Holy South Bay, Batman!
Behold a phenomenon so powerful, so incredible, so unstoppable, not even a kilo of Kryptonite could stop its momentum. We’re talking about comic book culture, a force more dynamic than Superman, Wonder Woman and the Hulk combined. From the sold-out summer cineplex to fanboy fever at July’s annual Comic-Con, the lasting impact of comic book art and interpretation cements its place in our popular culture. For some in the South Bay, comics are not just a passion, they are a way of life. Meet three locals who do their part to keep the comic book tradition alive for generations to come.
- Written byStefan Slater
People love great stories. That’s the simple answer to the million-dollar question of why comic book culture is experiencing such a growth in popularity. People around the world, no matter their age or gender, can identify with comic book characters and their adventures.
Don’t be fooled by the capes, costumes or gimmicky gadgets. The best comic book tales spin narratives about relatable characters struggling to cope with everyday human emotions and affairs. Love, loss, death, revenge, betrayal and, above all, responsibility: these are things that characters like Batman, Superman and even the much-maligned Aquaman have had to grapple with in countless illustrated panels over the span of nearly a century. Comic book characters deal with pertinent issues that everyone can relate to.
“There are more things that can be done in comics, with juxtaposing words and images, than can be done just trying to do words alone,” says Stuart Ng, owner of Stuart Ng Books in Torrance. Memorable characters aside, some stories are just better told in comic book form. Massive worlds with intricate plots that span centuries can all be compressed into a convenient weekly print format without the bloated budget of a Hollywood flick. From space epics to noir detective tales, if an artist and a writer can dream it up, there’s no limit to the kinds of stories that can be told with the medium.
With Marvel Studios in Manhattan Beach—and Hollywood only an hour away, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the South Bay is home to a diverse collection of talented comic book creators, collectors and, of course, diehard fans. Here are three South Bay locals who live for comic books and understand the importance—and power—of the stories they tell.
When Mike Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy series, was a kid, he was only allowed to buy comics like Richie Rich or Casper. But as is often the case, a sympathetic family member was able to help him score some of the good stuff—chiefly early Marvel titles like The Fantastic Four.
From an early age, he’s had a fascination with the supernatural. In elementary school, he remembers reading books about ghosts and Norse mythology. But it was an introduction to the works of Bram Stoker that would inevitably seal his fate as a writer and comic creator. “I read Dracula when I was 13 years old, and that kind of synched it for me,” says Mike.
After 10 years of working at Marvel Comics, drawing and illustrating other artists’ work, he’d come to the conclusion that no one was going to give him the kinds of stories he wanted to work on. “The only real way to draw that stuff was to come up with something myself.”
Over the years at Marvel, he’d assembled a list of things he wanted to draw and was looking to explore and build a world that was more in line with his supernatural interests—though he’s never been able to explain why he has a thing for the horror genre in the first place. “I could probably work it out with a shrink, but I never really got there,” says Mike.
But it was working on the graphic novel version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula—and also working closely with the famous director—that gave him the impetus to make the jump into creating his own work. “How do you top that?” says Mike, concerning working with Coppola. “How do you go back to drawing another Batman comic book after that?”
After crossing over to Dark Horse Comics in the early ‘90s, he took the plunge and created Hellboy—a hero that blended elements of his own personality, life experiences and interests. Hellboy started with a relatively straightforward concept, tinged with Mike’s iconic sense of humor. “He’s a good guy who looks like the devil,” says Mike. “I thought that was funny.”
The character is a demon with a gigantic stone hand and a penchant for sarcasm, and he tackles monsters of all shapes and sizes, ranging from Lovecraftian creatures to ancient ghosts. The premise is that after being rescued by a kindly professor from Nazi occultists who’d summoned him from hell, Hellboy decides to dedicate his life to protecting the world from evil.
The character’s humor stems from Mike’s personality, while Hellboy’s physicality was based on Mike’s father—one of those WWII-era tough guys who worked with his hands every day. “He just was the toughest guy I’d seen,” says Mike. “Hellboy has my voice and his physical presence.”
The graphic novel series is still ongoing in several different forms, and Hellboy has been featured in animated films, a video game and two Hollywood movies directed by Guillermo del Toro. But while the wisecracking demon has garnered success, Mike mentions that he never imagined it would be so popular.
Oftentimes, people ask him if he’d had a “formula for success” when he’d created the character. “If I was thinking that this thing was going to be movies, TV and everything else—you don’t call it Hellboy.”
The character’s name, much like the premise, was just something he’d created for entertainment because he thought it was funny. “I was really just trying to come up with a comic that would be fun to do,” he explains.
Comic books provided an outlet for Mike to explore a world that he’s been interested in since childhood and to create a character that, despite his supernatural origins, is ultimately human by design. Hellboy is, in a way, an extension of Mike, his interests and the way he sees the world around him.
Mike also encourages other aspiring artists to pursue their own work and to use the graphic novel medium to create something original and unique. If creators do their homework and learn how other aspiring creators are doing it, they might have a shot. “If you’ve got something you want to do, rather than just drawing Batman or Superman, you might at least try doing your own thing.”
Torrance locals who’ve driven down MacAfee Road at least once can easily point out Geoffrey Patterson’s house—even if they’ve never met him. It’s the only house on the block with a Silver Surfer statue on the roof, a Superman statue by the driveway and an enormous Spiderman painted next to the front door.
The 71-year-old comic book aficionado has been collecting comics since 1951, starting when he was only a Cub Scout. A friend’s mom would bring a box of comics to their scout meetings, and all the boys would dive in for the best picks.
“They’re popular because they’re great,” says Geoffrey about the current rise in popularity of comic books. He adds that his favorite superhero is DC Comic’s Blackhawk, a mysterious fighter ace who flew daring combat missions against Axis forces during World War II.
In the late 1970s, Geoffrey channeled his affection for comics and opened his own store, Geoffrey’s Comics. The store has been a focal point of his family’s life for decades. He works with his son, Geoffrey, Jr., to manage the shop, and he met his wife there more than 20 years ago.
They were married at a superhero-themed ceremony that was broadcast by the local news (the same broadcast Mike Wellman saw in North Carolina—see below). His wife, Monica, was dressed as Wonder Woman, and he was dressed as Captain Greedy—a character that he invented.
Geoffrey has never been embarrassed by his love for comics (he even sports a sizeable Captain Marvel lightning bolt on his chest). But he often feels that other fans don’t embrace comics the same way. Geoffrey remembers one particular incident at the shop when a customer asked for his comics to be placed in an inconspicuous brown paper bag.
“It was always the bastard child of literature,” says Geoffrey. He notes that comics are often slighted as being childish by nature, and thus the medium and the writers usually don’t receive the respect they deserve. Because of that, Geoffrey makes a point of fully embracing comic books. “I’m just going to broadcast comics whenever I can, because they’re just unfairly maligned.”
While the outside of his house may receive the most attention, it’s the interior that’s the real sight to see. The walls are covered with framed comic books (including rare, vintage titles, such as “Uncle Sam,” “The Three Stooges” and “Captain Marvel”) and a couple of shelves’ worth of superhero action figures and toys.
In the living room, there’s a life-size Spiderman statue swinging from the ceiling, and original Frank Frazetta artwork shares wall space with posters for the ‘50s-era Blackhawk movie serials. Monica’s Wonder Woman costume is also on display. In his backyard, a Darth Maul statue stands guard over a swimming pool that’s decorated with bright yellow Bat-signals.
Yet one of Geoffrey’s most prized collectibles is a piece of original Blackhawk art done by the series’ creator Chuck Cuidera, hanging in his living room. “He’s like Norman Rockwell when it comes to capturing human anatomy,” says Geoffrey.
The man knows his comics, and he’s excited to show off his house when he can. Every Halloween, he hosts a neighborhood party and hires people to dress up as superheroes and pass out free candy and comics. “We had 700 people one year,” says Geoffrey. He mentions that his wife usually hides out in the bedroom during the party.
Though Geoffrey firmly believes that comics should be respected as an art form, when asked about why he continues to decorate the outside of his home, he confides: “It’s just because I like it, and that’s enough for me.”
Mike Wellman, owner of The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, started reading comics when he was 5 years old. Growing up in North Carolina during the ‘70s, he spent much of his childhood trekking to his neighborhood liquor store to stock up on the newest comics.
“I’ve always been a comic book fan,” says Mike. “Others hit puberty and started thinking about other things, but I’ve never stopped thinking about .”
Mike came to Los Angeles in 1997 to break into the film business but had a hard time finding any paying gigs. His fondness for all things superhero led him to hunt for a job at Geoffrey’s Comics in Gardena—he recognized the owner, Geoffrey Patterson, from a news broadcast he’d seen in North Carolina. He landed his first paying job in LA working at the shop.
In 2004, Mike and a friend, Jun Goeko, opened their first store, The Comic Bug on Aviation Boulevard. They quickly set their store apart by catering to the particular tastes of local fans and creators. “I’m a comic book creator, too,” says Mike, who’s written a variety of graphic novels, one of the most notable being a manga-style Battlestar Galactica comic published by Tokyopop. “I’m sympathetic to the plight of artists out there that are struggling, especially the independent guys, so I just try to look out for everybody.”
Mike hosts comic-creator meetings at the shop. Aspiring writers and artists can meet with established creators to learn the ropes of navigating the comic publishing world. Richard Starkings, a font designer, letterer, writer and creator of the Elephantmen series, frequently stops by to chat about comics and share tips with local up-and-comers.
In 2006, the shop relocated to Manhattan Beach Boulevard after the original location burned down. But the Bug’s earned a loyal following, partly due to Mike’s ability to pair the right comic to the right person, and the fire did little to stifle business. Even while firefighters were still stamping out embers, Mike had tables piled with comics outside the shop, and they sold $2,500 worth of books that day.
For Mike, the shop is about supporting the South Bay comic book scene: providing a constant sense of community to local fans, creators and newcomers alike. “There’s still fresh ideas,” says Mike, who notes that comics have been a steady source of new and original storylines for years—something he believes most other media seems to lack.
He enjoys introducing customers to new comics. It’s a way for him to expose people to original, imaginative and distinctly pure worlds that can’t be found almost anywhere else. “Comics are very pure, and even some of the most heartbreaking, amazing films can’t capture the purity that’s in comic books.”