Pat Loika hasn't shopped at San Diego's Comics-n-Stuff in years, but when he walks in, everybody says hi.
You get the sense this would happen in any comic store in the country. Comic fans know Loika — he's a regular at conventions and hosts Loikamania, a popular interview podcast. He strolls by the action figures and the Mylar-bagged comics and the signs reminding you to keep the comics in the Mylar bags or else. After getting permission to disobey that rule, he opens a copy of Uncanny X-Men Vol. 3 #15.
"I'm in this one."
He flips to a panel of the X-Men following an angry mob through the streets of London. They approach a mutant sealed in a cocoon and pass Loika, peeking over his shoulder to make eye contact with the reader as if to say, "Can you believe the crazy mutant action that's about to go down?" Pat Loika the Marvel character is a lot like Pat Loika the Marvel fan: eager to bond with another reader over how cool this stuff is.
The cameo wasn't written into the original script, but artist Kris Anka added him to a crowd shot after becoming friends with Loika and appearing on his show. Loika has that effect on people in the industry. He isn't a commentator or critic so much as preacher of the comic book gospel. He wants to know if you've heard the good word about Drax The Destroyer. The world of comics is small enough that by being one of the most vocal and visible fans — both online and at conventions — Loika has become a minor celebrity. When he got trapped in an elevator last year, his live-tweeting of the situation was covered by the website Bleeding Cool. If you've seen a photo on Tumblr of a superhero cosplayer at a convention, it's likely Loika took it. And that X-Men comic isn't the only cameo he has had in a Marvel book — in fact, it wasn't his only appearance last year.
The comics industry is small. The top-selling book in January sold just over 100,000 copies — a fraction of the audience needed to sustain a TV show or green-light a movie sequel. But every summer, writers and artists and fans dressed up as their favorite characters gather at a series of conventions. Stale newsprint fills the air in warehouse-sized halls in Atlanta and Chicago and Orlando. Most movie fans might never meet the directors and actors they idolize, but comics rely on a minimal barrier between fan and artist.
Loika has been to 300 conventions. He has met nearly everyone face-to-face and has had many drinks afterward at hotel bars — real network-y stuff for what can be an industry of isolated creators and socially awkward fans. Over the years, Loika has risen through the fan ranks to become a recognizable face and name at conventions — the Biggest Geek in Comics, so to speak.
Loika has transcended the superfan role to become part of the conversation. Fans know he has good taste, and creators know he has a deep appreciation for the art form. As an interviewer who hands out influential recommendations, he's the closest thing comics has to an Oprah. In a relatively insular yet hugely influential industry that isn't all that well understood or covered by the mainstream media, he plays the hybrid role of expert/journalist/podcast host. And he does it well — comic artists know and respect him so much that they put his likeness in their books. They also appear on his podcast, and speak highly of the experience.
Loika's reach is wide and his influence important, but that hasn't yet translated into an entirely sustainable full-time gig. Loika works two other jobs, answering phones for a local hotel chain in San Diego and providing customer support for Comixology, a digital comics app. He records his podcast in a room he rents from his parents. And Marvel doesn't fly him out to conventions or provide comped issues every week. But Loika's near-religious fervor for the medium would lead him to promote the books he loves, even if no one was listening. This is a guy who saw The Avengers 31 times in the theater.
He's fallen into this role at an interesting time, when Marvel and DC are no longer just comic book publishers. They now provide intellectual property for every summer's biggest movies. Today, Ant-Man is not just important to the back-issue bin collectors; his popularity is now directly tied to the bottom line of a major corporation. As Marvel has grown, so has Loika's place in the industry, from a big fan in a small field to a well-known figure just a few degrees away from billion-dollar tentpole films.
Loika was born in 1979 in the Philippines to a flight attendant mother, who brought home Marvel trading cards from the States to feed his growing sci-fi appetite. He'd play hooky with his friends and pay the school bus driver to take them to the comic book store. When Ms. Loika remarried a U.S. Naval officer in 1996, the family relocated to San Diego, and Loika was dropped into Morse High School, known for its gang activity, and got a job at McDonald's. He made the most of his fast-food job, gathering co-workers to play hockey with burger patties in the freezer, but school was more difficult.
"I went from having a lot of friends to no friends," he says as we drive from the comic book store to his podcasting studio. A necklace displaying the logo of X-Men's Phoenix hangs from his rearview mirror. "My senior year, someone got shot. I remember thinking, Why does it still feel like Manila?"
Loika, now 35, spent his free time talking comics on then-new AOL message boards. Marvel had recently rebooted its universe to take it in a more "extreme" direction driven by flashy artwork, and the fans weren't happy. On the AOL boards, posters wrote fan-fiction about how they felt the reboot should have gone, and Loika began illustrating their stories. It was the first of many online forums to welcome Loika.
As his art made him friends online, it helped him in real life too. In his senior year Spanish class, he says, "I saw this guy sketching Wolverine. It's like oh, OK, I can work with this guy. I started drawing too."
That guy turned out to be Chris Maze, whom Loika still calls his best friend 17 years later. "He was quiet and reserved," Maze explained in an email. "But once he got to know a person, a switch went off and he became very outgoing. Pat of today is that guy all of the time. Random people stop him at conventions and tell him that they're fans of his show."
"I'm trying not to let it get to my head," Loika says, sincerely.
Two weeks later, I stop by Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica to meet with recent Loikamania guests R.J. Ryan, Tara Rhymes, and David Marquez. They're on a book-signing tour around Los Angeles to promote their new graphic novel, The Joyners in 3D. A cashier looks to see if The Joyners is in stock as a few readers browse the yellowed back issues and bob their heads to indie rock playing in the background.
"Looks like we're sold out," the cashier says. It sounds like good news, but the disappointed looks from the Joyners team say otherwise. "We ordered one copy, and yeah, we sold it."
Without the support of Disney-owned Marvel or Warner Brothers-owned DC, getting your comic noticed is a hustle. This is where Loika comes in. After their appearance on Loikamania in February, Ryan says, "We saw the Amazon ranking change. My eyes got wider."
They're on a press blitz right now, with recent interviews with the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, but Ryan says Loika, as a fan, was able to dig deeper than the mainstream press outlets.
"With our book we get one question every interview: 'Why is it in 3D?' When we were on Pat's show, we got the idea very quickly that this is someone who loved our book and that creates a very different dynamic."
Adds Marquez, "The questions, the content, understanding how to go inside the work — you can trace it back to his extreme fandom."
Ryan says he began listening to the show because Loika was able to book guests who never appeared on other shows. It's a testament to the relationships Loika has built as a convention staple. It's how he first met Marquez. Loika would stop by his table at shows, chat, and take pictures. Then, when he became the artist of a high-profile Spider-Man book, Loika booked him immediately.
It also helps that Loika isn't known for hard-hitting questions.
"He's an enthusiast," says Marquez as Rhymes nods with a smile in agreement. "He's a really joyful guy."
Though Loika's likeness has appeared in Marvel comic books, he hasn't yet cracked the prevailing dream of any superhero fan: actually writing or drawing one.
Loika had his one and only Marvel portfolio review in 2005. I ask him how it went. A long pause, then a chuckle. "It was brutal."
"I'd love to do it at least once," he says, sitting on the back patio of the Cheesecake Factory near his parents' place. "You get me to draw an Avengers or X-Men page, that's one dream fulfilled." So he submitted comic pages and sketches to Mark Bagley, a Marvel artist known for his work on Spider-Man.
"I respect the guy," Loika says. "He can be tough but there's no malice in there. When he was telling me what was wrong, I just paid attention."
Loika has had a few comics published — he submitted the pages to Marvel shortly after he and his brother released a self-published four-part comic called Path to Armaggedon. They took it around to conventions and sold a few hundred copies. It didn't lead to more work, but Loika networked and met creators he still has relationships with and interviews today.
He shifted his focus to writing and got a short story released by Image Comics, the publisher behind The Walking Dead. The eight-page Western is part of Outlaw Territory, an anthology book that also features big names like Joshua Fialkov and Ivan Brandon. Though he'll talk at length about how much he loves everyone else in the book, he's shy about hyping his own work.
"I've seen people review it and say nice things," he says, "and it eases things up a bit, but I don't know. There's this doubt in me, and I don't really want to bug people in marketing my stuff."
Writing or drawing for Marvel is still number one on Loika's bucket list, but he's content in his position as the grassroots tastemaker for stories that get turned into billion-dollar movies. His ability to be influential is less important to him than his desire to connect with other fans and find a community. And increasingly, he says, he wants to focus on other priorities — like traveling and spending time with friends and family.
In September 2012, Loika caught a bacterial infection that triggered his diabetes, and he was hospitalized for two weeks. "I almost died," he says. "It was rough, man. I recovered fine and I'm doing better, but it puts a lot in perspective."
"I want to go traveling. I just have this wanderlust. I travel a lot for conventions but I never really get to enjoy [the cities] I'm seeing. I have this plan where I'm gonna spend a year living across the U.S. I want to stay in Arizona for a week, stay in Chicago for a month or two. I want to do some living. Hopefully next year."
He also says he's started paying extra attention to prioritizing his friends and family over comics. There were times, he said, when he'd hide out to read a new issue right away and ignore his social life.
"What am I going to do? Buy more statues or more comics? I'd rather put it toward someone. Whether it's money or just being nice enough to drive someone to the airport, you have to."
Friends, like his oldest, Maze, are appreciative. "After I got married and started a family, it's been hard for me to attend or buy geek-related things," he says. "But since Pat doesn't want me to miss [anything] ... he would hook it up without even blinking."
The way Loika talked about his shift in perspective reminded me of his X-Men cameo, only now what was important to him wasn't the superhero action, but who he was sharing it with. For Loika, comics isn't a hobby or a feeder to Hollywood. Instead, it's a community — one that helped him adjust to life in a new country, make friends in high school, travel across the country, and talk to his heroes about the fictional heroes that make him so happy. As Loikamania gets bigger, growing Loika's fan base means gaining more people to connect with.
Comic writer Brian Bendis recently answered a question on his Tumblr about the difficulties of being a comic book fan. The anonymous fan wrote, "I get laughed at or not taken seriously for going to the comic shop." Bendis wrote a long response, saying that things are better than they used to be, that superhero movies are the most popular films in the world. And he ended it with this advice:
"don't hide who you are and don't let people shame you...like what you like. enjoy what you enjoy.
be pat loika"