Sunday, February 10, 2013

15 years on the road and in the clouds...

It was in February 1998 that I published my first comic book.

 EL MUERTO: THE NUMBERO UNO EDITION. A 48 page, photocopied comic book featuring the debut of El Muerto, The Aztec Zombie. The book was printed at a Copy Max in La Habra, CA. (which I actually stopped in about 2 weeks ago to run some copies. Surreal walking back into the 'scene of the crime'!).

15 years ago this month. That's how much time has passed since I made the decision to create my own comics and publish them through my own imprint, Los Comex. While I had absolutely no experience in publishing (or marketing and promotion, really), I knew that creating my own path in the world of comics was of paramount importance to me.

There's nothing quite like receiving those first boxes of a newly printed comic book from a printer. There's a huge rush of accomplishment in seeing all your work over the preceding months printed and stapled together in that familiar comic book format. And there's always the persistent doubts in the back of your head that it may not sell or the book is filled with production errors!

The first convention I exhibited at was in San Jose, CA, the Alternative Press Expo (APE), which has since gone on to be held in San Francisco. Outside of a scheduling conflict last year, I've attended the APE for 13 consecutive years since 1998. This upcoming appearance this Fall will mark 15 years of participating in that show for me. The annual ritual of driving up Interstate 5 for a weekend in the Bay Area, meeting new fans and old, visiting with familar friends, and seeing a constant change of incoming and departed fellow artists has become such a large part of my life. More so than any other convention. I've just never established such a long-running track record with any other show. 

One thing I had always set out to do since day one was to make sure I sought out venues in which to sell my books. Because I could not establish a solid enough presence for the national comics distributor, I knew I had to get my work out there. While I found comic book stores willing to carry my books, I wanted to establish a presence as an exhibitor. And so I would look for comic book shows but also book festivals, art fairs, literary events, signings at independent bookstores and even a coffee shop or two! 

With my initial comics featuring a character called El Muerto, one steeped in the lore of the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos and Aztec mythology, I also sought out Latino book fairs, book stores and events, in particular Day of the Dead events. Initially I was able to garner press and attention for being a Latino comics creator, and that no doubt opened up opportunities for me. And even today continues to be part of who I am. But at the core I'm a comic book creator, and a self-published one at that, which entails a lot of work at finding all my audiences.

Among the opportunities that I've taken have been to parlay my experience in creating comics into a teaching career. For the last 10 years I've been teaching comic book and cartooning classes in schools, community centers and libraries. It's been personally rewarding to instruct so many eager and talented young artists. It's always amazed me to see just how effortlessly most of them tackle the creation of a comic. It reinforces the idea in my mind that storytelling through writing and drawing is such a primal urge in people, the need to communicate and express ourselves with these visual narratives we call comics.

Visting a grade school and teaching kids how to draw El Muerto.

Self-publishing, with it's many facets (creating stories and art, mastering digital publishing production, learning to market your brand, etc) has opened many other doors for me as well. It's inspired, or emboldened me, to be much more expansive and creative with my outreach. To find other venues in which to express myself, and sometimes even open other ways in which to earn a living.

Interviewing cartoonist Rafael Navarro for PLANET COMIC BOOK RADIO in January 2008.

For a time, around 2008-2010, I started two podcasts. Both dealing with cartoonists & creators, as well as comic book pop culture. Among the highlights was interviewing Peter Fernandez, the director and voice actor for the SPEED RACER cartoon I loved as a kid. It was a once in a lifetime pleasure to speak to the man who, for me, was this great character from a beloved favorite cartoon. Sadly, Peter passed away 2010, but my memory of talking to him probably wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been active in the comics world as a self-publisher. 

In November 2007, I had a great experience with a comic book convention. WIZARD WORLD TEXAS has flown me out to Dallas for their show, put me up in a hotel for the weekend, gave me a free table to exhibit at all weekend, and they even hosted a screening of EL MUERTO one evening! A friend of mine, cartoonist Richard Dominguez, had actually approached WIZARD about bringing a group of creators together, so they had also flown in two others.

In Texas selling comics and signed taco shells!

One morning at the hotel, besides feeling great with the red carpet treatment all weekend, I had taken the elevator down to the dining room. In the elevator was another guest of the hotel, Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the 1950s SUPERMAN television show. At breakfast, sitting directly behind me in the adjacent booth was another convention guest, Lou Ferrigno, THE INCREDIBLE HULK himself. It was so surreal to be a guest of the convention all weekend, with airfare and hotel accommodations, screening my movie, and to find myself on the same guest list as these two actors who I had grown up watching on television!

Among the many twists and turns I've found myself on includes doing a guest stint on the BALDO newspaper strip (created by writer Hector Cantu & illustrator Carlos Castellanos). In November of 2008, El Muerto appeared in a weeklong storyline, culminating in the color Sunday strip.

I suggested a storyline, Hector then drafted a script. Carlos illustrated the strip as usual, but had me do all the drawings of El Muerto. Seeing the printed comics, alongside such staples as Garfield, and seeing my signature in the strip, remains another one of those golden moments that borders on surrealism. Who knows how much longer newspapers will be around? So it's especially nice to have been part of something so Americana as the Sunday Funnies!

Among the biggest accomplishments I savor is having had a live-action film based on El Muerto. I was first approached back in 2001 about it, and in February 2005 we began filming. It was in that Summer that I and the filmmakers travelled to Comic Con San Diego to present the trailer and a full panel with the stars of the film!

Left to right: me, producer Larry Rattner, star Tony Plana (NIXON, JFK), moderator Mort Todd, El Muerto himself Wilmer Valderrama (THAT 70s SHOW) and star Joel David Moore (AVATAR, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL)

Having sat in the audience for plenty of such panels before, it was a trip to be up on the stage, with a rather large auditorium of people sitting to hear from us. No doubt they were all here to see Wilmer, but I saw some of my friends in the front rows!

One thing I made sure of was to get a cameo in the movie, naturally a small speaking role with Wilmer!

Hitting the film festival circuit was an exciting new world for me. We premiered the film in March of 2007 at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

A few months late I returned to San Deigo for an evening screening at Comic Con. I arrived in town that afternoon with all the moxie of a cartoonist-turned-movie-producer!

Me and my friend Martin Espino, who provided his unique musicmanship on the film's soundtrack.

In Los Angeles, we booked the film for an exclusive engagement at the Laemmle's Grande 4-plex in Downtown. The theater has since closed (don't say we failed to bring the house down!) but it was pretty awesome seeing the movie listed on the theater marquee.uee

What goes on at these film festivals must stay at the film festivals....

Opportunities arrive that you don't necessarily anticipate. Once I had the chance to donate my time to help out with a Ronald McDonald House event at the Warner Bros. ranch. The event was organized by Emmy Award-winning animation veteran Art Leonardi. Artists were asked to provide free sketches for children and their families who are enduring dealing with a severe illness. There was great comaderie with the dozens of artists in attendance, of course it was really rewarding to do the sketches for the folks who wanted one. Among Art's credits are working on the Pink Panther cartoons and designing the opening titles for three of the movies. It was great to see a professional like himself donating his time and gathering all the artists together.

Hanging out with Pink Panther animation veteran Art Leonardi.

Another thing I found myself led to was co-founding The Latino Comics Expo, a gathering and celebration of cartoonists and comics from the Latino culture. With my friend & co-founder Ricardo Padilla, we put together the first Expo in 2011 in partnership with the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. We're now getting set for our 3rd Expo this coming June 1 & 2. It's been encouraging to hear from the fans and fellow artists how glad they are that we have such an event.

Here I am with (R to L) Rhode Montijo, Michael Aushenker and Rafael Navarro at the 1st Annual LCX. 

These three guys have been friends of mine since I started self-publishing, and all have gone on to do great things in their various fields, in addition to their comics work. Having spent so much time in these comic book circles, the amount of interesting people I've met, whether fans or fellow creators or other people I've met through numerous events, the thing that strikes me is how much has happened on account of one decision I made.

A decision to create my own comics, and to get the word out. For me, choosing to get 'on the road' and attend these many events became part of my process. I hear other cartoonists say, and these are there words, that they are 'social misfits' and are 'terrible at selling themselves'. So they don't get out as much. But for me, creating the stories is the primary spark to get the whole thing going. Going out and meeting people, showing the world what I've done, finding the audiences for my work....that's been the joy of all of this. Getting out and traveling in the course of working a convention, that's been so rewarding. Sitting at the ol' art desk for weeks and weeks, working through the weekends, into the evening, up early in the morning.... That's what it takes to get these comics done. That's fine. That's the job of someone who writes and draws their own comics. But that's the first part, followed by getting out there and letting the work be seen, and experiencing the world outside the studio. That's why I love doing this. 

I didn't figure this out when I first started. I couldn't have. It was all about "I want to be successful with my comics". But at the time my definition of 'success' was based on one set of criteria. Finding out the realities of achieving that with a small press title was an eye-opener. But so was finding out how to make this last, and make it fun.

A custom cake parents made for their son's birthday, a former student of mine.

This brief reflection on 15 fast years is a way to share with you, from the driver's seat, what it's been like to carve out this little crowded corner of the comic book for myself. Without everyone's help and support, I couldn't have done anywhere near what I've experienced so far. So thanks to the many of you who have, in one way or another, been a part of my life. Both before and during my time as a cartoonist. Plenty of more ahead, so please stick around for another round! Thank you!