By David Rowell
Sunday, December 14, 2008
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.
For now, he just hoped for a promising first day at the convention.
Business was slow early on. Short of the interest aroused by the occasional conventioneer dressed like a Jedi Knight or the sensation caused by the periodic strolls of the two women from the Iron Sirens table, outfitted in flowing, cleavage-baring dresses with dramatic slits, there was little to occupy the small-press vendors but the anticipation of increased traffic the next day. While the celebrated guest artists signed autographs and did sketches for a fee, Eades, who is tall and lean, with a neatly trimmed goatee, and Campbell, who is shorter and bulky, with a beard in a constant state of coming and going, went without a sale. Few consumers, mostly males in faded T-shirts depicting their favorite characters, even broke pace as they walked by the Heritage table. Campbell and Eades had plenty of time to talk, and as it so often happens with them, the conversation turned to superheroes.
Eades was reflecting on the regrettable impact that purple-costumed Wonder Twins Zan and Jayna had had on the old Saturday morning cartoon "Super Friends." Jayna was all right, Eades allowed, because she could turn into any animal, but Zan could only turn into water and its various forms -- vapor, bridges made of ice -- a power Eades regarded as too esoteric. To make matters worse, Eades pointed out, the twins were saddled with a rambunctious, comic-relief pet space monkey named Gleek. This got him to thinking about Wonder Woman's invisible airplane. The idea of a superhero soaring through the air not with arms and legs stretched outright, but in an erect, seated position, with her hands gripping an invisible steering wheel, was vexing to him. "It's just wrong," he said.
He and Campbell talked, too, about how well they worked together. Eades, who spends his days as an electrician at a company that makes machines for the manufacture of cardboard boxes, joined Heritage early on, then left for a six-year stint in the Navy in 2000. Upon returning home to Baltimore, he moved back in with his mother, who used to paint murals of Disney characters on his bedroom walls when he was a child. "Tyran and myself, we've never had an argument," Campbell said. He thought of Eades as a brother: "He has stuck with me, and he don't pity me. I don't want no one pitying me."
By afternoon they had sold a single edition of the 2007 "Alpha Agents" for a total of $3. There were seminars throughout the day: a discussion with the creative team of Spider-Girl; a workshop on customizing action figures; and a session called "UFOs & You." But neither Campbell nor Eades attended, hesitant to step away in case business suddenly picked up.
Next to them, Vell Trueheart had fared no better, and as she reached for her walker, she lamented that she couldn't upgrade herself to a scooter. "Right now all my money's going into comic books," she said, her voice full of wonder.
Campbell stayed upbeat. Just being at this convention represented a new level of momentum, he said. But this momentum came during a time of personal setback. After 15 years of relative stability, his vision had recently worsened. This had become clear to Campbell a few months ago at church. Campbell walked into the hallway for some air and nearly stepped on a crawling baby. When Sharon yanked him away at the last moment, he had no idea why.
"That devastated me," Campbell says. I was like, "Wow, if you weren't here, I would have hurt a baby." He got the cane soon after, a new and sobering reminder of his challenges -- and one more hurdle, perhaps, Heritage would have to overcome for success.
More than ever now, Campbell said, he relied on Eades. "If I'm drawing something," Campbell said, "I'll say, "Can you take a look at this? What do you see?"
"I'll see an amazing picture, and I kind of forget that he's partially blind," Eades said. "It's unbelievable. He still draws like he's got full vision, but his vision is actually getting worse. It definitely makes me nervous. We got to get this done. Andre's got to see this done. If that's the last thing he sees before he completely loses his vision, he's got to see his characters in book format ... In a store, seeing somebody in a store actually pick it up ... and buy it. I figure that would be -- I'd serve my purpose."
"That's exactly what I want to see," Campbell said. "Before I can't see it no more."
Ten minutes before the convention closed for the day, Vell Trueheart announced her first sale.
"It's only the beginning," Campbell called out to her. "Only the beginning."
The story of Matt Murdock has always been especially meaningful to Campbell. Both came into the world in 1964, and both were raised in the tough streets of the inner city -- Campbell, in Baltimore's East Side, and Murdock in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Both, too, came from a broken home. Campbell was raised primarily by his mother, after his father moved out, and Murdock by his father, a boxer known in the ring as "Battling Jack," after they were abandoned by Matt's mother. Unlike Campbell, however, Murdock wasn't born with vision problems; he became blind after saving a man from an oncoming truck that was carrying radioactive materials. As the truck swerved, the chemicals spilled and splashed over the teenage Murdock's eyes, erasing his sight forever. His saving grace was that all his other senses become intensely heightened.
Matt went on to study at Columbia University law school. But before he could complete his degree, his father was killed by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. Matt came to believe that the law was too feeble to stop ruthless criminals. He made a costume of his father's boxing robe and armed himself with two fighting batons. Employing his masterful martial arts skills, combined with extraordinary touch, hearing and radar sense, he became Daredevil and vowed to battle the city's underworld by any means necessary.
"That was me," Campbell said of the famed Marvel superhero. "Daredevil was me."
It was a clear spring morning, and Campbell had just come up from working in the basement of the townhouse in Abingdon, northeast of Baltimore, that he and Sharon share with their sons Nicholas, 7, and Jason, 10. His drafting table is off to the side of the large room that serves as equal parts play space for the boys and office for Campbell. In the closet, file cabinets house the nearly 5,000 comics he has amassed. On one side of the room are the boys' toys and action figures, and on his side are two shelves that hold at least 100 of his action figures -- some still in their original package and strictly off-limits to the boys.
On weekday afternoons, Campbell reaches for his sunglasses (the sun hurts his eyes) and his cane for the one-block trip to the school bus stop to greet the boys. In between comic book work, he cleans the house and prepares dinner -- surprising tasks for a man with Campbell's vision, but no more surprising than the recent drubbing he gave his family in his first foray at mini golf.
Campbell was born with retinoschisis, a genetic condition that causes progressive vision loss due to retinal degeneration. From a young age he liked reading comic books -- often ones his mother bought for herself and passed along to him. Discovering Daredevil was a revelation. "I mean, I saw Superman, I saw Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman and stuff, but I had never seen a blind superhero before."
Daredevil was more than a fantasy figure for Campbell; he was instructive. Campbell focused on Daredevil's super-hearing abilities. (For example, Daredevil can tell when someone is lying to him because he can hear the person's heartbeat escalate.) "If you really, really concentrate, you can hear a lot of stuff," Campbell said. "That fascinated me." He paused and took in the relative stillness all around. "I can hear everything in this house. I hear the washing machine, I hear the TV playing, you know. I hear the birds outside. I hear everything."
As a boy, Campbell wore exceptionally thick eyeglasses, so thick, he said, that when playing hide-and-seek, sometimes his protruding lenses gave him away. The glasses also masked a difficult secret. Because he wore such thick lenses, he said, teachers assumed, wrongly, that his vision was adequately corrected. In the early years of elementary school, he and his twin sister, Renee, were in the same classes. She discreetly copied work written on the blackboard for him because he couldn't see that far. But the school eventually separated the two, which Campbell says "made it worse for me because I had nobody to help me."
When Campbell failed the third grade, school officials came to understand the extent of his problem, and they urged his mother, who worked as a custodian for 40 years, to enroll the boy in the Maryland School for the Blind. She refused. She didn't believe it would prepare him for the challenge of living in the world of the seeing.
"You don't let no one walk over you," she told Campbell. She encouraged him to always give his best effort, to not worry about failure.
Despite his poor eyesight, Campbell had an innate talent for drawing. He started off with dinosaurs, wildlife and landscapes, but nothing beat drawing superheroes. "They could do anything," he said. "I actually saw myself as a superhero because they were different from regular humans. So 'I'm Blind Man,' you know? 'I'm different.' " Stepping into the imaginary world of superheroes and supervillains was, he said, "a way of forgetting how hurt I was when people teased me." Kids would trip him or hold their hands in front of his face and say, "How many fingers I got up?" or "I don't want to be around him -- I might catch what he got."
By the time he was 14, he already knew that he would spend his life trying to be a comic book artist.
Campbell managed to graduate high school (by then he had given up on eyeglasses) and studied graphic design at the Community College of Baltimore County and the Professional Institute of Commercial Art. In his graphic design classes, he fell in with some other African American artists who also loved comic books and had experimented with their own creations. There were 14 of them in the beginning, and they formed Heritage as a way to stay motivated.
In 1995, Campbell, who had been unable to get a job as a graphic artist, was working as a janitor at Goodwill, which sometimes farmed out its services to the Social Security office in Baltimore. On one occasion, he was emptying a trash can in the printing area there when he noticed some crumpled drawings of superheroes. Campbell was astounded. "His anatomy was great, his composition was wonderful," Campbell recalls of the artist. Campbell asked an employee if he knew who the drawings belonged to, and the man pointed Campbell to Eades's mother. Campbell explained his interest to her, and soon he and Eades connected. "I was kind of shocked and, you know, amazed," Eades, then a college student, says of Campbell's conviction that Eades could create his own comic book. Buoyed by Campbell's praise, Eades began regularly attending Heritage meetings; he found the group to be talented but disorganized, with conflicting ideas about how to proceed. "I didn't really think we were going to do anything -- actually put out a comic," Eades said. A few years in, he was thinking, This isn't going to work.
During that time, Campbell was struggling through a difficult first marriage. Part of the tension revolved around his devotion to his comic book dream. He says his wife, also legally blind, was frustrated with the lack of results, given all the time he put into it. Eventually, Campbell told her, "With you or without you, I'm going to do this."
But his efforts to keep Heritage together were faltering.
"I kind of considered Heritage dead," Eades says. In 2000, he joined the Navy. He and Campbell lost contact for several years, during which time Campbell divorced, married his childhood sweetheart, went on full-time disability and saw Heritage fall apart completely. He pressed on alone.
When Eades left the Navy in 2006, he and Campbell reconnected. "Now that I've got my buddy back," Campbell told him, "let's do it again."
Eades was reluctant, but he started drawing again -- and he liked what he was coming up with. So did Campbell. Over that summer, the two kept talking, but Eades figured he'd be leaving Baltimore as he sought new career opportunities. The thought of disappointing Campbell pained him, however. Eades believed that his departure "would be like a kind of dream crusher."
Eades decided to stick around and found a job as a technician, fixing equipment in Maryland's vehicle emissions program. Campbell offered him the title of Heritage vice president, which Eades didn't want and didn't think was necessary, since the group had only picked up two new members at that time. What was the vice president even supposed to do, Eades wondered. But he relented when he saw how important the matter seemed to Campbell.
Eades found a printer for the first Alpha Agents comic, for which he and Campbell split the bill. Then Eades began drawing his part of the next installment. In two years, they had accomplished more than they had in all the years before Eades left Heritage.
Just as Campbell had wanted -- and needed -- Eades was slowly starting to believe.
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 email@example.com.