Tie-dyed shirts outnumbered ties at Festival Hall yesterday as almost 1,000 fantasy merchants swooped into Baltimore for the comic book industry's largest trade show.
Comic book retailers came from as far away as Australia to attend the Ninth Annual Retailers Seminar, sponsored by Baltimore's Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., the nation's largest distributor of comic books.
They stood in long lines to gather autographs from people who have become celebrities in the $400 million-a-year industry by drawing pictures of mutants. They posed for pictures with a muscular Spider-Man, a defanged Vampirella and a green-skinned She-Hulk. They checked out the products that are expected to be hot next year. (Keep an eye out for Elvis Presley trading cards.)
Mostly they scarfed up freebies -- loads of freebies.
It was, Steve Herrington said as he carted two overstuffed bags out of the hall, the best show ever for freebies. Using coupons wisely,he said, a retailer could have walked away with $1,500 to $2,000 worth of giveaways from the biggest names in the comic book business.
Lest anyone forget that comic books are a serious business, Diamond also offered its retail customers seminars on such topics as "Tax Planning for Small Business" and "Discharging Employees in the '90s."
Just about everybody who is anybody in comic books was there -- a tribute to the clout Diamond and its founder, Steve Geppi, wield in the industry. The Baltimore-based distributor, spawned 10 years ago, has grown like the living stone creature called Monolith. Sales this year could reach $125 million, and the company has gone global with a distribution center in London.
Stan Lee, chairman of Marvel Entertainment and the acknowledged godfather of the comic book industry, was expansive, even after 2 1/2 hours of non-stop autographing.
"You have no idea how big comic books are," said Spider-Man's boss. "Years ago, comics were for kids. Today, they're for everybody."
Mr. Lee has no apologies to make for his industry. If Michelangelo and Shakespeare were alive today, he said, they might very well be writing and drawing comic books.
"I think some day they will be considered by everybody as serious literature," he said.
Whether there's a comic book equivalent of "War and Peace" can be debated, but there's no question that the industry has come a long way from the days when Mad magazine was considered a danger to juvenile mental health.
Archie, frozen in adolescence for 51 years, is alive and well, and Casper is just as friendly a ghost as ever, but today's groundbreaking comic books are "graphic novels" that explore complex and disturbing topics.
Paul Jenkins, editor and production director at Tundra Publishing in Northampton, Mass., said his company will soon come out with a comic book called "Skin," billed as "the raw and controversial story of a thalidomide victim; an angry and violent book, a tragedy shot through with bitter humor."
It "will be big," said Mr. Jenkins, who contends that the comic tradition goes back to the cave paintings of Cro-Magnon man.
More primitive appeals also sell. Comico, a Chicago-based publisher of a series of super-hero adventures called "Elementals," also offers an adults-only version called "Elementals Sex Special," wherein the heroes relax between arch-villains by practicing various forms of super-sex.
Such frivolities don't sit well with Larry Reid, promotion director of Fantagraphics. "Most of the stuff here I would describe as escapist trash," said Mr. Reid, a 1960s throwback whose company represents legendary underground artist R. Crumb and such modern disciples as Peter Bagge, who draws Hate comics.
But Randy Chase, who was there representing Baltimore Reads,
couldn't care less whether comic books have literary or political merit. He was there at Diamond's invitation to solicit publishers for donations of overstocked items to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's literacy program.
"I really believe in the value of comics," he said. "We want to promote reading for enjoyment." Besides, he said, the pictures in comic books provide a lot of "context clues" that actually help people learning to read.
For most of the retailers at the trade show, the work is a labor of love. It's a business where the little guys still dominate, and many dealers are simply collectors whose hobby got out of hand.
Keegan Conrad, the 27-year-old founder of Comics to Astonish in Columbia, started collecting comic books when he was 8. Now he sells comic books by mail and at shows while continuing to work as a driver for United Parcel Service. Soon, he said as he waited in line for autographs from the creators of Cyberforce and Spawn, he hopes to open his own store in a mall.
Roger Fletcher, director of marketing for Diamond, said there is still plenty of room for entrepreneurs such as Mr. Conrad.
"The industry is booming, and it's really still a ground-floor opportunity for people," Mr. Fletcher said. "For the people who are running their businesses well, there's money to be made."
And there are new markets to be exploited. Retailer Hafeez Amin came all the way from Trinidad, a market that he said is "still emerging," to attend the show, which ends today.
"It cost me a lot of money," he said, "but it was well worth the trip."