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Comics culture comes alive

Supervillains would've thought twice about their nefarious plans with one glance at the roomful of costumed heroes Saturday afternoon at the Ashland library.

In the first 20 minutes of the Ashland library's "comic-con" event, 70 fans of comics, costumes and superheroes came through the doors to share their passion, buy comics and attend panel presentations on topics related to comic-book culture.

When Ashland teen librarian Esther Mortensen thought how best to incorporate Jackson County Library Services' summer reading program theme, "Every Hero Has a Story," she knew an event inspired by Comic-Con comic book conventions, renowned for intricate character costumes, was an idea too big for teens alone.

"We've had a huge response from the community," Mortensen said, counting 70 attendees in the first 20 minutes of the event. "I just thought a Comic-Con would be the perfect event."

As the number of superheroes at the multiplex grows beyond Batman and Superman, and with the rise of emotionally nuanced comics series and graphic novels, the culture of comics has become a larger part of teen reading, according to Mortensen, who was first exposed to graphic novels while studying library science in grad school. Modern comics can be as edifying for the mind as traditional books, she said. 

"They're not dumbed down," Mortensen said of comics, adding that comprehending the stories takes both sides of the brain. "They're pretty sophisticated." 

Ted Paglia, who runs the comics stores at Astral Games in Medford and Grants Pass and sold an assortment of Marvel and DC issues at the event, has been reading comics since he was 6 years old.

"It just takes you to another place," Paglia said. 

Another value to comics and graphic novels, according to Paglia, is that they use fictional characters to explore social issues of the day, such as using gay superheroes to explore controversies of same-sex marriage.

"What's in the real world happens everywhere else," Paglia said.

Homemade costumes made by fans are often known as "cosplay," the term being a combination of the words "costume" and "play" first coined in Japan for people who dress in costumes inspired by books, movies, video games, films and other media.  

The Southern Oregon University Cosplay Club provided an informal introduction to the hobby Saturday. Panelists dispelled the notion that costumes were mandatory at Comic-Con events, and answered questions about how they made their costumes. They described how they adjusted and modified clothing patterns bought at Jo-Ann Fabric stores to create costumes of Japanese "manga" comic books and "anime" cartoon series to create costumes impossible to find at stores.

One of the youngest cosplayers at the event sported one of the more striking costumes. Ben Garner of Eagle Point, 11, trekked with his parents Liesel and Scott, and younger brother, Bean, to showcase an intricate Iron Man suit made out of hot glue and hand-cut cardboard pieces numbering in the dozens. He only started building the costume Tuesday for the Ashland event.

"I'd stay up until 12 o'clock every night working on it," Ben Garner said. "It's just a passion."

According to his mother, Ben has been making Iron Man costumes in his free time since he was 4 years old. Inspired by the fictional billionaire tinkerer Tony Stark, Ben Garner has built hundreds of suits out of various materials. His goal is to one day work in film special effects.

"I just provide supplies — I'm not artistic at all," Liesel said, adding that they frequent area stores such as Costco and Food 4 Less seeking spare cardboard for Ben's projects.

A similar event in Medford is planned to run from noon to 4 p.m. Friday, July 31, at 205 S. Central Ave., Medford.

Reach newsroom assistant Nick Morgan at nmorgan@mailtribune.com or 541-776-4477.

Southern Oregon University student Eric Corbin, left, 'Aquaman', and Nicole Hoefflinger, of Ashland, 'Harley Quinn', get into character at a Comic-Con event at the Ashland Library on Saturday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Ben Garner, 11, right, makes an Iron Man energy blast motion to his brother Bean Garner, 7, in his hand made costume during a Comic-Con event at the Ashland Library on Saturday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch