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Funny Books

Comic books are not just for kids anymore; they're crossing over and tackling literary territory.

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Patrick Godfrey and Russell Paulette, comic-book aficionados and employees of Grace Street Comix, nod in agreement. "What's strange is that America is the only place in the world where comics have this stigma attached," Godfrey says. "In Europe and in Japan they are celebrated as an art form. It's really ironic because comic books were started in America."

Still, I was a little incredulous. I mean, come on: Archie and Veronica? Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost? Kid stuff for sure. But take a closer look at comic books today and you'll see another story. It all started with a string of graphic novels in the mid-'80s that awakened critics to the genre's potential; none of these had "kiddie" plots. "Maus: A Survivor's Story" by Art Spiegelman, a story of the Holocaust, won a Pulitzer Prize. More recently Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth," the story of a man who reunites with the father who abandoned him as a child, won the American Book Award.

"Graphic novels are the books that are really selling well today," Paulette, who also works at Carytown Books, explains.

The writers of more traditional comics followed the graphic novel's lead. Superheroes are now presented as troubled people filled with the same flaws and doubts that plague the protagonists of more traditional literature. "The Incredible Hulk" is no longer just about a rampaging monster. Instead, the story line follows the nearly postmodern theme of a man desperate to come to grips with a life shattered by a violent and uncontrollable alter ego. The writing and the art in the book make Bruce Banner's constant struggle seem more Kafkaesque than the comic books that used to be swapped at the playground. The writers have essentially broken down the old superhero ideal and replaced it with a human element to which everyone can relate.

"There is a shifting away from simplistic superhero stories," Godfrey says. "They are deconstructing the whole superhero thing and seeing what makes it tick. Superheroes aren't just paragons of good. They are actual people with actual motivations."

Essentially, as the comic book industry reinvents itself, it has become more attractive to new readers. In doing so, comic books have become a hip, new cutting-edge art form. "There is something of a countercultural credential to comics now," Godfrey says. "On college campuses today, comics are seen as something that is not only acceptable but cool."

Besides the story lines, the presentation of comic books is geared towards a wider audience. The days of the old newspaper print pages are over. Comics today are often printed on the same heavy, slick paper as Vogue and Vanity Fair. The effect is visually stunning, allowing the art to leap off the pages at the reader. Additionally, the covers mimic a magazine format with a solid color backdrop showing one figure standing prominently in the foreground.

But what about the Comic Book Guy portrayed in the Simpsons? Aren't there people like that out there? "Those guys are what we call speculators," Aiken says. "Speculators are into collecting comics as a kind of investment." These people buy new comics and try to guess about what comics will be hard to find in the future. Basically what they buy depends upon what they hope it will be worth. The investment of the true comic book fan is not one of money but of time; the payoff is in the entertainment.

"People hoard stuff and try to play it like the stock market," Godfrey says. "I think you should look at comics not as a commodity but an art form."

As we talked, the new shipment of comics came in and a kind of electricity seemed to ignite the shop. Everyone started unloading the stacks of crisp new issues, pulling the brightly colored books from the brown cardboard boxes. Suddenly I realized I wasn't in a comic book shop at all. I was in a museum and there weren't any kids in sight. S



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