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After serving a 3-1⁄2-year stretch in a federal penitentiary, Brian Christensen decided to change his ways.

Actually, Christensen worked at a prison — Alcatraz, to be exact — as a visitors' guide, until he gave notice earlier this month. But let's start at the beginning: 2008.

"I was living in Pasadena and working at Panavision in Hollywood as a technician servicing motion picture cameras," he says. "My wife, Jennifer, who is a school counselor, got a great job offer up here, and in August 2008 we moved to Petaluma. She is now a college counselor at Marin Academy. This all happened within a year of us getting married."

Christensen's film degree was of little use in the Bay Area. "I interviewed at Kerner Optical (a now-defunct spun-off division of George Lucas' Inudstiral Light & Magic) and they were going through the same transition from film to digital as Panavision," he recalls. "When I left Panavision, there were 12 people in my division; now there's four."

After many job interviews, nothing panned out. "The job market in general tanked in 2008," he says, "and I was unemployed for eight months."

Then Christensen spotted a job posting on Craigslist for a visitor services representative with the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.

"I had to take anything, so I threw my hat in the ring. And then I get the call and I find myself taking a boat across the Bay to Alcatraz for a job interview."

Christensen was hired. His duties included supervising the audio tours, manning the information kiosk, and leading behind-the-scenes VIP tours.

"I showed (Giants pitcher) Ryan Vogelsong and his family around one day, and I chatted with Cate Blanchett, who took the audio tour on her own," he recalls. "She was in the middle of filming the latest Woody Allen movie in San Francisco, and she came back again a week later with her two kids."

Not a bad perk, hobnobbing with the stars.

However, "one day at breakfast, Jennifer asked me, &‘If you could do anything, what would it be?' And I immediately said, &‘Own a comic book store.' To which she said, &‘Why don't you?'"

Christensen was up for the challenge, and began researching the pros and cons — "especially in this economy" — and decided to take the plunge. He acknowledges the risks, especially since comics come out digitally on the same day the paper versions are released. Might this be a repeat of the film to digital dilemma he experienced, if electronic versions of the paper comics take over?

"No," he asserts, "paper still has a strong collectability factor, especially with the Iron Man, Avengers and Batman franchises, and now &‘The Walking Dead' and &‘Game of Thrones' from television."

Christensen, who is 40, is a prime example of a typical collector with some 700 comics in his personal collection, which started in 1976, when he was just 4 years old.

"It was an Action Comics, No. 463, given to me by my grandfather," he recalls fondly. "It stars Superman, and it has a 1776 theme. I read it so many times the cover fell off over time."

Christensen advises that if someone is going to start collecting comic books, Superman is the ideal title with which to start. He says, "Superman continues to be a steady top seller, the gold standard. Batman comics have overtaken Superman as the best-selling title, probably because there have been more Batman movies. Also, Superman has superpowers, while Batman is an everyday man trying to do good, and people can better relate to him."

While action heroes are a staple, he predicts there will eventually be Harry Potter comics in our future and that they will be big. Currently, he recommends the Owly graphic novels for the very young.

"Owly is a little owl and he has a friend named Wormy. It has no words in it, only pictures, but it teaches great lessons, like overcoming fear and building friendships," he says.

On Nov. 15, Christensen got the keys to a 1000-square foot space in the basement of the McNear building at 1 Fourth St., where The Comic Book Box (now located in Rohnert Park) first opened years ago. He expects to open Brian's Comics in mid-December.

And if by some cruel twist of fate, his dream doesn't work out, he says, "I always have Alcatraz to fall back on. My bosses told me that I will always be welcomed back. There were a handful of prisoners who served two terms at Alcatraz. I could be one of them."

(Contact Bob Canning at argus@arguscourier.com)

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