Every Wednesday, James Cassara follows a beloved, unbreakable routine: he tidies up his classroom at Claxton Elementary School, where he’s been the art teacher for almost 25 years; by 5pm, he’s at Pastimes, which is one of Asheville’s two comic book shops. (The other is Comic Envy on Tunnel Road.) You see, Wednesday is “comic book day,” when some 60 new comic book titles arrive in the shop.
Cassara is one of the store’s hundred or so regulars, who would have special ordered from the preview catalog and has come in to pick up his purchases. In addition to the new 32-page colored comic books there are black and white versions, posters, role-playing games, collectible figures, and a growing display of graphic novels. If your taste is Superman or Spawn or Sandman, you’ll find it here.
Cassara will pick up his special orders and scan the latest inventory for anything unexpected that he absolutely must have. Finally at home, with the luxury of the rest of the evening by himself to enjoy his new purchases, Cassara reads the comics carefully from cover to cover, savoring the exciting, detailed artwork he loves, getting lost in the latest story that pits unconventional heroes against villains of unspeakable dastardliness.
“I honestly don’t ever remember a time when comic books were not central to my life,” Cassara says. As a child he would stretch out on the floor and copy the pictures from the Sunday comics. “That’s how I realized I had a skill at drawing.” By the time he could read, he knew he “loved the connection of words and pictures.” A few years later, when he was allowed to go to the local drug store by himself, Cassara discovered comic books, and his love of that word/picture connection created a life-long passion.
As if the rules of being a good collector were in his DNA, Cassara would carefully read his comic books, then protect them and file them away so they could be found easily and enjoyed again. As time went on, Cassara’s collection grew — comic books, autographs, reprints — he even commissioned a few pieces from favorite artists. Today, nearly 40 years after he started, Cassara has a collection that, to quote a recent observer, “makes a comic book fan want to cry.”
Cassara’s primary interests are the classic comics, those from the Golden Age of comics (the superheroes, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s) and the Silver Age (from about 1956 to the early 1970s, which added genres such as funny animals, romance, westerns and detectives to the declining superhero mix). Most of the contemporary comics, especially the dystopian future stories, are too dark for him.
Though his favorite characters are no longer published, “I can still read them in the reprints,” such as one of his favorites, Green Lantern, by writer John Broome and artist Gil Gane. “We are in a golden age of comic reprints,” says Cassara. “Comic books and comic strips that I never dreamed would be popular are now being collected.”
Cassara has many prized possessions in his collection. One of the first dates to when he was a senior in high school. He was a nut for Mad magazine, which had started publication as a comic book in 1952. With the pluck of youth, he wrote a letter to the magazine’s creator, Harvey Kurtzman, requesting a piece of artwork. To Cassara’s surprise, Mr. Kurtzman mailed him a self-portrait, including an unmistakable hand-written message. “Sorry,” Kurtzman wrote.” I never send out sketches. Never!”
“Comic book artists are as talented as any fine artist, “Cassara insists. “Good comic book artists have to be able to draw the human figure in any position, in any angle. You have to have amazing visual memories — be able to draw a 1975 Mustang or an old phone booth and know what it looks like.”
Did Cassara ever want to be a comic artist himself? “I’m not good enough to be a comic artist. And I didn’t want their lifestyle — solitary, chained to a desk, always on deadline — and they didn’t make much money,” he says. “I always wanted to be an art teacher. It never occurred to me to be anything else.”
“When I bring comic books to my class, the kids love them.” [Tin Tin and Bone are the most popular.] He keeps comic books on the shelves so students can read them when their regular work is finished. “I want them to enjoy the comics and not see them as ‘school work.'”
Comics and kids — the two favorite themes of Cassara’s life — and sometimes they intersect close to home. “One of the happiest emails I ever got was from my daughter-in-law who told me she found my granddaughter under the covers reading The Donald Duck comics that I had given her. She and I often read comics together and I’m sure that doing so has helped her reading ability. She loves Little Lulu, My Pretty Pony and Disney cartoons. And she’s crazy about the old Popeye comic books — only seven years old and already she has great taste in comics!”