By April Short
City News Reporter

Bam! Pow! Smack! These three words dot the pages of what Joe Ferrara calls one of the two truly American art forms. Comics share the spotlight of “originally American culture” with only jazz music, Ferrara said.

Ferrara is the owner of the Atlantis Fantasyworld comic book shop. He and his wife have owned the shop for 32 years. The shop and its owners have developed a close relationship with the heart of downtown Santa Cruz, one that transcends generations.

“It’s a treat for me when I get to see kids who move away and come back for a visit to the shop with their own kids,” said Ferrara.

Superman balloons floated above the Cedar Street sidewalk, welcoming passersby to attend Free Comic Book Day last Saturday. The life-sized, blow-up Spiderman perched above the entrance to the shop and gazed down upon unusually large crowds.

Shoppers left the store with smiles on their faces, carrying piles of free comic books including Spiderman, Jughead, X-Men, Tiny Titans, Simpsons, Disney, Gumby, and Transformers for all ages, and Hellboy for adults.

“Almost everyone comes in and thinks they can take just one or two,” Ferarra said, “but I insist they take one of each.”

Although Free Comic Book Day is the “biggest business day of the year” for the shop, Ferrara emphasizes a more nostalgic aspect of the event.

“It’s not about the transaction — it’s about the interaction,” Ferrara said. “Ask anyone what was the first comic book they read, and they’ll give you a story about the time and place. … It really takes people back to their childhood.”

Publishers print the comic books for this special promotion on lower-grade paper, allowing the comic shops to purchase them for a lower price. Despite the discount, Ferrara spent over $1,000 on comics to give away this year, he said. Due to the promotion’s popularity, the shop quickly broke even.

“This year has been the most successful one I’ve seen so far,” said Hillary Ferris, an employee who has worked at Atlantis Fantasyworld on and off for three years.

Free Comic Book Day began at a strip mall in Concord, California, Ferrara said. Comic store owner Joe Field, a friend of Ferrara, gazed across the hall at swarms of people gathered outside of a Baskin Robbins Ice Cream shop for free ice cream cones. A spark was ignited, which erupted into an international event held annually on the first Saturday in May.

“Free Comic Book Day was conceived to promote the positive aspects of comics,” Ferrara said.

The Free Comic Book Day fire has even spread to Hollywood. The release of the year’s premier comic book movies is timed to match Free Comic Book Day. This year, the release of “Ironman” coincided with the event.

Four-year-old Irene Ervin smiled at the heap of free comics in her arms as Ferrara gave her a hug. Marcus Ervin, Irene’s father, said, “I came in when I was about Irene’s age, back when [the shop] was at an old grocery store on the other side of Pacific.”

Marcus is one of the many regular customers to form a relationship with the shop’s friendly owner.

“Irene loves sitting down, reading the comics with me and asking about the characters,” Ervin said. “It’s been great to be able to come here since I was four.”

Ferrara stresses the social and historical roles of comics.

“My generation didn’t make Superman cool … comics like Superman were already cool in the ’40s and ’50s — my parents and grandparents’ generations,” Ferrara said. “What I love most about [Free Comic Book Day] is that it’s a day when we can remind everybody how wonderful an adventure it is to read comics.”