Forgotten dreams are often packed in cardboard boxes. That might explain a woman's white-knuckled grip as she approaches Elite Comics' counter on a Thursday afternoon in March.
"She thinks I'm selling her childhood," the woman says of her teenage daughter. The woman places a box on counter, where Star Wars action figures are piled like lobsters in a fish tank.
"You are," says owner William Binderup. "You're selling your own, too."
This scene, of mothers selling comics that are sealed in cardboard tombs, is all too familiar at Elite, which opened in an Overland Park shopping center in 1994.
Today, comics are no longer impulse items on a drugstore rack. That box could help the woman pay her mortgage. And the same kids who built those collections are now penning the most sought-after properties in pop culture. (The movie adaptations of Thor and Captain America together grossed more than $817 million worldwide in 2011.) Many of this generation's comic-book artists call Kansas City home.
A few feet from the woman's fidgeting teen is a rotating magazine rack filled with eye-popping covers: one with Wolverine's bloody claws sits next to one of a woman in a skimpy black vest standing in flames. Marvel scribe Jason Aaron wrote the former. The second title is Lovestruck, a fantastical look at love in the modern age. Released in November, Lovestruck is the second collaboration between midtown artist Kevin Mellon and writer Dennis Hopeless.
"My friends make fun of me because my plots are Mad Max meets Pretty in Pink," Hopeless says later by phone. "But I think it's easier to take a John Hughes character and throw it into a crazy world."
Hopeless is the latest Kansas Citian to quit his day job to write comic books full time. In October, the 30-year-old signed a contract with Marvel to author Legions of Monsters and X-Men: Season One, leaving his job as a graphic designer with BallyHoo Banners, an Overland Park sign shop.
Planet Comic-Con, taking place Saturday and Sunday, March 24 and 25, is expected to bring more than 5,000 comic-book fans to the Overland Park International Trade Center. They will come to meet Hopeless, a midtown resident; Aaron, who lives in Prairie Village; and actor Billy Dee Williams, who is just visiting. This year, the artists' alley at the convention will jump from 105 to 185 tables, almost a quarter of which will be occupied by local comic-book artists and writers whose works have graced televisions and movie screens and comic-book racks.
"We're still trying to figure out where to put all the tables," says Binderup, who is helping organize the convention with promoter Christopher Jackson. "I guess we'll be expanding into the atrium and hallway."
Last week, the Walt Disney Co. held its annual meeting in Kansas City. The meeting came 91 years after founder Walt Disney's first cartoon appeared on the screens of the Newman Theater at 1114-18 Main. Of course, both Disney himself and the theater are long gone. (Disney left Kansas City for California in 1923, taking with him Ub Iwerks, the cartoonist who created Mickey Mouse; the theater was demolished in 1972.)
For more than 50 years, California and New York were the only options for Kansas City kids with dreams of working in the comic-book business. One of those kids was Rick Stasi, who jumped off the garage at his family's home at 87th Street and Riley, in Overland Park, and bit through his tongue. The towel that Stasi wore like a cape in homage to Superman didn't give him the power of flight, but it did inspire his early stick-figure cartoons.
"I started drawing Superman stories," says Stasi, who drives a 1992 Trans Am that he calls his "Batmobile." I liked the idea that good wins in the end, and that I could help the helpless."
After graduating from high school in 1970, Stasi interviewed with DC and Marvel Comics. The twin titans of the comic universe wanted to know if he lived in New York City. When Stasi said no, the publishers wondered if he could take the train in from Brooklyn. Kansas City wasn't on their radar.