They can leap tall buildings in a single bound, defend the Earth from myriad alien threats and save the world on a daily basis. These days, they rule the box office and small screen as well.
Comic-book superheroes are the gods of modern mythology and they have been a large part of Randy Sheppard’s life for as long as he can remember.
The 67-year-old owner of Kalispell’s only comic shop, Comics Arcade, Sheppard has been reading and collecting comics since at least the first grade, and perhaps before — he can’t quite remember. Over the years, he has seen the comic industry go from an object of scorn and ridicule to a booming industry with a seeming stranglehold on modern popular culture. Even so, he says there are still those who refuse to recognize comics as a legitimate literary genre.
“Over the years, the literary aspect of comics wasn’t only overlooked, it was outright attacked. If you had a character on a television show or a movie you wanted to portray as being illiterate, you just showed them with a comic book. That was supposed to show they were backward or juvenile-type people,” he said.
“With many comics, especially Marvel ones, that just wasn’t the case at all. Marvel didn’t really talk down to the reader,” Sheppard noted. “Their books were on adult conversational levels. I’m not sure a hundred percent that perception has changed. I think there are those out there, especially among people my age, that still look down on comics as a literary genre.”
Admittedly, it wasn’t the writing that drew Sheppard to comics at such a young age. Before he could read, it was the bright colors and artwork of Superman and D.C. Comics that enticed a young Sheppard to pick up his first comic. As Sheppard’s reading skills improved, he found himself drawn to a different kind of comic.
Many people have a “golden age” that appeals to them. A lot of it has to do with nostalgia and what people were reading at poignant times in their lives. For Sheppard, his golden age came when he was in high school in the late 1960s. It was an era of legends. At Marvel Comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had just introduced Spider-Man and the Avengers. The X-Men were brand new. At DC Comics, Batgirl and Poison Ivy first graced the pages of Batman and the Justice League of America assembled for the first time.
While Sheppard enjoyed many of the comics at the time, it was the stories in Marvel Comics that had him waiting in anticipation for each new issue.
“When you can identify with a character, whether they have superpowers or not, that is what keeps readers coming back for more,” he said. “You really started seeing that in the ’60s with Marvel with Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Yes, they have super powers, but they also have real-life problems like doing homework or taking care of their families.
“The stuff that came out back then was not necessarily better, but I have fond memories from that time period and rereading comics from that era can help bring me back to that time in my life,” he said.
Sheppard’s love of comics followed him through college at the University of Montana, where he earned degrees in political science and economics, and throughout his career as a government and history teacher, as well as a wrestling and cross-country coach in Browning. While he was leading the Indians’ cross-country team to a record 15 state titles, Sheppard was sneaking away whenever he could to make the drive to the closest comic shop available to him, in Great Falls. It was not an easy task, but Sheppard kept his comic collection growing.
He was staying up with the market as the modern comic classics hit the shelves in the mid-1980s, including Batman’s The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and, of course, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was there through the comic inflation and speculation boom of the early 1990s and the great crash of 1993 as Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy. Through it all, the collection continued to grow. Whenever there was a store that sold comics going out of business, Sheppard was usually to be found there, adding to his collection.
Through the years there have been a number of memorable deals for Sheppard, including the time he drove a U-Haul to Phoenix to bring home a large collection from Arizona, but what he considers his greatest find came relatively early in his collecting days.
It was on one fateful Saturday in the late 1960s that Sheppard made his usual afternoon journey to Torbert’s, a small variety store on the corner of Third Avenue and Main Street in Kalispell. To the store owners, he was no stranger. He’d been coming in nearly every day to pick through the comics the store would buy from local kids for 3 cents and resell for a nickel on the wire rack at the top of the staircase that led to the store’s second floor. On this day, Sheppard was only halfway up the staircase when he spotted a copy of Avengers No. 1 sitting in the wire rack.
According to Sheppard, he “nearly busted his butt” running up the stairs. To his surprise, the second issue of Avengers was sitting just behind the first. He proudly walked out of the store with both issues for 10 cents. The issues were worth about $15 together at the time. These days, near-perfect copies of the two issues have recently sold for $200,000 and $45,000, respectively. While Sheppard’s copies are far from perfect, they are still some of the gems of his collection.
Of course, Sheppard does recall selling a few issues back to Torbert’s that he wishes he would have held onto, including a Red Flyer wagon full of comics used to finance the purchase of a record player. That batch, which included a number of early Spider-Man issues, would be worth “an absolute fortune” today.
Then there were the comic legends Sheppard met over the years. Building his relationship with fellow collectors at shows and conventions around the western United States and Canada, Sheppard enjoyed some rare opportunities to meet and spend time with some of his idols, including the man himself, Stan Lee.
It was before a convention in Canada that a friend arranged for Sheppard to have the opportunity to sit in on a breakfast with Lee. Sheppard took the opportunity to have Lee sign a copy of that day’s Edmonton newspaper’s Spider-Man comic strip, which Lee wrote. The copy was signed to Sheppard’s son, Jorel, who is named after the father of D.C. Comics’ Superman. Lee, a legendary creator for Marvel Comics, joked that it was probably going to be the only time in his life he would ever write that name.
Through all the long trips to comic stores and journeys to buy collections, Sheppard perpetually harbored the hopes of opening his own comic book shop one day, but he did not want to compete with his friends Christi and Joe Knowles, who owned Kalispell Comics. When that store shut its doors for good in 2016, Sheppard saw his chance.
Comics Arcade opened on Second Street in downtown Kalispell in 2016 and combines Sheppard’s love of comics with his love of playing pinball (several pinball machines line the store’s back wall).
The recent boom of comic-based movies and television shows have helped drive new customers to Sheppard’s store, letting him enjoy his favorite things about his shop — chatting with customers and sharing his passion for comics. He can be found there every Friday and Saturday from noon until 7 p.m., laughing, joking and debating the greats, which for Sheppard included writers Stan Lee, Frank Miller and Alan Moore and artists Alex Ross, Jack Kirby and Walter Simonson.
For Sheppard, whose collection now comprises more than 200,000 comics, the industry has changed a lot over the years, but his love of comics remains as strong as ever.
“In the old days, you didn’t really buy comics with the thought that they might be worth something one day. Therefore, people did not bag and board them or store them properly. You read them, you loaned them out and you traded them. That sure has changed,” he said with a laugh.
“I really got into comics during a great time, but if I had to sit down and critique the work that is coming out now, I would have to say that it has probably never been better and it has also probably never been worse. The good stuff is probably as good or better than anything and the bad stuff is really quite terrible. But as Stan Lee always said, ‘just buy what you like.’”
Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 758-4446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.