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Cover Story : Super Selection : As interest in comic books has increased, so has the number of stores selling them. The Valley is home to more than two dozen, many of which offer discounts, sales and memberships to attract repeat business.


Comic books are big business these days. Consider:

* A Sotheby's auction of rare comic art in New York brought in a record $1.7 million in June, with the first comic book appearances of Superman and Batman fetching nearly $55,000 and $49,000, respectively.

* According to Jesse Leon McCann, customer service representative for Diamond Comic Distributors' Los Angeles outlet, a staggering 600 to 800 individual comic book titles are published each month.

* And today through Sunday, tens of thousands of fans will converge on the San Diego Comic Con, one of the nation's largest annual comic book conventions.

It's no surprise, then, that as interest in comics has increased, so have the number of stores that sell them.

In "Over 50 Years of American Comic Books," writer Ron Goulart notes that although comic books had been sold for many years through the head shops and used record stores of the 1960s and '70s counterculture, stores devoted to comics didn't appear in significant numbers until the mid-1970s, when retailers were able to bypass wholesalers and deal directly with publishers.

"Now it looks like every time you turn around, there's a comic book store," says lifelong comics reader Todd Chodorow, 26.

Today, the San Fernando Valley is home to more than two dozen shops devoted to comics and related merchandise--a competition that has inspired many stores to offer discounts, sales and memberships to attract repeat business.

"It's the service that's going to sell you on a place," Chodorow says.

But despite comics' growing market and the proliferation of "mature"--the comic book equivalent of an R rating--and pornographic titles, some argue that much of the industry's output remains rooted in timeworn formulas.

"The market has gotten really, really big," says Joe Masset of Forbidden Planet in Sherman Oaks. "It just hasn't gotten all that broad. Comic book publishers are still trying to sell superhero books."

Indeed, despite the explosion of titles and publishers over the last few years, most comics still star costumed superheroes and comic readers remain largely male.

"A lot of women don't like (comics) because of the way women are portrayed," says Rosa Thwett, co-owner of Comic Asylum in West Hills. The opinion is shared by most retailers, who note that women generally account for only a fraction of their customers.

There are exceptions, such as 24-year-old Lisa Nelson of Glendale, who spends nearly $30 a week on Japanese animation videos and Japanese comics, known as manga. According to Nelson, the science fiction-heavy Japanese comics tend to feature stronger women.

"For me, the female characters in American comic books are just kind of hokey," she says.

Still, comics are evolving, and so are the stores.

"That's because the audience has changed," McCann says. "The way comic book stores have changed is the way that readers have changed."

No longer the domain of the after-school crowd, today's comic book store draws everyone from preteen "Spider-Man" and "Batman" readers to adults lured by moody, sophisticated titles such as DC Comics' "Sandman."

In response, many retailers have expanded their merchandise beyond the typical $2 comic book to include T-shirts, posters, model kits, trading cards and graphic novels--softcover books with original and reprinted comics material. And while many shop owners see them as a passing fad, most are now carrying Pogs, those whackable discs that have gripped the grade-school crowd.

Says Charles Pira of Pee Wee Comics: "I don't think a store can survive just on comics nowadays."

The following is a non-inclusive list of Valley comic book shops, from successful veterans to lesser-known newcomers, with an emphasis on the products and services that make each unique.

* The Art of Collecting, 6100 Laurel Canyon Blvd., at the Laurel Plaza Mall, North Hollywood.

When an earthquake shuts your doors for two months, what do you do? Conduct business in the parking lot! And so it went for this shop, located on the outside of the quake-battered mall. The store is open again, but the mall remains closed, its future cloudy. Employee David Wilhite, 27, says Laurel Plaza's closure means "a lot less traffic" nowadays, but the store does offer a 15% discount on new comics with the purchase of a $10 yearly membership. Members can also earn "bargain bucks" toward the purchase of back issues.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. (818) 766-5604.

* Brave New World, 21048 Devonshire St., Chatsworth.

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