Even as you read this, extraordinary individuals are living incognito among us. They may reside in tree-lined neighborhoods, eat at Fellini's, or take their youngsters to Piedmont Park – just like you. If you pay close attention, though, you may notice a telltale sign of their special abilities: inky smudges on their hands and fingers. They speak a common language, dominated by extensive knowledge of the powers and costumes of vintage superheroes. Who are they? They're comic book creators.
Over the past 20 years, Atlanta has seen the rise of a lively community of comic book writers and artists who draw such minimal attention that they could be one of those down-low superteams, like the Uncanny X-Men. Atlanta's comics scene now provides a home for dozens of working artists, including Surrogates writer Robert Venditti, Flaming Carrot creator Bob Burden, and Sweatshop illustrator Stephanie Gladden.
Illustrator and SCAD professor Chris Schweizer describes the Atlanta scene as fragmented but thriving. "There are so many comics writers and artists out there, but you never really see a situation where the mainstream comics creators, the indie creators, the American manga creators, all come together," Schweizer says. "I see more of my peers in San Diego, New York and Charlotte than I do in Atlanta, even if we only live four to five miles from each other."
This Saturday's Free Comic Book Day marks a once-a-year opportunity for Atlanta's graphic novelists to band together and expose their art to a wider audience. North American comic book publishers founded the event in 2002 to entice fickle readers back into independent comic book shops after the comics market peaked in the mid-1990s. Held the first Saturday of every May, Free Comic Book Day offers complimentary versions of everything from superheroes with big summer movies to innovative indie titles you've never heard of. Titles from local artists reveal the ways in which professional comic art has matured – particularly in the wake of an industry in flux.
Over the past decade, most forms of media have endured crises and cliffhangers worthy of any four-color power fantasy, and comics haven't been spared. The irony of the comic book market is that while many aspects are thriving – graphic novels and other reprint collections, the popularity of comics as commercial properties for films – actual comic books, those monthly, single-issue titles that fit on spinner racks, are struggling.
"The entire industry is on a downward slide," says Cully Hamner, a DC-exclusive illustrator and one of Norcross-based Gaijin Studios' first members. But Hamner also points out that, "as a medium, we're on the way up."
Hamner describes how Marvel Comics routinely used to sell 200,000 to 300,000 copies of its major titles annually – a number that's dropped to as low as 50,000. But there's a bigger market for graphic novels and reprint titles, Hamner says, and there's going to be huge demand for digital comics, especially with the iPad (and whatever its competitor turns out to be).
Schweizer, like many in the industry, envisions a day when "floppy," magazine-style comic books no longer exist. "The graphic novel is thriving, but floppies are doing poorly. $2.99 is too much for a 22-page story. The more business-savvy publishers will circumvent that through digital production and delivery, eventually collecting them in trades for people who want them on paper."
Just as some select music fans and record labels are keeping vinyl alive in an era of MP3s, Atlanta's creators prove so passionate about the form, they'll surely remain the champions of the floppy – even if for a smaller audience.
Schweizer thinks that, historically at least, Atlanta's specialty stores haven't pulled out all the stops that other cities have, such as Charlotte, where specialty shop Heroes Aren't Hard To Find has had 10 to 15 artists at a time participating in its Free Comic Book Day event.
"But that might be changing," Schweizer says. "Criminal Records has a lot of artists coming in. Basically, I'm hopeful that Atlanta starts to make more use of the population of comics professionals here."
Perhaps then, being an comics creator in Atlanta won't amount to a secret identity.
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