On the shelves of Comics Are Cool, superheroes do battle with villains forged in a terrifying imagination.
Customers can browse graphic novels that star Batman and the Justice League and deal with adult themes such as death, psychological trauma and what good truly is.
The adventures of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica can be found next to the hijinks of the Simpson family.
Comics have changed since the early days of Superman, Captain America and the Flash. Hundreds of characters populate multiple universes, sometimes with the same superhero involved in multiple stories.
To keep up, comic book dealers have had to adjust to the way they attract new, younger fans of the genre. Popular television shows have been animated and turned into stories, plot lines have matured for an older audience, and traditional superhero stories have been re-envisioned.
“It’s definitely not just kid material anymore. Back when they started in the ’30s and ’40s, anyone could pick up a comic and read it. Now there are ratings for them,” said Steven Ottney, owner of Comics Are Cool, a Center Grove area store.
This Saturday, fans can get a taste of the comic industry for free, when stores throughout the area provide special edition issues at no cost on Free Comic Book Day.
Free Comic Day started in 2002 as a way to introduce a new audience to the wholly American art form of comic books.
Even though the stories were growing more complex and innovative designers were doing more with the artwork, people still thought of the stodgy panels and drawings from the 1950s.
“We weren’t inviting anyone from the outside world to come in and see,” said Joe Field, the founder of Free Comic Book Day and owner of northern California’s Flying Colors Comics. “A way to get people back in and see all of the creative stuff that people are doing.”
The first year included four publishers doing four special issues and about 1,700 stores taking part. Those numbers have grown to include 2,100 stores, with 60 special edition comics released to participating stores.
More than 4.5 million comics have been given away in the previous 11 years, Field said.
On Saturday, every customer who comes into the store can pick up three free issues. Most are abbreviated issues, with five or six pages of new storyline.
But large publishers DC Comics and Marvel put out all new stories for the event.
“It’s the closest thing we have to a worldwide holiday for comics,” Field said.
The key to getting new fans of the comic genre is simply getting them to realize that so much of what they love comes from the artform.
Obviously, movies such as “The Dark Knight” and “Man of Steel” were inspired by comics. But graphic novels were the basis of movies such as “Road to Perdition” and “Ghost World.”
The hit television show “The Walking Dead” is based on graphic novels that first came out in 2003.
“We live in a very comic book-drenched culture. If you look at what’s going on visually — advertising, video games, TV, movies — so many of the very best in those other media get their ideas from comics,” Field said.
Ottney bought his first comic book when he was 10. A friend had told him about an awesome group of characters that he discovered, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Riding his bike to a drugstore near his home, Ottney tried to find a He-Man comic. But when he couldn’t locate any, he picked up an issue of “Wolverine” instead.
From the first page, he was enthralled.
“I loved all of the artwork and the imagination they had. It was something I looked forward to reading,” he said.
Ottney still has his copy of “Wolverine,” signed by the writer and protected in a sealed plastic bag.
He founded his store in October and saw it as a chance to share all of the boxes of comic books and graphic novels that he had collected in his garage.
But most of his inventory is new comics.
In his 25 years as a comic fan, Ottney has seen the form and role of comic books evolve.
No longer is it about picking up the latest Spider-Man or Archie issue, following the self-contained story along a larger overarching plot line. Instead, today’s comics have been reformed into graphic novels.
“The writing has become more serious. Basically, it’s like reading a novel,” Ottney said. “In the ’80s, you’d pick up an issue, read it and you were done. Now, one storyline might take two or three years to complete.”
Comics Are Cool sells to everyone from 9- and 10-year-old kids to adults in their 60s, Ottney said.
He’s noticed that there is a significant break between the generations. Where the older buyers are content to pick up a single issue week after week, younger ones are solely interested in graphic novels.
Digital comics downloaded to e-readers and tablets have gained popularity with kids and teens.
“My generation will still go on eBay and Craigslist, looking to find that one rare single copy for their collection,” Ottney said. “The younger ones are happy to just read the story.”
At southside store Comic Book University, Saturday will be its biggest sales day of the year, owner Rob Skorjanc said.
He plans to have special sales, including back issues and hard-to-find collectibles, available to people for one day only. Local artists, including Gavin Smith, who draws “The Accelerators” comics, and former Greenwood resident Kyle Latino will make sketches during the day.
People will pack the store from the time it opens at 10 a.m. until it closes 11 hours later. The day is an bigger boon for the store than even Black Friday, Skorjanc said.
“The organizers do such a great job every year, covering every genre now, so there’s got to be someone for somebody. It’s a great day for someone who has been out of comic books for a while or have never been into it,” Skorjanc said. “I only pray that I have enough free comic books that day.”