Pen & Inc.

Comic-book artists are drawn to St. Louis.

Pen & Inc.

The life of a comic-book artist is quite glamorous, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. If you're Chris Samnee, you spend most of your time in an extra bedroom of your Fenton home. You've got a drawing table, a file cabinet full of reference material, bookshelves crammed with comic books and a TV, which used to keep you company until a couple months ago, when you adopted a kitten.

You've stockpiled the necessary supplies: Bristol board, pencils, brushes, India ink and a full pot of coffee. Some days you draw. Some days you go over your pencil drawings in ink, and some days you have to go over the whole thing with Wite-Out because your cat smacked the brush while you were working.

You work on two comics now, Checkmate for DC and Queen & Country for Oni, and your life is governed by deadlines. Sometimes you have two and a half weeks to pencil a 60-page comic book and sometimes you're working on three things at once. When your schedule gets that tight, you forget about going to bed. When your arm muscles cramp from holding a brush, you soak your elbow in ice water.

Chris Samnee is part of an expanding comic art network that over the past decade has gravitated to St. Louis, thanks in part to Xplane Graphics in Soulard and the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University, where many of the city's cartoonists met and worked together. "What's better than working with your friends?" Samnee asks. They help each other get jobs, model for each other, critique each other's work. Two of them – Sacha Mardou and Ted May – are married. Cartoonists from other cities, whom they meet at conventions, comment, somewhat wistfully, about what a close-knit circle they are. Observes Mardou of the Chicago cartoonists: "A lot of them seem to hate each other."

"The thing about St. Louis," explains May, "is that it's not huge. You hear about another person, and then you e-mail them, and you get together. In New York it would be like, 'Hey, look, another New York cartoonist.' Here, there's potential camaraderie."

Several years ago, May, Kevin Huizenga and a few of their Xplane co-workers began going to Star Clipper on Wednesday afternoons to check out the week's new comics. Then they would get dinner and hang out in a coffee shop and draw. The gatherings migrated to Thursdays, and the group became known, rather portentously, as the St. Louis Drawing Club. The membership hovers at around ten members, largely due to the force of Huizenga's personality. "People call Kevin taciturn or terse," explains Dan Zettwoch, who joined the group later. "Everyone thinks he hates them."

"When I first came to St. Louis," Mardou remembers, "I went to comics night. I'd read about it in The Comics Journal. It's really a boys' support group. They talk about their troubles with women."

"Dan tried to make us more productive," Huizenga says. "He actually brings comics to draw."

The history of comics dates back some 5,000 years when ancient Egyptians began telling stories through sequences of pictures. The medieval French creators of the Bayeux Tapestry, which chronicled the 1066 Norman Invasion of England, added words to the equation in the form of captions that explained which helmeted knight was which.

By the mid-eighteenth century, political cartoons had become a fixture in British and American newspapers. English artists Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray helped the form take a gigantic leap forward by inventing the now-ubiquitous speech balloon.

In the 1890s short cartoon stories with recurring characters began to appear in American newspapers. Because they were supposed to be humorous, a now-forgotten editor dubbed them "comics." In 1934, Famous Funnies, a pulp magazine containing reprints of the newspaper strips, appeared on the newsstands, becoming the first American comic book. Action Comics #1, starring Superman, unleashed the modern superhero upon an unsuspecting world four years later. Thereafter, the mainstream American comic book would be dominated by men in tights.

Comic strips became so popular that the migration of a strip from one newspaper to another resulted in circulation wars. When New York City papers went on strike in 1945, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics on the radio so New Yorkers could keep up with the adventures of Barney Google, Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie.

In the so-called "underground" comics of the 1960s, cartoonists like R. Crumb began to see the possibilities of using comics to entertain adults, with stories about sex and various neuroses. (What adolescent hadn't already tried to imagine what went on in Superman and Lois Lane's bedroom?) And some went further.

In 1978 Will Eisner published A Contract With God, a series of interconnected stories about life in a New York tenement in the 1930s. "It was," Eisner wrote, "in format and style, as great a departure of the comic-book conventions as I could master. It was the story of one man's perception of his relationship with God." It was, in a word, literary. To distinguish it from the lowly comic book, a new term was coined: graphic novel. Fourteen years later, Art Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer Prize for Maus, his memoir of his Holocaust-survivor father and their difficult relationship, and in the process, made libraries and classrooms safe for comics.

Comics continue to evolve. "I feel uncomfortable using the word 'comics' to describe a group of things," says Kevin Huizenga. "It's a category that includes lots of different sorts of things. I think 'comics' is a word along the lines of 'music' or 'writing.' You wouldn't describe a bar band that plays Kansas covers and another guy that plays polka music as if they were all one thing."

So in St. Louis, you get comics about Civil War battles, philosophical inquiries into the nature of time travel and stories about gangsters and demons and spies. Then, of course, there's tales of wizards, bad dates and Truman Capote. Sometimes, you even get the odd superhero.

In high school, I discovered non-superhero comics," says Matt Kindt, now 34 and a writer and artist in Webster Groves. "Eightball by Daniel Clowes — it was a revelation. Up till then I thought all comic books were about superheroes. But here was someone doing something weird and strange and interesting. I started looking forward to it more than I looked forward to the X-Men."

Kindt has the luxury of working with Top Shelf Productions, an independent press in Marietta, Georgia, that has published all his work and, most recently, his graphic novel Super Spy. "They let me do what I want," he says. "I get to write my stories without interference."

Super Spy contains elements of pulpiness from old-time comics — there's plenty of stalking and double-crossing and a spy who encodes messages in a belly dance — but the novel is really about how the characters respond to the pressures of spying during World War II. "The spy stuff is a gimmick," Kindt says, "a hook to get people to read about things that happened to these characters." Kindt based the structure of Super Spy on Catch-22: a series of short vignettes in non-chronological order. It's left to the reader to keep track of the spies and their missions and who knows what and when. Kindt estimates that about 75 percent of the events in the book really happened.

"Matt is definitely trying to accomplish things with comics," says Valley Park's Cullen Bunn, 37, a friend and sometime-collaborator of Kindt's. He also wrote The Damned, a graphic novel about gangsters and demons; DreamWorks bought the movie rights last summer. "The stuff I do is more pulp. There are very powerful comics and then there are entertaining comics. I like to write entertaining comics. But in comics, there's room for all different kinds of stories."

Among St. Louis cartoonists, 32-year-old Sacha Mardou is that rare woman plying her craft. "Now is a good time to be a woman cartoonist," she notes. "We're still much more of a minority in superhero comics, but we're good at autobiographical stories." The autobiographical books, says May, are those that are reviewed in mainstream publications and sold at Borders and Barnes & Noble.

In Mardou's case, autobiographical is not the same as autobiography. "The real-life event is a starting point. But you go through so many drafts of a story and the character becomes her own person. It doesn't feel like it's me. I can disguise myself. It's a way to reveal things I feel uncomfortable writing about." Sometimes this leads to confusion. Mardou once wrote an erotic comic about a woman who seduces a blind man. "My mum was worried that it was autobiography. When I told her I had made all that stuff up, she thought it was genius. She was also very relieved."

Mardou's stories, which she publishes in her book Manhole and the three-woman anthology Whores of Mensa, concern relationships, belly-dancing and boredom. ("I spend a lot of my life avoiding dreary people," confides one character.) "A lot of this has been done in prose," Mardou admits, "but in comics it's uncharted territory." Unlike many comic artists, Mardou prefers stories with ambiguous endings. "It's real. It challenges readers." Currently, she is at work on a graphic novel based on her experiences growing up in northern England and spending time in a psychiatric hospital. "It's not something you usually see in comics."

One of the cool things about comics," says Ted May, "is how challenging it is to make them. You need all these skills. You need to be able to write, to pare down things into dialogue with minimal text. You need to be able to draw – not well, but enough to communicate your ideas. Then there's the rest of the art, the inking and the lettering. It's like being in Boy Scouts and earning merit badges."

Some comic creators, particularly those who make self-published mini-comics, perform all these tasks themselves. But for a creator who lacks one of comics' merit badges, collaboration is not necessarily a bad thing.

Despite his best efforts, Cullen Bunn cannot draw, but that does not deter him from making comics. "It's so difficult, so humiliating and so embarrassing to find an artist. Writers are always looking for artists. There are a lot of writers with bad ideas. It was tough to break in and find someone willing to work with me." Fortunately, he found a collaborator for The Damned in his friend and former Fantasy Comics co-worker Brian Hurtt.

Comics usually begin as scripts, which resemble movie screenplays, describing the story panel by panel. "I don't specify how the panel should look," Bunn says. Instead of description, he concerns himself with plot, characters and pacing out the dramatic moments so the reader will keep turning the pages. "Writing scripts and prose is very different. In a short story or a novel, I don't have an artist to bring things to life. I have to rely on myself and I'm not very reliable."

The ideal comic story is one that can't be translated into any other medium. "The trick is to tell a story in comics," explains Matt Kindt. "If you can tell it as a book or a movie, why bother?"

Once artists receive their scripts, they begin to make rough sketches of each panel, called thumbnails, where they choose the angle of the "shot" and where to place the word balloons. "I have the most fun doing the thumbnails," says Samnee. "It's the most creative part, turning the words into pictures. It's kinetic. There's a lot of energy to it."

Then the real drawing begins on cardboard, called Bristol board. Recently, some artists have begun to draw on computerized tablets. "I can't comprehend that, drawing not on paper and having it show up on a screen," Samnee says. "I don't have the hand-eye coordination." In the pencil drawings the artist concentrates on telling a story through the lines. "I don't want you to have to try to figure out what you're looking at," adds Samnee. "I want you to look at it and have it be there."

Once the pencil drawings are completed, an inker traces over the pencil lines with a pen or a brush and India ink. The inker uses the width of the lines and the amount of blackness to convey a mood. Last year Samnee drew and inked a graphic novel called Capote in Kansas about the reporting and writing of In Cold Blood. "It needed to be dark," he explains. "It's crime noir, historical fiction and a ghost story. It needed lots of black."

As with drawing, inking can now be done on the computer, but many artists, including David Zimmermann, don't like the results. "The line is dead," Zimmermann says. "There's no weight. With the computer palate, you can't get a precise line. There's not the same flexibility you can get with a brush on paper."

The artists add the word balloons and letters. In the past, calligraphy was a separate art, but now computers with handwriting fonts have taken over. It's easier to make corrections, but some artists think the computer fonts are too regular and boring. (Sacha Mardou and Ted May once compiled a list of "handwriting fonts of the devil.")

Finally, the black-and-white pages go to a colorist. In the early 1990s, St. Louis' Thompson Knox, then a junior in high school and an aspiring colorist, invested in Marvel Comics stock and used the proceeds to buy his first Mac. He scanned in black-and-white drawings, added color with a computer program and took the results to a comics show in Chicago with the hope of getting a job. Colorists back then used markers, dyes and watercolors, and no one was interested in Knox's work. Now most coloring is done on the computer, even by artists like Kindt who still draw by hand.

"You can use color to tell a story just as much as pencil and ink," says Knox. "If there's a change in emotion, you can change the color in a scene. It ties into the work the artist and the writer have done. If the story has been in blue-gray and suddenly there's an orange panel, that's a sign something has happened. It affects the way people interact with the story." (And also the characters: Knox is about to turn the Incredible Hulk red in an upcoming comic.)

Mini-comics creators handle the production process themselves. "A friend in college showed me how to make a mini-comic," says May. He pauses. "I don't know why I had to be shown. It was just a piece of letter-sized paper folded in half." Mardou uses collage and watercolors to make her covers; Dan Zettwoch uses silkscreen. Then they take the pages down to the copy shop. It always helps, Zettwoch and Huizenga say, to have a friend who works at Kinko's.

The appeal of comics," explains Matt Kindt, "is that it's still a small industry. It's easy to break in. Everybody goes to the same conventions. You don't need an agent to get your stuff looked at." Making a living, however, is another matter. Samnee drew his first book for Big Bang Comics at the age of fifteen. He didn't get paid until ten years later when he started drawing for Oni, a small comics press in Portland, Oregon. Many comic creators still keep their day jobs and make comics before and after work and during lunch hours. Some, like Zettwoch and Kindt, do commercial illustrations. (Zettwoch is a regular contributor to the RFT.) Last year Samnee finally got a regular drawing gig with the New York-based DC and began working eighteen-hour days in order to meet his deadlines.

"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."

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 [email protected]

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