Week Fifty Two

Art Scene Iowa Cover Story

Posted in 2007 Archives by sarahbakerhansen on 20 March 2007

I co-wrote the cover story for the March issue of Art Scene Iowa about comic art. My third focuses on Chris Ware. Enjoy.

A superhero of his own kind

By Meghan Hackett

Batman has his utility belt, Superman’s chest is emblazoned with his stylized ‘S,’ and Captain America bears homage to the American flag. Whatever their iconic trait may be, superheroes are instantly recognizable, and have kept America feeling safe and protected since the introduction of Superman in 1938.

At the age of 11, Phil Hester, a nationally published comic book artist, realized that even superheroes need help. “As a kid, I always liked drawing and I was a big reader, especially of comics,” he says. “When I was 11, it finally dawned on me that there were actual people doing this. Comic books weren’t made in factories.”

His first introduction as a comic artist came as a sophomore at the University of Iowa. Besides working for nearly every comic book publisher in the last 20 years, Hester has created art for DC Comics and Marvel Comics, two of the country’s largest comic publishers. His art is featured in over 300 published works, and he’s experienced the iconic worlds of Batman, Nightwing, Green Arrow, the Hulk, the Creeper, Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, and many more. His original character ‘The Wretch’ was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best New Series in 1997.

His first major assignment with DC Comics was the comic book ‘Swamp Thing.’ “I’ve read ‘Swamp Thing’ since I was a kid. It’s my favorite character to draw,” says Hester. “I was so excited to get that offer, but also completely petrified. I never thought I’d live up to my expectations.”

A stay at home dad, Hester resides in North English with his wife and two children. He says the best part about his work is that he got to stay home with his kids when they were little. The second best part is being able to bring to life America’s favorite superheroes.

“I get to draw Captain America and Spider-Man. These are things that I’ve been dreaming about since the age of 12,” he says.

Creating characters that have supernatural strength or extrasensory perception is all part of his job, but for kids that read these comics, Hester’s a superhero of his own kind. “At a comic book convention, I’m relatively famous,” said Hester. “But once I take my name tag off and open the door to the street, I’m no one.”

“One of the greatest things about comic books to me is the personal relationship they create with the reader,” he says. “It’s different than watching TV or a movie; you have to read a comic book, actively creating that intimacy with the prose. But at the same time, they come out every month and you share them with thousands of other people who read them. Comics establish a personal relationship between the story and the reader and yet can still create a community, since it is mass media.”

Hester has also has made the occasional jump over from comic artist to writer. Going from drawing the character’s rippling muscles and toppling towers, to telling the inner conflict of the comic’s central character, seems like a daunting task.

“It keeps everything fresh for me,” he says. “Right now, I’m in a comfort zone as a penciler and I’m maybe at my peak in that aspect of the industry. If I ever need a recharge, I go back to writing and it starts up again.”

Hester says he never really knows when an idea will become the next great idea. “I’ll see a kernel of what would be a neat scene in an exchange of dialogue at Arby’s and I’ll take notes, and eventually it’ll become a full-fledged idea.”

If you’re ever passing through the town of North English, take a glance around, for your red high-heels or your fight with your little brother just may be the inspiration for Hester’s next comic.

Graphic novelist and art museum team up

By Sarah Baker

Omaha native and comic artist Chris Ware’s solo show at Lincoln’s Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery is one of the most engaging of this year, and for those who see it, will certainly hold that title throughout 2007.

Ware, who is alternately described as a cartoonist, a novelist, and sometimes just as an artist, is best known for his graphic novels Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) and Quimby the Mouse (2002). This show explores his newest graphic novel, set in Omaha. The installation offers insight into Ware’s creative process and the multi-layered way in which he creates and thinks about his work.

His solo effort runs in tandem with Comic Art, a show focusing on the place that comics hold in today’s American art world and within American culture, and includes work from Enrique Chagoya, Jon E. Gierlich and S. Clay Wilson, Howard Finster, Red Grooms, Philip Guston, George Herriman, Roger Shimomura, Saul Steinberg, Art Spiegelman, and Walt Kelly.

Ware has been creating comics for many years, and says it’s a genre he continues to pursue through difficult times, both financially and critically.

“I truly believe comics, with their mixture of writing, art, and a kind of visual music, is a really powerful way of recreating human experience on paper, with all of its layers of meaning and contradiction,” he says. “I essentially worked for little or no pay for many years. I’ve now found myself able to support myself with what I do, and consequently, I find myself one of the luckiest people in the world.”

Ware wrote an essay for the Comic Art show catalog, and created a special gallery guide for his solo show.

“The gallery guide tries to differentiate between the original drawings and the actual printed work, since the printed page is where the real art of it — if there’s any at all — resides,” he said. “I guess it’s sort of like the difference between a manuscript of a musical composition, its published version, and then hearing a performance of the piece; in comics, the manuscript is the original drawing and the performance is the reader’s experience of reading the published book.”

More than 300 people attended the opening night, both to see the work and to hear Ware’s live discussion with Sheldon curator Dan Siedell, and more than 1,000 have checked out the event via the museum’s Web site. Posting the talk online is something new for Sheldon, and is part of its new initiative to take its programming to a global audience. So far, it’s a clear success: normally, the site draws about 400 unique visits a day. Ware said he is continually surprised — and pleased — by the ever-growing audience for comic art.

“I’m more than a little incredulous at what appears to be a genuine popularity of comics among more and more thoughtful readers,” he says. “But I have to think that’s partly due to my generation having grown up reading them and partly due to more talented and serious cartoonists working and writing now than ever before.”

Chris Ware and Comic Art will be on view through April 29 at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, 12th and R Streets. A few events surrounding the shows remain: At 2 p.m., Sunday, March 11, Sheldon’s Second Sunday Gallery walk will feature a discussion on comic art with artists Paul Fell and Bob Hall. At 10:30 a.m. on March 10 and 24, Sheldon will hold comic art workshops for 6th graders. For more information on these events, visit http://www.sheldon.unl.edu.

To view the webcast, visit http://www.unl.edu/unlpub/podcasts/videofiles/chrisware.mp4.

Conquering and saving the world
By Cathy Wilkie

Imagine you have a great tree house, and your friends come over everyday to talk comics, movies, music, and video games. Now, imagine that same tree house as ‘electronic,’ your friends are scattered throughout the Midwest, and your discussions lead to jobs with DC and Marvel Comics. That, in a nutshell, is Shocktrauma Studios — a loose collective of comic artists and writers who network with one another over the internet for ideas, job leads, and to collaborate on projects.

They came together gradually; it all started when The Des Moines Register ran an article about artist Phil Hester of North English. “A bunch of us Iowa artists were astonished to find that there were other folks doing this sort of thing, so eventually we all sought out each other and became brothers,” says Fredd Gorham, an Iowa native who now resides in Omaha, Nebraska.

They occasionally meet in real life for collaborations and ‘comic-cons’ (conventions), sharing not only the group name, but the exposure it’s brought them. “Those are grand times for us,” says Gorham, “we get to spend a weekend surrounded by the things we love and share the company of our friends.”

Over the years the ‘Shocktraumanauts’ (as they refer to themselves) have spread their influence in books like The Holy Terror, Swamp Thing, Clerks: The Lost Scene, Superman, The Simpsons, and gaming projects such as Society of Shadows. They proclaim that inking, drawing, or writing comics was what they were born to do.

“I think the fact that having grown up in rural Iowa during the 70s and 80s and finding little to do in a small town lead many of us to gravitate to comic books, which lead us to want to create stories and art in the medium we grew up loving,” says Jason Caskey of Milo, south of Indianola.

Caskey says it’s easy to make a living in the Midwest drawing comics. “In the age of the internet, Fed Ex, and multiple comic-cons nationwide, it’s no easier or harder to be from Iowa and to make it in comics than anywhere else.”

The internet has indeed helped them tremendously: they’re often contacted for pro assignments and fan commissions through their Web site (www.shocktraumastudios.com), and it proves an invaluable tool for networking. “In a career sense, most artists need networking in order to be in the loop when a project arises,” says Gorham. “Publishers are more likely to work with people they know (and trust to get things done) than to just hire someone unknown. It pays to be out there and have your name passed around.”

One case where ‘names were passed’ was the Iowa episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The show came to Gladbrook to build the Kibe family a new home; the producers discovered one of the boys lost his comic collection in a house fire. Producers contacted the Iowa Comic Book Club for donations; the ICBC went one better: they told the show there was a pro comic artist nearby, and Hester found himself painting a mural for the boy’s room featuring a custom superhero. “It was exhausting and stressful, but worth it,” says Hester, who called in fellow Shocktraumanauts Aaron Gillespie and Brook Turner to help finish in time.

The Shocktraumanauts frequently celebrate their victories and mourn their losses via their chat room, and they know how lucky they are that fans can access them via their Web site.

“The internet has vastly changed the comic book industry as a whole,” Caskey says. “I can’t think of any other entertainment industry where the big names are so accessible to the average fan. You can be into the most obscure characters or genres, yet instantly connect with countless people who share your passion.”

Hester agrees. “It’s a worldwide tree house for people to sit in and argue about Thor being tougher than Superman. It’s really quite beautiful.”


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