Open Your Mouth: Issue #41

Thu, March 25th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
J. Torres, Columnist

They used to call Kansas City "the Paris of the Plains," and they did so without irony. This city, our city, this most American of cities, halfway between Back East and Out West, halfway between the City of Broad Shoulders and the Stars at Night, Big and Bright. Here, this town, this place you stand now, tonight... this all used to mean something.

- From Matt Fraction's introduction to Kansas City's CCN Sequence Comic Art Gallery Show in 2003

GOING TO KANSAS CITY
B. Clay Moore

J. asked me to fill in for him this week while he jetted off to some glamorous hotspot for the weekend. So here I am.

The upcoming weekend (March 27-28) will see the latest edition of the Kansas City Planet Comicon convention, organized annually (and sometimes twice a year) by KC-area comic book dealer Chris Jackson. So we thought it might be a good time to touch briefly upon the scene in Kansas City. The past couple of years have seen a new spirit permeating the area comic scene, and Kansas City talent seems to be emerging right and left.

With the founding of the Kansas City Comic Creators Network (now known simply as the Comic Creators Network) a year or so ago, the area seemed energized. Even those who didn't actively participate within the group were aware of the group, and comic creators at all levels of experience (and, quite frankly, talent) began to find outlets for their creativity, and support from fellow artists. Last year the CCN published their first anthology, and plans are underway for a follow-up. The group also sponsored a comic art gallery showing last year, entitled Sequence, and is working to put together a follow-up show in 2004, with a primary focus on mini-comics. Kansas City writer Matt Fraction's introduction to last year's show (which hung on the walls of the participating galleries) is quoted at the beginning of this article.

In keeping with the spirit (and title) of "Open Your Mouth," I thought I'd let some of the local kids share their thoughts on the city's scene, and expand on some of these comments as we go along.

Oh, and it might be worth noting that Kansas City is actually two separate cities, one on the Missouri side of the border, the other on the Kansas side. But for all intents and purposes, the Kansas City metro area beats with one heart.

Ande Parks is one of the industry's most popular inkers, having recently established an impressive run on DC's "Green Arrow" (along with former local boy, penciller Phil Hester). Ande recently penned his first graphic novel, "Union Station", published by Oni Press, which uses one of Kansas City's most infamous crimes as a backdrop. He's now hard at work on a follow-up, which focuses on what may be the state of Kansas' most infamous crime (thanks in no small part to Truman Capote's retelling of the crime and its consequences in "In Cold Blood"). Ande lives just down the road from Kansas City, in Baldwin, Kansas:

"I guess it's easy to take for granted, but the comics scene in the KC area really is pretty remarkable. There is a large, diverse pool of creators, several good conventions every year, and a lot of good stores.

"There are actually so many creators in the area that I don't believe I've even met them all. Many more... guys like Matt Fraction, I have only met in passing.

"Sadly, there is one key element of the local talent pool that seems to be lacking. I could sure use a super-talented, young, dim-witted assistant to come out here every morning and ink these Hester pages for me while I sit back and smoke cigars. I'd be willing to pay a reasonable share of my page rate, of course. How does 15% sound?

"As for my writing work, the fact that my first two projects have roots in the area probably speaks more to my own self-confidence than it does to any special characteristics of the region. I felt, at least at this stage, that it made more sense for me to stick with what I know... what I grew up with. Even if we're talking about an era I wasn't alive to experience firsthand, I feel like I know the way people around here think to some extent. I certainly am familiar with how they speak.

"It also interests me more to research things that are close to home. I would rather read about a murder that took place in an environment I'm aware of intimately. It just has more resonance, personally. Hopefully, some of that passion about the subject shows up on the page.

"In general, I owe a great deal to the area and the creators who live here. The local talent pool was an enormous resource to me as I tired to learn my craft. Working in isolation can only take you so far. You really need interaction with and feedback from more experienced artists to make the big leaps."

Ande's too modest to mention it, but he's served as a mentor of sorts for many in the local scene, including mini-comics creator Jason Arnett, and fellow Lawrence area writer Jai Nitz. Jai writes a column over at Comicon.com called "The Hustler," and the title tells the tale. Nobody in the industry has as much energy and attacks potential projects with the fervor of our Mr. Nitz. Jai's latest projects include "Heaven's Devils" from Image, a Gambit story in "X-Men Unlimited" #3, and the next issue of the self-published "Paper Museum." Here, Jai tells us a bit about the recent history of the KC scene:

"Historically, (over the last 15 years) there have been few working pros in KC. Steve Lightle was the biggest guy in town for years. Other people like Mike Worley, Rick Stasi and Steve Miller got limited Big Two work, but Lightle was probably the most visible creator. Richard Corben has been in KC for several years, but he lets his work speak for itself and doesn't do much within the 'comic community.' Some creators that once called KC home have either come back or struck it big while they were away: Bruce Jones (back in KC), Phil Hester (left KC for Iowa), Ande Parks (back in KC). They're the best-known creators with current ties to the town.

"Of course there were small press guys like Jim Mahfood and Mike Huddleston, but they've only broken out over the last five years or so. There have been few self-published creators that stuck with comics other than Jim or Mike, but some small press people are making a splash today. Kelley Seda's 'Rare Creature' (from Slave Labor Graphics) is a treat. Kerry Callen's 'Halo And Sprocket' (also from SLG) rules. Josh Cotter just won the Isotope Award for best mini-comic, for his 'Skyscrapers Of The Midwest.' I was awarded the Spring 2003 Xeric Grant for 'Paper Museum.' The KCCCN has appeared. They've probably done more in the last two years than the entire KC indy comic scene the decade before."

Which seems like a good cue for us to turn to one of the prime movers and shakers in the (KC)CCN. The group was founded a couple of years ago by writer and inker Elizabeth Jacobson, intended primarily as a place for local creators to gather, with the idea of establishing non-profit status, running conventions, and awarding grants to up and coming comic book creators. Since then the group has taken steps in other directions (as all groups are wont to do), but the organization remains a terrific place for local creators to band together. The current chair of the group is graphic designer Duane Cunningham, but Kansas City police officer and cartoonist Mark Stinson is responsible for editing the group's anthology ("Show and Tell"), and has put countless hours of effort into the group's success:

"There is nothing like being around other creative people to spark your own creativity. And there is nothing like working round other artists to make you more productive. The CCN has served that purpose for me. I want to complete new drawings to show off to my peers. I want to work on new stories to self-publish and distribute as a part of our collective efforts. Before I was sort of on-my-own with my creative efforts, and now I have this whole network to draw from.

"We figured the first 'Show and Tell' Anthology would have about 80 pages. But there was much more interest from members than we expected, and the book ended up being 220 pages. 63 creators submitted 47 stories for the book. We sold out the first 500 book print-run, and we're halfway through our 200-book second printing.

"We assumed that 'Show and Tell' #2 would have a drop-off in interest, and would be 150-200 pages. The book is 324 pages long and involves over 70 different comic book creators. Most of these creators are from the Kansas City area. We receive delivery of 'Show and Tell' #2 from the printer this week, just in time for the KC Planet Comicon... and the SPACE expo up in Columbus.

"We currently have around 300 pages of free comic book pages available at www.voidpulp.com. Our goal is to have 1000 free comic book pages on the site by the end of 2004. All of these pages are done by CCN members. Just like the anthologies, there is an incredible variety of style, tone, and technique present there. Our goal with www.voidpulp.com was to offer something different from the standard artist's Web site. We want to provide hundreds of free stories, by 30-50 different artists and writers all on one web site. We want it to be almost overwhelming. You visit the site for the first time, read a couple of great stories... and realize that there is no choice but to bookmark the site and come back again and again to read all the great stories there.

Our message board is a place to show off artwork, find local and national artists and writers to collaborate with, and learn about the CCN and upcoming events and comic conventions. We also talk about movies, up-coming comics, and everything pop culture you can imagine. Our message board is easily accessed from www.comixclub.com."

I think Mark's enthusiasm is self-evident. There are now members from outside the Kansas City area, but it's always been my hope that the success of the group would inspire other communities to come together in similar ways.

William Binderup owns and operates Elite Comics in suburban Overland Park, Kansas. On top of running one of the area's better shops, he's recently taken it upon himself to branch out and begin publishing his own line of comics, produced almost exclusively by local talent, under the Cocked and Loaded Studios banner. Sculptor Rudy Garcia (whose work can be found almost monthly in the pages of Diamond's "Previews" catalog) is illustrating "Julia Cruz, Evolution Cop", which is the book set to make the biggest immediate splash.

William's a guy who understands how cool it is to sell comics for a living, and I rarely hear him stress out over the state of the industry, or whine about late books. He rolls with the punches, and figures that if the books are good, people will buy them. Seems to work fine for him, and his shop is one of the things that I'd really miss if I ever bailed on Kansas City. I asked William to explain why a guy with a really cool job like that would get into making comics:

"As far as Cocked and Loaded goes we're just trying to get some different kinds of books out into the market. Lots of minicomics, political stuff, Westerns, all-ages comic strip stuff, mainstream super hero stuff (i.e. 'Julia Cruz'). As you know I am not at all opposed to making a profit, but the comic writing and publishing is more of a creative outlet for me. My favorite thing we have ever done is the 'Free the Angola 3' minicomic, with all the money going to charity. I've adopted a very 'fine art' mentality from collaborator John Schuler. He is an artist and local art teacher, and his stuff is one of a kind. Once it's sold it's gone. No movie rights, no re-makes, it's just out there in the world. I don't much think about numbers and sales and profits in regards to publishing and writing. If someone got a hold of the Angola 3 book and was motivated to do something, that's much cooler than a few greenbacks in the pocket. Our best selling book has been 'What Animals Think,' which is going into its third printing next week. It's an animal poop joke book.

"Sometimes I think people focus too much on 'making it' in comics and not enough on making comics. Of course, that comes from the guy who sorts comics, watches cowboy movies and bullshits with his friends for a living."

William has worked closely with organizer and vintage comics dealer Chris Jackson in putting together previous editions of Kansas City's Planet Comicon. The latest edition kicks off this Saturday (March 27th), and features a nice range of guests and events (including Steve Niles, Phil Hester, Bruce Jones, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and... Lorenzo Lamas). Simply put, Planet Comicon is one of the better small shows in the country, year in and year out. But I'll let Chris elaborate:

"Planet Comicon, the largest pop culture and comic book convention in this area, will be coming to the Overland Park International Trade Center at 115th and Metcalf in Overland Park, Kansas, this weekend, March 27-28. As promoter of the convention, I have tried, through Planet Comicon, to generate interest and excitement about comics books by providing a venue for fans to meet their favorite creators and to shop for hard to find collectibles. From a local perspective, we provide a forum for many local creators to present their work to the public and to other professionals. As an example, Jim Valentino, former publisher of Image Comics, discovered the then self-published book, 'Paradigm,' by two local creators (Joplin, Missouri's Matt Cashel and Jeremy Haun), at a past Planet Comicon and picked it up for national distribution.

"Nationally known media celebrities are also in attendance, and these celebrities are invited, as much as anything, for the purpose of drawing members of the general public to the comic book convention. We draw people who would not otherwise attend a comic book event, and thus expose them to the comic book medium, sometimes for the first time. Who knows -- maybe some of these folks will become regular comic book readers!"

I'd like to close with one of my personal favorite local creators, and one who embodies much of the spirit of Kansas City in his work. Though born in Mexico City, Hector Casanova established himself in Kansas City as an award-winning graphic designed for the Kansas City Star. The first time I saw Hector's work, I knew this guy was a comic book fan, and I was right. After years of working his ass off producing beautiful visuals for the city's readers (and thus adding a dash of comic book sensibility to the city's daily life) Hector is finally making the jump to the comic book page, and I think he'll make quite a splash when he does. As an aside, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He runs an art gallery from his loft home in Kansas City's West Bottoms, and is always willing to open his studio to area artists, as a place to hang out and be creative. Hector's story is intertwined with the recent growth of a true "scene" in Kansas City, and, as a result, is fairly informative:

"Let's see. The comics scene here in KC...

"I think that what's remarkable about it, is how quickly it blossomed. All it took was a couple of small sparks, the formation of the CCN, and then it grew and mushroomed in a way that few could have predicted. When I first heard of the CCN, I certainly had no idea that it would have the kind of fast exponential growth it has had. A few years ago, after that first batch of comics artists from KCAI (the Kansas City Art Institute) left town (Jim Mahfood, Nathan Fox, etc.) I thought things were pretty dire. There was no community, none that I could find.

"I met writer John Parker at a talk that Art Spiegelman gave, and for a long time he was the only other comics guy I knew. We put out a call to other artists and writers, because we wanted to start a community, publish an anthology, just reach out to other comics people, see who was there and what they were doing. Anyway, that's how I first heard about the CCN: a small group of people trying to do the same thing Parker and I were trying to do, they got a hold of us and we all met and shook hands. We put the Sequence show and the Show & Tell anthology together. There was a story in the Pitch (the area's local alternative paper, which routinely features the work of many area creators), and then everything just mushroomed.

"Sometime before that, I had started doing a regular strip for the Star, 'Guffman & Godot.' And around that same time I met Matt Fraction, and he hooked me up with my first comics gig, the cover for the 'Annotated Mantooth' TPB (from AiT/PlanetLar). And shortly after that you asked me to do a pin-up for 'Hawaiian Dick'... and so began my 'career' as a comics artist. (I had done stuff for Jim Mahfood's books before, but it had been years since that, and those are best forgotten.)

"These days I don't participate in the CCN events as often as I used to, mostly due to time constraints. Though I still see some: Travis Fox (mini-comics artist), Daniel Spottswood (comic artist) & Josh Cotter on a regular basis, all of whom I met through the CCN. So, whereas three years ago I thought there was no comics community in KC, now there is more going on than I can keep up with.

"As for me, I am currently slotted to start working on a book with Steve Niles, called 'The Lurkers.' Steve contacted me, after he found my Web site, and asked me if I was interested in doing a book. I was working for the Star, and while comics are what I've always wanted to do most, I needed a paying gig. IDW offered me enough money so I could let go of the day job, and here we are."

And there you have it. Hector's story spans the recent history of the Kansas City comics scene, and I think it proves that talent will out in the end. It also proves that Steve Niles has some kind of freakish radar working for him out there in LA...

Honestly, this article just brushes the surface of the talent in Kansas City. I could list a dozen more creators, each following his or her own unique path, in a heartbeat. There's Parrish Baker, who's been self-publishing (and freely passing out) his lovely, gray-washed "Sparrow's Fall" for almost a decade; Travis Fox, who uses his regular minicomic, "Foxymoron", as a vehicle to both vent at the world around him, and to poke fun at himself in the process; Jon Hook and Ed Lavelle, who found a home at Digital Webbing with their fantasy book, "Archeon"; and Jeff Blascyk, who turned the collapse of a publishing venture into the inspiration to retreat and work on his craft, secure in the knowledge that a community of creators is out there for him, ready to lend support and guidance when the road gets rugged.

The American Century gave three forms of art to the world: baseball, jazz, and comic books. As Kansas City has the former two well covered, it's an honor and privilege long overdue to give the latter a chance to shine on its walls and in its spaces. Here, where a once-great majesty can still be felt, here there is no more fitting a place in the world to see this work.

- Matt Fraction, 2003 (again).

Related links:

www.kcccn.com
www.hawaiiandick.com
www.planetcomicon.com
www.hectorcasanova.net
www.mattfraction.com
www.juliacruz.com/about.htm
www.truespoon.com

Next week: Erick Hogan vs. Neil Kleid.

Meanwhile, drop by the OYM forum and let me know what you thought of this week's column.

Thank you for your attention.

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