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Comic belief

Dave Hargrave is a grown man, but he got to the Holiday Inn early Sunday morning to spend as much time as possible in a room full of comic books. He's not embarrassed. "Sometimes, people look at you funny when they find out about this," said the 45-year-old draftsman from Tampa. "But spending money on this is better than spending it on something else, like cigarettes or alcohol.

"Artists like Robert Little are here, and they'll all talk to you until they're hoarse," he added. "I love it. I get a high every time I come in here."

Inside a ballroom at the hotel, at the site of the Sun Con Sixth Anniversary Comic Book Show, hundreds of Hargrave's heroes were silently waiting. Stacked in bins and arranged along rows of shelves were all the old familiar faces. Superman, Spiderman and Captain Marvel. And plenty of the lesser-known stars _ The Tick, Groo the Wanderer, The Silver Surfer, She-Hulk and Destroyer Duck.

There were even a few adults-only characters, like Trashman and Panzerbabes, as well as a super hero who won't hit the streets until next week. His name is Marco the Metamorphic Manatee, a blue, muscle-bound being who looks like what would happen if a Ninja Turtle mated with a California raisin.

All together now, and roll your eyes as you say it Comic books.

Let's seewhat comes to mind?

There, in the back row, pretending he's engrossed in The Grapes of Wrath, is a pale teen-ager wearing baggy shorts, a black T-shirt and unlaced sneakers. Instead of reading about a migrant family named Joad and their struggle to survive during the Depression, he's reading about how the Fantastic Four defeat The Mole Man!

He may not know Steinbeck from Steinbrenner, but he does know that Robin's costume now contains Kelvar armor so that the Boy Wonder doesn't have to rely solely on speed to avoid bullets.

That's the general image of your average reader.

After all, aren't comic books to literature what an Etch-A-Sketch is to art? Aren't they frivolous and far-fetched and so childish that they belong in the same category as yo-yos, skateboards and decoder rings?

Maybe.

But so what if they are?

They do fire a kid's imagination. Some of the drawings are so sophisticated that they could be considered works of art, and they do entice kids to read, even if the words are silly and the plots are thin.

They also can be a good investment. Depending on condition and age, comic books can be extremely valuable. The list price of a copy of Marvel Comics No. 1, which sold for 10 cents when it first was published in 1939, is up to $27,000. Even a more recent comic book, Giant-Size X-Men No. 1, which was published in the 1960s, could be worth as much as $100.

One of the most popular guests at the show was the 88-year-old Robert Little, a warm, friendly elf of a man who helped create the original Superman, Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons back in the 1930s and '40s. As he sat at a table with his wife Dorothy, he explained to a steady stream of fans how he started when he was six, helping his father paint stage scenery for Vaudeville shows in Savannah, Ga. And how he moved on to do layouts and pencil drawings for Paramont's animation department, where he stayed for more than 30 years.

"They just don't take the time any more," he said of today's cartoons. "TV wants them fast and cheap. When a man walks, his whole body moves. Now they just move the feet."

He told about giving a lecture on animation recently, and having a man approach him afterward to show him cartoons he had done using computer animation.

"He said it's what everybody is doing now, and he wanted to know what I thought," Little said. "I looked at it and I told him, "It's clean and it's smooth, but you know what? It doesn't have any soul.' "

Just the opposite has happened with comic books, he said, "because there's so much competition. The stories have gotten more realistic, and the art is much, much better."

What happens on the pages of comic books doesn't seem any more violent than what's on TV, and to some degree, it's a reflection of society.

It has been estimated that males _ boys mostly _ buy 90 percent of all comic books, which is not surprising since most of the heroes are male.

"Here's somebody who has problems but stands for good and always beats the bad guy," said Rick Lenoir, 14. "We know it's not that way in real life. Crooks get away and people get hurt and we're the only ones who can do anything about it.

"But, I don't knowit's fun to think about."

Sure is.

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