Comic books, seriously
A discussion group comes to order.
There are very few places a grown man can say out loud, to strangers, without clearing the room, "I was wondering if a Picasso in a parallel universe would look the same."
On this April evening, in an Old City storefront, that comment sparks a burst of enthusiastic chatter about physicists Nicola Tesla and Werner Heisenberg, the probability of a parallel universe having a different time zone, and naturally, the television show Lost. Welcome to Brave New Worlds' inaugural comic book discussion group.
The book at hand is RASL, artist Jeff Smith's newest trade paperback, collecting several issues of a comic and publishing them together in one edition. Smith is much loved by comic enthusiasts for his award-winning series Bone, so when winnowing his choices for the group, Brave New Worlds general manager Robert LeFevre counted on that fact. He also figured RASL's plot - a blend of superhero action, science-fiction time-warping, and graphic-novel narrative - would appeal to the broadest range of readers, assuming anyone showed up.
To LeFevre's surprise, 13 avid comic book fans sat in Brave New Worlds' entry foyer - also the space for the store-run art gallery. On display that night were dozens of variations on Batman's nemesis the Joker, grinning down on an eclectic mix of men and one lone brave woman ranging in age from 19 (student Matt Johnson) to 38 (research scientist Trish Brafford), digging into hot pizza and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
LeFevre, 27, has worked at Brave New Worlds for roughly six years since returning home from Florida State University, although he was a part-timer at the store's Abington outpost while still in high school. Outgoing and genial, he has a boy-next-door appeal and the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a guy who genuinely enjoys what he does. A passionate evangelist for the cause, and particularly for Brave New Worlds' contribution of spreading his message of picture books for the masses, LeFevre is the antithesis of the pallid, socially awkward, shut-in stereotype of comic-book geekdom.
"We're not nerdy, judgmental," he explains of the store's friendly approach to sales. "We're not the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, basically." Tell him your top three books and top three movies, and he promises, "I can find you 10 comics you'll really love. There's not one person in the world that I can't find a comic they'd like."
Those efforts have been appreciated by Johnson, a film student at the University of the Arts, transferring to Savannah College of Art and Design next fall. There, he hopes to join the school's sequential art program. ("Sequential art" is the title comics use when they're seeking credibility, although famed cartoonist R. Crumb and Pulitzer winner Art Spiegelman are staunch supporters of the form's simpler name.) Johnson is impressed by Brave New Worlds' effort to change public perception of comics and collectors.
"The public generally sees comic book stores - and shamefully, it's kind of true - as these seedy holes in the wall, where it's like, 'You're an outsider; don't read our books.' But they're really welcoming to not only younger readers, but people who want to start reading comic books."
LeFevre formed the idea for the group at a comic book retailers conference, when a store owner suggested offering art classes as a way to get bodies in the door. LeFevre knew art wasn't really his strength. But the former English major did know how to discuss books, "so why not make comics a legitimate forum for discussion?" he thought.
Once Brave New Worlds owner George Stasky signed on ("We should have done that years ago," he told LeFevre), LeFevre went online to research book clubs. Apparently, ladieshomejournal.com's No. 1 rule is, "Stay on topic."
At first it took a little prodding, but the group's first hour ended with some lively exchanges and a new book selected for the next meeting: Jonathan Hickman's graphic novel The Nightly News, a Network-style evisceration of mass media.
Widener University law student Ben Daniels, 36, a self-described "huge, huge Shakespeare fan," appreciated LeFevre's challenging choices and scholarly approach.
"What I really dug was the exchange of ideas, which is ultimately what any book group, regardless of genre, is about. It was cool to be able to explore the different facets of the book and gauge other people's perspectives." Plus, he says, "I can be unabashedly geeky, you know, be around other geeks and really enjoy the discussion."
Brafford knows how it is to feel self-conscious - not about being the only woman at the table, but about being a grown-up in territory commonly reserved for grade-schoolers.
"There's this subtle feeling of 'You're supposed to have grown out of it by now. . . .' My mother-in-law, my mother, they ask, 'Why, it's pictures?' They just don't understand. But there's so much more to comics than a superhero beating up bad guys."
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
At the group's second meeting in May, LeFevre hardly could shoehorn in a word - aside from having to gently remind returning reader Larry West to stay on topic. Again, a dozen readers gathered in the entrance - Brafford, happily, was joined by another woman - and the conversation wheeled from education to constitutional law to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Two unabashedly geeky hours later, the group chose a book for its third meeting, on June 25: The Books of Magic, by Neil Gaiman. It's a savvy choice; with Gaiman's elevated status these days - this year his Coraline made it to film, and The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal for children's literature - it's only a matter of time before comics make it to the classroom. LeFevre, in the meantime, is proud to bring the classroom straight to the comics.