STAN LEE wrote in 2010, while helping to judge a Washington Post comics contest: “I’m guessing that the alligator will be the mainstay of the strip. It should be, because that’s what makes the strip unique.”
The Marvel mastermind was talking about “Hoxwinder Hall,” a comic that Arlington native Daniel Boris had dusted off from his ’80s college days and entered in The Post’s “America’s Next Great Cartoonist” Contest, whose panel of judges included a bevy of Pulitzer Prize and Reuben Award winners.
Another judge, The Post’s Gene Weingarten (“Barney & Clyde”), wrote in his mixed assessment of Boris’s comic: “I like the alligator with attitude.”
That professional encouragement, plus a Top-5 finish after the contest’s public vote, was enough to encourage Boris to launch his strip as a webcomic. Now, the Leesburg husband and father-of-two is taking a new step with his kids-and-croc story and adapting it into an illustrated children’s book.
Boris has launched a Kickstarter campaign to create the book, for which he is seeking a publisher. And to bring Dozi to painted life in this “brought a baby animal home from the zoo” tale, Boris has enlisted the services of 21-year-old Italian artist Nicola Sammarco, who hopes to eventually move to the United States and work in Hollywood animation.
Boris has hit his initial crowdfunding goal of $5,000, and has stretch goals to raise more. Comic Riffs caught up with Boris (and Dozi) to hear about comic life four years after the Post contest helped nurture a baby gator:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on hitting your Kickstarter goal, Daniel. What will those funds allow you to do?
DANIEL BORIS: Thanks very much! I’m still in a state of shock-and-awe at how quickly it funded. We’re still in the first week of the funding campaign, so I have only recently started to contemplate the possibilities. I already have one Stretch Goal in place; if we hit $8,000, everybody will receive an eBook of “Dozi the Alligator” for the iPad. If that happens, a good chunk of funds will go to development costs associated with creating said eBook. Some of the excess funds will also go toward rethinking and expanding upon some of the illustrations in the book — creating two-page images where I currently only imagined a single-page illustration. I’ll also share funds with my excellent illustrator, Nicola Sammarco. The images he has created for this book have met and exceeded my expectations.
MC: You mention in your campaign that The Post’s “Next Great Cartoonist” contest helped you in your goal of being a strip cartoonist. Could you reflect back on what about the contest enticed you to enter, and what it was like to get all the feedback from pros and voters — and did any one judge’s feedback especially strike you?
DB: I entered the Post contest because I already had comic strips completed, and it was easy for me to simply fill out the online form and send them in. I had tried getting my comic strip “Hoxwinder Hall” syndicated years before, but with no luck.
Receiving feedback from respected and famous contest judges was a dream come true. I mean, Stan Lee actually read and liked my comic strip! C’mon, now. If that ain’t awesome, I do not know what is. I appreciated all of the judges’ comments, including your own. … Also, getting feedback from Richard Thompson was pretty special.
MC: After the contest, you seemed to hit the ground running. Can you tell us some about your journey as a cartoonist?
DB: Sure. I have always wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist. Having my work recognized by a major newspaper was a huge shot in the arm for my confidence. It suddenly validated what I had known in my heart all along: that my work was good. That something that I had created and that I thought was good really WAS good. After that experience, I had the confidence to dust off my strip and launch the strip as a webcomic, and that eventually lead to it being picked up for weekly print syndication in parts of the United States and Canada.
MC: I’m curious about Dozi’s origin story — when did you dream him up, and how has he evolved for you as a character?
DB: Dozi was born in my imagination during the final few years of Art School. I always enjoyed talking animals in comic strips. The comics that I loved the most all had central characters that were animals — “Peanuts.” “Garfield.” “Calvin and Hobbes.” “Bloom County.” So I started racking my brain, thinking of ideas for animal characters that nobody had thought of yet. I eventually came around to reptiles that many kids keep as pets in aquariums or terrariums. But I didn’t want just any reptile — I wanted something memorable. In a nutshell, this is basically my thought process for how Dozi was born: “What about an alligator as a pet? Yeah! Ok. But …how do you explain having an alligator as a pet? Oh! Wait! I know! What if a young kid SECRETLY brought a baby alligator home with him from a family vacation in Florida?!”
That was the “a-ha” moment. My creative epiphany. That was how Dozi was born.
MC: Are the Hoxwinders drawn from experiences or memories from a family in your own life — or purely fictive?
DB: The Hoxwinders are mostly fictional, although everybody draws from their own experiences. I grew up with three brothers, so the dynamic between Byron and his older brother Rowdy is real. Rowdy is way more reserved and patient with Byron than my older brother was with me, but I think that is also part of the charm of the Rowdy character in my comic strip. Rowdy is bigger than Byron, and could physically pummel him at any moment — like most brothers do – but he doesn’t. I dig that. Haha!
MC: Tell us how this book came to be, if you would — when did you think Dozi might be readily adapted into a children’s book?
DB: It was immediately obvious to me that my Dozi character resonated with readers, but as much as I love creating “Hoxwinder Hall,” unless you are a syndicated daily cartoonist with your strip appearing in hundreds of newspapers, there wasn’t much financial reward in creating a comic strip. The effort of creating the comic was simply not worth the reward. My efforts could be better spent somewhere else.
And so that got me thinking how much a younger audience would really love Dozi! So I set out to write a children’s book. “Dozi the Alligator” tells the story of how Dozi meets Byron Hoxwinder. It is basically a prologue to my comic strip “rebooted” for younger kids who may not have ever heard of my strip. And here we are.
MC: I must say: The artwork you’ve revealed so far is drop-dead beautiful — the movement, the interplay of light. How did you find this Italian artist, what’s his bio, and will Kickstarter help you afford him?
DB: Thanks for saying that. I absolutely agree with you on how gorgeous the artwork is. The credit goes to my illustrator, Nicola Sammarco. So let me back up. … I initially thought that I would illustrate and write the book myself, but after I finished my first illustration attempt, reality set in. I made the decision to pull a Walt Disney. By that, I mean that Walt Disney was a decent-enough artist himself, but he was smart enough to not let his own ego get in the way of having his ideas brought to life by much more capable artists. The single most important thing to me is the idea of Dozi. I want to introduce Dozi the alligator to kids everywhere. And since I need Dozi to be appealing to children, I knew that I needed a much more talented artist to help me bring him to life in the way that I envisioned.
From there, I set about looking for great portfolios on blogs and social media, searching for artists who were top-notch. I specifically sought out artists from the animation industry, because I knew those cats can DRAW! After several weeks of looking around I found Nicola’s website, was impressed, and reached out to him via e-mail. I introduced myself, told him about my project and asked if he was interested in being my Illustrator. He said “yes”, we signed a contract, and started work on the book several months ago. I have to say, I’m incredibly fortunate to have found Nicola. I am so impressed and proud of the work he is producing for this project. …
I intend to give Nicola a big bonus from some of the proceeds of the KickStarter. He deserves it!
MC: Speaking of bios, would share some with readers: When did you get into art — were any schoolteachers inspirational? Also, do you care to share your age and where you live now?
DB: I wanted to be an artist since I was very young. I started my journey as an artist by copying my favorite comics. There were many schoolteachers who inspired me. The one I always remember was from elementary school. Mr. Lavec. He would always tell us, “Always reach for the stars, and you’ll never come up with a handful of dust!” That quote always stuck with me.
MC: So now, what’s next for Dozi, as a character and a multi-format entity?
DB: I have big plans for Dozi. A series of children’s books, and eventually a feature-length animated film. But first things first… this book. Baby steps, man. Baby steps.