A culture can be determined by its myths. Where once we had such titanic figures as Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and John Henry to stand as the vanguard of American idealism, we now have a different breed of heroes. In the past 80 years, we’ve encountered Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, Iron Man.
These new icons have laid claim to the hearts and imaginations of generation after generation of eager believers — at least, that’s how Ken Oswald, proprietor of Excelsior comic book store in Hoover, sees it.
“Mythology evolves out of a culture’s perspective of how things work,” says the 45-year-old business owner. “How life should be lived. What pitfalls should be avoided. Comics serve that exact purpose.”
These are not words of idle speculation on his part. Since he bought his first comic book, The Incredible Hulk, in second grade, Oswald has made the study of the graphic medium a lifelong labor of love. From earning degrees in art and English at Huntingdon College, as well as a doctorate in anthropology from UAB, to over a decade’s worth of experience at various managerial levels within the print industry, Oswald has never strayed far in his academic and professional pursuits from the medium he admires.
Since January 2012, his business has been a successful avenue for him to continue his various creative passions. Not only a comic shop, Excelsior also carries a multitude of tabletop board games and role-playing games, along with the rulebooks and various accessories needed to enrich the experience of these games.
Excelsior isn’t Oswald’s first comic and gaming store, either; his first foray into the industry was with a store in his current hometown of Montevallo.
“I was looking to leave the print industry and create my own business so I could set myself up where I’d have more family time,” he said. Looking at the shop as more of a hobby, he soon found a very active customer base, even in a small town. “I wound up working just as much as I did in the print industry.”
So Oswald took a step back from the business, focusing on being a stay-at-home father and doing freelance work as an artist on the side. Once his daughter left for college, and after a seemingly innocent enough conversation with a friend, Oswald found himself opening up another store, this time in the greater Birmingham area.
The decision couldn’t have been any timelier.
With the recent commercial success of blockbusters such as The Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman, the Iron Man trilogy, and most recently with the record-breaking release of DC’s reboot of the Superman franchise, The Man of Steel, there’s money to be made when it comes to women and men donning costumes and standing up for causes worth fighting for.
But the medium isn’t just merely a form of escapism. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films — which served as a reevaluation of heroism in a post-September 11 world — have garnered near universal critical acclaim, along with an Academy Award for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker.
Even college courses have begun to incorporate comics — or graphic novels, as the more literary-minded world deems them — into their curriculum, such as Alan Moore’s supercharged political parable Watchmen and Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his own father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor, Maus.
Just last year, the New York Times lauded Chris Ware’s experimental Building Stories as one of the best books of the year.
“The medium as a whole is very new [the first comic featuring Superman was printed in 1938]. It takes time for any new medium to be recognized within the culture it is in,” Oswald explains, drawing parallels to the film industry, which started out as a novelty to most critics, and is now seen as serious a form of expression as literature, art and music.
Not that Excelsior is only an outlet for purchasing comics; at 3,000 square feet, the majority of the venue is dedicated to meeting the needs of a very active role-playing community.
The action takes place every Tuesday night, when players gather at Excelsior to test out the latest in tabletop board games; or on Fridays, when the very organized Dungeons & Dragons (D&D for short) enthusiasts meet for weekly sessions.
It may come as a surprise to hear that there is no set demographic involved. From as young as 6 to as old as 60, Oswald has both men and women loyally coming to his store to play. This is a testament to the quality of these games, considering the increasing popularity and convenience of video games in our society.
“There’s definitely a difference of experience when you sit down at a table with your friends and play a game,” says Oswald, speaking from experience. He’s not only an avid player of the game, but also a writer and reviewer for D&D material. “It’s direct social interaction with other people, while video games are ones and zer0es, yeses and noes. You only have so many options you can do in a video game because a programmer has to code in those options.”
Oswald isn’t limiting his sights to just mere financial gain; he has also been a generous contributor and consultant for Hoover Public Library’s bi-monthly Game Nite, providing various board games and prizes to be raffled off at the event. He also employs several high school students to help around the shop, giving them the chance to work and be around activities they enjoy.
“One of my ideas when I came back into the business was to be a community supporter. We see ourselves not just as a realtor but as a facilitator of getting people together to have a good time,” Oswald says.
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed either.
Hoover resident and longtime comic book reader, Jarrod Hoyle takes the time to stop by weekly and check out the newest issues to have hit the shelves. Hoyle has nothing but kind words for Excelsior: “It’s local and very open. He doesn’t complain if I take a peek at the comics, unlike other stores. It’s a very friendly place with a great selection.”
And even if we are well into the advent of the digital age, Ken Oswald isn’t worried about the longevity of his store, or of comics, for that matter; he has already implemented the purchasing and selling of digital copies of comics into his own business.
Oswald says he doesn’t know what the future holds for his trade, but he can say, affably enough, “We’re living in interesting times.”
Excelsior is located 3150 Lorna Rd, Hoover, AL 35216. For more information on the store, contact (205) 822-0227 or follow them on Facebook.