Sunday May 12, 2013

Holy lucrative property, Batman.

It's Wednesday. That means new comic books are on the shelves at Fantasy Realms in Pittsfield, the only comic book store in the Berkshires.

Pittsfield resident Zach Robinette snugly cradled 19 comic books in his arm while browsing Fantasy Realms for just one more to round out his purchase. These new comics will be just a sliver of the "boxes and boxes" of 500 superhero comics Robinette, 22, has back home.

"I like the superheroes that don't have super powers -- that are normal, everyday people trying to do the best with what they do have," Robinette said.

Matthew Schweitzer eats lunch at the Kitchen on the Commons in Lenox wearing a Superman baseball cap.
Matthew Schweitzer eats lunch at the Kitchen on the Commons in Lenox wearing a Superman baseball cap. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Superheroes come in many different sizes -- from Ant Man to The Incredible Hulk -- and so does their merchandise: Clothes, video games and, of course, comic books, which use pictures to tell stories, the characters' dialogues and innermost thoughts presented in thought or speech bubbles hovering about their heads.

Decades later, comic books and graphic novels are as prevalent as ever, not just in paper form, but at the movies. In the past decade, comic book and graphic novel superheroes have soared, swung and smashed their way out of their comic book frames and onto the movie screen, resulting in some of the biggest blockbusters this century.

And more potential hits are on the way, from "Iron Man 3" to "Man of Steel" this summer, to sequels to "Sin City" and "Thor" due out this fall.

"Most mediums are shaped by the culture, but the comic book industry isn't," said James Arlemagne, the owner of Fantasy Realms on Elm Street. "That's why it's withstood so many generations. That's why Hollywood is usually stealing from comic books and not [vice]-versa."

Loyal readers

Fantasy Realms is a direct-edition comic book shop, meaning it can, and does, carry any kind of comic book. The walls of Fantasy Realms are lined with several different types of comic books -- even a couple of "My Little Pony" comics.

But overwhelmingly, the store's inventory consists of superhero comic books: Green Lantern, the Justice League, Thor, Superman and Batman are just a few.

"The comic book genre is dominated by superheroes," Arlemagne said. "It's an acceptable medium for the story. Comic books are in their own class, but essentially, it's a short-story medium."

Modern day comics originated in the 1930s as books of comic strips previously published in newspapers, until "someone had the brilliant idea to create new content for comics," said Tim Callahan, a Pittsfield resident who runs Genius Boy Fire Melon, a blog about comic books and pop culture.

Callahan has been reading comic books since his friend brought X-Men comic books to his third-grade class to read -- before the teacher confiscated them.

"In the 1930s, comic books were basically children's popular entertainment," Callahan said. "After the war, there was a big decline in the superhero comic books. The turning point was 1956 to 1958."

The two heavy hitters in comic book publishers, Marvel (Spider-Man, the X-Men and all the characters who appeared in last summer's blockbuster "The Avengers"), and DC (Batman, Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern), make up about 90 percent of the market, Arlemagne said.

Marvel Comics started as Timely Comics in 1939. In 1964, Marvel launched several superhero titles by, among others, former editor and publisher Stan Lee, who regularly makes cameos in Marvel movie adaptations. Marvel was purchased by Disney in late 2009 for $4 billion.

DC Comics began as National Allied Publications in 1934. It is now owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment. The name DC came from the company's popular series "Detective Comics," which debuted the character of Batman.

Most of Robinette's comic books are DC.

"I like the writers," he said, "they stick out more."

At Fantasy Realms, the most popular readers of comic books are middle-aged, married men who have children, Arlemagne said.

"It fits into their schedule," said Arlemagne, the owner of Fantasy Realms. "It fits a niche for the people who don't have the time to read a whole novel."

People like Mark Horvath, a 49-year-old husband and father in Hinsdale. He's been reading comics since he was 4 years old, but on a free comics Wednesday, Horvath also had to pick up some Thor and Adventure Time comics (the latter a hit show on Cartoon Network) for his daughter. For his wife, he was picking some graphic novels by author Stephen King.

"Reading comics is part of what I do," Horvath said. "It's an escape from everything. I own more comics than my wife wants me to."

Comic books shouldn't be confused with graphic novels -- illustrated stories with panels, but longer than comic books.

"A comic book is a multi-part story. A trade paperback is a reprint of a story arc through multiple comics," Arlemagne said. "A graphic novel is the loose term in between."

Some of the more popular films inspired by graphic novels include "Watchmen" and "300" (both directed by Zack Snyder, who has family in the Berkshires) and "Sin City." "Sin City" and "300" have sequels scheduled for release this fall and next spring, respectively.

"The Walking Dead," the hit AMC show about a zombie apocalypse, was inspired by a series of graphic novels that began in 2003. However, Pittsfield resident William Kelly got into the TV show first, then started buying comic books, drawn into the survival story.

On a new comic book Wednesday in April, Kelly was picking up the eighth and ninth issues of "The Walking Dead" graphic novels.

"It shows you what's going on, but in a way that you can put it together in your own mind," Kelly said, "and there's more graphic violence."

Translated to film

"Iron Man 3," which opened last weekend to $174 million, launches Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Two, which also includes "Thor: The Dark World" (Nov. 8) and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (April 4, 2014) -- all leading up to the release of "The Avengers 2," due in theaters May 1, 2015.

At The Beacon Cinema in downtown Pittsfield, "Iron Man 3" will be begin a much-needed boost of business to the movie theaters, according to general manager John Valente.

"Superhero movies tend to be driven by the fanboys," Valente said. "They're all front-loaded. There's no getting around that. We burn through the audience fairly quickly."

Callahan of Genius Boy Fire Melon showed apathy for the universally acclaimed "The Dark Knight," and didn't like "Iron Man 2."

"I approach them as a big, dumb action movie," Callahan said.

Horvath, of Hinsdale, prefers the source material over the movies, too, because he's "always been more of a reader than a watcher."

"The movies are just something extra for me," he said.

To reach Adam Poulisse:
apoulisse@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse

By the numbers ...

n In its opening weekend on May 3, ‘Iron Man 3' earned $174 million, the second-biggest opening weekend ever. Before opening in the United States, ‘Iron Man 3' made more than $300 million internationally.

n The biggest opening weekend goes to ‘The Avengers,' which opened with $207 million last May.

n Despite opening amid a tragic shooting at a midnight premiere in Aurora, Colo., last summer, ‘The Dark Knight Rises' has the biggest 2D opening weekend with $160 million.

n Marvel Comics is the highest-earning movie franchise with more than $5 billion. The DC Comics franchise has earned just under $3 million.

Fantasy flicks

Upcoming 2013 movies based off comic books and graphic novels:

n ‘Man of Steel' (June 14)

n ‘R.I.P.D.' (July 19)

n ‘RED 2' (July 19)

n ‘The Wolverine' (July 26)

n ‘Kick-Ass 2' (Aug. 16)

n ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' (Oct. 4)

n ‘Oldboy' (Oct. 11) n ‘Thor: The Dark World' (Nov. 8)

n ‘Oldboy' (Oct. 11) n ‘Thor: The Dark World' (Nov. 8)