Brian Royster of Westbury was a among comic book collectors...

Brian Royster of Westbury was a among comic book collectors who gathered at Grasshopper's in Williston Park for an informal discussion about the culture of comic books. (March 2011) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

On a recent Wednesday evening, 19 men gather in the back of Grasshopper's, a comic-book store on Hillside Avenue in Williston Park. Nibbling on pizza, perusing back issues of "Daredevil" and "The Fantastic Four" spread out on a long table, they chat animatedly until store owner John Riley calls to order this semiannual Comic Discussion Group.

"Welcome," Riley says to the attendees, many of whom have been customers since Grasshopper's opened in 1992. "Our topic tonight is, 'Are comic books as a hobby and art form still relevant today?' "

One probably didn't need to hear the resounding "yes" from the group of passionate Long Island fans to guess the answer.

Whether it's Spider-Man on Broadway or yet another Batman on the big screen (coming next year), comic-book characters are big entertainment business.  They're also considered art.

Museums around the world now include the works of comic-book artists in their collections, and many serious writers, such as best-selling fantasy and science-fiction author Brad Meltzer (who also writes comic books) or novelist Michael Chabon (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," was largely about comic books), are unabashed fans as well.

Long Island has been a bastion of the comic-book subculture for years and has played a role in its development. In fact, the birth of comic-book fandom 50 years ago, the point when comics began their transformation from what Chabon calls "greasy kid stuff" to Museum of Modern Art-worthy creations, was sparked by a 1961 visit from an obscure science professor to what was then Garden City's Adelphi College.

While nobody knows how many comic-book collectors there are on Long Island (in part because it's hard to define what constitutes a collector), there are certainly enough to keep a dozen stores, including Grasshopper's, in business.

Yet, one attends a meeting of local comic-book fans with trepidation, half expecting to find a group of paunchy, nasal-voiced know-it-alls -- like the much-parodied Comic Book Guy character of "The Simpsons" -- arguing about the relative merits of Lightning Lad versus Saturn Girl in the Legion of Super Heroes.

"Certain people gravitate toward comics," admits Harry Orenstein, 48, of Great Neck, one in the group assembled at the store. "It's a fantasy world . . . they probably have the same kind of appeal to us that the Harry Potter books have with a lot of kids today."

Unlike Potter fans, however, today's comic collectors tend to be almost exclusively male and mostly middle-aged. Yet, while most began reading comics as boys, they claim they are not stuck in a time warp.

"It's like Batman," says Orenstein. "He started as a very dark character, lightened up and then got dark again. The fans have changed right along with him."

Indeed, those whose last encounter with this medium was during grade school would probably be shocked at the often stunning graphic quality of today's titles, which are sold not only as single issues but as $14.99 "trade paperback" compilations of a half-dozen stories (collectors make the analogy between watching one episode of a favorite TV show, or watching a DVD of the entire season).

The stories themselves are far from the drivel fed to young readers of the past. Today's comics are more serious, involving alienated, flawed heroes and contemporary settings, such as the war in Iraq.

And while Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are still bounding over tall buildings, many of the most popular current comics are bereft of superheroes altogether.

An example: the "Walking Dead" series that inspired the AMC show and the "Vertigo" series that 23-year-old Terence Dorman of Williston Park -- one of the younger attendees at the Grasshopper's get-together -- calls "the HBO of comic books" because of the breadth of subjects and the wider latitude given to its writers and artists.

Examples of tales told under the "Vertigo" brand include "Y the Last Man" -- a sci-fi story about a plague that wipes out every male on Earth except one; and "The Pride of Baghdad," a critically acclaimed story based on an actual incident during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Unheard in the nearly two-hour discussion at Grasshopper's is any talk about the monetary value of old comic books, even though Riley (who collected comics while growing up in Kings Park and later earned an MBA and worked for the Small Business Administration before opening Grasshopper's) said that some of his customers have collections valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I buy them for pleasure," said Steve Bloom, 45, of East Meadow. "If they're worth something, that's a plus, but that's not why I buy them."

Yet, despite all the smash-hit movies and TV shows, all the acknowledged artistic qualities, local comic-book fans still sometimes have to fight to earn respect for their beloved medium.

Dave Gilbert, of Garden City, recalled how a few years ago his now-16-year-old son, Michael, was assigned a book report and opted to do it on "Maus," Art Spiegelman's 1986 graphic novel based on the life of his father, a Holocaust survivor.

"[Michael's] teacher told him he couldn't do the report on a comic book," Gilbert says. "So I went in and talked with her. I explained the story behind 'Maus' and told her it had won a Pulitzer Prize." The teacher relented, Gilbert said, "although she told my son the paper had to be twice as long because it was a comic book, not a regular book."

Despite the extra work, Gilbert said, his son got an A on the report.

As the group around him nods in approval, with Riley adding that now graphic novels are on the shelves of most libraries in Nassau and Suffolk, Gilbert smiles.

He is one proud father and one proud Comic Book Guy.

Top Stories