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Comic Book Hero

Andre Campbell is legally blind, but has a vision of making it as a comic book artist.

***

On a Saturday soon after the convention, Campbell headed to the monthly Heritage meeting. He was in high spirits and was hoping for a big turnout -- perhaps the full dozen members they'd recruited over the last two years. The complication is that Heritage membership is a fluid and sometimes elusive entity, and keeping track of who's officially in and who's out is like trying to keep straight the personnel changes of a '70s rock band still touring today.

Eades, Campbell and Sharon had long been paying dues of $20 a month toward Heritage -- for art supplies, for snacks at meetings -- and Campbell lamented that not once had the other members ever dug into their pockets to add their $20. Sharon doesn't draw or read comic books (and hasn't read Campbell's "Alpha Agents"), and she voices strong opinions on some of the business decisions. But she's very supportive of her husband's ambition. "I'm proud that he's stuck with it," she says. "He never gave up, and he's basically fufilling his dream."

But some might see Heritage as a club rather than a company. Campbell steadfastly thinks of Heritage as a company in the proper sense -- he's registered it with the state -- and he takes great pride in his presidency (which he asked to have put to a vote in 1997, after several years of the group's rudderless progress). Today's meeting was taking place in a room at the Abingdon branch of the Harford County Public Library. The turnout topped out at four, plus a guest. Campbell and Eades sat at opposite ends of a long table, joined by Scott McCruden and Ben Hamilton, both undergraduates at the Community College of Baltimore County. Hamilton had written a script for a detective comic called "Boone City Chronicles" that McCruden was drawing. The guest was John Pennisi, a medical student with whom Campbell had been in discussions about developing a Heritage-themed role-playing game. Pennisi had driven in that morning from New Jersey.

After an update of everyone's current projects -- including Eades's first solo comic, "The Fierce Operations" -- Campbell veered into a motivational mode. "The main plan here is that everybody's got to stay in communication," he said. "I know I'll be calling y'all, leaving messages. And I know I'm not an e-mail man, much. I like to talk. I like to hear voices, you know. So I don't mean to bother you, but sometimes I know with all the distractions of life and everything, sometimes we might need a little beacon to guide you right back where you need to be at. If you have the dream that we have, then get your book out there."

As the talk centered on an upcoming Baltimore convention, Campbell announced that if anyone wanted to stay in a hotel during the convention weekend, Heritage money couldn't cover their costs.

"We'll pay for the publishing of the book," Campbell said, by which he meant that he and Eades would pay for it out of their pockets. "We'll pay for the prints and everything, but when it comes to the hotel room, that's on your own. Okay? Once we really start having big bucks, which I know we're going to, and I believe that, then we will have that. But we've got to be real." He welcomed any feedback.

McCruden said he understood, but added, "I have no budget, you know what I mean? I'm going to school. I'm barely working as it is." Then he added, "I understand you guys don't have a lot of money."

"But we will," Campbell said. "We will ... You just got to believe, and you've got to commit yourself. And it's not easy. It's not. Take it from 15 years and trying this. It is not easy. But I never, ever gave up. And you can never give up on anything."

Everyone nodded faintly.

When a few more agenda items were exhausted, Campbell turned to Pennisi and said, "You have the floor, sir."

"Boy, okay," Pennisi said, rising from his chair, which gave the meeting a jolt of formality. "I'm not sure who here are gamers or former gamers or occasional gamers." Hearing this, the faces of all four Heritage members went so slack with joy, it was as if they'd been gassed. "All right," Pennisi said. "I'm in good company.

Pennisi began to introduce the basic construct of the game, which would be based on Heritage characters, but all eyes soon went to Hamilton as he reached into his bag. He just happened to have a leather pouch of dice -- the signature possession of a role-player. He spilled them onto the table, and this elicited a low moan of approval from the group.

"I remember I used to have dice like that," Campbell said longingly.

Pennisi tried to explain a few more rules of his prototype, but the group was seized by its role-playing memories, and the semblance of a meeting fell apart.

Hamilton admitted that he "took a lot of crap playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school. Of course, it didn't help that I wore a trench coat."

Campbell recalled how, as a teenager, he toted so many Dungeons & Dragons-related books in his backpack that a couple of the more notorious thugs in the neighborhood had come to believe that he was, in fact, carrying a gun. When Campbell heard about it, he was infuriated. He approached the thugs and started unpacking his bag. "I ain't got no gun in here," he told them. "These are role-playing books." The thugs were relieved, and made a habit of bullying him thereafter.

When everyone's memories were exhausted, Pennisi resumed his explanation. "This is an opportunity to, like, create a supplement of Heritage characters . . . provide a way for you guys to get the characters out there."

"I always wanted to see my characters in game form," Campbell said.

Pennisi had developed the prototype for free, and he and Campbell hadn't talked about any financial arrangement yet, if Heritage were to pursue it.

"I think that that idea can work out for us," Campbell said.

But was there really a market for a game based on characters no one yet knew? With just two comics completed, was Heritage ready to invest in new mediums?

Two and a half hours after the meeting had begun, Campbell called it to a close, then said quietly, almost to himself, "I just wish, again, that everybody was here."

***

The new Alpha Agents graphic novel chronicles a single, cataclysmic day in the American city of New Cypress -- like Batman's Gotham City, it's basically a stand-in for Manhattan. Early on, Captain Goodwill meets and teams up with the Alpha Agents, once average citizens who were unknowingly the subject of government experiments and who now have remarkable powers: flying, the ability to grow 100 feet tall, super strength, the ability to generate anti-matter energy. Then, as a summary caption puts it, "Creatures of various sizes with various powers begin to attack the New Cypress citizens." Cue the concrete-pulverizing, rubble-inducing, air-scorching rumble.

Campbell says his biggest influence is artist Jack Kirby, who created or co-created such comic stalwarts as Captain America, the Silver Surfer, the Fantastic Four, Thor and the Hulk. Kirby's style redefined what comics could look like by infusing characters with a raw life force and motion not previously seen in comics. Some years ago, Campbell was drawing a character he calls the Wall, who in appearance mostly resembles a bald Hulk. In Campbell's pencil sketch, the Wall's demonic glare is as menacing as any classic Hulk picture of Kirby's, and his muscles, like boulders pushing through the skin, are entirely convincing. There's a kind of terrifying energy in how the Wall's fist is cocked back, ready to punch through the page.

But Campbell is a more natural artist than writer. The archaic dialogue of too many Saturday morning cartoons and bad comics from his childhood seem inextricably wired into him. As a result, Campbell's characters talk like they were produced in an earlier, more innocent, era. Compare this line from Captain Goodwill in "Alpha Agents": "Let's see how well you take a fist enveloped with my ultra-energy," vs. this line from Batman in the 2007 "Batman and Son": "You're good. But if you need brass knuckles, you're not good enough."

By the '80s, reading comic books was becoming increasingly difficult for Campbell. If Campbell's dialogue sounds like he hasn't been studying the premier comic book writers of the last couple of decades, in most cases it's because he hasn't.

***

Campbell sat alone in the small reception area of the Hoover Rehabilitation Services for Low Vision and Blindness in Baltimore. He was dressed in black slacks and a blue plaid shirt, with his sunglasses hanging off a top button. He hadn't seen an eye doctor in two years and had made the appointment, in part, to get guidance on how to make comic book work less arduous. Janet Sunness, the center's medical director, brought him back and conducted a standard exam. She wheeled over a letter chart, and the smallest letters Campbell could read were 12 times normal size. She asked him to follow her finger and shined a light in his eyes; she confirmed that his status was still legally blind.

Sunness then led Campbell to a conference room, where a low-vision occupational therapist named Susan Garber, a petite woman with a pixieish haircut in a white lab coat, joined them. Sunness asked Campbell to turn on his laptop so both women could observe how he used it. As he turned the computer on, an image of his Captain Goodwill filled the screen.

Garber leaned into the screen as Campbell pulled up a file. "That's, like, a really small font you're looking at," she said. "I'm surprised you're not making it any bigger."

"I guess I don't have any programs that really do that," Campbell said. "So I just adapt . . . I rely on a magnifying glass." Campbell fished into his pocket and showed them a worn monocular that he said he carried out of habit and had used since he was 15.

After observing him draw, Garber led him to her office. "Did you ever enjoy sitting down and reading a newspaper or book?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah, I used to read novels," he said. " 'Star Wars' novels."

"So, how long has it been since you've been doing that type of reading?"

Campbell thought about it, and said maybe not since he was 20.

"So, it's been a long time," she said.

"A long time."

Garber pulled out a newspaper and had Campbell try to read it using various combinations of reading glasses and magnifying glasses. He read with difficulty. "With temporarily -- um, temperatures rising to the low 90s, and with the humidity -- "

"Good," she said. "So it's still a little slower than I want it to be."

She offered him another magnifying glass, and he opened a copy of Spider-Man Magazine. He began reading, quickly this time. "Yes, Captain, and it's still active enough to provide the thermal energy our combined equipment needs." He stopped, amazed by the ease of what he had just done.

"That's not bad, right?" Garber asked, then laughed. She was exhilarated by his excitement.

Next she wanted him to try a closed-circuit television system, which magnifies printed material placed underneath a glass tray and projects it onto a monitor. Garber suggested he pull out a comic book to read, if he had one. Campbell dug out a "Hulk" comic from his bag. Garber turned to a random page and panel and blew it up on the screen.

"Color!" Campbell exclaimed. He had seen a CCTV before, but never one that wasn't in black and white. Garber zoomed into a panel on the last page of the book. This time, a single eyeball filled the large screen.

"Wow," he said.

"So, why don't you have a CCTV?" she asked. "Because they're expensive, or you don't want one?" Campbell said money was just too tight these days. The CCTV cost around $3,000.

Garber kept talking, but Campbell was captivated by the eyeball, which belonged to Bruce Banner, who had spent his life trying to rid himself of the Hulk and who, in that moment, had just been hit by a cosmic blast. In the panel, he is laid out in a giant crater. Is he dead? Veins shoot out in little rivers of pale blood from the pupil, and his emerald eye, rendered, as Campbell could see now, with three shades of green, radiated a lifetime of failure and heartbreak. Campbell had never seen a piece of art so clearly, and he was lost in that single eye.

"This would remarkably change everything that you're doing," Garber went on. "The thing is, it is expensive. But it is what you do for a living, and it is where you're spending most of your time."

"Yeah, that is true," Campbell whispered, as if from some distant spot. He didn't need any convincing; he knew she was right. But he also knew she couldn't just give him the machine.

"I can see all the detail," he said, transfixed.

"It's amazing, right?"

He kept staring at the eye. Trying to imagine this machine in his home, he thought again about how reading had become so hard. "I just get so tired," he said.

That weekend, Sharon dropped Campbell and the boys off to see "The Incredible Hulk" at the nearby cineplex, where they sat seven rows from the screen -- farther back than Campbell prefers. Some of the action sequences take place at night, and he found them difficult to make out. During those stretches, he said, he had to use his imagination. For Campbell, that has never been a problem.

***

Traditional superheroes -- of the costume-wearing, special-power-wielding, criminal-fighting variety -- have been around since the 1930s, but their place in our cultural fabric has never been more prevalent than it is today. In recognition of that, comic book icon Stan Lee last month received the prestigious National Medal of Arts at the White House, while this past summer, superheroes obliterated the summer box office competition, with "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Dark Knight" grossing nearly $1 billion combined in U.S. box office dollars alone. One of NBC's biggest hit shows is called, simply, "Heroes," and the CW's "Smallville," which chronicles the early years of Superman, is in its eighth season. But not everyone who watches superheroes wants to read about them, too.

"Two years ago at this time, you could safely say, 'No one knows who Iron Man is,' " says Matt Brady, senior editor and co-founder of the Web site Newsarama, which covers the comic book industry. "Now, everybody knows who Iron Man is . . . Unfortunately, for the comic book publishing side, that might translate into a lot more pairs of Iron Man pajamas sold than Iron Man comic books sold."

Even so, experts generally agree that sales are healthy right now. In June, four of the bestselling monthly titles sold over 100,000 copies each, with Marvel and DC Comics titles totaling 48 of the top 50; 33 for Marvel and 15 for DC.

The comic book industry is essentially set up like a football league with just two teams and one coach. Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., based in Timonium, Md., carries nearly 100 percent of the superhero comics that ship to retail outlets. So where does that virtual monopoly leave an artist like Campbell -- who bristles at the 60 percent purchasing discount off the cover price that Bill Schanes, Diamond's vice president of purchasing, says his company would require in a deal with Heritage -- or almost any other independent publisher? In a commercial no man's land. Even if Campbell were to change his mind and court Diamond, it would be a hard sell. If Diamond is unsure about a comic's prospective audience, it sometimes relies on the judgment of a six-person advisory board, made up of retailers, to see how many copies they would theoretically order for their stores.

"These are independent thinkers, and they can be a little bit brutal with their feedback," Schanes says. "If the six [members] come back and say their order is zero . . . then it's probably got very little chance of being a commercial success."

Most insiders have to go back 25 years to find a self-published superhero comic that really caught on. In 1983, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were watching television -- "The A-Team," "T.J. Hooker" -- and doodling cartoons. Eastman, who was working as a short-order cook at the time, absently drew a turtle with a mask. His friend tried his own hand at it. They drew some more, put various ninja-looking weapons in the claws, and called them Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It proved to be an eventful evening.

They soon penciled and inked a comic book with their turtles. They borrowed some money from Eastman's uncle, printed up 3,000 copies, took out an ad in a weekly trade called the Comic Buyer's Guide, and sent out homemade press kits. Stories about the little comic turned up on the national newswire. Their 3,000 copies sold out, as did subsequent press runs of 15,000 and 35,000. More issues followed, along with Saturday morning cartoons, movies, an endless line of toys and a mind-numbing array of related items -- clip-on suspenders, cake pans, toilet water, dessert plates, cookie jars. Millions of dollars rolled in to the creators.

But the Ninja turtles were a lightning strike. As experts point out, it's extraordinarily difficult for a new superhero to garner any momentum. "The history of the last 10 -- you could probably say 15 to 17 years -- is littered with companies that thought they could make a go at it and actually make their own superhero universe," Matt Brady says. In the end, he wonders how much comic fans actually want different characters in different settings. "If you look at the Marvel and DC lineups today," he points out, "there are very few heroes that were created anywhere past the '60s."

Typically, Campbell doesn't dwell on these grimmer realities. After the Pittsburgh convention, Campbell and Sharon mailed copies of the first "Alpha Agents" comic to 30 area comic book stores; 27 said they would be willing to carry it. Comic book stores are generally happy to give an independent artist a chance, but their stocking a title is not always a clear stamp of approval of the work itself. Barbarian Comics in Wheaton is one of the oldest comic book stores in the country. Its owners, James and Tom Wu, said they would carry the "Alpha Agents." "We carry anything as long as it's not offensive," Tom says. But as comic book lovers and businessmen, they found little in the "Alpha Agents" that impressed them. "The art isn't -- I've got to say -- it's not that great," Tom said. He also thought the story was jumbled.

"It seems like it's not unique enough to distinguish it from other superhero comics," James said. He wondered who would want to read about the Alpha Agents over the Avengers -- Marvel's rotating band of superheroes -- or DC's Justice League, which consists of such comic mainstays as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Flash.

Campbell has heard criticisms of his comic book before. But he has also gotten plenty of positive feedback, he says.

"Do I get discouraged sometimes?" he asks. "Yes, but it don't last that long. When I see a Marvel book or a DC book or a Dark Horse or an Image book, I say, 'Well, we can do that.' "

***

Of the countless things that Campbell has put down on paper, the most important might be a list he wrote up when he was 14 years old. Campbell says that as a kid he always liked talking to adults, often his friends' parents, and in those conversations he became keenly aware of dreams people had for themselves -- and also of the impact of broken dreams. Campbell didn't want to go through life with regrets, he says, so he formulated the outline of what he thought would make a successful life for himself. First on the list: Marry Sharon, his childhood girlfriend. Then it went on: Go to college. Own a house. Get a job. And, finally: Produce a comic book.

So far, Campbell has been able to check every item off that list. The comic book, though, must be marked with an asterisk. When he wrote the list down all those years ago, he wasn't envisioning a couple of copies gathering dust on some back-of-the-store shelves.

***

Campbell has spent his life creating things people can look at, but no one had ever asked him to give a talk of any kind until Abingdon Elementary School, where his sons attend, invited him to speak at Career Day.

For the better part of a week, each night after dinner Campbell would practice his speech in front of Nicholas, Jason, and Sharon and solicit their feedback. Sharon had written down some ideas that Campbell added to his own before printing them up in a 20-plus point font. He wrote: "Even though I am legally blind (meaning I can only see shadows), I am still able to accomplish my goal." Under the heading Advantages, he wrote, "When going to comic book conventions, I enjoy traveling and staying in hotels which can be real cool. (tell the kids why it is cool to stay in a hotel)." There was just one entry under Disadvantages: "Some people may not like my comic book and that is fine. I have to realize that not everyone is going to like it."

Campbell planned to refer to himself as CEO of Heritage, as he had come to prefer the sound of that to "president," but Sharon argued that elementary kids would better understand president. Campbell wasn't ready to relent on that one. Sharon kept timing him to make sure he didn't go over his allotted 30 minutes, though when the day came, he would run long each time. He was speaking to six classes in all.

Of course, his boys were already well versed in their father's world of superheroes. "Jason and Nicholas are little Andres," Sharon says. She's used to hearing Jason and his father deep in conversation about some plot turn or new character, in which Jason is frequently asking, "Well, what are his powers?"

Armed with prints, posters for the teachers and stickers of Heritage characters he printed himself, Campbell and the boys took a cab early that morning. He was dressed in a dark suit with a red tie with black stripes and shoes that, he would say later, made his feet hurt for two days. He was the first presenter to arrive.

The morning announcements came over the loudspeaker as Campbell waited outside Nicholas's first-grade classroom. Then he stepped in and, once in front of the students, collapsed his long walking cane with a quick stroke. They regarded this with a tacit drone of satisfaction.

"Hey, everybody," he recalls saying, channeling a voice that was equal parts birthday clown and businessman. "I'm the big honcho. I'm the boss of Heritage Comics HSQ." The children laughed at Campbell's broad delivery. He asked if everyone had ever seen or read a comic book, and most of the children said they had. Within a few minutes, a child asked why Campbell needed a cane. Campbell asked if anyone could explain what a cane was for, and one child said it was for old people.

This one is different, Campbell said. "This one kind of guides me, and it lets people know that I do have trouble seeing, so if I'm crossing the street, people will watch out if they see the cane. So it helps me -- a lot."

When he held up the first "Alpha Agents" comic, the children yelped in approval. He talked about his inspirations for creating characters. "Sometimes I could see you and make you into a character," he said. "Sometimes I make a story about something you do." And he told them that reading, writing, math and history were all important to writing comic books. Quite a few groaned on cue at the word math, but Campbell explained to them that when you're selling your comic book, you need to know how to work with money.

When it came time for questions, he asked Nicholas to call on the children who had their hands raised, since he couldn't discern them.

Next he went into a kindergarten class. When one boy asked how he could draw if he had trouble seeing, Campbell said, "Sometimes I just kind of guestimate on stuff."

The children needed more clarification, he recalls. "Well, I guess where things go, and they just seem to fall into place."

By the time he got to the third-grade classes, he was introducing himself as CEO -- and mentioned that he had a lot of people working for him. And he explained the importance of history to his work. He told them he had a 5,000-year-old character, Kamikaze. "If you know your history, you can write anything from any point in history," he said.

And he added science to the list of critical subjects for comic book writing. "I have a character that can change into different elements," he told the students. Then he asked the teacher if the students had gotten to the periodic table. They had not. "Well, when you get there and you look at the periodic table," he said, "you need to know -- if you have a character who can change into elements -- you need to know what the elements are, what happens when you mix two elements together. It will make the character more interesting and deeper."

In the last class, Jason's fourth-grade class, the kids were asking for his autograph -- another first. Some had comics from National Free Comic Book Day -- a publicity event dreamed up by the industry during more desperate times -- and put those in front of him, and others handed him blank sheets of paper. Then others decided that he should sign their backpacks.

Here, no one asked him about his plans for distribution. No one wondered how much of his own money he had spent on Heritage or what he could do with members who didn't show up for meetings. They didn't criticize his dialogue or originality as an artist. They didn't know how long he had worked to keep his dream alive, and they couldn't understand that, in fact, it was on this very day, with them, that he had finally arrived. He couldn't see the students clearly, but it was clear to Campbell how they saw him.

David Rowell is an editor for the Magazine. He can be reached at rowelld@washpost.com.


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