It’s been a really long winter, and the even longer recession has taken its toll on local businesses. With the melting snow, many Lake Region merchants hope spring brings new life their way.

In Windham, major restaurants have borne the brunt of belt tightening especially hard. But a small specialty store has kept right on chugging: Casablanca Comics celebrated its 24th year last week.

“What we have is relatively unique,” explains Matt Beckwith, store manager. “Whatever’s going on with the economy, the form of entertainment we have here is relatively inexpensive.” Movie rentals are a fleeting experience, he said. “With this, you can read it again and again.”

Despite what you may believe, there are more comics out there now than ever before. “There’s something for everybody,” Beckwith said.

When I stopped in, there were familiar offerings such as the “Incredible Hulk,” “The Fantastic Four” and “Batman,” but there were also some really offbeat selections. “Barack the Barbarian” is one series where a ripped and toned likeness of the 44th president wields a battle ax through pages of striking color. “X-Men,” “Rawhide Kid,” and “The Mutants” also grace the stands.

There are superwomen, too: “Wonder Woman,” “Cat Woman,” and “Black Cat” grace covers in remarkable vividness.

Beckwith said color technology is one change the comic industry has really taken advantage of.

“The comics from the ’60s and ’70s had a really limited color palette,” he said. “Part of that was because of the paper they used. In the ’80s and ’90s the companies began using a higher quality stock that allowed a wider range of color the paper could hold. Instead of just red and blue, you started seeing all the shades of red and blue. Now there are books that are fully painted. It’s really art; they’re like paintings.”

Casablanca has one other store in Portland. Rick Lowell owns the pair with his wife, Laura O’Meara. Both are based in the Portland store. Lowell echoes changes the industry has seen in the past 24 years.

“Comics are much more mainstream than they were 24 years ago,” Lowell said. “The public has embraced the characters, but I’m not sure if they understand there are still comic books being published. Comic books used to be much more available in supermarkets and other outlets.”

Lowell and Beckwith, both in their 40s, caught the comic book fever early in their youth. Beckwith remembers buying issues in a variety store in Yarmouth, while Lowell recalls his grandfather taking him to a camp store in Naples to buy comics.

Now comics are offered almost exclusively through the “direct market,” specialty stores such as Casablanca.

It’s this exclusivity that Casablanca’s staff credits for its success.

“The secret is running the store as a business and not a hobby,” Lowell said. “Customer service is always a top priority. We want to create a fun, entertaining place to shop where everyone feels welcome. We are always looking at the products that we offer, making sure that we have cool and unique items not found in a typical big box store.”

Though much has changed, a lot has stayed the same. Since 1937, “Batman” is the oldest continuously published series. “Superman” has also had about a 70-year run. The “Man of Steel” shows no signs of slowing down. He’s just catering to a different generation.

Beckwith said comics reflect contemporary culture. When 9/11 hit, rather that battling his nemesis “Spider Man” worked side-by-side with Dr. Doom in New York, putting differences aside and picking debris from the streets together.

Though not a huge part of their market, collecting is another facet a specialty store like Casablanca can cater to. “We have comics ranging back 40 years or older at both stores,” Lowell said. “We emphasize reading for pleasure over collecting, but understand the pleasures of collecting and seeking out older issues. We love to help people who are on quests for certain issues or stories.”

Casablanca is open seven days a week. You can reach the Windham store at 892-0056, or find them at www.casablancacomics.com for more information.

 

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: [email protected]