In the summer of 2002, outside theaters across the country, lines were formed, costumes were donned and nerdgasms were had: This was the Summer of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the impossible dream of two decades come to life that would birth the comic-to-film renaissance. Ironically, while the film soared to instant success, the comic-book industry itself was flailing, caught in a downward spiral of failure brought on by years of mismanagement and exploitation. As publishers closed their doors, a new era of fan rose from the ashes like Jean “Phoenix” Grey, craving quality, witty material over sensationalized alternate covers. Enter George Chase: writer, owner, visionary, knowledgeable salesman and, possibly, Batman.
Chase is the owner of Hypno Comics, quite literally a hole-in-the-wall shop tucked in the back of Movietown in midtown Ventura. Two months ago, Chase opened up the Mecca of indie comics after Oxnard’s Michael’s Comics shut its doors, leaving regulars and the glut of newly formed nerds few choices in the county to fulfill their needs.
“People shouldn’t have to drive to L.A. to get comics. We should have a wonderful shop here,” said Chase.
Standing behind his glass-top counter filled with rare variants and first editions, Chase blends into the multicolored walls lined with a traditional assortment of Batman, Superman and X-Men alongside indie titles The Walking Dead and The Scam, a comic only 21 other stores in the U.S. happen to carry. Accompanied by an eclectic collection of action figures and board games, Hypno Comics is a fan’s treasure trove.
“We still carry your traditional titles, but we also reach out and carry the indie titles you can’t find elsewhere.”
Chase wasn’t born of this decade’s new wave of comic fans. Long before Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi, before opportunistic teens threw on thick-rimmed glasses and “I <3 Nerds” T-shirts, Chase was getting his hands dirty in the seedy underbelly of the comic-book industry of the ’90s, which is the subject of his own published indie title with artist Lance Sawyer, Comic Book Junkie.
In Comic Book Junkie, three speculators take advantage of roving fanboys eager to pick up “rare” and “limited”-edition comic books at enormous markups. Humorous, violent and witty, Comic Book Junkie reflects a world from which the comic-book bust of the late ’90s and early 2000s emerged.
Like the housing crisis, major publishers of the ’90s such as Marvel and DC, as well as their independent counterparts, “speculated” on the value of comics with alternate covers, “special editions” (Superman’s wedding in four parts, four varying covers for each!) and the willingness of the comic-book nerd to pay for them, a practice that made some comic-shop owners very wealthy, very quickly — until the bubble burst, leaving many dealers with difficult choices to make. Shops were left with an enormous stock of books that once had the potential to put sons and daughters through college, now worth less than the paper they were printed on.
Chase battled against the tides of history to remain buoyant, taking on a sales position and other odd jobs to keep from going under. After several years and several successful film and television adaptations pushed comic book mainstays like Batman and The Avengers back into super-popularity, Chase saw his opportunity.
“It’s perfect right now. Geeks run the Earth,” said Chase. “With The Big Bang Theory, things like Doctor Who and The Walking Dead being as popular as they are, things are being pushed into the mainstream. The product is higher-quality because the people are watching their money and they’re not just going to blow it on crappy stories.”
Though technology has made it easier for any human to write and publish his or her own comic via the Internet, it still requires super-human talent and determination to get it into print and noticed by the fan-at-large. Artist Alley, as it’s colloquially known, where once the shunned artists promoting their own titles were corralled, has now become one of the most well-traveled spots in any convention, requiring artists like Chase to raise the bar in order to be noticed.
“It isn’t easier to create, but it is easier to market,” he said.
As the market turned and dealers saw the dawn at the end of their personal Long Halloween, stigmas that followed the lowly comic-book fan like parents, from a theater into a darkened alley, were shot down by a stranger known only as popularity. At the turn of the century, being a nerd wasn’t the status symbol that it has become in the decade since the crisis.
Proof of the turnaround can be seen on every channel and at every convention, where attendance has skyrocketed. Passes to San Diego’s state-of-the-industry-reflecting Comic-Con 2012 sold out in less than an hour online. Boys and girls of all ages (and aesthetics) don superhero costumes and aren’t ashamed to leave their hom. Nerds have inherited the Earth.
“I think it has a lot to do with things being cyclical,” said Chase. “These big things are bringing in people, and once you start talking to them you can recommend other things they may not have heard of.”
Unlike the protagonists (or antagonists) of his Comic Book Junkie, Chase is the antithesis of the ’90s in-it-for-the-gold proprietor. Rather, he sees his shop as an opportunity not only to sell comics, but to be offered up as a second home for veteran and rookie fans of all things nerd. Thursday nights see fans of collectible card games gather for mock tournaments, while events pulling comedians and actors from Los Angeles are being planned for the future.
“We don’t want it to be a comic-book store, we want it to be a comic-book experience.”
For a calendar of events and details on upcoming releases, visit www.hypnocomics.com.