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A Quartet of Comics Creators

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By Neil Ellis Orts

See also Zine Fest Houston

In recent years, you may have noticed comics and graphic novels taking up more and more shelf space at your favorite bookstore. Superheroes and manga (Japanese comics) are the main items on the comics menu, but if you dig a bit, you’ll find a much wider variety of genres being represented. If you stray from the graphic novel shelves, you might also find some very fine books (such as Fun Home by Allison Bechdel of Dykes to Watch Out For fame) in the biography section.

This month we found four comics creators, all gay, all Texas residents, and talked to them about their work. The range in work covers, yes, superheroes, but also slice-of-life stories, dark fantasy, and things more difficult to categorize. One is just beginning, one is on the verge of making a national splash after years of self-producing comics, the other two are pursuing the medium without concern for commercial success but via different means. The only real connecting thread between these creators (besides sexuality and geography) is a love of graphic narrative and an independent spirit.

Check them out!
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Dylan Edwards
www.studiondr.com

Austinite Dylan Edwards has been seriously making comics for nearly a decade. His longest running project is Politically InQueerect, which has morphed from mini-comic to newspaper strip to webcomic, with some fluidity back and forth among all those forms. For the last years of TXT Newsmagazine, he supplied political cartoons, and his work can be seen regularly on Outsports.com, which runs his panel comic, The Outfield.

Next year, Edwards’s profile in the comics world will rise with the publication of his first book-length project, to be published by Beacon Press. This came about via a very old process: networking.

“About nine years ago, when I started doing my comics,” Edwards says, “I sent a few of them to Allison Bechdel, and a month later, she emailed me back and said, ‘I really like your comics.’ So I’ve been in touch with her off and on ever since.”

Fast forward to the recent success of Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home. Edwards continues, “Beacon went to her after Fun Home was a big success, and they asked her for suggestions for cartoonists to flesh out the line of graphic books they’re going to start doing. She recommended me.”

Edwards categorizes himself as a fiction writer, so Beacon came to him not only with an offer but also a challenge. They wanted a nonfiction book. Edwards decided he was willing to give that a go, and the publisher and the artist discussed different ideas before finally settling on exploring some aspect of the transgender experience. Edwards finally narrowed that down to a book about gay trans men.

“Gay stuff and trans stuff is kind of lumped together a lot of the time, but a lot of trans people don’t identify as gay,” he says. “There are trans people who identify as gay and it’s very hard for them to find information about that.” Edwards interviewed several people to tell the stories of eight trans gays and, as he put it, “their experience of being some flavor of trans and some flavor of queer.”

Working in a visual medium is also a strength for this project. “One of the things that’s very difficult to convey about the trans experience is the ways in which people change physically when they transition, and a lot of people who are trans don’t want their picture out there. They want to have their private life,” Edwards says. “What I’m doing with the book is I’m basically giving them a pseudonym, and I’m also drawing not as they precisely look in real life, but a kind of anonymous cartoon version of them, so I can show the physical transition. You can still see what it looks like for someone to start out as (physically female) and become trans male without having to invade their privacy and have to dig up photos of them or whatever. So I really think it’s using the medium for something that it will be very good at conveying, something that is often missing from literature about trans stuff.”

The Beacon Press book is still without a title, but is expected to be released in the spring or summer of 2010. In the meantime, Politically InQueerect and The Outfield continues. While all of his work has GLB or T characters, he strives to make it accessible to a broad readership. “I like having (my work) be for an audience that isn’t, like, ‘gay men who like hairy men.’ I feel like a lot of gay culture gets typed down to this really fine grade of ‘I only want to read about guys who are six-foot-four and blond.’ I want to make gay-themed comics that aren’t just about the sexuality. There’s a lot more there to talk about.
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Sean McGrath
www.orthocomics.com

Austin Community College professor by day, comics writer by night, Sean McGrath fights a battle to keep a hobby from taking over his life—but not that hard.

“It started because I always wanted to be involved in comics, one way or another,” McGrath says. “It was my childhood dream growing up. I started doing this about five years ago, just for myself, just for something to pass the time with. Now I have published stories and write articles for places, and it’s taken me places I didn’t think I was going to go, actually.”

Frater Mine is the book that McGrath started in 2005, a story of three friends and their connection to the supernatural. “ Frater Mine, is a little more Vertigo-esque, magical realism,” he says, comparing the book to the line of adult-audience comics published by DC Comics. “The people who are involved have powers of a sort, but it’s not very flashy. They don’t run around in tights; they basically run around in whatever they pick up off the bedroom floor in the morning.” He originally published the book through Making Comics Studios, a sort of comics creators co-op, where writers and artists could find each other to collaborate on their comics. After four issues with Making Comics, Frater Mine moved to McGrath’s own comic imprint, Orthocomics.

That’s not to say that McGrath dislikes superhero comics. Another book he published through Orthocomics is Generic Goddess, which is somewhat based upon a fondly remembered TV superheroine, although all names have been obscured to protect the creators. He also has a more mainstream superhero title, Praxis, coming out later this year.

As the writer and publisher of these books, he hires artists to illustrate them, making it an expensive venture for him. He’s yet to break even on any of his books, but making money is not the point. Having fun and fulfilling a passion is. Orthocomics is beginning to get noticed, however, and this is where the “going unexpected places” thing comes in.

Since starting his publishing venture, Sean has been writing articles for the annual Prism Comics: Your LGBT Guide to Comics on topics such as religion and AIDS in comics. He’s become a regular contributor to the Prism Comics web site as a reviewer and commentator. Most recently, Blue Water Productions, a comics publisher in Vancouver, Washington, who published books with such pop culture icons as Vincent Price, Roger Corman, and William Shatner, offered McGrath some advertising space in one month’s worth of Bluewater comics. That’s the Orthocomics name next to some rather famous names.

When asked about his ultimate goals with his books, McGrath says, “I really want to bring good storytelling back to comics, things that aren’t too complicated and too overly gory. I just want to tell really good stories about life and magic and how people can get along. As much as I love superhero comics, I’m not sure I could actually write one very well. I tend to go for the more magic-realism, slice-of-life kind of book.” If that sounds like your kind of comics, find them at IndyPlanet.com or, if you’re in Austin, at Austin Books and Comics.
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Rosendo
www.gaywired.com (Click on “columns.”)

Recently new to Dallas, Rosendo is making his first splash in the comics world with his strip Fabulance, which runs weekly on Gaywired.com. Fabulance is a teen-aged superhero, keeping the citizens of Prism City safe from crime—or at least looking fabulous while trying to.

Rosendo grew up on superhero comics—citing Spider-Man and Batman as particular favorites—and continues to have an obvious love of the genre. He tried his hand at comics while in high school but felt he never quite got the rhythm of the medium down. Having drawn since before he could talk, however, he never was far from artistic pursuits, which include painting and a stint at doing story boards for adult films.

This is the secret origin of Fabulance. “The way it started,” Rosendo says, “was a little over a year ago [a friend] sent me a picture. His name is Lance and he lives in Rhode Island. He asked ‘how do I look in this shirt?’ The shirt had this really deep plunging v-neck down his front and it was skin tight. I said, ‘You look like a superhero.’ I was bored and I drew a picture of him as a superhero, and I sent it to him and he loved it. It just kind of morphed into this little cartoon character and I started doing these strips based on him.”

The artist started posting the strips to his MySpace page not long after, just having fun until one friend, who works at Regent Media (the owner of Gaywired.com as well as The Advocate and Out magazines), gave Rosendo the heads-up that they were looking for comic strips. The rest, to be cliched, is history. Fabulance has been appearing on Gaywired.com since March, and Rosendo continues to shop it around for syndication to print media, as well as other sites.

Not that Fabulance is all that he has up his sleeve. “I’m a total Renaissance man; I’m always working on something new. I have a million projects going on at once.” Among these projects is a pitch for a live-action, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood-type show for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, which would feature, in varying proportions, puppets and debauchery. He’s also at the first stages of developing a second comic strip, which is targeted more towards a mainstream audience. He hopes to have that ready to start shopping to newspaper syndicates in the next year or so.

In the meantime, log on weekly to Gaywired for the latest exploit of Fabulance. So far, he’s met Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who politely declined the opportunity to be the sidekick of Fabulance) and delivered a baby. Who knows what fabulousness lurks in the future of Prism City?
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shane patrick boyle
www.shanepatrickboyle.com

Some people see their purpose in life early, even if the path is a bit out of the mainstream.

“I didn’t know they were called zines back then, but I think I started in second or third grade,” says shane patrick boyle, Houston comics zinester. “In one of our classes, we learned about publisher, editor, writer, illustrator—different terms like that. A couple of my friends said, Let’s start our own publishing company, and we pretended to be running our own company. That was in second grade. Then in third grade, I actually started making little books with my own stories. This is in California, where at one time school supplies were free. I could use those to make these little handmade books. Each one was one of a kind, hand drawn, hand written, and,” boyle continues laughing, “usually plagiarized from a children’s book, or partially. I created my own characters, I just used other people’s stories. The first one I did was where I plagiarized from the Charlie Brown encyclopedia of animals. Instead of having Charlie Brown characters talk about different animals, I created my own superheroes to talk about the different animals.”

Throughout junior high and high school, boyle continued to write and published small zines, mostly science fiction and fantasy fanzines, which he would create with and distribute among like-minded friends. In fact, while a high school student in Alief, he published the Astro Zine for a full year of monthly issues—an accomplishment most any zine publisher will recognize as impressive.

But it’s his comics zine, shane, that has made him a local underground celebrity. Most of his activity in zine publishing centered on writing, but in 2003 he took up drawing because he felt blocked as a writer. It was the drawing that got him unblocked and back to writing. He decided to call his comics zine shane because the only connecting thread from issue to issue is that it’s all work by him. One issue might be a true narrative, telling a story, and the next might be disconnected scenes. A recent popular issue was “Scenes from a Gay Bar,” which was more of a sketchbook zine, scenes he’d sketched while in Houston gay bars.

Unlike some comics creators, he’s unconcerned about his work becoming a source of income, much less a career. He makes zines because he makes zines, sort of like how the main character in his “Walking Man” story simply walks. That’s what he does and it needs no further explanation or justification.

You’d never know it from reading his work, but boyle does cite one particular mainstream superhero saga as thematically affecting his current work. Crisis on Infinite Earths was a series in the mid-1980s from DC Comics, which “re-booted” their universe and re-routed much of its story continuity. “ Crisis on Infinite Earths made a major impression on me. People have been talking about the time-space continuum ever since, and it had an effect on me. I mean, when you wake up and you’re a different person or a different age. . . . That’s another thing I’m exploring, feeling like I’m a cartoon character. I just recently turned 40 and I can’t help thinking that nothing has changed since I was 30. Also, I’m trying to go back to college, so it’s almost like my continuity is starting over. I look in the mirror and I still look the same.”

In true zinester fashion, you almost have to run into boyle to find his zines, since he mostly sells them out of his backpack. You can also check out his work at the upcoming ZineFest Houston, which he organizes (see sidebar below). Beyond that, visit his webpage, which has links to much of his art on the web.
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Zine Fest Houston

If you’re intrigued by the independent spirits of these comics creators, you might want to check out ZineFest Houston. Organized by shane patrick boyle, it is a celebration of independent spirit and creativity with not only comics creators but also political commentators, poets, and other people who have something to say and can’t wait for someone else’s permission to say it.

Just to be clear, a zine is loosely defined as any self-produced booklet or pamphlet. It may take the shape of simple pieces of paper folded in half and stapled, or it might be a thicker book, bound by hand, sometimes with duct tape. Zinesters, as their creators are sometimes called, usually have an intimate relationship with their local Kinko’s.

ZineFest got its start five years ago as the Houston Comics and Zine Festival. In that time, it has weathered shifting venues, piggy-backing on other events, and a name change to land as an independent event once again. Boyle, a tireless promoter of zine culture says, “We keep encountering people who say, You can’t do that in Houston; you can only do that in cool cities like Austin or Portland. There was even the question if there were enough people in Houston who knew what a zine was. Yet, I remember, in the 90s, there was a strong zine scene in Houston.” It is that history that is part of this year’s ZineFest focus. There will be a collection of archived zines from Houston’s underground to show a history of this unique form of self-expression.

But the past is not the whole purpose. There will be workshops and panel discussions on making zines, encouraging more people to take part in the fun. Poetry, political discussions, comics—all are fair game at ZineFest. Boyle’s purpose is to see these expressions continue into the future.

Whether you’re a zine creator, a wannabe creator, or just interested in the form, check out the ZineFest website. It has information on everything from directions to setting up your own table.

Zine Fest Houston 2009
Saturday May 16, 2009, 2 – 10 pm
Caroline Collective, 4820 Caroline Street, Houston, TX 77004
http://zinefesthouston.wordpress.com/

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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