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photo: Joe Putrock

Local Superheroes
By Rick Marshall

For comic-book publisher Chris Hollmer and artist John Hebert, being indie and homegrown is just part of the fun

 

There is something decidedly un-superhero about Erik Miller, the protagonist of Clifton Park publisher Naked Productions’ inaugural comic-book series, The Wannabe. Maybe it’s his affinity for playing Poison songs while he reads up on vigilantism, or the way he spends his 9-to-5 hours spouting corporate buzzwords during telecommunications meetings. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s his fondness for pontificating about life over local microbrews.

“The large-mouthed glass allows the frothy vapor to rise, priming the nose, the organ that enhances taste,” muses Miller on the first page of Wannabe’s first issue, hovering over a pint of Ommegang Abbey Ale—one of several microbrews to come out of the nearby Cooperstown brewery.

“Ommegang listens,” the tipsy hero adds.

Sure, Miller’s not your typical comic-book hero, but then, beer snobbery rarely comes to mind when one considers the list of standard heroic attributes.

According to Naked Productions founder Chris Hollmer, who also serves as The Wannabe’s writer and creator, injecting a little local flavor—whether it’s beers, businesses or workplace buddies—is all part of the fun of creating comics.

“It’s the little details that make it all more enjoyable, both as a reader who ‘gets’ the inside jokes and as a writer or illustrator who puts them in there,” says Hollmer, who—like his subject—spends his days slinging telecom-speak at his AT&T office. “Having a local connection is far more interesting than having your story take place in Anytown, U.S.A.”

Although The Wannabe’s tale of an average Joe who longs to become the next dark avenger—no matter how many blunders and bruises occur along the way—is actually set in Philadelphia, where Hollmer lived for several years, he says the Empire State (and some of its neighbors) will figure prominently in this series and others. The company’s next series, UniverCity, is set in a futuristic Boston, while the story for another title will begin in Syracuse and work its way across New York to West Point.

“Everybody I talk to, no matter where I go, has some affiliation here,” says Hollmer, who grew up in New Hartford, near Utica. “Either they went to school somewhere around here, or a friend did, or they went skiing here, or have a family member who lives in the area. It’s amazing how many people have a connection to this region.”

Among those people is John Hebert, a North Greenbush native who walked away from The Punisher, X-Men and the rest of the comics world in the late 1990s when both the industry and the joy that came with his regular gig as an artist at Marvel Comics turned sour. After working his way up the ladder from small-press, independent comics to a place among the caretakers of Spider-Man and Captain America, Hebert says the sudden death of his fiancée made him reevaluate where he and the industry as a whole were heading.

The decision to leave, he sighs, was “like a marriage breaking up—sometimes I wanted to come back and they didn’t want me, sometimes they’d ask me to come back and I’d have to remind myself not to get into that scene again.”

According to Hebert, comics’ too-big, too-fast growth in the 1990s was at the root of the problems.

“All of the editors started to think they were Hollywood producers,” remembers Hebert of the reason behind what became a five-year hiatus from comics. “There was lots of winking at each other and ‘That’s great, babe, let’s do lunch’ going on.”

“At some point, they just stopped actually listening to what people said or what people really wanted,” he adds, “sort of like the big-budget film industry today. You don’t see the original ideas getting the attention they deserve.”

But when a friend convinced him to attend a comics convention last year in Philadelphia, and attendees lined up to ask where he’d disappeared to, Hebert says he started to feel that creative spark again.

“I started to wonder if someone could catch lightning in a bottle twice,” he grins.

That same friend of Hebert’s turned out to be a high-school classmate of Hollmer, and put the artist in touch with Naked Productions’ front man. Hollmer had been scouting artists for the second series in the new comics company he was forming—and the rest, as they say, is history.

“When [Hebert] said he lived in Rensselaer County, I had no choice but to bring him onboard,” laughs Hollmer about the “small world” nature of their meeting.

With The Wannabe’s creative team located just about as far as possible away from one another in the country (cover artist Mike Zeck hails from Florida, penciller Courtney Huddleston from Texas and inker James Taylor from Seattle), the notion of having a more local collaboration for a series seemed intriguing, explains Hollmer.

“There might be something really unique and different about this arrangement,” he says. “The different contributors to a comic rarely have this sort of proximity to one another, so I had to give it a try and see what happens.”

And so began both Hebert’s return to the comics industry and the next stage in Hollmer’s maiden voyage.

“There’s something very visceral about this,” smirks Hebert, rubbing his hands together intently as he discusses his reasons for putting pencil to paper again. “It’s very basic again, like when I first started out.”

Hollmer says the decision to start his own comics company was really just a matter of impatience. Without any previous experience in comics or the time to spend shopping his ideas around to other publishers, he knew his chances for getting a foot in the door were slim to none—so he decided to start Naked Productions.

And he already had his first series lined up.

“I originally wrote The Wannabe as a 100,000-word novel,” says Hollmer, adding that he had decided to shelve the story for a few years after he finished writing it. Trying to adapt the lengthy novel to script form provided one of the first—of many—obstacles to his comics debut, says Hollmer.

“I initially started doing it verbatim, but kept ending up with these scripts that were the size of phone books,” he laughs. “That was definitely a learning experience.”

The education didn’t stop there, either. From failed attempts at self-illustration (“I tried drawing the first issue and it was horrible,” he says) to adventures in direct selling (he eventually opted for a distribution deal with industry giant Diamond Comics Distributors), Hollmer says his decision to “learn it the hard way” lived up to its frustrating implications.

One thing that turned out to be easier than expected, however, was communication among the various people who had a role in producing the comics. While trying to find an artistic team for The Wannabe, he was able to view samples of artists’ work, including their takes on many of the series’ characters, via the Internet. The printing company they used for the series even made proofs of the first issue available digitally for Hollmer before it went to press, allowing for some last-minute changes and nearly instantaneous response.

“The technology and infrastructure is there to do it yourself,” he explains. “The comic-book marketplace is different from others. I would never think of self- publishing a novel or prose, but with comics it’s a bit easier to manage.”

Of course, a catchy name can’t hurt, either. Hollmer says the concept behind the company’s moniker is pretty simple, really: In a world where every new company seems to resemble “avatar” or “icon” or some new arrangement of consonants and vowels that catch the eye, there’s no competing with the primal lure of “naked.” Besides, says Hollmer, it’s hard not to draw attention when you’re being called “the naked guys” everywhere you go.

Still, it’s the growing number of ambitious, creative people—and the technology to bring them together—that Hebert insists will allow independent comics to thrive. As many artists and writers of comics age, their skills tend to improve with time, so generation after generation of new talent is entering the marketplace and creating a scenario in which the number of publishers is finite, but the pool of talented people eager to produce is growing every year.

So what’s a comic-book creator without a publishing company to do? The answer, as Hollmer says he’s discovering, just might be to make your own.

“No doubt about it, the independent [comics] scene is coming back,” says Hebert, running his hand over a glossy print on the table in front of him. The image, planned for a two-page spread in the first issue of UniverCity, depicts a crowded, futuristic Boston skyline; a tiny building in the lower-left corner bears his signature across its roof.

“Only now it’s not going to be chintzy black-and-white books on bad paper with bad art,” he smirks. “It’s not going to be a thousand copies of Batman.”

With the first issue of The Wannabe scheduled to go on sale in comic-book shops across the country this July and subsequent issues due out every three months, Hollmer says he’s optimistic about Naked Productions’ future. The company plans to unveil the first issue of the Hebert-drawn UniverCity during a convention in Boston this September.

“It seems appropriate, seeing as how that’s where the series is set,” explains Hebert, adding that even if things don’t go as planned, he’ll still feel like his decision to return to comics was a good one. And like The Wannabe’s hero, Hebert doesn’t shy away from envisioning the opportunity he’s been given with Naked Productions as a dramatic change in his life’s direction.

“I feel like this might be more than just a one-time reappearance,” he says, his fingers tracing the border of the illustrated cityscape. “I really feel like I’m strapping the guns on again.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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