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Comic book scene in Las Vegas is flourishing

All morning, excited people stream in to gather free comic books. In the back of the store, patrons huddle by a table as comics are signed by their creators. A few fans dressed as comic book characters mingle with civilians in comic logo-laden T-shirts, while others huddle in conversation or stalk the racks in search of new finds.

At Alternate Reality Comics, Free Comic Book Day — for comic fans, the next best thing to Christmas morning — really does look like an alternate universe, or at least the coolest-slash-geekiest cocktail party ever.

The annual May event is aimed largely at introducing newcomers to an art form they probably haven’t thought about since childhood, and it’s a red-letter day on any comic fan’s calendar. For Southern Nevadans, another red-letter day arrives Saturday when the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival — a free event — runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road.

The events, and others like them, are indicators of a robust comic book culture in Southern Nevada. The valley is home to a surprising number of comic book shops, two of which have been recognized nationally. Three major comic book conventions are held here annually. And fans don’t even have to spend money to pursue their hobby, thanks to ever-increasing numbers of e-book and print comics circulated through the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District.

A vibrant community

Before he moved to Las Vegas in late 2017 to become a lecturer in UNLV’s school of journalism and media studies and pursue a graduate degree at UNLV, Ben Morse spent 10 years with Marvel Entertainment’s new media department. As a lifelong comic book fan and frequenter of comic book shops in New York City, New Jersey and Boston, Morse was concerned that the scene here wouldn’t measure up.

He was pleased to discover three now-favorite shops in his home-to-workplace orbit and a community of fired-up fans. He met shop owners and employees who were fans as well as merchants, impromptu discussions regularly cropped up among store patrons, and he encountered stores in which buying a comic wasn’t a transaction but an interaction.

“Honestly, there was more a sense of community here than there was in New York. New York was just people coming and going,” Morse says. “I think that if you go by pure metrics — how many people are in the stores — yeah, there are more people in New York, but it’s just like finding a comic and leaving. Here, people stopping in, they’re conversing. There’s more discourse here.

“There’s a passion here. Numbers don’t matter. It’s passion.”

Longtime fan Joshua Wilburn considers comic books repositories of homegrown American mythology. “Not only are (comics) well-written, but they’ve been around so long that they have such a rich history,” says Wilburn, who was accompanied on his Free Comic Book Day pilgrimage to Alternate Reality Comics by his daughters.

“A lot of people don’t understand comic books. They think they’re idiot books. But a lot of the stories really touch on things going on right now. There are stories that talk about the politics going on, homelessness, border problems. A lot of things in our everyday life are incorporated into those stories.”

Comic book fans often point out that comic books aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. Katherine Keller, a comic book critic, blogger and wife of Alternate Reality Comics owner Ralph Mathieu, read comic books as a child but left them behind as she developed other interests. She rediscovered comics by accident in 1991, while working at a bookstore, and began to wonder why “people think these are not good.”

Some adults assume that “comics only could be for small children,” says Keller, who’s also a founder of women’s comic webzine Sequential Tart. “Slowly but surely we’re getting away from that, and I think movies like ‘The Avengers’ are changing people’s minds that, even in superhero comics, we can tell stories that are morally complex.”

John Dolmayan, owner of Torpedo Comics sold comic books online and at conventions for more than 25 years, but resisted opening a store here. “People always said, ‘Don’t open a brick-and-mortar store. Nobody makes money on brick-and-mortar comic stores anymore.’ ”

But Dolmayan took the plunge several years ago. His current shop opened in 2017, and “it’s been a hit since day one,” he says. “It’s been a great community here in Las Vegas, more than I expected, only having 2 million people here.”

It starts with the stores

Southern Nevada is home to about a dozen comic book shops, including two that Travel+Leisure two years ago ranked among the top 25 in the country: Alternate Reality Comics (No. 6) and Maximum Comics (No. 8).

“It definitely starts with the comic stores,” says Jimmy Jay, producer and promoter of the Amazing Las Vegas Comic-Con, which for the past seven years has attracted 30.000 to 35,000 fans.

Jay also produces a comic con in Hawaii and says that, in deciding to produce one here, he took into account the number and diversity of shops here.

“I think you do have this balance of older stores, newer stores, stores that cater to the independent market or the collector’s market. You have a diverse base of retailers,” he says, which has created “an extremely knowledgeable” fan base.

Ralph Mathieu, owner of Alternate Reality Comics for almost 25 years, considers the number of shops here a telling metric. His store, located near the UNLV campus, is a longtime locals’ favorite, equipped with seating that encourages patrons to “lounge around while shopping.” He likens the shop to “a bar for people who don’t drink,” where fans can “talk about their shared passion.”

Steven Riddle has owned Velvet Underground Comics & Collectibles for almost 30 years. Riddle says his store carries about 1,100 ongoing titles, which typically cost $3.99 and up per issue. About 80 percent of the new comics that arrive weekly — 2,740 comic books in one recent week — are presold to a core of 220 regular customers, he says.

Dolmayan estimates that Torpedo Comics has in stock more than 50,000 comics, including high-grade rarities valued at thousands of dollars each. He estimates that the store’s high-end vault contains comics valued at about a half-million dollars, although the 400 regular customers who come in weekly to pick up their pre-ordered books certainly pay less.

It goes against trends

Local libraries are another option for readers here. Graphic novels and comics account for about 24 percent of printed fiction checked out through the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, which offers comics in print and digital form.

“We used to count (comics) as fiction, but pulled them out about seven years ago in response to their tremendous popularity,” says Rebecca Colbert, the district’s head of collection and bibliographic services.

Downloads of ebook comics have been increasing each year, Colbert adds, from 15,405 downloads during May 2016 to 2017 to 36,740 during May 2018 to 2019.

Graphic novels and comics are likely even more in demand than the numbers show, because circulation figures don’t account for books read in branches that are not checked out. Also, libraries typically classify comics and graphic novels as part of a children’s, young adult or adult fiction collection instead of as comics and graphic novels, masking their true popularity, says Amie Wright, president of the American Library Association’s Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table.

“Especially surprising for some libraries is their comic books circulation is not decreasing, it’s increasing,” Wright adds. “That goes against trends in general library circulation.”

Families welcome

The Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival, which mounts its 12th edition Saturday, offers newcomers a painless way “to test the water,” said Suzanne Scott, festival committee chair.

Larger comic cons are “a little bit more crazy and usually there’s a fee involved,” she says. “So it’s a win-win. Folks can get a feel for what a con is like, it’s not going to cost any money, and it’s a great thing to do as a family.”

Scott says about 3,500 people attend the free, all-day event, which helps to strengthen the valley’s comic book community by serving as a networking opportunity for fans and aspiring comic book creators.

“In the the past, some (writers and artists) have really expressed that they had a great time because they get to talk one-on-one with a lot of fans, plus they get to talk with people who are sitting at the table next to them. It’s just kind of fun and really inclusive.”

From comic lover to creator

Some area comic book readers even become comic book creators. Along with writing and drawing her own comics, Jean Munson teaches about a dozen comic art classes each month, including on the second Sunday of the month at Maximum Comics in Henderson. In addition, as a founder of Plot Twist Publishing, she matches local writers and artists — typically first-timers — to create stories that are published in the company’s anthologies.

Plot Twist publishes three to four books annually, says Munson, who has been pleased in recent years to see “an emergence of women talent and more people of color in comics.”

She describes her own work as “slice-of-life comics” and was surprised when “Pushover,” her four-part series about “a jaded student leader who considers suicide,” elicited letters from readers of diverse ages, ethnic backgrounds and genders who identified with a story about a young Asian woman.

Gina Parham is a student of Munson’s. She has an associate’s degree in art from the College of Southern Nevada, and already has published comics through Plot Twist Publishing.

Parham started drawing comics “for fun, but other people enjoyed them,” she says. Her current projects include a comic and recipe book and an autobiographical story. Through Plot Twist, she also worked for the first time with a writer on an anthology piece.

Parham currently works as a barista, but hopes someday to become a full-time artist. “My current goal right now would be to publish a long-format book,” she says.

LV vs. NYC

Now that East Coast expatriate Morse has been here for a while, he has become even more impressed with the valley’s comic book scene.

“It’s been refreshing and nice to find there’s probably a better (comics) scene here than a lot of places,” Morse says.

“And, frankly, I’d put it up against New York. New York might have more going on, but Las Vegas has more heart.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280, and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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