People in the 1950s thought they caused juvenile delinquency, but local comic book writers and artists think that you really gotta get your audience hooked while they're young.
"I grew up with Dell Comics and Gold Key - that stuff was everywhere. You could buy that in any pharmacy, mom and pop stores ... We'd steal them like crazy," said Chris Yambar, a Youngstown artist and writer of Bart Simpson Comics.
With Free Comic Book Day coming up on May 2, Valley-area funnybook creators talked about what fed into their love of the comic medium, what they try bringing to their readers and where the comic book industry could be a few years from now.
Tribune Chronicle photos by Bill Rodgers
Peter Smith flips through his pencil drawings. Smith did pencils for ‘‘Government Bodies,’’ which was published by Across The Pond studios.
When Peter Smith, a pencil artist, comic convention organizer and former character illustration professor, was in a Catholic elementary school, a teacher asked him what his favorite pet would be.
So he thought of the coolest animal any red-blooded gradeschooler would be proud to have: a shark.
One parent-teacher conference later, his mother told Peter that his teacher thought he had an overactive imagination which needed to be taken down a few notches.
On Free Comic Book Day, people can visit participating comic shops on May 2 to
receive their choice of a free, special edition comic. All American Cards and Comics at Warren's Courthouse Square is the local shop participating in the nationwide giveaway.
His mother apparently thought that attitude needed to be nipped in the bud - the teacher's attitude, not her son's. Peter came home one day to find a tank of catfish that looked like sharks.
"My parents were kinda hippies. They never told me I couldn't do something," Smith said.
That little subversion from his mom helped open the door for his eventual career as a freelance artist who often uses comics as a medium, he said.
From his desk in the basement of his Austintown home, which is surrounded by shelf after shelf of action figures, Smith works on a mish-mash of artistic projects. A few years ago, he did the pencil artwork for ''Government Bodies,'' a series of comics by Across The Pond comics which has since ended its run.
Today, he organizes the Screaming Tiki Comic and Pop Culture Conventions. He has a Screaming Tiki con scheduled for Cleveland this summer and another con scheduled for November, where he plans to unveil in a mini-series he's been working on called "Valkyrie," a self-published fantasy comic in which angels fight it out with vampires.
Smith interned at Marvel Comics' Manhattan office in the 1990s and taught character illustration at Youngstown State University, and though he's one of Stan Lee's true believers, he also really believes in comics as an artistic medium. Movies, he said, could be limited in what they show by their special effects budgets, but comics give the artist the opportunity to tell a story the exact way it appears in his or her head.
It's an appreciation he's trying to pass down to his own children, particularly Alex, 4. Alex can name nearly any comic book action figure on his dad's shelf and rattle off their backstory, but comes up short when he tries to name the main characters on "Sesame Street."
Smith has been using the capes on the action figures to teach Alex about colors. Alex also occasionally grabs a few of his dad's comics and pretends to read them.
If he worries about the safety of the comics industry, it's because Smith believes it's leaving behind little kids like his son. At about $4 an issue, comics are outpricing what a young kid gets for an allowance, he said. He also worries that comics are becoming more adult-oriented.
"They need to start including kids more or they'll lose a big part of their audience," Smith said.
Will Pfeifer writes a little more mainstream fare. Pfeifer, originally from Niles, interned at the Tribune Chronicle after he graduated from Niles McKinley High School in 1985. But before he went to school for journalism, he was a kid photocopying issues of his homemade comics.
Today, he's writing story arcs for DC comics such as Catwoman, Aquaman and Captain Atom. A self-described pop culture junkie, Pfeifer said he always loved writing for quirky supporting characters. He described his dream project as writing for Superman's bowtie-wearing buddy from the Daily Planet.
"OK, this one sounds goofy, but I've always been a big fan of Jimmy Olsen. He had his own title for the longest time with the strangest oddball stories," Pfeifer said.
A quick search on the Internet for Jimmy Olsen comic book covers show the brylcremed redhead having his brain switched with a gorilla's, spontaneously sprouting quills from his skin and getting forced into marrying what appears to be a different gorilla. And for someone who claims to be Superman's best pal, there are many covers depicting Olsen fighting Superman or torturing him with kryptonite.
Writing for a character as twisted as Olsen probably would be less tricky than writing a straight-up Batman or Superman story, according to Pfeifer. Stories about the big guys have to go through a rough editorial review, and mountains of material have been written about them since the 1940s, he said.
"It's just that these characters have been around for so long, you almost have to pick and choose what you pay attention to and what you ignore. The fans, God bless them, will be around to call you on it," he said.
How writers like Pfeifer get their product to the fans could change in the next decade. He thinks companies may focus more of their money and attention on flagship titles.
"I'd hate to see the little, 22-page monthly comic go. It's what I grew up with, and they're a lot of fun to read," he said.
Yambar, who will spend Free Comic Book Day signing copies of Bart Simpson Comics and doing standup in Rochester, N.Y., said the comics business was hurt by what he called the "sports card mentality" of the 1990s. Comics companies caused a bit of an investment craze among collectors by doing stunts like issuing first-edition and zero-edition comic books, or using glitzy foil covers as a lure to get people to buy comics for hoarding rather than reading.
"We had our own Ponzi scheme with the ''Death of Superman'' (series). Come on. There was no way they were really killing him off," Yambar said.
Yambar hopes to branch out from comics in the future by bringing some of his cartoons to animation studios. For example, he plans on pitching a cartoon for Spells, a comic about adorably murderous witches, to networks in a few months.
As for the future of comics as a whole, Yambar can see a future in which people pay a couple dollars for a one-time download of their favorite comic titles, similar to how people buy music online. He also said there may be a market for printers who do very small runs of comics, which could hit niche readers.
But all seemed optimistic that the artform itself will be sticking around.
"Comics are always going to be here," Smith said.
And they'll have an audience full of people like Alex, who pulls his dad's action figures from the shelf and acts out his own superhero adventures.