Borders Books & Music in Hagerstown carries a section of comics. Jim Howard, Borders inventory supervisor, says the he sees all kinds of fans.
"The market's grown from where it was just kids buying books to collectibles, graphic novels, even cloth-bound books," he says. "It's grown from where it was just a kids' thing to an adults' thing."
The typical title follows the experiences of a good guy (or woman) or a team of good guys who try to keep a lid on the bad guys. Howard says that age-old plot remains popular, even in today's spectacular spectrum of storylines.
"You've got science fiction, fantasy, superheroes," he says. "It's about good vs. evil. It appeals to kids, but, as you grow older, your fascination doesn't leave you."
Comic books have changed with the time, he says. Characters once were pure and true-hearted. In the '60s, they became human, with human foibles. In the '80s and '90s, the lives of superheroes meshed with the world of their readers. The look of comics became grittier. Characters became more complex.
"Not only has the artwork changed but the writing behind it has changed," Howard says. "There's character development - I think that's what appeals to adults."
The typical comic book is a monthly edition telling part of a serial story. Some stories are told in miniseries of four to eight issues. Well-established characters appear in editions that number in the hundreds. The current "Adventures of Superman" is No. 618. Also on bookstore shelves are "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" No. 169, "Wonder Woman" No. 195, "Scooby Doo" No. 74 and "The Amazing Spider-Man" No. 55. Many older Marvel titles, including the Spider-Man books, launched new volumes a few years ago, so comic book issue numbers do not always reflect the age or history of the characters.
Comic book publishers are nothing if not enterprising. Got a popular character? Spin off a second title. Mix the character with another character. Therefore, Marvel publishes "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Spider-Man and Wolverine," "Peter Parker: Spider-Man" and others.
Borders carries a limited selection of monthly titles, but shelves and shelves are loaded with comics collected into anthologies and graphic novels. Graphic novels tell a longer story than a slender monthly issue can.
"Graphic novels are a big thing for our store," Howard says.
But it is racks and racks of monthly comic books that bring customers to Atomic Comics in downtown Hagerstown. Owner Luke Haberlein says he sells all kinds of titles to many different buyers.
"All ages, mostly adult males, 15 to 45," he says. "Kids are into 'X-Men.' 'Course, there's 'Looney Tunes' and 'Archie' and 'Dragon Ball Z.' There's the same popular titles - 'X-Men,' 'Superman,' 'Spider-Man,' 'Batman' - they're geared more to adults now."
Kearbey is a former employee at Atomic. For a time, he collected a lot of comics. Thomas did, too. But now both teens say they've stopped.
"I stopped when I didn't have money," Kearbey says. "They're $2.95 or $4 or $8 each. I stopped buying comics a year ago."
"I stopped eight years ago. I missed the stories," Thomas says. "Instead of the old stories, they have these new-age stories. Peter Parker's no longer a reporter. Now he's a Web master."
"And they killed all the characters in 'Gen 13,' my favorite comic, and got new characters," Kearbey says.
Haberlein says stories are important to many of his customers.
"It's more story-based than people just collecting now," he says. "There're still those who buy just to keep the run going, just to collect all issues. But mostly, buyers are looking for a good story."
Haberlein says his favorite characters are Spider-Man, Spawn and X-Men. And he's happy to see some old favorites return to his shelves.
"Some old titles from the 1980s are coming back into production: 'Masters of the Universe,' 'Transformers,' 'GI Joe,' 'Voltron,'" he says. "They've all come back out in the last year. Most all the old fans are now working adults."
The characters and the drawings change, Haberlein says. New characters appear. Old characters die and sometimes return. Some fans fall away. But the appeal of comics remains. Comics connect with something deep in the human heart.
"The stories change, but it's still a villain and a hero," Haberlein says. "They may change the look, but it's still good vs. evil."