Thanks to Hollywood and a resurgence of creativity that dares to be different, comic books are a big business once again.
Audiences eager to get caught up on superheroic exploits following Thor’s big-screen debut can sample a wide breadth of material during Free Comic Book Day on May 7, which Dan Merritt, owner of in east Dearborn, hopes will draw in new readers to celebrate graphic literature.
"Americans created comics," Merritt said. “It’s truly an evolved art form, unlike anything else, and it can be used in such a sophisticated manner."
Free Comic Book Day began in 2002 as a worldwide celebration of the medium and has grown into an annual event.
Merritt said it has drawn thousands of customers to his store and that for publishers, it is a smart way to market upcoming titles and bring new readers to long established books.
As a member of the , he is hoping the event will draw customers to the surrounding businesses as well.
"We’re putting together a coupon book featuring offers from businesses in the district. We’ll be distributing that for the first time on Free Comic Book Day," he said. "We’re real adamant about using the event to bring people in to not only our store but also to east Dearborn."
Marvel and DC will be giving away issues of Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern in anticipation of this summer’s film releases, while other publishers will be highlighting new books, such as the forthcoming Baltimore from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and critically celebrated titles, such as Locke & Key.
Merritt said Free Comic Book Day is a terrific way to introduce new readers to a medium typically known for its superheroes, but which has grown beyond those constraints to entice all readers–young and old, male or female.
After facing heavy censorship during the 1950s, and being declared an immoral and corruptive influence during Senate sub-committee hearings, the comic industry established the Comics Code Authority.
"You couldn’t do this whole laundry list of things because it was supposed to be kid-safe," Merritt said. "Marvel slowly started pushing the boundaries. They started working in issues of race, the ills of drug addiction, issues of violence, and they slowly pushed hard enough to when the freedom to create certain themed stories was a little more open.
"Thirty years later, the Comics Code Authority, the self-imposed censoring board, had become so irrelevant and toothless, that it’s now been completely abolished."
Now, said Merritt, the public is beginning to rediscover comics.
"Now that we’re fully self-aware of our abilities and the abilities of comics as a language, the sky’s the limit again," Merritt said. "All we have to do is find regular patrons to support it.”
The movie industry hasn't hurt comic sales either.
After facing declining sales throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, a string of blockbuster movies and television hits–such as AMC's The Walking Dead, along with bold creator-owned comics such as Chew and Morning Glories–helped the comic book industry bring in both new and lapsed readers.
Dearborn resident and Green Brain customer Rebecca Bohn, 38, said she began following the book The Walking Dead in advance of the TV series' premiere. A fan of the Tales from the Crypt comics when she was 9, she only recently began getting back into comic books.
"I like The Walking Dead a lot and Northlanders," an epic historical narrative about the Viking conquests, Bohn said. "But that’s it for right now. But every time I come in here and look around, I find others I want to start trying.”
And Merritt and his wife Katie are there to help.
"I generally ask them a few questions about what type of movies they like, what type of entertainment they like,” Merritt said of new readers who come into his shop. “And I use that to kind of make suggestions about what they might be interested in."
The era of modern media has helped comic books find an audience, but the publishing giants are also using big-name talent to help draw in readers.
Writers like Joss Whedon, best known for his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Stephen King have helped bring droves of readers to Marvel Comics. Whedon introduced a new X-Men title, Astonishing X-Men, in 2004, and has resurrected Buffy for the comic-book format with publisher Dark Horse Comics.
Several writers made names for themselves by producing original works of incredible quality that challenged the status quo of comics, such as Garth Ennis (Preacher and The Boys), Brian Wood (DMZ), and Grant Morrison.
In recent years, Morrison has become a big name amongst Batman fans. His graphic novel, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, debuted in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times hardcover graphic bestsellers when it was released in February and stayed there for over a month. He also launched two new monthly Batman titles, Batman & Robin and Batman, Inc.
"He’s one of those writers that we equate to rock-star level, but that’s because he delivers," Merritt said. "His persona is bigger than life, and people gravitate toward him because he’s charismatic and he’s talented."
Martin Borg, a 52-year-old IT specialist and Green Brain shopper, said he would read anything by Alan Moore, another rock star writer according to Merritt.
Moore wrote the comic book Watchmen, a seminal work in the industry that helped redefine, along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, what a superhero title could be with its adult sensibilities, political commentary, and dark tone. He is also well known for the books, From Hell and V for Vendetta, both of which were adapted for film.
Borg was introduced to Moore's works by his cousin when he was in his 20s, and became a follower of Hellboy after seeing the films about the same character.
"I’m a big science-fiction fan, but I'm not into the superhero stuff, never been into that, like the X-Men," Bord said. "I just never got into that. But there’s a lot of good stuff to read."
It's a clarion call comic fans have been making since the medium began.
"It’s got the best of everything," Merritt said. "It’s unique, it can’t be replaced by any other media for me, and it definitely can’t be replaced by any other vehicle."