.Panel Discussion

After 39 years in business, the owner of Santa Cruz’s Atlantis Fantasyworld looks back at how comics have evolved

Few know better than Joe Ferrara, owner and operator of Atlantis Fantasyworld, how much comic books have changed over the years. He opened his shop 39 years ago, ages before every blockbuster film in the theater was based on a comic book “franchise.”

“Comics are now a legitimate piece of the entertainment pie,” Ferrera says. “When I started the business they were a very, very small piece of the entertainment industry. Now it’s just as viable [a way] to pass the time as it is to go to the movies, play a video game or watch television.”

Things are better than ever, and one need only look at TV and film for proof. But this, according to Ferrara, is only the most recent movement in a series of steps that have legitimized comic books. The first, he says, was Star Wars, which demonstrated that science fiction content had viable mainstream appeal.

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After that, it was the introduction of the graphic novel which emerged in the ’80s and became popular by the mid ’90s, and is generally a reprint of several serial comic books telling a single story. With the graphic novel, comics could be sold at actual bookstores, and they gained more artistic merit than before, widening the kinds of stories that were told.

“Comics in the old days weren’t used to tell sophisticated narratives like, say, Persepolis,” Ferrara says. “It used to be that if you held up a comic, the implication was that it was for kids. If you held up a blank CD, you would have no idea what kind of music is on it. Is it classical? Is it rock? Is it punk? If you held up a comic, how could you possibly know without looking at the cover what’s inside that thing? It’s an open book now.”

The whole idea of comics being for kids has shifted completely. Now, Ferrara says, a vast majority of comic books are created for the 18- to 35-year-old market. Only recently in the past three years, he says, has there been a slight uptick in the family-friendly, kid-oriented comics with the Smurfs, Disney, and others, but it’s still a small part of the market.

Just as in the old days, DC and Marvel still rule. But several smaller companies exist and continue to broaden the content and style of comics. The big graphic novel now, Ferrara says, is Saga, which he describes as a cross between Star Wars and Shakespeare.

“When I started this business, I would have characterized myself as a purveyor of collectibles. Most people coming in were buying back issues. I was primarily selling vintage. And the paradigm has shifted,” he says. “Now I consider myself a purveyor of entertainment, and the collectible aspect of this business is only about seven percent of my income. That’s how things have changed in 39 years.”


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