic and Games

310 East Florida Ave., Hemet,(951) 223-1903; www.hemetcomics.com.

Ryan’s Comics

25021 Madison Ave.,  #101, Murrieta, (951) 696-0088; www.ryanscomicshop.com.

Sky High Comics

27517 Jefferson Ave., Temecula, (951) 699-1125; www.skyhighcomics.com.

Best place to find a variety of collectibles:

Comic Castle USA

5145 Jurupa Ave., Ste. G-2, Riverside, (951) 686-5137; www.facebook.com/people/Comic-Castle-Usa/100000975068377.

Frank and Sons Collectible Show

19649 San Jose Ave., City of Industry, (909) 444-7955; frankandsonshow.net.

Best place to celebrate events by dressing up:

4 Color Fantasies

7172 Archibald Ave., Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 563-8751; www.4colorfantasies.com.

Best place to find a large selection of trade paperbacks and hardback compilations:

Comic Quest

5 E. Citrus Ave., Ste. 101 , Redlands, (909)798-1262; www.ashopcalledquest.com.

Best place with a friendly and helpful staff:

Player’s Comics and Cards/Player’s Dugout

11875 Pigeon Pass Rd., Moreno Valley, (951) 242-4167.

9428 Magnolia Ave., Riverside, (951) 359-7200.

Comic Madness

12345 Mountain Ave., Ste. J, Chino, (909) 590-5949.

New Age Comics

1520 N. Mountain Ave., Suite 114, Ontario, (909) 988-5888; www.nacpow.com.

Best place to find a massive selection of old comics from gold, silver and bronze age:

Bunky Brothers Vintage Comics, Toys and Collectibles

9155 Archibald Ave., Ste. D, Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 941-6402; bunkybrothers.com.

Best hobby shops:

Just Imagine

827 N. China Lake Blvd., Ridgecrest, (760) 371-3031.

Pegasus Hobbies

5515 Moreno St., Montclair, (909) 982-6507; pegasushobbies.net.

Best place with multiple events for every day of the week:

Thou Shalt Game Entertainment

27134 Jefferson Ave. #9, Temecula, (951) 296-2266; www.thoushaltgame.com.

Best place for selections of anime and manga titles:

JS Anime

2563-B Chino Hills Pkwy., Chino Hills, (909) 597-7654; site.jsanime.biz/index.html.

By Ashley Bennett


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