When he was 9 years old, George Brainerd was engrossed in the adventures of the Fantastic Four and the web-slinging stunts of Spiderman.
Now the 39-year-old construction worker and three dozen other grownups submerge in a world of cartoon crime-stoppers and word balloon philosophy at the Comic Book Library."It's partly fantasy - it's like having the ability to transcend my own life," Brainerd said. "It would be nice to learn how to fly. Anybody can relate to that. . . . There's a lot of escape involved."
The library in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, offers 3,000 comic books with titles ranging from the adventures of Superman and Swampthing, to the sexy Vampirella and Latino soap opera comic, Love and Rockets.
Owner Ed Sobczynski plans to bring in 1,000 more magazines, some dating back to 1964, the oldest of his personal collection that now stock the library.
A former insurance broker, Sobczynski, 50, decided to turn his hobby into a career when he opened what he calls "a popular culture reading room" last November.
The brightly lighted, storefront room, open 2 to 10 p.m. five days a week, is furnished with secondhand chairs and tables. Bowls of free popcorn are set out for readers. Members pay a $2 registration fee and $4 a day for eight hours worth of reading. But comic book addicts go for the discounts; $15 for six visits, or $30 for a month of unlimited access.
"It's an idea whose time has come," said free-lance writer Phil Rose, 28, who was at the door when the library opened Nov. 15. "I don't want to buy comic books every week, but I want to read them."
Rose and others said they joined the library because keeping up with their favorite cartoons from month to month has become an expensive hobby.
Superhero comic books that cost a dime in the 1930s and '40s, now run about $1 to $2. New titles with more mature themes such as the popular Sandman, a supernatural being who controls dreams, cost $2 to $3.
But youngsters are not the reading room patrons.
A plumber, a law student, a Coast Guardsman, a doctor and the manager of a fast-food store are among the 36 people who have joined the comic library. Most are in their 20s and 30s. A person must be 16 years old to become a member.
For some, the library reclaims a favorite childhood pastime.
Stories about Wonderwoman, Batman and the Doom Patrol, Sobczynski said, give kids and adults a chance to be somebody they aren't. "You can sublimate in these characters," he said. "You can bend mighty rivers, you can move mountains.
"A little escapism never hurt anybody."
While some American universities including Bowling Green State University in Ohio, stock a large number comic books in their school libraries, Sobczynski's establishment may be the only commercial reading room in the country, said Jack Nachbar, professor at Bowling Green's popular culture department.
Developed in the 1930s when color newsprint became possible, comic books were popular for almost three decades until television was introduced. To boost sales in the 1960s, cartoonists introduced more complex characters and such issues as drug abuse, civil rights and industrial pollution.
"Before the superheroes would just slug it out, and now they explore what the alternatives are, what the motives are of their combatants," Rose said. "They tell stories about relationships, trust, loyalty, death and politics.
"It's not Dostoevsky . . . but it is a form of literature."
Nachbar claims it has played an influential role in shaping the imagination of American males. The professor has taught a "comics as culture" course at Bowling Green, and used comic books for reading materials in an introduction to a class on popular culture.
Battling super heroes like Captain Marvel and Flash Gordon support the mythology of American masculinity, Nachbar said. "Comics say to be a man means to compete physically, that physical danger is a test of maleness, that might makes right, that vigilantism is acceptable if morality is on your side."
Boys who learned that cultural code from comic books often express it as men, he said.
Realistic characters introduced in the 1980s and '90s are attracting more women to the ranks of comic book readers. Allison Garrison, 22, joined the library to read about the punk rock nomads and Hispanic teens in Love and Rockets.
"It isn't all biff, bam, pow, like people usually think of comic books," Garrison said. "The art is beautiful, it's really detailed. And it depicts people who kind of struggle with life.
"I can identify with that."