In James Gunn’s pitch-black comedy Super, Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), a plain, average and somewhat wimpy man, walks into a comic book shop with a mission of creating his own crime-fighting alter-ego. The result is The Crimson Bolt, who strikes people who commit crimes such as dealing drugs or cutting in line for a movie, with a wrench.
On a recent weekday afternoon, I walked into on Ventura Boulevard, the location for a pivotal scene in the film where Wilson’s character asks eccentric employee Libby (Ellen Page, in her usual form) for help finding super heroes that don’t have special powers. The store was nearly empty on my early afternoon visit, with a few customers lingering in the aisles.
Michael Friedman, the 28-year-old owner, stood behind a glass countertop filled with figurines, chatting with a regular customer who left minutes after I arrived. The athletic blonde is an actor, Freedman told me, and is “obsessed with Captain America.”
It’s not a personality one would normally predict to find in a comic book store in the east valley. But the average clientele is “just normal guys,” said Freedman. And “quite a bit of lawyers.”
“It’s a nostalgia industry,” he said. “These were all things these guys were into as kids. You could be 58 and a lawyer now, but you still love Spider-Man. You never got over your love of Spider-Man.”
Film adaptations have played a lucrative role in comic book sales. When the trailer for 2009’s Watchmen hit the Internet and movie theaters, the graphic novel disappeared from every bookstore. “You couldn’t find it anywhere,” said Freedman.
He was working at an independent bookstore at the time, and they sold out every time an order was replenished. I recounted my story trying to find it at Illiad Bookshop in North Hollywood for a friend, where the book seller gave me an incredulous when I asked if they had it in stock.
David E. Kelley’s version of Wonder Woman will appear on the small screen this fall, and I ask Freedman if it’s increased sales of the DC comic.
He said it was too early to tell, but it the media coverage has “peaked curiosity.” He gave me a pop culture analogy.
“It will be less like a Dark Knight or Watchmen and more like an Iron-Man,where it will probably take until people actually see the movie until it gets a buzz, obviously depending on if its good or not,” he said.
There are Thor and Captain America films releasing this year as well, but Freedman has seen only a modest increase in those comics. The Walking Dead, a relatively new comic book series about a zombie apocalypse, is the store’s bestselling series.
Because of the TV show, which began last year on AMC and was picked up for another season, “The sales are through the roof. Everybody and their brother is jumping onto that one,” said Freedman. “And with good reason.”
As I looked around the shop, it was hard to place a character that didn’t have a role in a film or some other visual faucet of pop culture. And filmmakers continually reboot franchises; new Spider-Man and Superman films are in the early stages of production. Comic book characters are often the stars of spring and summer blockbusters, but it is rare that a shop where their inked beginnings are sold makes an onscreen appearance.
Freedman received a call one day from a location scout who was interested in using ComicSmash! in a low-budget, independent film. He agreed, and said he thinks the crew was tipped off to his store by writer-director Gunn, who lives in Los Angeles and often buys comics at the shop.
The day they came to Studio City was their last day of filming, and Freedman said the whole cast enjoyed themselves.
“It was a lot of fun. If you go see the movie, you can play Where’s Waldo with me. I’m back there somewhere,” he said.
“They were having a blast making this movie,” he said. “I think it comes through on screen.”
Page’s character, a comic book shore employee by day, and a violent crime-fighting side-kick by night, is not quite a realistic representation of an employee of Freedman’s store.
“It’s at best an exaggeration,” he said. “Her character is a little off-kilter, Intentionally so. She’s definitely the most far-out character in the movie."
The film, which is not rated, pushes the boundaries of a dark comedy. Page’s character hits a criminal with a car, and uses homemade Wolverine-like claws to scratch a drug dealer’s face.
“Most of us are fairly normal, I think,” he said. “Most of us are not going to put on a costume and attempt to fight crime.”
Super is playing at the Laemmle's Sunset 5.
See the trailer (with ComicSmash! displayed prominently, in the video under the photo gallery.)