Something to marvel at

Monday, March 13, 2006
Jack Johnson looked at a Spider-Man comic book at Marvels & Legends. (Fred Lynch)

When Ken Murphy told his wife he wanted to buy a comic-book store in 1996, her response was less than supportive: "You're kidding, right?"

But he wasn't. And he did convince his skeptical spouse that it was worth the risk for him to be able to convert his lifelong passion for characters like Captain America, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man into a full-time job.

"I traded my hobby for a job I love," said Murphy, who is 41 and a father of three.

Ten years later, Murphy is still owner of Marvels & Legends at 1030 Broadway, and has experienced a degree of success -- serving a small number of loyal and like-minded customers who don't see anything out of the ordinary about word balloons.

Last year, the comic-book industry raked in $500 million in the United States, with more than half coming from largely dark, gritty tales that children probably ought never see. The average price of a comic is $2.99, and the customers come in every week. A hot title may sell 100,000 to 200,000 copies across the country.

It's not like comics aren't a business -- Murphy said it's that first -- it just happens to be one he loves.

So this year he wanted to celebrate his 10th year with something special -- a comics and gaming expo on April 8 and 9 at Buckner Brewing Co., upstairs in the River View Room. On that Saturday, it will be a day of gaming, for people who love games like "Halo," "Hero Clix" and "Magic."

Sunday will feature a comic-book trade show, with vendors from across the Midwest, including St. Louis, Kentucky and Belleville, Ill. Three creators from the comics industry, including Jackson native Gary Friedrich, will be on hand to sign their books and sketch. The gaming day will have a $10 admission fee and the Sunday comic trade show will cost $3 to get in.

Friedrich, who was born in 1943, is the guest of honor. He went on to become well known in the industry, best known for his Silver Age stories for Marvel Comics' Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. He later went on to work on-- and helped create -- many comic books, including "Ghost Rider." The other two are Matt Lindt and Brian Hurtt, who also are artists and writers in the comic industry.

Another Jackson native, Nick Murphy, no relation to Ken, will premier his 40-minute film based on the "Tomb Raider" character Lara Croft, which he made in Los Angeles after attending film school there.

Ken Murphy hopes to make the expo a yearly event, which he believes will attract more people than some might think. In the 10 years he's owned it, Murphy has seen a 25 percent increase in customers and has 125 people who come in weekly.

That's happened in spite of the long-held stereotype that comic-book readers are teenage fan-boys or 20-somethings in search of low-brow escapism because they can't get a date.

It's a stereotype Murphy is familiar with.

But he said it's not entirely true. The average reader is in his mid-20s, though he admits the typical fan is male. There are varying degrees of education, he said, though they do tend to be more educated. Many of them are married, he said, or have girlfriends.

"If you sat outside the store and watched everyone who comes in, you could find some who fit the stereotype," he said. "But overall I think we blow the stereotype away. I think we break it down and discard it. But that stereotype is out there."

Not that the average comic fan doesn't have his quirks. Several fans spend several hours a week hanging out at the shop, surrounded by items like a card-board cut-out of Superman, a seductive poster of Linda Carter as Wonder Woman and various superhero symbols.

Conversation varies from professional wrestling, conspiracy theories to TV shows like "Smallville." There's also the occasional dose of good-natured ribbing.

"You thought the 'Barbershop' guys were cracking on each other," Murphy said. "They ain't got nothing on us."

One day last week, several customers milled about the shop, leafing through comic books and chatting.

Jack Johnson, a 20-year-old sophomore at Southeast Missouri State University, has been collecting comics since he was 5 or 6 and has been buying them from Marvels & Legends for 10 years.

"It's not a big deal if you read comics at the age of 20 or 30," Johnson said. "It's art and good stories. Certain artists make the characters look amazing. But it's got to have a really good story with it."

While Johnson spends about $50 a month on comics like "Teen Titans," "Transformers" and "Haunted Mansion," Bill Pratt, 30, of Jackson, spends less than $20.

He recognizes that there is a stigma about comic book readers, but he doesn't care.

"I know people think comic-book readers are the geeks and dorks of society," he said. "The stigma of comic-book readers will always be there. Still, the mainstream will line up to see 'X-3' and 'Superman Returns' this summer."

As for Murphy, for him it's his job. It just happens to be a fun one he can spend with his friends.

"It's like 'Cheers,'" he said. "It's a place you can come where everybody knows your name."

335-6611, extension 137

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