Monday Commentary
10:35 am
Fri May 5, 2006

Beyond the Spandex - Wilmington's Aspiring Comic Artists

If the last time you bought a comic book you had to use your lunch money to do it, you're probably not aware that this weekend is a holiday... Free Comics weekend, an effort by the industry to increase readership. And while Wilmington's comic fans will be packing the bookstore, the region's aspiring artists are hard at work at the drawing table. WHQR's Megan Williams has more...

Wilmington, NC – UNC-Pembroke senior Brandon Blanks spent this last semester destroying Wilmington. On paper, that is. He points to downtown landmarks framing a scene of incipient chaos, all laid out on neatly-inked pages. That's right, Brandon Blanks draws comics. Over the course of his books, a ravenous horde of zombies do some very uncomfortable things to the citizens of the Port City. And that's how he wanted it. After all, Blanks says, New York and L.A. are always getting destroyed by zombies in the movies. Now it's Wilmington's turn.

Blanks graduates from this weekend and starting this summer, he'll engage in a struggle for survival almost as tough as the one his zombie-ridden protagonists face: he's going to try to make it as a comic artist. It's a career path that started with Sonic the Hedgehog comics at the Piggly-Wiggly. All Blanks has ever wanted to do is make a living from his pen. "I love to draw and anything that'll let me draw. If they'll let me draw Archie and Jughead, I'll draw that."

But landing a job on an established title is secondary for Blanks. His real passion is to have his own series. And as he flips through page after page of undead mayhem, its easy to the see the thought he's put into everything from character design to page layout.

"I like to just really draw people's eyes," Blanks says, "just really, give them something to gasp about, [and say] 'Wow, that's never been done before.' So I kind of tell the story with the panels in kind of a zigzag direction, that way your eyes will be drawn over the whole page and not just in that standard, left-right, left-right motion."

Now that Blanks has the book, he's going to have to start the hustle - mass mailing publishers, handing it out at comic conventions, and using a few resources closer to home...

Wednesdays are the busy day at Wrightsville avenue's Fanboy Comics. That's when new issues hit shelves and the committed readers arrive to find out the latest perils to befall their heroes. For years, the shop has served as a center in Wilmington for those who create comics, as well as those who buy. Store owner Thomas Gilbert is often one of the first people local illustrators bring their work to, and he's learned to recognize who's got it, and who doesn't.

"It's all about the storytelling," Gilbert says. "A lot of times when people come in and show me their stuff, it's a lot of just single splash pages, with you know no panels, no lettering, just pretty pictures of superheroes or spandex-clad characters and no story. It's all about the storytelling."

Gilbert says the Cape Fear region has more than its share of aspiring illustrators, in part because there are already several professionals here to encourage them. The most well-known is Tom Fleming. To check out his resume, all you need to do is walk into his home studio; it's all over the walls. Comic book covers, wresting posters, trading cards, clocks with pictures of birds on them, you name it, he's probably done it. But while Fleming's made a career out of working for big publishers, he encourage younger artists to try the independent path, if only to get it out of their systems. "Because once you get married, have kids and you get the whole life thing going, basically the only time you're going to be able to do those independent projects is two and three in the morning and getting less sleep."

Of course, Fleming's first advice to young artists is to go back to school and become a doctor or lawyer. But competitive as it is, this is actually a pretty good moment for getting into the comic industry. After years of slumping book sales, the recent success of superhero films like Spiderman and X-Men has helped to bring in a new audience. While at the same time, the internet makes self-publishing a series infinitely easier.

Local artist Chris Wolf has been drawing his Escapeman comic since the '90s, and took it entirely online a few years ago. When he started out, it cost a dollar an issue to produce the comic he was giving away for free. Now he posts new strips to his website twice a week and all he pays for is "the domain name, ten bucks a year, pay for the hosting, and I'm good to go: free access to millions of people."

And that audience Wolf has access to is potentially a lot broader than just traditional comic readers. The challenge for web comics of course, is still the same as any online venture - making money when the content's free. But Escapeman did recently lead wolf to his first paying gig. He's drawing another online comic to market an actual toy, a marshmallow-blasting gun. Thinking up plot twists for a confectionary weapon isn't quite as romantic as seeing his own title in print. But after years of unpaid work, Wolf seems okay with the compromise. After all, even Superman had a day job.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

The website for Fanboy Comics, with more information about Free Comics Day, is www.fanboycomics.biz.

Thomas Fleming's art is on display at the Blue Moon Showcase, and at his website, www.flemart.com.

You can find Chris Wolf's comic, Escapeman, at www.escman.com.

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.