Personal Liberties: Comic book artist Frank Cho has made a career of being bawdy and bold

By Annys Shin
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Frank Cho is at his first comic book signing in Paris doing something he excels at: drawing women's breasts.

This particular set is spilling out of a bikini top as the young man who requested the sketch looks on. But as the 20 or so other men behind him in line well know, Cho is capable of drawing almost any permutation: breasts in profile, breasts under T-shirts, breasts amplifying superhero logos, and so on. And they all have one thing in common: their disproportionate size. For Cho, 38, who grew up in Beltsville, the son of Korean immigrants, the alphabet starts with two letters, both of them D.

His clean fluid line and precisely rendered figures, both human and animal, also show off his considerable skills, which have earned him numerous awards, a nationally syndicated comic strip at age 23, and, for the past seven years, a steady gig as one of Marvel Comics' best-selling illustrators. Now he can add to that list a following on the other side of the Atlantic.

The May signing in Paris is his first introduction to his French fans, to be followed two days later by his first solo show at one of approximately five galleries in Paris devoted to illustration and comic art. Almost everyone who has come to see him today is male, in his 20s or 30s, and sports a piece of clothing bearing the image of a favorite superhero. Most of them, I learn, discovered Cho by reading "Liberty Meadows," which grew out of a strip he created while attending Prince George's Community College. "Liberty Meadows" chronicles the hijinks of a bunch of talking animals that include Ralph, a midget circus bear that likes to build dangerous gadgets, and Dean, a pig, a former fraternity mascot and, appropriately, a dedicated chauvinist. But the star is a voluptuous animal psychologist named Brandy, who Cho says is based on Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, pinup queen Bettie Page, and various girls he has lusted after starting in the second grade. ("I hit the ground running," he tells me.)

(VIDEO: Frank Cho and a live-action Brandy pose for our cover)

In France, "Liberty Meadows" is known as "Psycho Park," which sounds even more ridiculous when uttered with a French accent.

Cho makes progress on the sketch for the fan whose nickname is L'il Pool. Once Cho has penciled everything in, he switches to an ink pen. Only the word bubble remains. As he ponders what to write, he looks up to ask: "How do you say [breasts] in French?"

His translator, Kim Belair, a college student from Montreal who is sitting a few feet away, considers this a minute and comes up with "nichons."

Cho resumes inking, and soon the sketch is done. It reads: "Stop looking at my nichons, L'il Pool!"

Following French custom, Cho does the sketch for free. He makes less than a hundred dollars from the event by selling copies of the catalogue for the upcoming gallery show. In a larger sense, though, this is precisely what he is paid handsomely for -- to exist in a state of perpetual adolescence, even as he edges closer to middle age.

It's been eight years since he pulled "Liberty Meadows" from national syndication, citing never-ending battles with editors over double-entendres about women's body parts and the cup sizes of his female characters. In the years that followed, he seemed on the verge of something bigger. He had a deal with Sony Pictures to turn "Liberty Meadows" into an animated series. He was lining up financing for "Zombie King," a horror comic that he created and wants to direct as a movie. Breaking into Hollywood seemed like the next logical step.

Then, the Great Recession hit. Funding for "Zombie King" dried up. Sony let its option on "Liberty Meadows" lapse. The setbacks at home were even bigger: His nine-year marriage to his college sweetheart ended in divorce. He moved out of his four-bedroom house and studio in Elkridge, a little over a mile away, into a cramped basement apartment, which he likens to a jail cell, so he could be near his two young daughters.

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