Mark Knoxcvile stopped by a yard sale one day while he was living in Texas. An avid comic collector, he was not going to pass up a chance to browse through an attic collection. That would have been like a treasure hunter opting not to search a long lost sea vessel. Knoxcvile found quite a bauble in that stack: an Avengers #1 (the first issue of the famed Marvel Comics series). He kept his cool, approached the yard sale proprietor and asked, "How much?"
"One dollar," he was told. He couldn't get the buck out of his pocket fast enough. It was quite a sale. Today, his Avengers #1, valued at $150,000, sits in a safe inside his home along with 20,000 other lesser-valued comics. "Would you sell it for a million bucks?" I ask.
"Absolutely not," he answers, as if he wouldn't sell it for a billion or for world peace.
There are other stories like his. The "mile high collection," containing every major comic between 1938 and 1950 in mint condition, was sold to a Denver-area collector named Chuck Rozanski. When it sold in 1977, before the proliferation of comic stores and conventions, the value of comics had not yet taken off. Today, the famed comic pedigree is estimated at $50 million.
Most collectors aren't in it for the money. Even Shelton Drum, owner of Heroes Comics on 7th Street, struggles to sell his favorite comics. And he depends on selling comics to eat. "It's hard," he says. "From time to time I really need the money, but I won't do it." Shelton puts on the Heroes Convention in Charlotte every summer, one of the largest conventions in the country. This year the convention celebrates its 25th anniversary. Shelton's favorite convention moment was in 1984, when he hosted his personal hero, Marvel's legendary art director and Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, as a guest for a day.
Many collectors are also comic creators and artists. I met some of them at another convention last month at the uptown Best Western Hotel. One artist, who spoke with the nasal pitch of a stereotypical comic geek, accepted commissions for drawings at a table for $2. It took him 85 words to answer my question: "What's your name?"
"My name is Paul T. Lehner. Actually it's Paul Lehner but I go by the name Recca Hanibishi by some and I also go by NinjaWolf, but that's over at Wearwolf Café. Most likely I'm called Recca Hanibishi by my friends. Recca Hanibishi is actually an anime character from Flame of Recca, He's the hero. He is a ninja and he has flame powers. It's a good type of fighting anime. It ran for about 42 episodes. It's really good. I have the whole series."
Recca sold installments of a comic about an underground ninja fast-food delivery service to ninjaburger.com until "they decided to put me on hiatus (he enunciates every syllable and pronounces it hi-ET-tus). Currently, Lehner's working on a new series that will be more serious: "I won't tell you too many details so I don't ruin the plot. All I can tell you is that it's going to be almost like the end of the world, and the ninja characters are going to be laying their lives on the line in this one."
I did manage to find some comic artists who didn't look like they spent the better half of high school stuffed inside lockers. One table had four African-American artists who collaborate under the name God City. Some of their comics involve fantasy and superheroes, but others, like Invisible Soldier, portray realistic plots, from the dramatic (like being stuck at war) to the everyday (having to struggle to pay the bills). "Most people turn to comics to get away from real life, but some people want to see someone out there who's dealing with what they're dealing with," says Wolly, a God City member.
God City's artwork has been displayed in gallery shows at Green Rice and Pura Vida, and the collective incorporates hip-hop into its shows. At first, breaking into the gallery scene was difficult. One gallery owner even turned the group down under the claim that he couldn't provide enough security for the art show. God City's visual art and music hybrid is a model of artistic expression with substance that is lacking from the media-projected mainstream rap culture.
God City has taken an active role in the Charlotte community. The members have held spontaneous art demonstrations in parking lots; they've met with kids in after-school and summer programs; and they are trying to get more involved in the city school system.
"We find that a lot of kids, especially from black communities, are scared to say, 'I read comic books.' So when they realize there are other people out there that do it, and it's OK, they become more open," says Wolly. "If they like music and feel like they can't draw, then we try to show them how they can still do music and art without being an entertainer necessarily."
God City can be contacted at www.godcity7.com.