Comic books, often frowned on by parents, ironically were what Larry Hackney of El Toro used to increase his son Josh's interest in reading.
Last fall, when Josh experienced academic difficulties upon entering fourth grade, Hackney and Josh together began reading such comics as Spiderman, Superman and Elf Quest. Josh's reading skills have improved sharply, and he no longer refuses to read books.
Josh and his dad still enjoy comic books, and Friday they visited the West Coast Comic Convention in Orange. The gathering at the Doubletree Hotel is expected to attract 2,000 people during its four-day run, which ends today.
As Hackney clutched a box filled with 40 comics, Josh, 11, a student at Aliso Elementary School, walked alongside toting a plastic shopping bag stuffed with half a dozen comic books that he had selected himself.
"We spent about $60 today," said Hackney, 39, who owns a pool maintenance firm. "I just wish I hadn't thrown away the Superman and Flash Gordon comic books I had when I was a kid."
Similar sentiments were voiced by other adults at the convention. Like Mary Hulbert, 30, a Laguna Beach graphic designer, many have recently returned to comic-book collecting after an interval of 10 to 20 years.
100 Exhibitors' Tables
Convention-goers wandered among 100 exhibitors' tables, which were dominated by action-adventure, science fiction and fantasy comic books. There was a smaller offering of newspaper strips, movie posters and toys inspired by comic or cartoon characters.
Illustrators sketched samples of their work. There also were continuous showings of cartoons.
A 1949 Batman selling for $50 and a first edition of 1950's Astounding Science Fiction by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for $45 were some of the rarer items being sold by Chris Wogee, owner of Fantasy Imprints, a San Diego County comics shop.
"The people who come to these conventions are interested in fantasy, art and escapism," said Wogee, a frequent exhibitor at comic conventions.
"Comic books are soap operas in book form; you get hooked on characters and you'll follow them for life, even if they're not very real."
"Spiderman died in one issue," Wogee recalled, "and kids came into my shop asking what was going to happen to his comic book. In the next issue you learn that Spiderman's made a miraculous escape and hadn't died after all."
Offering a differing opinion was Patrick Young, 15, of Orange, who said he preferred "realistic" comics. "I like Space Cruiser Yamamoto, and Robotech (which come in comic and cartoon versions and are set in the future). On television, their animation and stories are more realistic.
"They're not like other cartoons where people don't feel pain or die," the El Modena High senior added.
Another fan of Robotech is Eric Brock, 21, a Cal Poly Pomona senior from Hemet. It was among the 43 comics he had purchased for $1 apiece by midafternoon Friday.
"I came with $100 to spend, but I don't know if I'll be able to find what I want at a price I can afford," he said.
'Short Form of Entertainment'
Brock, who has collected 2,000 comics during his three years of college, said he and his friends had found comics well suited for campus life. "You don't have a lot of time . . . comics are a short form of entertainment."
When More Fun Comic's the Specter came out in April, 1940, you could have bought it for a dime. Friday, the price was $5,000.
The comic's owner, Gary Carter, said he was seeking such a princely sum--$3,400 more than the Comic Book Price Guide says it's worth--because this issue originally had been part of the late Edgar Church's prized collection.
"Edgar Church was this rich gentleman who collected comics from '37 to '55 and stored them in his basement in Denver," said Carter, 37, a U.S. government engineer from San Diego. "Since Denver is at such a high altitude, they were kept in a cool, dry environment. This caused his comic books to be preserved in perfect condition."
The collection that Carter, his brother (Kent Lane, named after Superman characters Clark Kent and Lois Lane) and his parents began assembling 20 years ago is now valued at $350,000, he said.
Tired of Baseball Collection
The investment opportunities and fun of collecting drew Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steve Knouse to his first comics convention. Having tired of his baseball card collection--which he sold three months ago for $2,000--Knouse, 34, has opted to specialize in collecting comics by one publisher, Aircell, which puts out fantasy series set in medieval times and the future.
"At this convention, and at a lot of the comic book stores I've been to in Orange County and San Diego, they want to sell you comics above cover price (usually 75 cents). I try not to because I want to build a collection, not buy one. That's why I chose Aircell . . . it's a new publisher, and I can get in on the ground floor."
Fullerton attorney Ralph Evans, 31, sold his collection of 6,000 Spiderman, Superman, Batman and Fantastic Four comic books for $3,000 to open up his law office six years ago.
Evans recently decided to start collecting again. "I like the same comics and characters I did as a kid. Their values still appeal to me--the struggle between good and evil.
"But the characters evolved over the years; they've become more complex," he added. "Sometimes the heroes screw up, injure some innocent person and have to live with the guilt for what they've done."