Joe Del Beato went from DC Comics to AC Comics.

DC Comics, in case you don't know, is one of the heavyweights of the comic-book world, featuring such enduring characters as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash.

And AC Comics is the new comic-concentrating business run by Del Beato, 59, an artist who has drawn some of DC's legendary superheroes and archvillains. He also calls it Atlantic City Comics, since his small, busily decorated shop is in the equally new Noyes Arts Garage in Atlantic City.

The shop on the first floor of the parking garage is so crammed with comic-book art because the main product it sells is its owner's work. Del Beato, of Ventnor, also drew for Marvel Comics - another magical name in the magical world of comic books, the home of Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, the Avengers and more.

He figures he has drawn about 90 percent of the heroes and action figures he shows off on his crowded walls.

Along with selling his comic-book art - and creating more art as he works in his little shop - Del Beato also hopes to eventually start his own publishing label, based in Atlantic City, "as a way to utilize local talent."

He knows there's young, local talent around because when he's not at his shop, Del Beato teaches two comic-art classes most weeks. One is at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, where he has run a regular class for almost eight years, ever since he moved to Atlantic County.

The other is in his local branch of the county library, in Ventnor, where Del Beato says he teaches more intermittently - his latest string of classes ended last week, and he is scheduled to start another set in June.

Maureen Moffit, who's in charge of youth services at Atlantic City's library, said the veteran artist's classes are a popular draw.

"He has a dedicated following, and during the summer in particular, it can get pretty filled. He has had as many as 50 kids in there," she said, although the more typical number is "10 or 12 or 15. We like to keep it to 20 or less."

The classes are for kids ages 9 to 17, and every June, the library opens a gallery of work the kids have done over the past year.

"Some of it is wonderful," Moffit said. "He really connects with the kids, he knows how to speak to the kids and he knows all the hot topics. ... And I know he's been asked to come to a lot of career days in various schools, so the schools are obviously hearing about him."

Del Beato didn't have much exposure to formal training when he was a kid himself - he says he spent just a year at the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia.

"I started animating because of Dick Tracy in the Sunday paper - the old Bulletin, in Philadelphia," said Del Beato, who spent his young years on the other side of the Delaware River but later moved to Vineland. He also was a big fan of the art in "Prince Valiant" at around the same age, 6 or 7, and because of that experience in his own past, he believes in the power of comics as an educational tool.

"Comics are most kids' first exposure to actual art," he says. "It gets people reading - all around, it's a good introduction to the arts."

He's been working on his own art for more than 50 years since he found that inspiration in the Sunday funnies, but when Del Beato grew up, he started out on a much more real-world career path. He worked for the Cumberland County Welfare Department as an "income maintenance technician," and although the work was important - it involved poor people getting benefits, or not - his heart was still in art.

His breakthrough came when he was probably in his late 20s, with "a family, a mortgage, two sons and a dog," he says. He went to a comic convention in Philadelphia, and stood in line to meet a DC Comics artist whose name, Dick Giordano, Del Beato knew well enough to be a bit star struck to say hello to him.

Del Beato showed him some samples, the DC man liked his style and promised to call him. He did the very next business day, to offer Del Beato freelance work as an artist.

Del Beato took it, but kept his day job for the next year or so, working 9 to 5 for the county and then staying up until 1 or 2 a.m. to do comic-book art.

"Then I think what put me over the edge was when Marvel called," offering more freelance work, he said.

He gave up the county job and went full-time into comic art, and he has been drawing superheroes ever since. But he also has tried the business side of comics a few times - he had his own business in Vineland before he moved to Ventnor.

And he says the help he got from Giordano breaking into comic art is part of why he enjoys teaching now.

"To actually be able to converse with somebody who had so much knowledge of the industry, and just to be able to tap into his mind - that has a lot to do with why I do everything I do for the kids," Del Beato says. "Because comics illustrators are few and far between."

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