John Fortman is a Subway regular. But it’s not the sandwiches that bring him to the Paris Road establishment as many as six nights a week. It’s the tables.
Hours after he has finished his usual meal, a six-inch chicken teriyaki sub, Fortman, an independent comic book creator, can be found drawing diligently at the signature yellow tables, unfinished pages sprawled across the laminate tabletop. He has a schedule to keep: one page per week for the coming issue of his comic, “Fallen Angels Used Books” (FAUB), and one page of revisions. It isn’t a job for Fortman, and it’s much more than a hobby. It’s something, he says, that needs to be done.
“I don’t want to miss a day,” Fortman said. “So far, I’ve changed my schedule three times, but I haven’t missed a single scheduled day.” The world Fortman explores in FAUB has existed in his imagination since 1985, when he was a seventh grader in the small town of Pilot Grove, Mo. It wasn’t until April 2003, when he was introduced to Keenspace.com (now Comic Genesis), home to more than 6,000 online comics, that he decided to unveil a small part of it through the pages of his own book.
“This was supposed to be a simple little part of a bigger story that I was just going to draw out and say ‘this is done, I’m not going to change it at all,’” Fortman said. “Well, obviously it turned out to be something much bigger than that.”
Fortman was introduced to Keenspace.com by his friend and fellow comic-book creator Dustin Hoffmann. Growing up in a houseful of artists, Hoffmann was always considered the intellectual of the family, destined for advanced degrees and a lucrative job.
Instead, two years after graduating with a degree in computer science, Hoffman works as a secuirity guard at Ellis Library to support his love for an art form that has taken over his life.
“My parents are very worried about me right now because I haven’t done anything except for this,” Hoffman said. “I have a good friend who has told me constantly to give up comics, that it’s ruining my life, that it’s running me into the ground and that one day I’m going to end up in a gutter if I keep doing this.
“They may be right, but I want to see where this goes. It’s a passion.”
Like Hoffmann, the desire to see where each page will lead has kept Fortman creating. Both artists say they have lost control of their story lines. They admit to having a general idea of where their stories are supposed to go, but have left it to their characters to decide how to get there.
“If I take control of the characters and make them do something, then it makes it look like I’m making them do something,” Fortman said. “If they do it on their own then they’re doing whatever they would do; that’s their personality. Letting them take over makes it more human, more realistic.”
Although elements of fantasy adorn the stories told by Fortman and Hoffman, the creators have tried to construct their characters in a way that will seem real to readers. Shelly, the lead in Fortman’s FAUB cast, is a runaway. A jaded 13-year-old named Aqua grew up watching her now-deceased mother receive regular beatings from her father. Proof that their story has connected with readers came the day Fortman was approached by a reader, a homeless man, who says he got into the characters because they were homeless as well.
In Hoffmann’s Web comic, “If Then Else,” rape is addressed as his protagonist struggles to regain control of her life.
“I want it to be real. I want the characters to be real,” Hoffmann said. “Sure I could do a superhero comic with Mr. Here I Am To Save The Day, but where’s the interest in that? I find people’s real lives a lot more interesting than some fantasy character and how they beat up Dr. Evil X.”
Grant Alter, writer and creator of Hurricane Kids, is trying to breathe new life into the superhero genre. Although Alter says he had no intention of ever writing a superhero comic before he was introduced to the project, he and his artist, Ryan Cody, who lives in Arizona, want to make comics that will appeal to kids again.
They have taken the moral ambiguity and dark psychological themes found in many current superhero comics out of their plots; their heroes are good guys who are always going to do good things. But Alter says Hurricane Kids doesn’t have a simple plot, because kids don’t want that either.
“I want to tell complicated stories with morals,” Alter said. “We’re not going for just mindless fun. We’re going for complexity; we just don’t want all of the dark.”
But Alter isn’t letting complexity take the enjoyment out of the Hurricane Kids experience. He wants his readers to have just as much fun reading it as he does writing it.
“I see Hurricane Kids as sort of like a ride,” he said. “We’re going to have aliens and underwater cities and all that stuff that they did in comics in the ‘60s that people just totally dug because it was fun to read. Ideally that’s what we want. We want people to say, ‘I had an awesome time reading that, and I want to do it again.’”
Like Hoffman, Matt Verges, the artist behind the comic “Table 9 From Outer Space,” wants to change society’s perception of comics, showing people that they can be more than dorky superhero stories for teenage boys. For “Table 9 From Outer Space,” Verges chose a couple of kids living in a small town in outer space and a storyline he hopes will catch the reader off guard. But Verges knows that it’s going to take more than one comic to change most people’s minds about an art form that most people abandon by junior high school.
“It’s going to take a huge risk that includes bringing a lot of diverse stories and ideas to the forefront and abandoning collectibility for beautiful artwork and an actual story you can relate to,” Verges said. “Maybe then comics can be viewed by all as a true art form and their creators as artists.”
Although he admits that superheroes sell, Verges would rather continue working independently on a small scale than lose creative control.
“I think my work stands out in the medium because I’m trying to have fun with it, and I’m not trying to ‘make it’ or anything,” Verges said. “I’m completely content making comics on a small scale like this forever.”
Not everyone is content with books that will only adorn the shelves of Rock Bottom Comics and other local comic book stores. Alter and Cody spent $500 to have 300 16-page issues of “Hurricane Kids” professionally printed for the publishers at Image Comics, who he says have said good things about “Hurricane Kids” but are unsure how to sell it.
Although Alter says the process of landing a book deal is frustrating, he wants to write comics for a living.
“The business end of it sucks out your soul and it’s just awful,” Alter said. “But the actual creative process, I mean we’re talking about getting paid at some point to sit around and fantasize about silly stuff like superheroes and soul-singing spys. It’s a lot of fun.”
Scott Ziolko, founder of the Mid-Missouri Comics Collective, would like to get paid for doing something he loves too, but he’s comfortable with the niche his comics, “Test Tube” and “Ninjas,” hold in the independent scene. For Ziolko, making comic books is more about the satisfaction he and his readers derive from the work, which is enough to keep him creating.
“Even if I don’t make a living doing this I’ll still be making little mini-comics for my friends and I just because I can do it and I enjoy doing it,” Ziolko said. “It’s not something that I’m ever going to stop completely.”
Regardless of their ambitions or the style and themes they choose to employ, Columbia’s independent comic book creators each have a story to tell — and they see only one way to tell it.
“Comics can be anything people want them to be,Æ Fortman said. “They can be learning aids for people who have no retention with text. They can be political. They can be funny. They can bridge the gap between novel and movies.... , acting on the reader’s imagination in a way that movies can’t. They can bridge language and culture without the need to be translated into bizarre languages. They can be understood by people who can’t read at all. They’re physical. You can touch them, hold them in your hand.”