Comic Fans Cling to Art Form
Artist Rik Livingston greets visitors in his home during the 2010 Hwy 62 Art Tours. Livingston creates and sells comic books, illustrations, paintings and kinetic toys.
From Captain America to the Walking Dead
By Courtney Vaughn, Hi-Desert Star
Comic books may no longer be thriving, but they're certainly surviving.
Classic comic book heroes are more popular on the silver screen than on paperbacks today, but a few loyal enthusiasts are staying true to the counter-culture mediums of comic books and graphic novels.
Semi-local artist Rik Verlin Livingston hasn't just made a hobby out of comics, he's made a living off them.
Livingston's early fascination with surreal illustrations led him to start designing his own comic series and avidly collecting others. He pursued an art degree while producing the low-brow humor and commentary that found its peak popularity in the mid 1970s to mid '80s.
"Comics are a wonderful art form ... They were one of the biggest influences on me becoming an artist and they were a great moral influence, as well," Livingston said.
Early on, comics were purveyors of patriotism and nationalism, with characters like Captain America.
Eventually, underground publications made room for more obscure ideas and they transitioned into darker depictions of heroism and demons. The only limit on content was the author's imagination.
"Underground comics introduced me to experimentation and different art styles. They were a bridge to fine art for me and a reminder to always question the prevailing paradigm," Livingston added.
He began collecting in grade school and eventually amassed more than 17,000 comics. Today, his Zono Art Productions dabbles in comic illustrations, paintings and kinetic toys. His zany illustrations caught on in the Hi-Desert. In 2009, Livingston was tapped to do the illustrations in the official Hwy. 62 Art Tours booklets.
He still produces and sells comics, through his website and locally at comic and curio shop HooDoo in Yucca Valley.
Cover value takes over story value!
Comic book culture has waxed and waned since its introduction in the 1930s. Major companies like Marvel and DC Comics, which are responsible for superheros like Wonder Woman, Batman, the X-Men and Spider Man, eventually grew to the top of the pack. In the '80s, readership morphed into high-dollar collecting.
"Somewhere in the '80s, collecting became a fad and was hijacked by sports cards enthusiasts. Collecting became ‘cool,' and a lot of the vibe around comics changed. By the '90s, it was no longer important what the stories were inside the covers; It only mattered if it was bagged, boarded and issue No. 1. It changed from an appreciation of art and literature to a competitive sport," Livingston recalls.
In February 2010, the Associated Press reported that a 1938 edition of Action Comics No. 1, the first comic book to feature Superman, sold for $1 million.
Trademark Marvel and DC characters still grabbed attention as they were later adapted and readapted as major tv shows or blockbuster films, but it wasn't enough to keep Marvel afloat.
In the mid 1990s, the Marvel empire started to fizzle, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1996. It saw a resurgence around the year 2000 with the release of X-Men and subsequent related titles and by late 2009, Marvel was acquired by goliath Disney for $4 billion.
As Marvel regained steam, so did San Diego's annual convention, Comic Con, which grew in size and popularity throughout the 2000s. In 2011, the event once relegated to sci-fi and horror geeks became a full-blown, red-carpet event.
Small shops bow before mighty king!
Comic books have caught up to the digital age, but conventional paper pressings still have their place in a niche market. Celebrity buzz around blockbuster remakes doesn't hurt either.
"Definitely, when a movie comes out, there's renewed interest around that character," said Scott Wexton, owner of Yucca Valley comic retailer HooDoo. Wexton and his wife, Lisa, opened the comic, graphic novel and indie rock T-shirt shop nearly a year ago.
Wexton says the shop gets enough business to yield marginal profits, but the comic book industry as a whole faces the same threats as every other small business in today's economy.
Most comic retailers have to go through Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. to get their products. Since it's nearly the only distributor left, Wexton said, small, independent shops are forced pay prices that make it hard to turn a profit. Knowing this, the Wextons chose to branch out and carry new and used band shirts, tiki decorations and other small, occult tokens.
"I don't think we would have existed if we ever solely became a comic store," Wexton said.
Still, he recognizes the longstanding niche market and knows its value.
"Even in bad economies, everyone needs a release. Everyone needs a cheap form of entertainment," he said.
The lucrative industry once surrounding comic books has faded for the most part, but their intrinsic value outshines their market rate, as noted by Livingston.
"Perhaps the biggest boon I have derived from comics is the exercise of my imagination," he said. "A healthy imagination is the key to human survival."
Scott Wexton shows off some of the graphic novels he sells in his Yucca Valley storefront. Comics can now be viewed and purchased digitally, but the niche market for paperbacks hasn't died out.
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