Craig Cotton, owner of Book Review in Rochester, always looks forward to coming into work on Wednesdays. He knows there will be a spirited gathering, usually over the lunch hour, as a dedicated group of his customers descends on the store for their weekly holiday: new comic release day.
“I’ve got a very loyal fan base and they’re a great group of people,” Cotton said. “It’s a blast listening to the back and forth of people who are passionate about comics.”
Cotton’s store is one of several gathering spots in southern Minnesota for dedicated fans or casual readers who wade into an ever-expanding world of storytelling and art.
“The range of people is huge. From the 7-year-old who loves to read about Supergirl, to the 70-year-old who loves to read war story comics,” said Gilbert Johnson, owner of The Chapel Comics and Collectibles Shop in Albert Lea. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people that love comics here (in southern Minnesota.)”
A constantly shifting universe
Comic book readers in southern Minnesota interact with an artistic medium that has spanned decades and the globe. Many credit the publishing of the first Superman issue in 1938 as the start of a golden era of comics, which took off throughout World War II and into the following decade (Let’s face it: Nazis make for damn good villains.) The history of comics has ebbed and flowed since then, but in recent years is trending toward a resurgence, with June 2016 representing a high point in more than two decades for sales, according to the Washington Post.
John Meixner, owner of Little Professor Book Center in Owatonna, said part of that is due to the huge growth of popularity and cultural awareness of comic book characters through movies, which have seen a major boom in both production and popularity in recent years.
“There’s a lot more casual people who are aware of who the characters are from seeing the movies, or just the trailers for the movies,” Meixner added. “There are a lot of people who know who Wolverine is by seeing him from the movies. Netflix stories like Daredevil, Punisher, there’s these little niches that have grown for all kinds of characters.”
Beyond the draw of name recognition, comics have also benefited from an increasingly diverse and wide range of people making them and in the societal issues they depict, as well as improved technical skill and production value.
“The sophistication has absolutely gone up. They tackle a lot of different social issues, segregation, gay rights, different diseases. If it’s something that society talks about, someone will put it in a comic book,” Meixner said.
The ability to adapt to discuss current issues is a defining and appealing trait to comics, Johnson said.
“We have to be able to change … and touch different things that happen now, new issues, new ideas, new problems. They have to be able to be tackled. Without the characters evolving we couldn’t do that; the problems of the 40s and 50s are not the problems of today,” he said.
“I think that’s hindered what people think about comics, that they don’t realize that kind of (social commentary),” Cotton added. “Supergirl, they’re coming out with a Muslim superhero girl. That’s a current issue that’s being touched in comics that some people won’t even realize is there; we need to see that part of it. They really are touching on current issues.”
Especially with the growth of independent options for publishing, both physically and digitally, the range of people producing comics has never been wider, which has led to a wider range of options for readers.
“The change in readership, we’re seeing a much more diverse group than there ever used to be. And we’re seeing that in character development and story lines. Story lines have gotten much more complicated, deal more with issues that are going on in real life that people can relate to. It’s no longer, ‘a nuclear blast gives me super powers and evil aliens are coming down to take over our planet,’” Cotton said. “You see with new people coming into the market, new readers, they want new stories. They want something they can relate to, not something that’s been the same for the last 60 years. You walk that fine line between trying to keep the current readership that’s been around for years happy, and trying to build a new market. It’s not always an easy job to juggle.”
With adaptations and stories of the same character always shifting, there’s a bit of a double-edged sword for the appeal of comics: Some people enjoy the ever-evolving world, while some get frustrated with keeping up or going through periods of lesser quality than previous adaptations of a character.
“Like any type of written word, you have peaks and valleys with storytelling,” Cotton said. “With comics more so with novels, you have creative teams that come and go all the time. You may like how one person writes the character and someone else comes in and you don’t.”
An ever-growing community
Comics, like many things in our society, have also seen a shift in the thinking surrounding what was traditionally written off as “nerd culture.” The pervasiveness of its characters through movies and other mediums has helped redefine some of the stereotypes associated with reading comics.
“It has been pigeon holed through the ages, and it’s opening up a little more. As people experience things and see what comics can do, it changes their ideas,” Johnson said. “You grow up, you read comics, you’re a nerd. It’s touching more and more people now and you don’t have that as much.”
“Do I want to say it’s cool to be a nerd?” Cotton added. “In the past there was that element of being shunned, being the kid in high school who played (Dungeons and Dragons), you’re a social outcast. Now things like (comics) are so socially accepted and widespread, it’s not a big deal any more.”
A direct product of that has been the growth of places to gather around comics, whether online or in physical places like stores or conventions. The latter of those is increasing in number by at least one this year in Minnesota: Johnson is in the midst of finalizing plans for the first ChapelCon comic gathering, which is scheduled for July 22-23 in Albert Lea and will feature many celebrities from the comics world. Opportunities like that, along with those weekly release days that see people gathering to get their hands on the latest issues, offer the chance to come together with people who are passionate about comics, which has long been part of the appeal in southern Minnesota and everywhere.
“I see people that have connected that never would have, because they’re from different walks of life. This is where they have a chance to meet up and connect with someone,” Cotton said. “It’s amazing how conversations turn to current affairs and life in general. The nice thing is once you get to know people you don’t just have to talk about the same thing. It broadens everyone’s knowledge and growth as a person. It’s hard enough to meet people in this world as it is, and you’ve got a common thread that you can bond over, share stuff and grow.”
“There’s something about being in the presence of someone else who’s passionate about what you are. It builds a connection that can’t be broken,” Johnson added. “My regular customers don’t come in just to look at comics; they come in to talk. It builds a bigger community, and a stronger one.”
For those interested in exploring more about comics, the first Saturday of every May is Free Comic Book Day across the country. Find out more information at www.freecomicbookday.com.
Jordan Osterman is a Twin Cities based freelance writer with deep ties to Southern Minnesota. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org