Captain America was in trouble. The year was 2001, and comic book sales were as low as they'd been in a half-century. The Captain and his compatriots were helpless -- stranded on the dusty shelves of the nation's comic book stores, waiting impatiently to share their latest adventures.
How humiliating it was for a bona-fide superhero to have to beg for attention from a new breed of consumer kid. Even those twenty- and thirtysomethings who grew up with him were passing him by on their way to the video store. And after Sept. 11, comic book sales sank even further.
Then, in early May, Spider-Man came swinging through the comics industry, spinning a lifesaving web. In the film adaptation of Spider-Man, which has shattered box office records, New York is shiny and new again, its skyscrapers standing tall. And while the Legion of Doom may have been replaced by the Axis of Evil, make no mistake, 2002 is a great time for superheroes.
Meanwhile, on Oak Street, Steve Thomas is reluctant to give the credit to Spider-Man. Still, Thomas -- who with his wife, Ellen, owns More Fun Comics -- says 2002 is turning out to be one of his strongest years ever. His X-Men titles are flying off the shelves, and, thanks in part to last year's big-screen adaptation of the Dan Clowes comic Ghost World, sales of alternative comics are rising as well.
Comic book loyalists have long been considered part of a fringe society, a la The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, a know-it-all virgin manchild whose prized possession is a rare copy of Mary Worth in which Mary advises a friend to commit suicide. Yet more than ever, comics are exerting a profound influence on everything from video games to literature.
Recent examples include writer Michael Chabon's fictional homage to the Golden Age of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. On television, the Cartoon Network has sparked renewed interest in classic characters such as Batman and Aquaman, and Clark Kent is again young and relevant in WB Network's popular series Smallville. Riding high on the millions Columbia Pictures will net on Spider-Man, the motion picture industry is once again opening the floodgates of comic book adaptations. Slated for future release is Ang Lee's version of The Incredible Hulk, as well as Daredevil with Ben Affleck, Wonder Woman with Sandra Bullock, Ghost Rider with Nicolas Cage, and Cat Woman with Ashley Judd.
Meanwhile, far from the Hollywood studios and the Manhattan offices of Marvel and DC Comics, a handful of New Orleans-area writers and artists are toiling away in shotgun houses and small apartments, putting forth their own contributions to the comic book canon. Over the past year, they have all published first-edition comics, their subjects ranging from nocturnal superheroes to starving artists, corporate tycoons to children of Satan. And while they are experiencing varying degrees of success, each is telling its own story, frame by frame.
Comic book villains come in all forms -- from the curmudgeonly Penguin to the megalomaniac Lex Luthor. But in Rob Walker and Josh Neufeld's Titans of Finance, they can take on the real-life auspices of Wall Street moguls such as CrossWorlds Software founder Katrina Garnett or former Marvel Comics President Ronald Perelman. In the latter, Walker and Neufeld give a fascinating account of Perelman's disastrous takeover of Marvel, beginning in 1978, when, "at the tender age of 35, Ron rocketed off on his own -- armed with nothing but wits, courage, a Wharton degree, a rich wife, and lotsa dough."
Walker and Neufeld's Wall Street characters are not only excessively wealthy, they are also ruthless, arrogant, backstabbing and, at times, positively evil. Here, readers will witness Perelman's vicious takeover of an unsuspecting comic book industry. They will gasp as Raidin' Ronnie exploits Marvel characters such as the X-Men and Spider-Man in everything from trading cards to toothbrushes. They will shiver as Romancin' Ronnie loves and leaves his way through four wives, and they will weep as Wreckless Ronnie single-handedly destroys his Marvel empire, sinking the company into millions of dollars of debt.
"The point was to find a good narrative," Walker says during an interview in his Mid-City apartment. "I tried to find things that were kind of outrageous, something with a narrative arc and something where you have a rise and fall, or just a rise or just a fall -- something where there's movement."
Titans is Walker's first foray into comic books. A financial writer for Slate.com whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker and Fortune, he says comics allow him to explore darker areas of the business world he's unable to cover for other publications.
Neufeld, on the other hand, has been a professional cartoonist since the late 1980s. His popular comic, Keyhole, features his true-life travel stories, and he's a regular contributor to Harvey Pekar's renowned autobiographical comic, "American Splendor," as well as publications such as The Village Voice, In These Times and The Chicago Reader.
"I have a lot more experience in the comics world and maybe a better sense of how to craft a comic-specific script," Neufeld says about collaborating with Walker. "But as we went along, Rob and I started to work toward each other's strengths, and Rob would call for images he knew I enjoyed drawing."
Walker and Neufeld were unsure how readers would respond to Titans. "We thought there were two ways this could go," Walker recalls. "One was that it would hit a sweet spot of people interested in business and people interested in comics, or it was going to go the other way, and we would realize there are no people interested in business who would buy a comic book and vice versa." But laudatory write-ups in Savant, U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times strengthened their confidence. The pair scheduled the official debut of Titans at an alternative comic book convention in Bethesda, Md., on Sept. 14, 2001.
Then came Sept. 11. "One of the many, many things whose total triviality was laid bare by that moment was, in fact, Titans of Finance," Walker says. "The convention was canceled. It just didn't matter anymore."
Walker and Neufeld kept in touch, believing their project would now simmer on the back burner indefinitely. "People had a different feeling about Wall Street because it had physically come under attack," Walker says. "It was the wrong time to be making smart alec remarks about it."
But as the Enron story broke, people gradually became interested in poking fun of corporate America all over again. It wasn't long before Walker and Neufeld were revisiting their creation and discussing a second issue. "In drips and drabs people have started buying it," Walker says. "People have contacted us about it, continued to write about it, mentioned it here and there, and we've become enthusiastic about it again."
Back on track, Walker and Neufeld are now trying to expand their readership by targeting the very people they upbraid -- the business community. "Those are exactly the kind of people who I think would really get a kick out of it," Neufeld says. "I would love to see more sales in that arena. We're thinking about racking the book with business magazines. With that kind of exposure for Titans, the future is unlimited."
Barely audible over the roaring delivery trucks bringing produce to the French Market, Tedd Walley sits in front of Louisiana Pizza Kitchen sipping a Sprite and talking shop. He is dressed in a Boy Scouts of America uniform accented with leather pants and hooped earrings, a wardrobe that bespeaks a lifetime spent on the fringes.
Walley says he began creating comics when he was 8 years old and dreamed of one day landing a job at Marvel or DC. In college, he started attending comic book conventions, where he learned the business and made some early contacts. Even though he was armed with a nice portfolio, went through all the right channels, and talked to the right people, Walley was unable to find work. "I was one of these guys who, every time I went to a convention, I showed them my work, they loved my stuff, they said send it in," he says. "Then, I'd send it in, and then they'd say they don't have anything for me."
After acquiring an impressive stack of rejection letters, Walley decided to go into business for himself, penning a series of scripts. One of these focused on a reformed child of Satan named Mathilda.
Spawned by Satan to lead an army or evil against the Kingdom of Heaven, Mathilda has an epiphany before leading the charge and realizes she is fighting for wrong side. She escapes the underworld and, in her Earthly manifestation, finds herself in the body of an 8-year-old girl. "She's still aware of what she is and who she is," Walley says, "but now she is learning what it is that we hold dear. She winds up finding herself and defending the people she once tormented." Her father, of course, is not pleased, and releases his armies to bring Mathilda back, dead or alive.
"It took a year to produce," Walley says of Mathilda, "mainly because I'm a goofball with a lot of vices. And it's a really time-consuming thing because I was doing all of the work. Normally, you have a crew that works with you -- one person writes it, another person draws it and the next person inks it -- and you can get it done in a month. I was doing all of that."
On March 23, the first 400 issues of Mathilda were ready to go. "It started taking off a lot more than anyone expected," Walley says. "I've only had it out for two months and I've sold almost 50 copies. I may actually have something here."
Now that he's succeeded in publishing Mathilda, Walley says he is on a crusade to convince the press and the general public that comic books are an acceptable medium. "It's not just some guy jumping around in his underwear off of buildings," he says. "What people don't realize is in the past 20 or so years, comics have matured. The Japanese read them religiously on the subway and during lunch breaks just like we [read] People magazine. They are mature stories."
Some of Walley's friends have told him that Mathilda isn't the kind of story they expected from him -- the comic has a hopeful message, and Walley is a man who is usually dressed in black, with an appearance that indicates an affinity for darkness over light.
"After 9/11, people are looking for affirmation," he explains. "They want to realize 'Oh, yeah, that's why I'm doing this, that's why I'm getting up in the morning.'"
The Dynamic Duo
The Ennead, a sinister circle of villains out to create their own "cosmology of crime," are plotting to steal the golden scepter of Queen Khamerenebty from the First Bank of New Orleans. Shu (He Who Graces Us As the Master of All That Is Good) has arranged a power outage at the Carondelet Police Station, Set (He Who Stands Before Us As The Master Of All That Is Evil) has armed the Ennead's forces and Geb (He Who Stands Before Us As The Earth) has completed an underground tunnel beneath the bank, and Ra (He Who Stands Before Us As The Sun) has planted "blinding , fiery explosives" to disrupt anyone who tries to pursue them.
It looks like evil is once again the order of the day in the Crescent City.
But wait! What's that? Standing gallantly atop a CBD building, silhouetted by the September sky? Why it's none other than "the monarchs of murky dreams," "the shadowy sultans of sinister sleep," "the reigning regents of relentless relaxation," yes, it's Dr. Nocturne and Kid Slumber!
The creation of George Boone and Larry Guidry, Dr. Nocturne and Kid Slumber is the first superhero offering from Fusebox Comics, a local production company that combines the talents of Boone, Guidry and company mastermind Chun Lee.
When Lee and Guidry show up for an afternoon interview at CC's Coffee House on Jefferson Avenue, the latter arrives with illustrated cut-outs of Nocturne and Slumber that measure about 14 inches high. "I brought them along so you can ask any questions," Guidry says. "Pretend Chun and I aren't even here."
Guidry, 36, is an instantly likable guy with a boyish face, who remembers picking up Justice League comics at the old K&B on Napoleon back in 1971. "I think my first one was the Inferior Five reprints," he recalls, "and this is back when comic books were 20 cents."
Guidry came out with his first comic book -- a superhero epic called The Leather Society, which he describes as a combination of Superfriends and the Village People -- in the mid-90s. He admits he is deeply in love with the Golden Age of comics. "I just love those super battles they used to have in the old days," he says. "You just don't get that anymore." To give comics such as Dr. Nocturne a nostalgic spin, Guidry uses vintage photographs of demolished New Orleans buildings, drawing them into his comics as background.
Guidry and Lee make a sort of comic odd couple, and during the interview, they frequently squabble over their differing tastes. Influenced by European comics, as well as the martial arts comics he read while he was a child in Hong Kong, Lee, 29, prefers more real-life scenarios. "I don't know, man," he says. "I just think there are too many superhero comics."
Their differences even carry over into print. On the flip side of Guidry and Boone's Dr. Nocturne is Lee's cleverly illustrated comic book version of a quintessential New Orleans tragedy, titled The End of the Tunnel. The story concerns Josh, a young and troubled artist who sells his paintings by the St. Louis Cathedral and struggles to get his work shown in the Royal Street galleries. Josh is tortured by memories of his parents, who died in a car accident, and the memories inspire him to create his finest work, just in the nick of time.
Lee says End of the Tunnel is loosely based on some personal experiences he had as a watercolor artist trying to sell his work in the Quarter. "I tried to get into galleries before, but they didn't really want me," Lee says. Instead, he decided to use his talents to tell stories using a cinematic aesthetic. "It's like making a short film," he says, "only cheaper. All you have to do is buy some paper and a pen and ink and you can tell stories and share your own ideas."
The Chosen One
Vernon Smith says it was dissatisfaction with companies such as Marvel and DC that led him to take his own stab at comic book stardom. "I don't even read that stuff anymore," he says, "and what I do read is usually the independent, self-published stuff, which seems to be a lot better than the ones about a bunch of guys in capes and tights, running around and saving the world of an everyday basis."
Smith's Gilded Elements is an elaborate superhero story that focuses on the everyday ordeals of a group of outcast crime fighters known as The Protectorate. "It's about the things these guys have to go through just like anyone else," Smith says of his characters, whose powers earn both ridicule and praise.
The star of Gilded Elements is Dr. Quaid Murdoch, who, after discovering an effective AIDS vaccine, is tapped to become part of the Rycliff Scientific Military Institute, a covert Louisiana outfit that performs experiments on both humans and aliens. During an eye-opening conversation with an alien held in captivity by the Institute, Murdoch learns he is one of five unique individuals chosen for the Meta-Human Project, which seeks to use alien technology -- acquired after a spaceship crashes in northern Louisiana -- to create a new brand of Super Soldier.
Murdoch and his mutant friends -- who include Daniel Wong, a fallen New Orleans police officer brought back to life with enhanced strength and tracking powers -- escape from Rycliff, and, after securing funding from Robinson Bancroft's Bancroft International, embark on new lives as mutated crimefighters.
Smith covers all the bases -- from clever back stories to captivating characters -- that make some comic books extraordinary. Plus, Murdoch is an African-American hero, something sorely lacking in most comic lineups. Smith also has a real sense of current events, and infuses it into his storylines. For example, after Murdoch tells Bancroft about the 1982 Louisiana spaceship crash, he explains how an unofficial emergency summit was held.
"Leaders of the U.S., Soviet Union, East and West Germany and China were there," Murdoch explains. "They saw the arrival as a possible prelude to an invasion. They decided to put their differences aside. Germany reunited. The Cold War ended. A one-world government emerged. Communism and Capitalism combined and established a New Global Economy."
Smith is not above mixing some humor into his work, and the back of the first issue contains some hilarious "Behind the Scenes" footage of two Gilded characters practicing lines for a future issue, as well as a depiction of Smith directing a Protectorate actor on how to deliver an elbow punch for a fight scene.
Smith says his next installment has already gone to press. But in a letter to his readers in the first issue, he voices the sentiments of all writers, artists and publishers of independent comics.
"If you don't want to wait two months between issues," he writes, "then tell your friends to buy this book and have your local comic book shop carry it so I won't have to work a regular job in order to get the bills paid."
- Donn Young
- 'The point was to find a good narrative,' says local writer Rob Walker about Titans of Finance, his foray into the comics world.
- Donn Young
- Tedd Walley says it took him a year to produce Mathilda -- 'mainly because I'm a goofball with a lot of vices,' he says.
- Donn Young
- George Boone, Larry Guidry and Chun Lee's differing tastes all come together in their new, double-sided comic.
- Donn Young
- Vernon Smith says it was dissatisfaction with Marvel and DC that led him to take his own stab at comic book stardom. 'I don't even read that stuff anymore,' he says.