In comic books, the concept of a secret subterranean lair is not all that unique.
After all, one of the basic tenets of maintaining a covert hideaway is making sure that it stays, well, covert — and what better place to keep something hidden than an abandoned subway tunnel or cavern discovered deep under the family manor? This of course explains why most of your typical heroic haciendas look like everyone in the Justice League read the same article on “How to make the most of your stalactites this fall” in last month’s Home and Garden.
For the most part, it’s a trend that works. Still, it’s difficult to imagine the Batcave having street parking.
Entering Comic Swap is simple enough — just take the stairwell off South Fraser Street in downtown State College. Inside, a clerk is waiting with a greeting or a polite inquiry about the last comic you purchased.
Pleasantries aside, the first thing you’re bound to notice about a comic book store is that it more or less supplies its own décor. Shelves are full of covers supplied by some of the medium’s greatest working artists, a splash of color that grips the senses with all the subtlety of a showdown between Spider-Man and the notorious Doctor Octopus.
Wham! Pow! Blam!
If the books are a gateway to the exotic and extraordinary, worlds where crisp lines and vivid inks give rise to a landscape of improbably haunting beauty, the rest of the store exists to bring you back to earth, an anchor as necessary as it would be on any luxury cruise liner.
That’s not to say that the building is dingy — it’s not.
“We have that kind of old-building feel,” owner John Secreto said.
Secreto knows that he has it good. He gets to set his own hours, wear Ant-Man T-shirts to the office and, if the past four decades have been any indication, enjoy a decent expectation of job security in an industry that has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
First as an employee and then, starting in 2010 as owner, Secreto has achieved the kind of longevity that allows for varying degrees of familiarity with the building’s regulars, faces he could pick out of lineup if not necessarily build an A&E Biography special around.
It’s the nature of comics. Monthly release dates translate to monthly visits from readers loyal to the ongoing adventures of Batman or Doctor Strange.
Secreto knows that in the age of digital comics, Amazon and other massive online retailers, part of what he’s offering costumers is the store itself, a makeshift forum for the kind of dialogue that should not be relegated to speech bubbles.
The opportunity for shared arguments, debates or even questions transform comics from a solo endeavor into a community experience, much in the way that viewing a film in the theater with a group of friends is different from watching it at home alone on an iPad.
Comic Swap, with its cozy-looking armchairs and open floor plan, is fertile ground for those kinds of interactions.
“It’s funny — if you stop, you can hear it,” Secreto said.
Over on Allen Street, Schlow Centre Region Library has also been attempting to foster conversations between comic readers. The library’s sizable collection of graphic novels had proven so popular with patrons young and old alike, that the medium was made the focal point of BookFest 2015.
The event scored record attendance and proved so popular among the visiting stable of authors and fans that they decided to bring it back again in the summer of 2016.
Tim Hanley, a comic book historian and the author of “Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine,” was one of the presenters featured in July.
He was impressed with how engaged the early Saturday morning crowd became with the material.
“The history of women in comics has a lot of bizarre twists and turns, with both cringe-worthy moments and heroic beats. It’s great to be able to go through it all and see the visceral reaction people have, the groans and the laughs and the smiles,” Hanley said.
With the medium itself enjoying a bit of a moment — you can’t swing Thor’s hammer without hitting a film or television spin-off of Fox’s X-Men franchise — Hanley believes that the fandom has morphed from a relatively homogenous group (read: young white men) into something more eclectic.
Even obscure characters, like Marvel’s hard-charging and even harder drinking detective Jessica Jones, are achieving a level of notoriety that would have previously seemed out of reach in the shadow of mass media titans like Batman and Superman.
But Netflix subscribers don’t need to have ever picked up an issue of “Alias” comics or be familiar with the name Brian Michael Bendis in order to sample “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.”
Maybe while they’re in the neighborhood they’ll check out “Marvel’s Daredevil” or be waiting with baited breath for the arrival of “Marvel’s Luke Cage.”
Or maybe they won’t.
“Among the more hardcore comic fandom community, there are so many more women in the mix these days, and kids are starting to get into superheroes again. Fandom is growing outward in every single direction with all sorts of people at different levels of participation who are into different genres,” Hanley said.
The Comics Club that meets each week at Schlow, for example, is the most unlikely team-up this side of a meeting of the mighty Avengers.
Eli Caulkins is a junior studying at Penn State’s School of Visual Arts. He inherited his position as the club’s lead organizer and now oversees a group that ranges in age from late middle school to a young fourth-grade student studying… cursive, maybe?
“We’re sort of tiptoeing the line between ‘Comics Enthusiasts Club’ and ‘Comic Creators Club,’ ” Caulkins said.
He prefers a relaxed atmosphere, where people can work on their drawing or discuss the latest book to capture their attention.
Caulkins took the back door into comics, gravitating toward characters that operated toward the fringes of their respective universes. As a gay man, he is on the lookout for stories that include LGBT representation, characters that were difficult to find in the pages of titles like “Captain America” or “Iron Man.”
“My entrance into the fandom is odd and is mostly through side characters like Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Batgirl and others, but I’ve never felt excluded for not knowing ‘the big guys’ like Captain America or Batman all that well,” Caulkins said.
He believes that times are changing though.
Caulkins called the comic-themed Netflix shows amazing — but he also mentioned the energy and resources he’s noticed both Marvel and DC Comics devoting to more diverse storytelling that can resonate with a wider audience.
His research on the subject has been conducted mostly at Comic Swap, where Secreto still scours through a thick catalog of titles to determine which of the coming months’ new comics will be invited in his Sanctum Santorum.
It looks, to be blunt, like one heck of a chore, though Secreto doesn’t seem to mind.
“There’s a lot more comics available now, for every kind of readership,” Secreto said.
So maybe this particular lair is not so secret after all.