Pen & Inc.

Comic-book artists are drawn to St. Louis.

"Working for DC is different from doing indie comics," Samnee says. "Oni lets you do your own thing. They know they're not paying you a ton, and it would put you out if they made a lot of suggestions. DC pays three times the page rate of Oni, and every page has to get approved. You're playing with their toys. It's like a factory and you're on the assembly line."

Ted May isn't sure if he would give up indie comics for a chance to draw Spider-Man. "I would really have to think about it," he says. "I grew up reading that stuff. But it would depend on the terms. I wouldn't want to have them tell me to be this or that or put restrictions on me. I've heard horror stories."

For one week fifteen years ago, David Zimmermann was the regular artist for DC's Deathstroke. He had quit his job to do comics full-time and was making a living filling in for other regular artists at Marvel and DC, but the Deathstroke assignment was his big break. "They sent me my first script," he remembers. "I went to the library for reference material and sat at my drawing board 'round the clock."

Panel from Sacha Mardou's "Belly Dancer Confidential" from Whores of Mensa.
Panel from Sacha Mardou's "Belly Dancer Confidential" from Whores of Mensa.
Glenn Ganges from Kevin Huizenga's Curses.
Glenn Ganges from Kevin Huizenga's Curses.
From Ted May's It Lives Number 1.
From Ted May's It Lives Number 1.

The early '90s was a bad time for the comics industry. Sales dipped dramatically and comic shops, caught up in the role-playing game craze, had less shelf space for comic books and were reluctant to take a chance on new or unfamiliar titles. The major publishers started laying off staff and producing fewer books.

At the end of Zimmermann's first week on Deathstroke, he got a call from his editor. "He said, 'I'm not your editor anymore.' I asked if I would still be the regular artist. He said it was up to the new editor. The new editor trashed the script, so I had done all that work for nothing. They sent me a new script and told me they had lined up another artist. They said, 'You're good for two issues, and then we won't need you.'

"I was a professional and tried to do my best work, but it rattled me. I was worried about paying the bills. I got artistic writer's block. I couldn't get anything on the page. It was driving me insane. I called the editor and told him I wasn't getting it done and it was time to let someone else finish the book. That was the longest I ever had a regular assignment. It was a revelation to me of how the business worked."

His confidence shattered, Zimmermann left the comics business. He tried taking up oil painting, but his heart wasn't in it. Occasionally he did unpaid work for Big Bang. "I'm 43," he says. "I should have outgrown this." But a few years ago, he met Thompson Knox at Mo's Comics in St. Louis Hills. Knox encouraged him to take up comics again, and the two are now collaborating on a fantasy book, which Zimmermann will write, draw and ink and Knox will letter and color.

"It's good to have exposure to other artists," Zimmermann says. "You learn by being around others. I mentioned to Thompson that if we get enough guys, we should put a studio together."

At 28, Chris Samnee is considered young for the comics industry. Most artists don't break into the major publishers until their mid-30s. But he still feels his position is precarious and plans to keep up his heavy work schedule. "I'm a lower-level artist," he says. "Nobody knows who I am. I've done stuff, but other guys have done more. I've got to keep my name out there."

But cartooning is the only work he's ever wanted to do. "People think comics are for kids," he says, "but graphic novels and movies are making them more mainstream and giving them more exposure. In the U.S., superheroes are still the big thing, but there are some great graphic novels that people haven't found." He grins. "Comics are awesome! People should read them."

Contact the author aimee.levitt@riverfronttimes.com

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