COLUMBIA — Sitting inconspicuously among the denizens of the Cherry Street Artisan, given away only by their sketchbooks and collections of drawing utensils, are the participants in the September meeting of the Mid-Missouri Comics Collective. Zac Crockett, Scott Ziolko and Josh Nichols make up the September meeting, which they acknowledge is smaller than normal, of the group that describes itself as “comic creators and enthusiasts based in Columbia.”
Nichols is a 29-year-old I-Net administrator at MU by day who sketches occasionally and designed the group’s Web page. He says the group is about finding peers in the area for aspiring or current creators of comic books as well as just fans of the artistic medium.
The meeting isn’t plagued by procedure. There is no set agenda or meeting notes, aside from a sketch-jam in which each person at the meeting draws a panel or two of a comic strip. The story for these strips is improvised. Nichols draws the first panel and leaves the story open to Ziolko as he passes him the white sheet of paper they are drawing on. Ziolko takes a look at the image Nichols has sketched and let’s out a groan of mock-exasperation.
“It’s just so open-ended,” he says of the picture left by Nichols for him to pick up on.
After a moment of thought, Ziolko sets out to make the next panel, pausing to ask Nichols the spelling of “gourd” before he begins drawing a giant creature resembling the vegetable.
“I pretty much always wanted to be a comic book creator,” Ziolko later says of his aspirations. “I used to create my own characters all the time and imagine them coexisting in the same universe. I didn’t start actually doing full stories until high school.”
It was in 2004 that Ziolko finally started taking his creating comics more seriously.
“I originally started plotting my first book, ‘Test-Tube,’ while I was working as a cook at the Heidelberg,” he recalls. “I would storyboard pages in between flipping burgers and cooking potato skins. I wouldn’t actually start drawing it myself until I was literally in between jobs and had a month of downtime, which I decided to use towards making my first comic.”
As he continues drawing his panel, Ziolko tells the group that he thinks he has settled on a larger project for himself. His current working title for the book is “Least Likely to Succeed,” and Ziolko says it would be a semi-autobiographical tale about a guy returning from his first year at college and discovering that his old high school friends and their relationships have changed — all while trying to get their old band together for one last gig.
The group gives positive feedback on the story’s appeal, and Ziolko explains it will be a story and not an exact recounting his life, because, for example, he was never in a band. Nichols points out that the current trend among Indie comic creators is to create series of autobiographical stories, but says he likes that Ziolko is putting a fictional spin on it.
Ziolko says he is thinking of trying to self-publish or submit the project to publishers when it is done because he is ready to take the next step toward something a bit grander. With a wife and daughter to consider, Ziolko doesn’t have the option of quitting his day job as a senior evaluator at Columbia College, but says he hopes this could be the first step in having comics be his main source of income.
“Ultimately, I want to be able to make comics for a living without putting my loved ones in immediate financial peril,” Ziolko says. “And I really do feel like I’m getting close to that goal. It may not happen next year or the year after, but it feels like everything I have done and plan on doing has been building towards that goal.
“I always joke about only having three or four fans, but I feel that I do have an audience both here in Columbia and abroad and that they really do want to see me succeed,” he continues. “I feel like I am starting to have the appropriate amount of confidence to become a successful comic book creator, and I am patient enough to wait for the right moment and right opportunity to make my mark.”
As conversation turns toward possibly organizing a carpool for future comic book events in the Midwest, Ziolko hands the semi-completed comic to Crockett.
Sitting in an easy chair, turned away from the small coffee table the group surrounds so that his long legs have more room, Crockett has been silently inking away at a penciled page for his Web comic “Opey the Warhead,” giving an occasional nod or smile to the conversation among the group. As Crockett takes the comic, a smile emerges from beneath his long mustache and beard as he sees what the other artists have done.
Crockett, like many aspiring comic creators, got into the genre as a kid collecting books starring his favorite superheroes.
“My older brother bought lots of comics, such as ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘The New Teen Titans,’ and I would read them,” Crockett later recalls of his childhood. “Ever since, it’s been my dream to work in comics. My younger brother and I used to take a stack of paper, fold them into half, and draw comic book characters we made up.”
Crockett, who has a degree in biological science with honors from MU, says he likes Columbia “because it’s a place that fits comfortably between a small town and a big city” that also has a lot of history in the field of comics.
“My overall aspiration as a comic book artist is to see my stuff in print,” Crockett says. “It doesn’t have to be a big publisher. I’d love for an independent comic book company to pick up one of my stories, but I’d also like my stuff to be remembered decades down the road. I want my comic to be something unique and not latching onto some fad or whatever’s popular at the moment.”
After quietly finishing two panels of the group’s sketch comic, Crockett passes it back around to Nichols.
Buying comics in some form since his childhood, Nichols started sketching again on a regular basis since he began coming to the comics collective’s monthly meetings last March. Like many comic fans, Nichols has projects of his own he intends to work on.
“My personal projects: I want to do them,” Nichols says. “For some reason, I get sidetracked with freelance Web work or the new Zelda (video) game and never get to work on anything more than sketches. Another reason why I joined the group was to get motivated to create. So far, it just makes me feel a little bit like a groupie when I show up to meetings without any work to show. At least the MidMoCoCo Web site is done and I won’t be able to procrastinate with that anymore.”
Aspirations aside, the Mid-Missouri Comics Collective may not be Columbia’s largest or most recognizable group, but it caters to the community of creators and fans in the Midwest.
“For me,” Nichols says of the group, “it’s a way to meet other people who have a similar creative interest in a field that tends to have a lot of loners. It’s good for comic geeks to be social and still be able to talk about their interests.”