Geppi's Museum May Preserve Comic Book Heroes in Amber, But They Don't Need the Help
The infant Kal-El was born on Krypton, but Superman was born sandwiched between a Chuck Dawson cowboy adventure and a contest advertisement--just another adventure story filling the pages of the Depression-era anthology series Action Comics. It's hard to imagine the omnipotent Man of Steel and crumbling newsprint in the same metaphysical space, but staring at the near-perfect copy of Action Comics No. 1 resting in a low glass case at the front of the main comics hall in Geppi's Entertainment Museum brings some of that paradox to mind. If you've got one of those slim 64-page pamphlets tucked away in your own attic (and you probably don't, since the 100 or so known still existing copies are all present and accounted for by rabid comics collectors), depending on its condition, you could easily trade it for everything from a Honda Civic to a fleet of Lamborghinis. While most people have never fingered a thousand-dollar bill, the museum's curator, Arnold T. Blumberg, once got to crack the spine of this ultra-rare issue for a photo shoot. How does it feel to hold the most valuable comic in existence in your hands?
"Anti-climactic," Blumberg sighs. "It feels good as a collector to hold it, but then again you've read the story a million times. It's almost impossible to conceive that this was the one that was on the newsstand, that this started the whole thing, because we're so familiar, so used to these characters."
Those characters are what Geppi's Entertainment Museum is all about. Founded by distribution behemoth and comics enthusiast writ large Steve Geppi to showcase his personal collection of one-of-a-kind pop-culture artifacts (including a blue-chip portfolio of rare comics), visiting the museum feels like finally finding the secret room in heaven where your discarded childhood treasures went. In addition to the staggering array of vintage comics popular (the aforementioned Action No. 1, plus origin issues of Batman, Spider-Man, and Captain America, among others) to obscure (have you ever heard of Negro Romance?) on display in the main gallery, there's seven other galleries devoted to playthings and characters from the same number of generations. Whether your childhood treasure was a cast-iron mechanical bank or a Mickey Mouse watch, a Honey West doll or an Atari 2600, there's one here for you to get excited about all over again.
"There's no other museum that covers this subject matter with the same scope," says Blumberg, the museum's curator since its September 2006 inception. While there are other museums devoted to toys and the occasional temporary exhibit on comics, there's no permanent archive "with this kind of scope--and nothing that's tried to incorporate both the idea of comics and the bigger picture of pop culture.
"Too much of our history and our institutions are devoted to what happens in the day when people have their jobs--what we're accomplishing as a society when we're working," Blumberg continues. "But that's not quite the personal story of what happens when you go home at night and choose to entertain yourself with something, because it's those choices that really show you a lot about who people are inside, and the emotional connections they're making with the characters they love. That's a history that's important because that is telling more about us as a people than the wars we're fighting."
It's a noble and reasonable idea to give the stuff of our age the same critical attention as ancient artifacts, but there's something slightly disquieting about standing in a room full of comics, each carefully sealed in a UV-blocking plastic sarcophagus and illuminated with low-wattage LED lights to protect the already fragile newsprint from further decay. Maybe it's rumors of the museum's precarious financial state--you mean there won't be a place I can stop by and see Amazing Fantasy No. 15 (Spider-Man's first appearance) if I'm having a bad day?--but what lingers is the strangeness of comics coded and tagged like dodo pelts in a natural history museum. Even though nowadays even kids know better than to roll up comics and shove them in their back pocket, there's always the element of them being something to be handled, fondled, enjoyed. If a place like this exists, does it mean that the glossy-covered comic book--the birthplace of some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century--is ready for the mausoleum?
The decline of the comic book has been a source of much hand-wringing and finger-pointing in the industry for the past few decades, but at this point the evidence is irrefutable: At some point in the latter half of the 20th century, comic-book readership switched from children to an increasingly insular community of adult fanatics/collectors. Like any tobacco executive knows, you've got to keep a steady supply of young consumers interested in your product if you want to continue your business, and now big publishers like Marvel and DC--who in the '70s could easily sell 300,000 copies of a title, a far cry from the 50,000 that's now considered optimal--have shifted much of their focus from publishing to licensing to other media like movies (Batman Begins, Superman Returns) and video games (Ultimate Spider-Man, whose 3-D graphics emphasize not photorealistic shading but dark outlines and flat color, a digitized approximation of the ink and paint of a comic book).
Is it just that kids today, weaned on technology, don't read as much as generations past? Blumberg dismisses this idea. "People immediately start to point to literacy going down. I think that's the ageist bias of people who are older," he says. "The fact is children may not be reading less. There are studies suggesting that children may be reading more. They're reading online! And not only are they reading, they're writing more on blogs. The problem is adults don't think anything outside of what they think is reading qualifies." This isn't a new bias--comics suffered from some of this snobbery for years, with adults fretting over whether the breathless, sensational bang! pow! of comic-book prose would ruin kids for the classics (ironic, considering that much of the output of novelists like Charles Dickens was written in serialized form for readers hungry for the next cliffhanger installment). And J.K. Rowling's very prosperous publishers would laugh long and hard at the idea of children not wanting to read.
The thing is, reading comics is not like reading text. While the combination of words and pictures seems more intuitive, it actually requires fluency in a visual vocabulary as simple as the word balloon and as obscure as the bizarre (to Western eyes) symbology of manga--a sudden bloody nose signifying lust, a bubble emerging from the nose as a symbol for sleep. But that's no stumbling block for kids, as anyone who's walked into a chain bookstore and looked at the graphic-novel section can attest. "As a comics fan, it's amazing to see Spider-Man on the shelf" at a chain bookstore, Blumberg says. "But maybe if you're a fan up to a certain age, it's a little melancholy, because half if not another full aisle beside that is all the manga. And the thing that's definitely proven to be the case now is that children today, in this country, if they're reading comics at all--which I think is very questionable because the primary amount of leisure time is video games and online--but if they are, chances are they're reading manga."
"The thing about manga is that it's finally hit the demographic problem where you see so many more young girls reading comics now," Blumberg continues. "There's still always been a boys'-club mentality to the fact that superheroes have dominated comics in this country."
That's the next common criticism levied at why the comic book is in decline, that the archetype of the superhero is too testosterone-driven and has grown to dominate the comics industry. While a tour around Geppi's Entertainment Museum gives a quick look into the breadth of genres, including romance and funny-animal comics that may appeal more to those not enthralled by men in tights, the output today--excluding the wild-card grab bag of alternative comics--is all heroes all the time, always depicted as androgenated guys or women who look like they're drawn by confused pubescent boys.
"I think it's too easy to damn the superhero genre as being all-exclusive male," Blumberg says. "I think you can read so much into it that it starts to [sound like] you're spending more time with Freud than with Siegel and Shuster. But it's there--it's a lot of young men creating these characters. Especially if you go back to the Golden Age it's not difficult to come up with the basic thing of young, Jewish creators, a very specific kind of cultural-, ethnic-, gender-based dynamic." And in recent years, more attention has been paid to the dearth of nonwhite characters (let's see, there's Storm from the X-Men, and one of the Green Lanterns, and . . . uhh . . . ). That being said, it doesn't explain how Spider-Man 3 made $336.5 million at the box office--those numbers don't come from one gender, or one race, being able to vicariously project themselves into a skinny white guy swinging over Manhattan on a thread.
If the near extinction of the traditional comic book can't be explained by the difficulties of reading or the inability of nonwhite male readers to identify with their adventures, is the problem in the availability of comics themselves? This is where it gets tricky, as the comic-book industry's shift to the direct market (the practice of retailing comic books from specialty shops, rather than at newsstands) is one of the most controversial parts of its business history, not in small part due to the efforts of one man who cornered the market on comic-book distribution so completely that he was the subject of a federal antitrust investigation in the late 1990s--Steve Geppi, the founder of the museum and possibly the most significant force in transforming comic collecting and speculating into a mainstream enterprise.
Geppi was a high-school dropout and Catonsville mail carrier who, after having a Proustian flashback watching a nephew enjoy a Batman comic, decided to start a comic shop of his own in 1974. After opening several Geppi's Comic World stores, he branched out into distribution. His company, Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors, eventually secured distribution rights to both Marvel and DC, insuring complete domination over the direct market: If retailers want to stock titles by the two largest comics publishers, they've got to go through Diamond--and the resulting profits have allowed Geppi to not only amass the collection that fills his museum's halls, but also to acquire an ownership share in the Baltimore Orioles and to purchase Baltimore magazine (a publication to which this reporter has contributed freelance assignments). Michael Dean, editor of The Comics Journal, has been quoted as saying, "Comic retailers watch Steve Geppi's smiles and frowns like Wall Street watches Alan Greenspan."
Resentment against Geppi runs deep in some sectors of the comics industry, mostly by small presses whose books' demand doesn't meet the $425 minimum order necessary to secure distribution by Diamond, but also by enthusiasts who blame the decline in readership on the prominence of the direct market. When comics largely stopped being sold at newsstands, these critics charge, they stopped being impulse buys for kids and became collectibles for an increasingly closed market of adult readers who wanted the same-old superhero stories, squelching innovation among publishers not willing to risk unfamiliar material on a shrinking audience, which led to further specialization and finally the ghettoization of comics as the pablum of a geeky subculture. Add to that the considerable infusion of cash Geppi has injected into the collectibles market (he's famously offered $1 million for a near-mint copy, should it materialize, of Action Comics No. 1) and you've got the recipe for a serious case of sour grapes among enthusiasts who resent the shift from comics as a living art form to a precious commodity. Seen in that light, a cynic might regard the preserved comics proudly lining the walls of the Geppi's Entertainment Museum as akin to a big-game hunter's wall of trophies of a species they've successfully hunted out of existence.
"This is the problem, because no matter what I say, I'm going to sound like an apologist for Steve Geppi and Diamond," rebuts Blumberg, who, before his appointment to the museum, worked for a decade at Gemstone Publishing, the Geppi-owned publisher of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. "And I can only go by the amount of integrity I'm able to build up for myself, and I would only speak from my heart about these things. I think the tendency too often, particularly a lot of people in the comic industry, is to point to a person like Geppi and find somebody to blame. I see that a lot. What I do think is going on, whatever effect the shift to the direct market might have had over the years, has less to do with that and more to do with the inevitability of things happening culturally that you just saw unfolding over that same period of time. Quite frankly, I think it's doing a disservice to kids to say that the direct market or Steve Geppi or anybody prevented kids today from being interested in comics, because if they're interested in comics they're going to find them." In other words, video games aren't sold at the supermarket or the newsstand either, but that hasn't stopped gamers from getting the titles they need.
Perhaps the decline of the American comic book was a foregone conclusion. Even Chuck Rozanski, founder of Denver's Mile High Comics (one of the first, biggest, and most significant comic-book retailers and the namesake of the legendary "Mile High collection" of vintage Golden Age comics), who at one time blew the whistle on Geppi to the U.S. Justice Department about Diamond's purchase of (now defunct) online comics retailer AnotherUniverse.com, concedes on his web site that the seeds of the comic book's decline among young people were already sown by the time the direct market evolved, and that the direct market helped keep comics in the public consciousness as much as it hurt new readership. In that case, Geppi isn't a big-game hunter but a conservationist, and his museum less a trophy room and more a zoo sanctuary, dedicated to keeping endangered species alive by reminding the public of their importance.
The truth of the matter is it doesn't matter if the American comic as we know it declines, since it was never about the newsprint itself. Action No. 1 contained nine other stories, but do kids today clamor to be Zatara the Magician, Scoop Scanlon, or any of the other characters inside? There was always something special about Superman, and that uniqueness is transferrable. The superhero's jump from the comic book to all forms of media is more a reflection of the indelible mark they've made on our consciousness--a mark that the museum celebrates in all its forms.
"We're literally celebrating our personal relationship with these kinds of things--what you felt like as a kid collecting the toys and immersing yourself into something and just enjoying the fantasy," Blumberg says. "The critical stuff is for a different kind of venue. So many people come here and say, `It's so weird seeing stuff that I played with now in a case in a museum.' Well, it deserves to be there, because it was part of our culture."
The museum is now reaching its first birthday, and, based on the success of the recent Star Wars retrospective and the guidance of new Executive Vice President Melissa Bowersox (Geppi's daughter), the "teething problems" of its somewhat rocky start are resolved, Blumberg says. "We've seen more people coming through, not just groups but individuals," says Blumberg, who's looking forward to an influx of first-time and out-of-town visitors overflowing from last weekend's Baltimore Comic-Con. "It's great to see people starting to discover the place. I feel really good about the future." Up, up and away.
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