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Back to the Future with Comic Book Buffs

  • Darren Taylor

A cargo plane roars low over a dank warehouse at O.R. Tambo Airport near Johannesburg while a worker unpacks boxes. The freight belongs to a man in his late 20s, Scot Brimson. He wears spectacles and is dressed all in black.

Brimson is one of South Africa’s foremost authorities on comic books.

“We get our comics every single week, from America – all sorts of stuff. That’s the wonderful thing about comics: No matter who you are, there’s something for you,” he says, smiling.

Brimson works at a store in a non-descript side-street near one of Johannesburg’s busiest routes, Beyers Naude Drive.

Cosmic Comics is sandwiched between a bakery and a tire fitment center. Outside the shop, the real world rages. Trucks let off steam and cars hoot as the traffic intensifies. Inside, a fantastical universe of color and escapism blooms, and the air is filled with the smell of newly printed paper.

Comics for adults

A customer flips through comics as Brimson explains that he carries “tons” of them.


“Comics have been going since the 30s and there’s no sign of (them) slowing down and new characters, and new writers, new artists, are always coming in,” he says.

The shop’s shelves hold thousands of titles, protected by thick plastic covers.

“Everything from Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Iron Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange,” says Brimson.

He emphasizes that comics are no longer the sole preserve of children, and that most of his clients are adults. They can afford to pay the 200 to 300 rand, or 20 to 30 dollars, that’s the average price of an imported comic book.

‘Not Keanu Reeves’

Brimson says many of his readers aren’t into predictable, happy endings. They prefer “darker” comics, like the new Batman series, Court of Owls.

“Absolutely fantastic! Batman doesn’t win!” he enthuses. “There are people (in the comic) who are smarter and better than Batman. In Court of Owls it’s a group who go to Batman and go, ‘We know who you are, we know what you’re doing; you’re stepping on our toes now. Stop it, or we will stop you.’ Batman does stop them but he doesn’t ‘win,’ by any stretch of the imagination…”

Another of Brimson’s popular titles is Saga … On the cover of one issue giant green vines capture a screaming man in a forest.

“It’s a melting pot of ideas. You’ve got these two characters who are from opposite sides of an inter-galactic war. Her faction is more sort of these fairy types, but they’re more technologically advanced. His race uses actual magic. So, it’s this science fiction, magic, romance, horror amalgamation. It’s a really, really good series,” Brimson tells VOA.

Then, he pages through a Hellblazer comic. It’s for adults only, featuring lots of graphic violence. Its main character is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing, rough and rude detective in a dirty brown overcoat with a chin of hard stubble.

Brimson explains: “John Constantine (is an) antihero; not (American action movie actor) Keanu Reeves. He’s a blonde, British, bastard. He is basically out for nothing but himself. He will help you - if it’s going to help him.”

Old-fashioned comics in vogue

Brimson says paper comics are increasingly popular in South Africa, even in an age when most titles are a click away online.

He maintains that old-fashioned comics have much more aesthetic merit, and also actual monetary value, than their e-versions.

“At no point ever in history will a digital download be worth 3.5 million US dollars, which was what a copy of Action Comics issue one sold for. You’re going to only get that with a really awesome (paper) collection that you’ve kept in the best condition over 50, 60 odd years. That’s the big reason why you’re never going to get rid of hardcopy comics, ever,” says an emphatic Brimson.

He unlocks a cabinet. Smiling mischievously, he cradles an Amazing Spider-Man comic, issue nine, from 1964.

It features the first appearance of one of the superhero’s arch-enemies, Electro.

On the cover the villain dressed in a bright green and yellow jumpsuit shocks a falling Spider-Man with jagged lightning bolts.

Lettering proclaims: ‘A scene you will never forget! See … The Defeat of Spider-Man!’

The comic is priced at more than 6,000 rand, a little less than $600.

“The reason for this is because it is so old and it’s a first appearance of a major character and it’s in really good condition for the age. When it comes to comics, it’s all about condition. That’s what really can make your book worth six thousand dollars, or 20 cents,” says Brimson. He once sold a book for the equivalent of $1,000.

Collectors

Brimson says most people just like reading comics, but some are “obsessive” collectors.

“I’ve got guys who collect every single Batman. If we get an old Batman (comic) in, I know two guys who I phone immediately and they will be here to check them out and see if they’ve got them in their collection. The crazy thing is: They probably do.”

Throughout the week there’s a constant stream of people filtering in to Cosmic Comics, to browse the store’s wondrous aisles. It’s a place that’s got one foot in the future with its cutting-edge publications. But this shop is also proud to remain part of a simpler past when comic books - and not computers - were major sources of entertainment.

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