For some people, comic books are almost a religion. For others, they are a religion.
Paul Mavrides falls into the latter category.
The San Francisco comic book artist, who says his age is about 29, or 35, or whatever you want, is an organizer of a 15,000-member nationwide group called the Church of the Sub-Genius, which reveres the "worst aspects of Western culture," with comics near the top of the list.
The group, which broadcasts a show called "The Sub-Genius Radio Minority" at 12 college radio stations, also hosts get-togethers called "devivals" and practices rituals such as walking across burning currency, according to Mavrides.
Is the religion for real? Mavrides, who draws for "Freak Brothers" and "Anarchy Comics," says yes.
The spirit behind it reflects the blend of ardor and irreverent humor that characterizes many of the comic book aficionados to be found (some dressed in the garb of their favorite characters) at the 19th annual San Diego Comic-Con, which continues at the San Diego Convention and Performing Arts Center through Sunday.
The comics convention, the largest in the country, will draw about 10,000 people from as far away as Europe and Japan this year, according to David Glanzer, publicity director.
Participants span the spectrum, from hard-core collectors to doctors and lawyers who collect as a hobby and for investment to kids who like reading about the adventures of superheroes.
The convention features comic book exhibitions and trading booths; a party for Superman's 50th birthday; workshops on comic art, writing and fantasy games; film and video programs; booths with items ranging from superhero-style, leopard-print clothes to stuffed versions of cartoon characters; an exhibit of comic art; and talks by professionals in the fields of comic books, comic strips, animation and film.
Despite the humor of the subject matter, many of the talks take a serious and sometimes intellectual tone. Among the program titles: "Why Americans Love Japanese Comics," "Are Comics Art?" "Gays in Comics," "The Inevitable Women Cartoonists' Panel" and "The Film Noir Influence in Comics."
Other presentations focus on learning how to collect comic books, the interactions between characters, science fiction comics, Superman and owning a comics store.
Speakers include Jules Feiffer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, playwright and novelist; George R. R. Martin, producer and writer for the television series "Beauty and the Beast"; and David Gerrold, writer for "Star Trek" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
The sophistication of the program reflects the maturing of the comic book-reading population, according to Erick Gilbert, 34, who has done everything from packing boxes to editing comic books for San Francisco's Last Gasp publishers, best known for underground comics of the late '60s and early '70s such as "Zap," and more recent adult-oriented comics such as "Weirdo."
Gilbert, who has attended the convention for six years, said the European view of comics as educational material is finally reaching the United States, as publishers tailor their material to older readers who seek to read "more entertaining things on a deeper, more intellectual level."
The average age of comic book readers increased from about 11 in 1980 to about 18 in 1985, Gilbert said, at least partly because of the publishers' greater focus on material for adult readers.
"Being raised in France, I tend to see comics not only as an educational medium, but also as a literary medium, as art with a capital 'A,' not trash," he said. "In the past five years, this kind of consciousness has come to the United States because the comic-reading public has aged."
Gilbert said the typical child reader wouldn't be able to make much sense of a comic like Last Gasp's daring "Love and Rockets."
"The writing is excellent, and it's an adult story," he said. "You're basic kid won't understand 'Love and Rockets.' It'll be way over his head."
Other comics take on political and historical issues that may be difficult for children to comprehend. For instance, Art Spiegelman's book "Maus" chronicles the experiences of Spiegelman's father in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
But the convention isn't all about shock and politics. There are plenty of booths that look as though they might have existed in the '50s, when some of their comics originated.
Here, collectors ranging in age from preteen to middle-aged rifle through cardboard boxes of old comics wrapped in plastic and haggle with dealers over prices. Some of those prices are pretty high.
A first-edition of a "Captain Marvel" comic, for instance, could go for more than $35,000, Glanzer said. Baseball cards can cost several thousand dollars.
That didn't bother Tony Galovich, 39, who flashed a thick roll of $100 bills when asked why he attended. Galovich, a baseball card collector who runs a mail-order business from his home in Laguna Niguel, bought a 1933 Babe Ruth card for $1,800.