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Palo Alto fixture Lee's Comics plans a move and hosts two comics luminaries

By Richard von Busack

COUNT LEE'S COMICS in Palo Alto as this week's eviction. Lee Hester's shop, "one of the ten top comic retailers in the world," as he calls it, is a regular destination for visiting cartoonists and comic fans. The good news is that Hester already has a 20-year lease signed out at a new location in Rengstorff Plaza in Mountain View next to the Plantation Coffee House, near the new Krispy Kreme and In and Out Burgers. Hester's leaving the old El Camino Real location, which he leased for the last 10 years, with a little more speed than he had in mind. His building was sold and the new owner is hiking the rents. Hester wondered out loud "what kind of fantasy my landlord has about maintaining these astronomical rents . . . Fortunately, he has generously offered me until January 15th to get the hell out."

Hester's relocation is happening right when the sometimes senescent art of comics is going through exciting times. The hit film Unbreakable, flawed as it is, brings to the screen the emotionally mature version of superhero similar to the writings of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Chris Ware's graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon) has sold out its first press run of 30,000 copies. On December 9 at 2pm, the old location of Lee's Comics will host two top talents in the comics: Paul Dini and Alex Ross. Dini, the writer for television's Adventures of Batman and Batman Beyond has once more collaborated with Ross on a holiday fixture, the album-sized one-shot book, Shazam!: Power of Hope (DC, $9.99). This is Ross and Dini's third team-up, and the most simple and effective of them all.

Shazam!: The Power of Hope has the illustrative beauty customary to Ross' work; it's typical of the style that's made Ross (along with Chris Ware) one of the two leading artists in comics today. (Note the salute from one artist to another: in Ross' picture of Billy Batson's room is a toy robot doll shaped like one of Ware's metal men from Jimmy Corrigan.) As always, the profits from the sales of Ross' original art goes to charity; in this case, the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The sum raised is usually respectable. The auctioned-off art for their first Ross/Dini collaboration, Superman: Peace on Earth raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars for UNICEF.

Now, Captain Marvel: squarest and most untroubled of superheroes, as powerful as Superman and much more insouciant. In ordinary moments, he's a boy radio commentator and former newspaper-peddler named Billy Batson. With a magic word he changes into full-sized hero with a modified bullfighter outfit, a jazzy, scarlet leotard with buttons and braid, and a white-gold, befrogged, off the shoulder cape. Because of this dandy's garb, some complainers--short, embittered, baldheaded mad scientists, generally--have referred to Captain Marvel as "a big red cheese"" (A red-waxed Edam, probably). Be that as it may, the emminently reprintable Captain Marvel comics of the 1940s by C. C. Beck successfully present a kid's eye-view of comic book heroism, with plain charm and plain-spoken surrealism. In Shazam!: Power of Hope, Dini and Ross have Captain Marvel visiting a hospital ward full of critically ill children. Sounds like Patch Adams, yes, but it's far more touching and in much better taste. Dini's understated writing and Ross' as-always exuberant art contrasts the sickbed with the power of escapist lit, in these visions of the Captain fixing volcanoes, swatting meteorites, and stopping trains with one hand.

The first 500 customers to purchase the book get a bonus print made from Ross' artwork. Getting the word out on Dini and Ross' book is what has marked Lee's Comics as a store that's always celebrated the better nature of comics. Hester, who won the Best Comic Book Store award from Metro so many times that the title was retired, has succeeded in a business with lots of failures. He's the antithesis of the snide Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons or the nutter played by Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. Commenting on that movie, Hester says that comic fans are more of the key audience for Unbreakable than the uninitiated. "Comics fans would give a movie like that an extra star. Unbreakable would be two stars for a non-comic fan and three stars for a comic fan." But Hester wondered what was up with the general low level of the comic art in Samuel L. Jackson's gallery. "Jackson had a nice-looking store there, with marble floors and all. And look at the kind of 25 cent comics he was keeping there, and those $10 Steranko Marvel posters on the wall. If the movie people had called me, I would have provided them with first rate comics."


On Saturday, Dec. 9, 2-4pm, Alex Ross and Paul Dini will appear at Lee's Comics, 3783 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. (650.493.3957)

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From the December 7-13, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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