I [heart] comics
Comic books are more popular than ever, but Sacramento’s artists still struggle to break through
Four ordinary, 30-something guys gather around a dimly lit table at the back of downtown’s Fox & Goose restaurant. Anthony Leano, a key player in the local comic-book scene, taps away on his laptop; he’s compiling a list of names, nearly three decades’ worth of Sacramento comic-book writers, pencilers, inkers, publishers and store owners.
He tilts the screen and leans over the laptop as if shielding a confidential CIA manuscript. A roughed-up cardboard box loaded with comics, all created by local talent, rests on the table next to a pitcher of Guinness.
Nowadays, comics are more mainstream than ever, but vestiges of comic-book ignominy are something these artists still endure. Parents no longer feel mortified by their kids’ affinity for Technicolor tights and improbable cleavage, but it still isn’t that easy to escape the “geek” stigma or make money as a comic artist.
But, as Leano’s secret list attests, Sacramento apparently has a thriving, semi-underground comics community, complete with famous legends, steadfast fans, scene boosters and aspiring newbies. So who are these geeks—and will they ever make it?
Leano goes over the list, name by name, while artists and pals Paul Allen, Brandon Bracamonte, and Mike Hampton interject with pertinent info—and one-liners—amid beer gulps. Leano praises illustrator Dan Brereton, of Lincoln, “one of the few who’s been hand-painting comics his entire career.” Then Bracamonte jokes that he also “has an awesome beard.”
This overview takes hours; pitchers refill, Bracamonte moves on to the hard stuff, and everyone eventually opens up, revealing hopes and fears.
“We’re all about 30,” says Hampton, peering through his messy, chin-length hair. “This is what we want to do with our lives.
“We want to draw.”
Sacramento back story
In the early 1980s, a local comic geek named Sam Kieth would tote a week’s worth of illustrations over to Tim Foster’s house, and they and local artist Dane McCart would evaluate each other’s drawings. Foster remembers that he and McCart usually brought a decent amount of work, but that Kieth would always arrive with a stack of artwork as thick as “a phone book.”
“It was just inconceivable that a guy could do so much good work,” Foster says.
Some 25 years later, Kieth is Sacramento’s most accomplished and well-known comic-book artist.
Foster says parents, and society in general, discouraged their interest in comics. “Being into comic books was like being into really obscure pornography. You didn’t tell anyone. In high school, you’d get no respect,” he says. Teachers would catch his friends reading comics in class and demand, “What’s wrong with you?!” he remembers.
There wasn’t much of a comic-book scene in Sacramento at this time, either. Artists like Robert Crumb lived out in Winters, building a comic underground, but Foster, Kieth and McCart wanted to do superhero comics in the city, obsessed with what Foster calls “a weirdo subculture” that was difficult to break into.
Enter Kris Silver.
Foster says Silver was a “strange, nunchuck-wielding nerd” who owned Alexander’s Comics in south Sacramento on Freeport Boulevard. He published books out of this storefront under the Silver Wolf banner. Foster, McCart, and even local artists like Ron Lim and Tim Vigil ended up doing work for Silver Wolf.
Many say these comics were bad; Foster calls them “unreadable” and “poorly drawn,” noting that Silver would employ such slapdash methods as using a typewriter to jot out captions and inelegantly pasting them onto the panels.
But collectors during the mid-’80s were eating up black-and-white comic books. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series had brought about a boon, and Silver Wolf rode its coattails. Foster’s first comic sold 35,000 copies.
Vigil, a local artist known for the popular horror comic Faust, started off at Silver Wolf on Grips, which essentially was an X-Men knockoff. Most of Silver’s comics, in fact, were rehashes of familiar mainstream brands; Grips was Wolverine, but with only one blade instead of three. But Grips sold like gangbusters and was Silver Wolf’s most popular title.
While Foster and McCart were raking in the dough—making upward of $90 a page, a goldmine for two kids fresh out of high school—Kieth had different plans. He wanted to do Marvel and DC comics, so he’d mailed clips to all the major editors across the country and finally landed a gig penciling Sandman.
Later, he worked on Wolverine, Marvel Comics Presents’ Alien series, X-Men, The Hulk (with McCart). Big-time gigs. In 1996, his original comic The Maxx became an MTV cartoon.
The mid-’90s saw the largest U.S. comic-sales windfall since World War II. Kieth’s issues sold upward of 1 million copies. Other local artists benefited, too, moving hundreds of thousands of books during this time. Lim and Kelley Jones, who’ve worked on Marvel’s Silver Surfer and DC’s Batman & Dracula: Red Rain series, respectively, made good and are two of the more recognizable industry names out of Sacto.
Eventually, Kieth got to work on the big ticket: Batman. Twice, in fact: Once in the ’90s and again in 2007’s Batman/Lobo: Deadly Serious graphic novels. Back in the day, Dave Downey, frontman of former local band the Lizards and owner of World’s Best Comics on Watt Avenue, and Foster even posed as the Joker and Batman for Kieth’s photo-reference work.
Kieth’s Batman: Secrets series stands out: The Dark Knight’s ears’ and back’s arc are sharp, pointed, but his face is stoic. His Joker is the other extreme: no defined lines, creating a sense of constant motion, with wiry, spinning red eyeballs and a playfully crooked, evil lipsticked smirk.
Back during when Kieth first drew Batman, he and Foster would often browse local comic stores. Hundreds upon thousands of issues were at their fingertips—this was the superhero comics’ heyday—but one day Kieth zeroed in on a locally made microcomic called Optic Nerve by a young kid named Adrian Tomine.
“When I was in high school, I kept my interests in comics totally secret,” says Tomine. “I was actually doing a monthly strip for Tower’s PULSE! magazine, and no one in my school knew about it. When you’re a goofy-looking guy with enormous Ray-Ban glasses who drives a broken-down yellow 1973 Chevy Sportvan, the last thing you need is for your peers to know that you’re a comic-book fan!”
Tomine, who told SN&R he had “a lot of free time on his hands” as a teenager, says he was a semi-regular at local comic stores, but was mostly loyal to Beyond the Pale, which shut its brick-and-mortar operation in 2007, and World’s Best Comics. “I also went to a Comics & Comix if I happened to be near one,” Tomine adds of the region’s then-most-popular chain. “The Comics & Comix on K Street actually wouldn’t let me buy an issue of Love and Rockets, so I started taking my business elsewhere.”
The comic artist went to high school in Carmichael but eventually left Sacramento for Berkeley, where he roomed with Ghost World scribe Daniel Clowes. His longstanding Optic Nerve series and subsequent books earned Tomine critical praise, likening him to the Eric Rohmer or Woody Allen of comics.
But Tomine’s work had strong local ties. In an early Optic Nerve episode, a character ends up working as a manager at Taco Bell; this in fact was well-known local Matt O. Shrugg, who until recently didn’t realize Tomine, a high-school classmate, had put him in a story line some 10 years ago.
Tomine says he remembers getting into R. Crumb as a teenager and marveling at all the Sacramento and Davis locations he noticed in his strips.
Back at Fox & Goose, Anthony Leano plops his right arm on the table and shows off a triptych comic-strip tattoo; the panel right over Leano’s wrist is a black-and-white rendering from Tomine’s Optic Nerve. Brandon Bracamonte, whose day gig is at Fallen Angel Tattoo on Auburn Boulevard, is the artist to blame.
Now, Tomine lives in New York City and often draws covers for The New Yorker. He’s married; he and his wife expect their first child any day. Sam Kieth has left Sacramento proper and lives east of Placerville, and pretty much any comic enthusiast around Sacramento labels Kieth as a “recluse,” noting in particular that he no longer does conventions, or press, and rarely has his photo taken.
Foster says this typecast is bogus; Kieth used to sign comics for hours on end at conventions all over the country. Kieth, however, declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the end, though, these artists were instrumental in penciling the way for Sacramento’s next comic-artist wave, those who’ll ink the future.
Geek and publisher
Tucked away in a salmon-colored strip mall amid such retail antiquity as the locksmith, the watch repairman and the cocktail lounge, is Sacramento comic’s mother lode: Empire’s Comic Vault. Inside, superheroes and single issues live in perfect harmony with indies and trade paperbacks, free from the comic industry’s manacles. Empire’s is here to please only the most discriminating of comic-geek connoisseurs.
Ben Schwartz owns this nerd haven, which he took over seven years ago. “The bad economy hasn’t had a huge impact. Comics are only three bucks,” Schwartz explains. “And comic-book fans are die-hards.
“They are going to get the next issue of Spider-Man.”
What’s interesting about Schwartz, though, isn’t just his popular store; he also runs the area’s only independent comic publisher, ECV Press.
ECV put out its first book in 2006, a 48-page, four-story, black-and-white anthology called The Continuum. Schwartz and his crew at Empire’s took the book on the comic-convention circuit and did well, although, he says, “It’s really hard to get attention for these indie books with all the Marvel and DC events.”
Schwartz also learned that people weren’t necessarily into big anthologies, so subsequent ECV titles have been in-color singles. Now he has five books in production.
The Hunters, a sci-fi military series written by Schwartz’s wife, Jennifer Schwartz, is ECV’s most popular.
“The indie market is extremely, extremely hard,” concedes Schwartz, who explains that most independent publishers do all the writing and drawing themselves. But this is not the case with ECV; they’re a bona fide outfit.
“We have to pay every single person down the line. We’re happy to break even. This is more a labor of love,” Schwartz says.
Diamond Comic Distributors, which has a monopoly on the entire industry, has effectively cut the indies out of the market, according to Schwartz, “so that retailers will buy more DC and Marvel back catalog.” This doesn’t bode well for indie publishers, but Schwartz is optimistic.
“Comics are extremely popular right now. Everybody wants to read one. And everybody wants to do one.”
Case of the Mondays
On Wednesdays at Big Brother Comics in Midtown, the UPS guy shows up with a new shipment around noon. Hopefully. Because soon thereafter, the store’s hundreds of hungry regulars file in to snatch their favorite title’s latest issue.
“It’s pretty much all on the UPS guy,” Big Brother owner Kenny Russell jokes.
Russell’s shop has been around for four years; Big Brother spent its first year on K Street, near Seventh Street, before the city vacated the block and he relocated to its current J and 17th streets digs.
On a recent Monday, the new-releases rack is bare in anticipation of Wednesday’s bum rush. Russell, sporting a gray hoodie and cap with a barracuda bottle-opener keychain dangling from his black pants, says the recent bad economy hasn’t impacted business that much, either.
“It makes sense to me. The average customer doesn’t spend too much,” he says. A three dollar comic is a lot less than a $20 DVD.
Christopher Alvarez, a thin, bearded guy in his late 20s, works for Russell and has been at Big Brother almost since the beginning and, before that, he worked at the Comics & Comix locations in Folsom and Citrus Heights. Russell and Alvarez currently are working on a post-apocalyptic comic, their first collaboration but not the only comic to emerge from the Big Brother.
About a year ago, Alvarez posted a Craigslist ad announcing drawing club on Mondays at Big Brother. Local artists actually started showing up. “Most artists I know are great procrastinators. So buckling down for a night of work for three hours, it’s amazing what you can do,” Alvarez says.
Jim Shepherd, a fellow comic-book-store employee in Elk Grove, regularly attended the Monday get-together. And he invited a friend, Hannah Moore.
Moore says she got into superhero comics such as X-Men during high school, which led to her getting a comic strip, Gum on Asphalt, in the UC Davis’ California Aggie newspaper while earning a bachelor’s degree in studio art.
Big Brother Comics became a hub for artists who wanted to do more than just pound coffee at 3 a.m. while nurturing an unhealthy rapport with their index-finger blisters. And in the end, the Monday crew put out an anthology, aptly titled Mondays, which features short, multipanel stories and full-page illustrations, this time last year.
In the end, too, Alvarez and Moore started dating. The Monday group, though, dissolved earlier this year—but not without lessons learned.
“I think the local scene could be brilliant if people just start things,” Shepherd explains, praising local efforts like Drink and Draw Sacramento, a club that meets every third Thursday to imbibe and ink.
Russell agrees. “Ten years ago, the comic industry was very unknown to people. Now, the indie scene has exponentially grown,” he says. He walks over to a pile of Jeffrey Brown books, a Michigan-based comic artist featured prominently atop a bookshelf in Big Brother’s indie section.
“Girls read these books and generally fall in love with this guy. ‘Oh, he knows!’” Russell intones, chuckling.
Folsom’s earthen-toned, stucco shops dot the foothill terrain for miles on end along Bidwell Street, the suburb’s answer to Sin City. And even though consumer spending is down, as it is in Las Vegas, there’s even more big-box bang for your buck under construction for blocks, too.
Inside the city’s Borders bookstore, though, you’ll find something unexpected: a local comic-book author, one Matt Maxwell, seated behind a table, graphic novels stacked high, a towering promo banner featuring the crimson, bloodthirsty wolf from his book’s cover that has to scare most of the kids coming in to buy Twilight on DVD.
Borders has placed Maxwell just inside the store’s entrance; he gets two hours to move books the new old-fashioned way: DIY, but inside the corporate American bookstore, the proverbial heart of the dragon.
For Maxwell, it’s just another weekend at a convention/event/brouhaha/fill in the blank. Another weekend missing his two kids’ soccer games and wife in nearby El Dorado Hills.
“If you don’t want to do this, get out,” he deadpans, making light of an indie publisher’s plight. Minutes later, a shaggy-haired 20-something asks Maxwell for his autograph. He obliges, signing a copy of Strangeways, his first graphic novel.
This is will be the last book he signs for at least 45 minutes.
The idea for Strangeways came to him in the early ’90s. “Why hasn’t anyone done Westerns and monsters?” he wondered—Dances With (Satan’s) Wolves, perhaps? Anyway, in 2003, he finally got around to writing the book; late last year, he hit the circuit with his 133-page comic, which was illustrated by Luis Guaragna.
But between carpooling, soccer games and bedtime stories, Maxwell’s only time for working on comics is a few short hours each day, from 8 a.m. to 11. It took four years to finish Strangeways, but the reception has been good, if limited.
“When you move away from newsstands and into comic stores, you lose awareness,” Maxwell argues. A weekend at Borders brings comics back to the masses, though, one blissfully oblivious suburban reader at a time.
Maxwell’s next comic, however, won’t be signed or sold in stores; he’ll join the thousands of Web comics online, a veritable Costco of geek lit, accessed shame free in the privacy of one’s home and with the simple click of a mouse.
Funny (Web) pages
Dan Bethel and Eben Burgoon slowly make their way through Suzie Burger’s generous heaps of fries and robust, greasy cheeseburgers—a routine the two comics know well: Suzy is where they convene to brainstorm their successful Web comic, Eben07, which started up in 2007 and updates every Tuesday at www.eben07.com.
Yes, that’s right: Bethel and Burgoon named the comic’s characters, Ninja Dan and Eben07, respectively, after themselves. “That’s the rub,” says Bethel, conceding that maybe, if they could go back in time to their days together in high school in San Luis Obispo, they might not have given the protagonists their very nomenclatures. But it’s too late now, at any rate.
So the 29-year-olds move forward—and even embrace it. Burgoon, who manages Eben07’s Twitter page, in fact never breaks character, responding to Tweets as the comic hero, an agent for a fake government agency that “cleans” up history’s botched government covert-intelligence operations.
The Web site plays straight the concept of U.S. spies and operatives “declassifying” covert ops and features an extensive, fabricated, tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek back story—a sort of Coen brothers meets Howard Zinn approach to comic lineage.
Bethel attends grad school at Sacramento State, studying English, and Burgoon works at a local grocery store. They meet over burgers, Burgoon goes home and writes the comic on “his corner of the couch,” then Bethel draws it up at a proper desk. Then it goes live online.
It’s a good system, but monetizing the Web comic and turning a profit, though, is still a mystery. Nevertheless, they make enough to finance their print comics.
The next in the series to go tangible, Eben07’s Operation: Mongoose, will be out in early December.
Critics say the duo’s comic is too serious, but Eben disagrees. “This is a janitor trying to assassinate Castro: What’s serious about that?” he demands, jokingly, shaking a french fry in the air. Bethel calls the premise “absurdist,” but definitely not pretentious.
The Web comic industry, however, is a serious deal.
Last year, The Sacramento Bee revamped its comics section, giving the panels seven-days-a-week full color and a bit more prominence. The problem industrywide, though, is that increasingly more comic artists are taking their panels online and giving stories away for free.
No joke: There are an estimated 15,000 Web comics on the Internet.
Sarah Sawyer lives out in Roseville and commutes sometimes almost an hour to her Rancho Cordova job, but when she writes her twice-a-week Web comic, The God’s Pack, she needs only coffee and her nifty Wacom tablet to print her online strip, a series about talking wolves.
“My readership is too young for paper,” Sawyer says—an outlook that’s probably too baffling for anyone inside The McClatchy Co.’s ivory tower. Or anyone over 35. But this is the future: Sawyer explains that God’s Pack’s readers are 12- to 16-year-olds, and they simply don’t read print papers or books.
“Newsprint comics are dying, and they’re not dying with grace,” notes Sawyer, 22. “They say ‘It doesn’t make sense; you’re giving away something for free.’”
“Yeah, well, your way isn’t working, either.”
God’s Pack (www.godspack.com) went live in September 2005. Sawyer says that when she started, there weren’t a whole lot of women doing comics, but now, however, she says that artists like Kate Beaton, Renee Engström and even Citrus Heights Web comic artist Brittany Lore are influential.
God’s Pack certainly caught the eye of one reader, in Maryland, who whipped up a YouTube video to show his appreciation. Sawyer saw the clip; “I want to talk to that guy,” she thought. And she did.
Sawyer now does another Web comic, called Beyond Rapture, with this video guy, a wildlife biology student. He also became her boyfriend. He writes. She draws.
The Web is working out.
“You find a lot more humor in Web comics,” she says. There’s no “superhero or nothing” ethos. Just innovation.
Dan Bethel of Eben07 agrees. “We do it for fun.”
I dream of being an artist
A gang of zombies and vampires gathers outside the Colonial Theatre on Stockton Boulevard in south Sacramento. It’s the annual Sacramento Horror Film Festival, but the vibe’s not unlike a comic convention. Even Anthony Leano, Mike Hampton and Paul Allen are here, too, shilling wares.
It’s a familiar gig: This past January, the trio embarked on an epic road-trip tour, from Arizona and up the West Coast, to get the word out about their comics.
Leano and Allen sold out of their comic, Brains, a grisly black-and-white single issue about zombies that rise from the dead and kill—or have sex—with a small burg’s quirky inhabitants. Hampton too moved tons of Hot Zombie Chicks and Captain Asshole books and merch. He also started a national comic-con trend: charging five bucks to draw convention-goers as a zombie.
Inside the theater, the crew’s in the dark, watching a tedious B-movie about a girl who cheats death by calling herself in the past with a magical cell phone. When the flick ends, the trio scampers behind merch tables and sells, sells, sells. The horror festival crowd is their bread and butter—gore geeks, women who actually get excited about dressing up as dead people.
Hampton tells of the previous evening, where more than a dozen ladies participated in a zombie beauty pageant; the winner will get a full page in his forthcoming Hot Zombie Chicks, volume four, which drops next year.
Considering its very Girls Gone Wild subject matter, Hampton’s Hot Zombie Chicks is a pretty decent comic. Touching, even. The story is simple: zombies take over world; guy locks up zombie girlfriend; guy takes pinup photos of girlfriend zombie; guy starts photographing other zombies; girlfriend zombie gets jealous, eats guy.
Each issue includes a few full-page pinup illustrations of, you guessed it, hot zombie chicks, some gamely based on iconic pinups of yesterday, including Marilyn Monroe and the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
Hot Zombie Chicks seems to be a metaphor for Hampton’s artistic plight. A documentary filmmaker recently followed Hampton for an entire year for the forthcoming I Dream of Being an Artist … And It Makes Me Sick. The film shows Hampton on the aforementioned tour. In one scene, he’s holding a sleeping bag, moving into a new apartment after his marriage has fallen apart. In another, he’s drunk in the middle of the night talking to the camera in the dark. In another, he’s owning the comic-convention floor, signing books and talking game.
Back at the Fox & Goose, Leano, Hampton, Allen and Bracamonte pack up their comics and laptop. Leano has to get home; he sold his hearse on Craigslist to pay off an inordinate comic-art debt and has to sign the paperwork. They laugh and stumble off.
Hampton reappears minutes later with a copy of his 2007 Do-It-Yourself Award-winning book, How To “Do” Comics!, a snarky treatise on how to make it in the biz. You flip to the last page and it reads:
“Wait! It’s not too late to turn back now! Throw away your comic books and art supplies and tell your girlfriend that you love her! Get married, have kids, become something exciting like a plumber, lawyer, pharmacist, doctor, or something else you have no passion for, and live life!”
So the story goes: Win, lose or draw.