SAN JOSE--Nick Pino, one of the youngest artists Sunday at the Big Wow Comic Book Convention, still likes the look and feel of his fantasies and imagination printed on paper. But most of his friends read comics online.
"A lot of people are telling me, 'Dude, you've got to get online!' " said Pino, a 22-year-old art student from Fairfield with two fledgling comic books under his belt. "But I like how a comic book feels in my hands, how it looks as I turn the pages. I'm just not ready to give it up."
Apparently, lots of comic book fans aren't ready to drop their beloved, old-school, dead-tree, dinosaur form of fantastical, cartoon storytelling on bound paper pages. Hundreds of them turned out for the weekend festival to meet the artists, buy vintage comic books, attend drawing and storytelling workshops and generally commune together in the imagination.
Quite a few fans dressed up as their favorite superhero or -villain: There were at least four Wonder Women, two Lara Crofts, one Alien monster, a Jack Sparrow, a Thor, and a squadron of Star Wars storm troopers.
"She's a very strong female, leading character," said Rose May, 31, of Sacramento, whose Lara Croft costume included black smudges on her face and arms and a bow slung across her back. "She relies on herself to get what she wants."
Bills to pay
While costumed fans ruled the aisles, the comic book artists and writers mostly sat in their booths, autographed copies and chatted up their next line of comics. Conversations with a handful seemed to put the comics in the same sinkhole with newspapers, magazines and books -- printed media fighting for survival against the Internet.
"I think that's where the comics are headed," said Joe Benitez, an East Los Angeles comics artist since 1993. His newest creation is Lady Mechanica, a sexy, cyborg survivor of a mad scientist's experiment who becomes a paranormal investigator and solves crimes that stump Scotland Yard.
His drawings are highly detailed, filled in with elaborate colors and require the time and patience of a fine artist. Then comes the printing, shipping and paying off the publishers and retailers who will take their share of any profits from printed products.
In the end, Benitez said, what could save comics from death-by-Internet is the aftermarket sales and marketing of successful comic books. He said the real money comes from the second, third and subsequent runs, when prices typically are increased. Even better is when a comic book becomes a collector's item.
Todd Kamena, a dentist from Livermore, has been collecting comic books since he was 10. He stopped by Benitez's booth for an autograph.
"He can tell the story as compellingly through his pictures as with his words," said Kamena, who has about 8,000 volumes in his collection.
Kamena said comic book artists are cutting costs by drawing the outlines of their characters and background scenes and then having the colors filled in by digital artists. Still, it takes old-fashioned footwork and networking to get a new comic book off the ground.
Anthony Wayne Pettus, 59, left Los Angeles and a career in the movies for his native San Francisco and a shot as a comics artist. His first two series -- The Inheritors and the Fearless Army Ant -- feature African-American and other heroes of color battling evil in a futuristic world dominated by insects.
"It's really hard starting a comic," Pettus said. "A lot of people who come here already have their favorite books."
Like other new writers, he paid for the printing and costs of presenting his books at similar conventions like the Big Wow. The goal is to sign on with a publisher willing to market the books, give him a healthy advance for the next line and generally build his brand.
A few booths away, two women in the same entry-level stage as Pettus were showing their first books that were unlike any of the traditional comics around them. Instead of drawing panels, Etanna Zak and Lydia Harari, of San Francisco, take digital photographs of real people and places and rework the colors and outlines for a hot, electrified look. In another comic book, they start with water color paintings.
Their plots are unorthodox, too. There are no heroes saving the world or giant lizards stomping everything, just people ruminating about life.
"We're looking to explore the nature of reality and experience," Zak said, "this thing that happens and we call life."
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.