Escape from reality - Albuquerque Journal

Escape from reality

Erick Munson looks through old records during a recent visit to Astro-Zombies comic book store in Nob Hill. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Fernando Cuevas already has a sackful of comic books, and he’s still browsing through Age of Comics, a store at 3700 Osuna NE.

Rare Spider-Man comics are on display in the Danger Room of the Age of Comics store at 3700 Osuna NE. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

He’s into Batman and Batman-related comics.

“I like the darkness,” he says, explaining his fondness for the Caped Crusader, who first appeared in DC Comics in 1939.

Cuevas, who on this day is wearing a mask emblazoned with the Batman logo, is no kid. He is 43, works for a medical laboratory company, is married and the father of two sons, ages 12 and 3.

He says he spends $80 to $120 a week on comic books.

“But I don’t smoke or drink,” he says. “I give these guys (Age of Comics) my money.”

Cuevas said his sons are also comic book fans.

“My 12-year-old likes (Marvel Comics superhero) Iron Man,” he says. “We are always going back and forth on which is best – Batman or Iron Man. My 3-year-old is into (Marvel’s) the Hulk. He loves smashing things up.”

Look, up on the screen

Comic books have been a factor in American popular culture since the 1930s, but perhaps never before has their reach been so long and their grip so strong.

It goes beyond the comic books into toys, movies and television. A recent listing of the biggest-grossing American movies this year shows that four of the top five – “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” “Black Widow” and “The Eternals” – are based on comic books. That list was compiled before “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was released Dec. 17 (the film brought in $260 million domestically in its opening weekend).

Mark Van-Martin shows off his Joker tattoo while standing in the Danger Room at Age of Comics store, 3700 Osuna NE. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Matt Trujillo, 38, co-owner of Age of Comics, said you can’t underestimate the power of comic book films. He said the buzz is that the just-released Spider-Man film may be the movie that saves theaters, which have struggled to survive the pandemic.

“When we opened in 2013, the Marvel movies that were just coming out (“Thor: The Dark World,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) helped establish us,” he said. “The movies have created a broader audience for comic books. You have people coming in for ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ comics.”

Greg Trujillo, 52, Matt’s brother and co-owner of Age of Comics, said not just the movies but also comic book TV series are a driving force in the business.

“Hawkeye,” a series featuring the Marvel Comics’ master archer of that name, made its debut on streaming service Disney+ in November. Other comic book-inspired TV series include “The Boys,” “The Umbrella Academy,” “Invincible,” “Locke & Key” and “Loki,” the latter about Marvel superhero Thor’s adopted brother, the Norse god of mischief. Comic book readers and/or collectors range in age from 5 or 6 to senior citizens.

“Our biggest demographic is mid-30s,” Matt Trujillo said. “Seventy-five percent are male. People collect for different reasons. Some people collect just for the cover. It’s the art. Some people collect for the stories. Who is Batman fighting now?”

He said the average customer will spend $40 to $60 during a visit to the store, but there are a few who will spend $200 a week. “He just spent $300,” Matt said, gesturing to a middle-aged man, a store regular, who is leaving with a collection of Batman and Catwoman comics.

The Age of Comics store at 3700 Osuna NE is packed floor to ceiling with comic books and other popular items. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Good guys

Scott Micheel, who is in his 50s, started reading comic books when he was 8 or 9. DC’s Superboy and The Legion of Super-Heroes were favorites.

Now he is a longtime employee of Comic Warehouse, 9617 Menaul NE, one of New Mexico’s most senior comic book stores.

“They have been publishing comic books forever,” he said. “Action Comics #1 (which introduced DC’s Superman) came out in 1938. This is the 60th anniversary of (Marvel’s) Fantastic Four. But it’s only been the past few years that the movies have made an impact.”

He said sometimes movies introduce people to comic book characters and sometimes the films remind people of comic book heroes they enjoyed reading about when they were young.

“They go see the movies and say ‘Oh yeah. That’s so cool,’ and they come in and start looking for things they grew up with.”

Micheel said there are some people today who are more collectors and investors than they are comic book readers. Fans who love the books for the art and the stories refer to this other breed as speculators.

“If they know a character is going to be introduced in a movie, they start buying up early comics with that character,” Micheel said of speculators. “Comics are meant to be read, but there are some people who just want to get that perfect copy.”

And for good reason. Comic books that originally sold for 10, 12 or 15 cents can go for staggering amounts of money if they are in pristine condition. Just this year, a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, in which Spider-Man made his first appearance, sold for $3.6 million, and an issue of Action Comics #1 went for $3.25 million.

But for people such as Micheel, comic books are valuable for another reason. “Comic book stories have been more nuanced in the last few years, but there is still a good guy-bad guy theme going on and that helps,” he said. Especially in today’s complex and challenging times.

“There is a clear view of what’s right and wrong,” Micheel said. “And usually the good guy wins.”

“People still love the good guy beating the bad guy,” says Lobo Comic & Toys manager Mia Sanchez. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Strong women

Mia Sanchez agrees with Micheel.

“People still love the good guy beating the bad guy,” she said. “It’s still very popular.”

Even so, Sanchez said her forte is DC Comics villains. Her favorites are Harley Quinn, a twisted former psychiatrist and one-time love interest of Batman archrival the Joker, and the Scarecrow, another of Batman’s major enemies.

“Harley is trending more from a villain to a hero,” she said. “Personally, I like her more as villain. But she’s good as a hero, too.”

Sanchez, 23, is a manager at Lobo Comics & Toys, 1016 Juan Tabo NE. She said comic book fans are still mostly male, and she has noticed that when people in the store need help they usually seek out her male colleagues.

But she has also noticed more girls coming into the store. She thinks that may be due to the role women play in contemporary comic books.

“I think female characters are definitely stronger today,” she said. “Batgirl has become a more forceful character.”

Sanchez started reading “lots of DC Comics” when she was 9, attracted to the comics culture by the artwork in books featuring Harley Quinn and also by the animated Batman TV series.

She said DC Comics outsells Marvel at Lobo.

“DC actually sticks to its story lines better,” she said.

“Marvel tends to start a lot more story arcs. DC is more straightforward.”

Red Planet Books & Comics, 1002 Park Ave SW, carries a large number of titles by and about Native Americans. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Making a move

Red Planet Books & Comics, 1002 Park SW, sells books, poetry and an array of comics titles, but is best known for its comics featuring Native American characters.

Store founder and owner Lee Francis IV, who is of Laguna Pueblo descent, publishes, distributes and even writes and designs Native American-themed comic books.

At Red Planet, you may find X-Men and Wonder Woman comics, but you’ll also find titles such as “Deer Woman,” “Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers,” “Ghost River” and “Native Entrepreneurs,” the latter two written by Francis.

“Our biggest sellers are our Native-focused comics,” said store employee Adrian Pilgrim, 32. Pilgrim is not Native American but he is Black, so he has some opinions about how minorities are represented in comic books.

“Under represented,” he said, “but trending toward more representation.”

As a kid, Pilgrim read Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers comics. “And I was definitely a Black Panther fan,” he said. “I was looking for someone who looked like me.”

Black Panther, considered the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, was created by Marvel in 1966, but exploded into worldwide prominence in the 2018 movie, which was nominated for seven Oscars and won three.

Pilgrim finds more encouragement in Marvel’s new Voices series, which includes “Indigenous Voices,” Native American writers and artists teaming up to tell stories about indigenous characters; “Marvel’s Voices: Legacy,” in which Black heroes take center stage; “Marvel’s Voices: Pride,” featuring LGBTQ characters such as Mystique, Iceman and Karma; and “Marvel’s Voices: Identity,” showcasing Asian heroes such as Shang-Chi.

On top of that, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” is slated to appear in movie theaters on Nov. 11.

Red Planet Books & Comics sells books, poetry and an array of comics titles, but is best known for its comics featuring Native American characters. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

‘It’s in comics’

Chris Losack, 45, manager of Astro-Zombies, 3100 Central SE in Nob Hill, said comic book movies are not new.

There’s nothing new about movies based on comic book characters, says Astro-Zombies manager Chris Losack. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

He’s right. “The Batman,” a 15-chapter movie serial, was released in 1943, and “Batman and Robin,” also a 15-part serial, came out in 1949. “Superman and the Mole Men,” the first feature film about a DC Comics character, debuted in 1951.

But those efforts were pretty crude.

“The difference now is the movies are finally able to make the Fantastic Four (characters) look like they can stretch or send fire from their hands and make Wolverine look like claws are coming out of his hands,” Losack said. “Now, movies can make these things look realistic.”

Losack, who is wearing a Darth Vader mask, said Astro-Zombies has been in business for 22 years. He has been working at the store for four years, and he claims to have been the Astro-Zombies’ first customer. Marvel’s Wolverine is his favorite comics character.

He said there’s no doubt that comic book movies and TV series have propelled the popularity of comic books, but he said that recently the pandemic helped as well.

“At the beginning of the year, we were super busy because people were not working and had stimulus money to spend,” Losack said. “People got stuck in their homes and started thinking, ‘What was I into before life sucked it away. I liked action figures. I liked to make models. I liked to read comics.'”

About that time, a tall man in his 60s comes into the store looking for action figures, specifically one representing the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch.

And then a young woman, late teens or early 20s, asks Losack if he has any “Walking Dead” stuff. He shows her both toys and books.

The popular TV show started off as a comic book series published by Image Comics.

“Comics have everything – superheroes, horror, science fiction,” Losack said. “It’s fiction, escapism. You want to escape reality, read about danger without experiencing danger.”

Editor’s note: A caption for a photo that ran with this story was corrected to reflect that Chris Losack is the manager of Astro-Zombies.

A gem for collectors, Astro-Zombies comic book store is located at 3100 Central SE, in the heart of Nob Hill. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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