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SOMERVILLE

He wants to draw a different crowd

New comics store will show genre's latest offshoots

Email|Print| Text size + By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2008

Comics have hit the literati big-time, finding space in The New York Times Magazine, arty movie theaters, and book reviews. But not Somerville's Union Square. Until now.

James Welborn, 34, thinks the average comics shop still feels like a "man cave . . . a smelly hole where a bunch of kids sit around and play Magic cards."

As he prepared to open Hub Comics, he put a sign in the window promising a different kind of establishment: "a comics shop for NPR listeners."

Many people, Welborn said, still think the entire comics medium is a single genre - "men in tights." But Hub Comics, which he hopes to open this weekend, will stock "lots of really interesting stuff that shows people there's more of an art form there than you might expect."

The alternative comics world has blossomed in recent years, as artists - following the lead of cartoonists in other countries - have used words and pictures to tell all sorts of stories to an adult audience. Welborn cites "Japan Inc.," which tells the story of 1980s economic progress "almost like a textbook."

It isn't so much that Wellborn is filling an unmet need in offering these publications, he says, just "taking what I love and finding the right place for it." Davis Square has Comicazi; Harvard Square has New England Comics, Million Year Picnic, and Newbury Comics.

Somerville cartoonist Jef Czekaj thinks Welborn might be onto something. "It's not a totally revolutionary concept, but it is a relatively rare concept," he said, citing Million Year Picnic and a Chicago bookstore, Quimby's, as existing alternative comics shops.

Stocking the store's shelves last Sunday, with empty boxes tumbling over the freshly polyurethaned floor, Welborn frowned over how to present comics to the public. "Where do I put 'Fables?' Have you ever read 'Fables'? It's this great series," he said.

His self-defined categories include true crime, fantasy, relationships, slice of life, Westerns, "anthropomorphic animal stuff," and Japanese manga. He will have kids' comics, but he's keeping them separate from more mature material.

One neon-green wall highlights "Fun Home," a Time magazine best book of 2007, about a woman's closeted gay father, and the acclaimed opus "Blankets," a love story/memoir about an isolated boy emerging from a rigid family.

Still, the shop does have a wall of superhero comics. "The other part of the business has to be there also," Welborn said. Without them, "I think that it would be a much riskier business."

Creating Hub Comics has been an act of love. "When I got my first job, I spent probably every dime on comics," Welborn said, recalling that he would take an hourlong bus ride to a shop in Las Vegas.

Now a software engineer at Akamai, Welborn hopes Hub Comics can become his full-time job, but would be happy if it simply breaks even.

Welborn hasn't finished his business plan, which includes friends staffing the store in the afternoons. But when he saw the Bow Street space for rent last summer, he jumped, even though he didn't feel ready.

The spot seemed ideal, sitting between the new Bloc 11 cafe and the Neighborhood Restaurant, a popular breakfast spot.

Some of his market research involved sussing out the crowd in line at the restaurant: families with young children and people wearing band T-shirts. He said there was "a guy there with a Superman tattoo on his arm, and I thought, 'OK, he'll be a customer.' "

Welborn plans to emphasize "being a real part of the community and not just a store," displaying local artwork and stocking local 'zines. He also plans to carry news magazines and used DVDs, books, and games.

Czekaj said he was drawing in a coffee shop when Welborn walked up and introduced himself. "I think it will help foster a community of like-minded graphic artists - that's what I'm hoping for, anyway," Czekaj said.

Those people might appreciate the vintage rarities Welborn will display in a locked case, such as the first issue of "Captain America," worth, he estimated, $12,000.

That wouldn't be for sale, would it?

With his dream materializing, Welborn's thoughts have turned from art to commerce.

"If someone wanted to come in and give me a lotta, lotta money for it, I might," he said. "I've spent a lotta, lotta money getting this open."

And with more than 300 boxes of comics at home, including the entire Batman series, he might just have an extra income stream ready.

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