In June 1938, kids across America saw a new comic book on sale in drugstores and on newspaper stands. The cover was an amazing drawing — a man in a blue suit and red cape, hoisting an automobile over his head and smashing it against a rock.
Now, 75 years after his debut in Action Comics No. 1, Superman is returning in a new movie. “Man of Steel” will open in theaters across the country on Friday, a re-telling of an old story that is now part of American mythology. Even if you’ve never read a comic book, you know what Kryptonite is; you’ve heard the names Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
There is a super legion of superheroes who owe their existence to Superman, and they inhabit imaginary worlds, alternate timelines and parallel universes depicted in thousands of comic books and graphic novels. For nearly 30 years, giving this pantheon of champions a home in Carrollton has been a job for Greg and Kelly Gowens.
Quest Comic Shop stands like a fortress of solitude on Lovvorn Road, tucked inside a rambling 63,000-square-foot former sock factory that the Gowens own. It is the latest — and last — location for the shop, which has wandered across town in various iterations; most of them close to the University of West Georgia, where Greg’s alter-ego works as a physics instructor.
Inside the shop are row upon row of comic book titles, many of them familiar characters, but quite a few are esoteric heroes known to but a few cognoscenti. The vast majority are traditional, thin paper-backed comics carefully sleeved in clear plastic. But for the hardcore, there are “trade” books — collections of previously published comics containing an entire story arc. Some of these are deluxe editions, a sort of “director’s cut” containing alternate cover art and rejected panels.
Kelly, who was born near Savannah, was a customer at the shop before she married Greg 14 years ago. She became hooked on comics back when she was a girl, and still remembers the day in October 1985 when she walked into a store and saw the now-iconic cover from DC Comics’ “Crisis of Infinite Earth” series, showing a sobbing Superman holding the limp, dead body of Supergirl.
“That’s the one comic book I remember from that whole store,” she said. “I don’t remember the other comic books I bought, or anything like that, but I wanted that comic book (when she saw the cover) and thought, ‘That’s so sad!’”
Let’s face it, there is a stereotype for people who frequent comic book stores. It’s something that Kelly doesn’t mind confronting head-on.
“There is a stereotype, but stereotypes exist for a reason,” she said. “But I’ve always, even when I was younger, considered people who read comic books to be more intelligent. And it’s pretty much true.”
Greg, who was frequently bored in school, chose to study physics because “it was the hardest thing I could think of.” But when he took physics classes in college, he was dismayed to learn that “physics was just math, with an application” and therefore almost too easy for him. Since he could complete his studies so quickly, he had a lot of time on his hands, so he decided to fill it by running a comic book store.
At that time, he was spending about $300 a month on comic books. So, when the opportunity came to buy out the stock of his favorite comic book shop, he took advantage of it. Now that he teaches physics as well as runs a comic store, he finally finds himself sufficiently challenged.
“It’s a lot of work trying to keep all the titles straight, ordering the right amounts and not ordering too much,” he said.
In addition to keeping up with all the titles in the store, the Gowens also sell figurines and statuettes of comic characters, and each Friday night, they host card gaming tournaments in a back section of the shop which is just as big as the comic book store.
Collecting comic books may seem like a trivial pursuit, but it is a narrative form which holds tremendous cultural sway. Many comic books have, like Superman, become landmark movie or television series — but the medium has entered the culture in other ways. Comic book art has revolutionized the way films are made, with every shot being drawn, comic-book style, on storyboards.
The complex moralities of today’s world are also played out and explored in comic books, introducing these concepts in ways textbooks never can. The recurring theme of prejudice against the mutants in “X-Men,” for example, is directly based on the Holocaust.
“People make jokes,” Kelly said, “but if you want to learn history that’s going to stick, pick up a comic and you’re reading it.”
And while other forms of publishing are struggling against Web-based competitors, comic books continue to thrive. Chiefly, Kelly said, that is because the graphics in the pages of comic books cannot be replicated on an LED screen, deeply textured as they are with colors laid down in the process of offset printing.
“Even if the art was done with computers to begin with, there’s still something lost in the translation, because the colors just can’t come through in the same way,” she said. “Until they get the human eye and computer graphics up to the same level, it’s not going to work.”