The pantheon of superheroes includes such fearless do-gooders as Spider-Man, the X-Men and Captain America. And now there's another defender of truth and justice at their side.
Hibbs, 38, owns a San Francisco shop called Comix Experience. He stood up against mighty Marvel Entertainment, the nation's largest comic-book publisher, and prevailed in a lawsuit charging the company with failing to uphold its contract with retailers.
As a result of the case being settled, thousands of comic sellers worldwide will qualify this month for a week or two of free Marvel comics -- a windfall worth on average $2,000 per store.
"That might not sound like much," Hibbs told me. "But when you're a small business, that's your electricity bill for six months."
A spokeswoman for Marvel declined to comment on the issues raised in the lawsuit or the settlement terms.
The case centered on returns of unsold comics. Typically, a comic-book retailer buys his inventory at a wholesale price of as much as 55 percent off the roughly $3 cover price.
In return for that discount, the retailer agrees to swallow any unsold copies. But Marvel, as with other leading comic publishers, previously made allowances for returns under certain circumstances (the contract has since been changed).
One such circumstance, according to the company's former agreement with sellers, was to take back all unsold copies if a particular issue arrived late in stores.
Another was if different writers or artists ended up working on a specific comic instead of the ones promoted in advance to readers -- a key point for collectors.
Hibbs said he started noticing in 2000 that some lesser-known Marvel titles were arriving late to his store on a fairly routine basis. Then the tardiness expanded to the company's biggest names, including Spider-Man and the X-Men.
"This started becoming a big issue," Hibbs said. "When a comic doesn't ship when someone's expecting it, people will spend their money on another title. We were starting to see unsold books really mounting up."
To a lesser extent, he said, comics went unbought around the same time because a writer or artist had been switched. Hibbs recalled a handful of Spider-Man issues that came with unexpected names attached.
The way it's supposed to work, he said, is that the distributor of the comics will enclose a return form with the next shipment for any unsold issues resulting from a late delivery or editorial changes. But Hibbs said no return forms were ever included for Marvel titles.
He said he contacted Marvel to ask what the holdup was. "They did everything they could to stall us and give us the runaround," Hibbs said.
"I think the management at Marvel saw us as a captive audience and that we had no power," he said. "They thought they could get away with ignoring their own contract."
They were wrong.
Hibbs found an attorney who saw merit in his case and, in 2002, filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York publishing house. The suit worked its way through the system and, finally, a settlement was reached in August 2004.
"It took a year for the court to approve it," said Nancy Ledy-Gurren, Hibbs' attorney. "It became final on Sept. 30 of this year, and Marvel now has 30 days to issue its credits."
Under the terms of the settlement, more than 5,000 comic-book sellers are eligible for a credit toward future Marvel purchases to cover a percentage of losses incurred between January 1998 and March 2003.
The agreement specifies that Marvel denies any wrongdoing.
Still, the company changed its contract with retailers in 2003. It no longer allows returns even if a title ships late. However, Marvel has granted comic sellers more latitude to adjust their orders at the last minute, thus giving stores greater control over inventory.
"They never said this change was a result of the lawsuit," observed Rory Root, owner of Comic Relief, a Berkeley comic-book store. "But there's no doubt in anyone's mind that this was the case."
He said the settlement with Marvel is a big boon to comic merchants, who are often in business as a labor of love and tend to scrape by on relatively slim profit margins.
"Comics retailing has always been an undercapitalized business," Root said. "As a David-versus-Goliath thing, this was a pretty big case."
Marvel has enjoyed steady success since emerging from bankruptcy in 1998. Its Spider-Man and X-Men franchises have become blockbuster movies, and the company last month said it had secured $525 million in financing to produce other films based on its characters.
In April, Marvel announced it had reached a settlement with its chairman emeritus, Stan Lee, who had sued over royalties from movies based on characters he co-created, including Spider-Man and the Hulk. Terms of the settlement weren't disclosed.
Marvel went public in 1998. Its main rival, DC Comics, is owned by media giant Time Warner.
At Comix Experience, Hibbs said he's feeling really good about the outcome of his case.
"In Spider-Man, we learn that with great power comes great responsibility," he said. "I feel like I helped Marvel understand that."
David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Send tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org