It's Friday evening at Comics Unlimited in Westminster, one of the county's largest comic book emporiums.
A shipment of more than 100 new titles arrived this morning, a weekly event that causes the usual number of walk-ins at the shop in a Beach Boulevard shopping center to triple to more than 250.
And at 6, one of the busiest hours of the day, more than two dozen customers are bellied up to the long row of racks, thumbing through the latest exploits of their favorite characters.
But something's wrong with this picture.
Forget the stereotype of adolescents with their bicycles parked outside. Most in the largely male crowd are in their 20s--young adults stopping by the shop on their way home from work.
They are regulars, such as Jon Fields of Anaheim, a 24-year-old materials planner for an electronic computer board manufacturing plant, who spends nearly $30 for 15 comic books.
"And this is a small week too--I usually get 25 to 30 a week," he says. "I'll read everything while I'm sitting eating dinner or afterward while listening to music. TV's boring."
Dan Trieschman, a computer software engineer for Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, rings up $23 in comics, including such personal super hero favorites as "Excalibur," "Justice League," "Wolverine" and "The Flash."
"I collected them as a kid, but then I got more serious in college," says Trieschman, 25, who has more than 5,000 comics stashed in boxes in his garage.
With a laugh, he says: "I don't advertise it. I don't feel comics are for kids, but I realize a lot of people think that way."
That's true, but, as Trieschman and Fields illustrate, comic books are not just kids' stuff anymore.
Indeed, the great American childhood pastime has become an industry worth more than $400 million a year--double what it was 9 years ago. In that time, there has been an explosion in the ranks of new comic book publishers who have joined the Big Two--DC and Marvel--to produce more than 400 titles a month, contrasted with about 120 in the early '80s.
"One of the reasons for the explosion in comics is the comic book industry has returned to increasing realism," said Bob Matson, president of Comics Unlimited Inc. "Comic books used to be little morality plays, where the good guys always won and the bad guys always lost, and there was a lesson to be learned in how to live."
The byword today, Matson said, is ambiguity.
"People in comic books are no longer necessarily portrayed in absolute terms," he said. "Heroes have flaws, and villains can have their good sides. Comics have become much more sophisticated because the American public has become much more sophisticated and the stereotypes that readers would accept 20 years ago are simply not sufficient to entertain the modern reader."
Just scan the racks at Comics Unlimited, Adventureland Comics in Fullerton, Freedonia Funny Works in Orange or any of the nearly dozen comic book specialty shops that have sprung up in the county this decade. Mixed with such standards as "Archie" and "Superman" are comic books with a distinctly more mature twist:
* "The 'Nam," which deals with actual events during the Vietnam War.
* "Love and Rockets," a slice-of-life comic written about life in a barrio.
* "Team Yankee," which deals with the outbreak of World War III in Europe.
Even "Batman" is no longer written for children, dealing as it now does with themes that explore the darker realms of the human psyche. "It's a twist that has been developing over the past 3 1/2 years and has accelerated markedly recently," Matson said.
Such relatively sophisticated fare has not only caused young readers to continue their comic book habit into their 20s and beyond but has prompted former fans who have not read a comic book in years to return to the fold.
The under-15 set makes up less than 10% of the customers at Comics Unlimited, where the average age is 23 and some regulars are in their 40s and 50s.
"Adults buy comics for the same reason that adults read science fiction books or mystery stories or watch soap operas," Matson said. "Comic books contain a set of friends who will perform for you and talk to you and let you get to know them.
"In a way, it's a TV show in a book. And it's even better than TV because TV comes on only once a week, but you can see your comic book friends any time you want."
Of course, not every adult is willing to publicize his camaraderie with a comic character, regardless of how mature the themes.
At Adventureland Comics in Fullerton, owner Carol Lombard said some of her adult customers "come in in their three-piece business suits with briefcases and say they can't let their clients know they read comic books because they'll lose clients."
Lombard said that, for some adults, "comic books offer a fantasy. They allow you to be somewhere else, to be someone else. And they sort of put things more in perspective for some people."