By Jonathan McNamara
Spider-Man signed autographs and posed for pictures, with his web shooters at the ready, for comic fans of all ages during Saturday's Free Comic Book Day at Atomic Comics in Mesa. It’s not hard to imagine the web-spinner drawing a crowd, but he had his work cut out for him as an army of comic book fans who could care less about Spider-Man (whether he was the friendly neighborhood variety or otherwise) arrived midday.
The massive crowd, which grew to hundreds-strong and stretched from the back door of the comic book store around to the front, was there to witness history: On this Free Comic Book Day, Jim Lee (X-Men, Wild C.A.T.S. and Bat Man), Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Rob Liefeld (Youngblood), Marc Silvestri (X-Men, Wolvering), Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon), Jim Valentino (Shadow Hawk) and Whilce Portacio (Wetworks), the seven founding fathers of Image Comics, assembled at Atomic Comics for a massive book and merchandise signing. It was the first time all seven members had been united for a signing -- ever.
Mike Malve, owner of Atomic Comics, was the secret force acting behind the scenes to get each of the founding Image fathers to Mesa.
His secret plan started by accident two years ago when a car crashed through the comic shop, wiping out the whole building. Jim Lee heard about Malve’s trouble and said he’d wanted to help out by making a public appearance. With Lee secured, Malve went to McFarlane and continued until he’d assembled them all.
“Each one said yes, thinking it would never happen,” Malve said.
It did on Saturday.
Mike Debalfo and Austin Santos were at the end of the outside line to meet the Image Comics seven. Both came equipped with a stack of merch for their artistic heroes to sign. Debalfo was all about meeting Jim Lee.
“I’ve got a couple of old comics from early in Jim Lee’s career…X-Men no.279…Gen 13 no. 1…and this awesome X-Men poster I got a few years back,” Debalfo said. “If he’s nice enough, he’ll autograph everything for me.”
As the masses subsisted on tiny cups of McDonald’s Hi-C Orange and undiluted enthusiasm in the rapidly warming sun, several shoppers were lining up inside to get their hands on a free comic book.
“We’ve only run out of one series, which was Salem,” says Ryan Powell Cleaveland, a regular at Atomic Comics who offered to hand out the freebies. Other favorites seem to be Hellboy and, of course, the Iron Man, Spider Man, Hulk combo issue; the Iron Man film was just released and the upcoming Hulk movie staring Edward Norton is fast approaching.
Cleaveland offers advice on choosing the right free comic.
“Hellboy is actually really big with the ladies,” Cleaveland said.
When it comes to the question of how effective Free Comic Book Day is at getting the word out about the joys of super heroics and panel-to-panel action, Cleaveland cites himself as a success story thanks to a friend who made him attend last year's Free Comic Book Day at that very store.
“I was one of those guys who worked so hard not to be a nerd because I fit the profile so well,” he said, “but I think you can say I’m in my element right now.”
A hush fell over the room and then cheers erupted as six (Todd McFarlane’s flight was a bit later than the rest) of the seven creators of Image Comics stepped into Atomic Comics. The signing began immediately as the fans waiting outside were lead in five at a time.
The gravity of the assembled Image artists was not lost on the crowd, who all seem to whispering the same question back and forth: Will we see a new wave of Image-based comics?
All the artists were quick to point out that this event is not to be taken as the reincarnation of Image.
“I think it’s a lot of fun, it’s very nostalgic,” Jim Lee said. “I’m very happy with the decision I made 10 years ago to work on the Batman project with Frank [Miller].”
Though they denied a second coming for Image, each artist was quick to praise Free Comic Book Day.
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“It’s a great comic book holiday…the only comic book holiday,” Rob Liefeld said between signing issues of his series Youngblood. “I know if we were here or not, it would bring out people. People love free stuff and it exposes them to something that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.”
Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio hand out water to patient fans who had been waiting in the sun for hours to get a signature from their favorite artist on their favorite comics.
Of course, that didn’t stop the Image seven from throwing their celebrity weight around a little to benefit the line of fans baking in the hot sun. Halfway through the signing, all seven of the creators armed with cases of bottled water purchased at the nearby 99 cent store took to the alley behind Atomic Comics to hand out drinks to their fans.
It took only seconds before fans started asking for signatures on their bottles of water.