Comic Book Hero
Andre Campbell, who has been legally blind since birth, let his cane glide in front of him, as Tyran Eades stepped diligently by his side with the patience of an attentive brother. They were headed toward their designated table at the 15th annual Pittsburgh Comicon. All around them at the convention were eye-popping banners and saturated displays of superheroes both ubiquitous and obscure, all designed to celebrate the unbridled joy of comic books and to encourage generous spending during the next three days by the 7,000 or so attendees. Campbell -- who says you can approximate his vision by closing one eye and squinting through the other -- could make out very little. But he had a grand vision for himself, an inner faith that his own characters would some day take their place alongside Spider-Man, Batman and Wolverine at conventions like this one.
Having toiled for nearly 20 years, Campbell, 44, had produced -- with Eades's assistance -- one comic book and one graphic novel, both self-published, starring Campbell's Alpha Agents ("Earth's Mightiest Heroes"). Unlike the professional comic book artists, who had been invited to attend and who had made their names by working on some of the most beloved superhero titles of our time, Eades, 33, and Campbell had paid $150 out of their scarce resources to rent a table. But now they were focused on the significance of this day. For the first time, they had traveled to an out-of-state convention to promote their company, Heritage Comics HSQ (Heart, Soul, Quality). When they found their way to the corner of the convention center set up for small-press artists such as themselves, they settled in for eight hours of talking up characters that no one had yet heard of.
Campbell and Eades had published their first Alpha Agents comic in 2007, after Campbell had written and labored over it on and off for 10 years. The new graphic novel included the first Alpha Agents story, plus two new installments. They'd had 50 copies printed for $250, and were hoping to sell them for $10 each. They'd decided to forgo having their bios listed in the convention's extensive program, which would have cost another $150. They were too low on funds for that, Campbell said. The hotel room they were sharing would set them back $300, and then there was gas money for the trip from Baltimore.
Campbell estimates that, over the years, he has put $7,000 of his own money into Heritage. Eades has spent about $4,000. In all that time, their gross sales have amounted to about $500. But the goal for the convention, Campbell and Eades agreed, was to introduce their characters to a new public. "We don't expect to break even," Campbell said. "What we do expect is that people will remember us."
The row of guest artists was no more than 20 feet behind Campbell and Eades, but they barely inhabited the same universe as Heritage Comics. Many had worked for the two titans of superhero comic publishing: DC Comics and Marvel Comics, which together account for around 90 percent of all superhero titles sold. Illustrating such beloved titles as Superman and X-Men is an impressive accomplishment, but taking an assignment for DC or Marvel has a caveat: You can never own the characters you work on.
Campbell, Heritage's president, has copyrighted more than 500 characters, and that ownership is essential to him: He has no restrictions on what kinds of stories he can tell. As an independent artist, he has all the freedom in the world. But he didn't have what the featured artists at Comicon had: a following. Or revenue.
In prints displayed on their table and in a large poster behind Campbell and Eades were some of Heritage's characters. There was Kamikaze, a 5,000-year-old Ninja warrior who has "skills of medicine, skills of law" and who curiously resembles Michael Jackson. There was Captain Goodwill (so named because Campbell drew him one day while working as a custodian at Goodwill) who hovered in space, eyes firing "pure beams of electro-cosmic energy." There was Sentinel, a bald woman whose lower half suggested a metallic spider, and an Eades creation called Webspynn, a Spider-Man-like character who wears something akin to a hockey goalie's mask and can't shoot webs, exactly, but changes objects' molecular structure into webbing, which then explodes in all directions.
Their neighbors in the small-press section were a diverse group. Next to the Heritage table was Vell Trueheart, who in her 60s had written her first comic, about a little girl's experience in the Underground Railroad -- and then a sequel. Around the corner was Jason Yungbluth, who had re-imagined Charlie Brown after the Apocalypse, a character who now went by the moniker Weapon Brown (to avoid copyright infringement). Heavily stubbled and donning a sleeveless version of his ubiquitous yellow-and-black shirt, Weapon Brown had a mammoth, cyborg arm. He still featured the lone curl centered atop his bald, round head, but now he wanted payback against the Peanuts gang for years of ridicule. "They should have let him kick the damn ball," read the promotional poster.
Across from Yungbluth was Nathan Johnson, who illustrated Trueheart's Underground Railroad comics. Johnson's parents, occasional co-writers with him, were manning the booth, and behind them was a snapshot from the mid-1990s of a 12-year-old Nathan standing next to then-Marvel Comics publisher and industry legend Stan Lee. Lee was making an appearance at the Pittsburgh convention, and Johnson had worked up the nerve to bring in some drawings. Lee looked them over and said, as Johnson recalled the pivotal moment, "If you stick with it, you'll make it."
What constitutes "making it" as a comic book artist?
In Campbell's case, the answer is complex: He isn't suffering for his art -- he stays at home and collects about $850 in disability a month while his wife, Sharon, makes a good salary as a senior payroll specialist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Still, Heritage has barely sold more than 100 copies since forming in the mid-1990s, which pales beside Campbell's dream: robust comic book sales across the country; office space, where artists -- with salaries! -- would put in a day's work; movie adaptations; his characters on backpacks and lunch boxes and hats.