Page 3 of 5   <       >

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

To placate them, he went to nursing school. When he arrived at nursing school at the University of Maryland, he brought with him "University2," which began to appear in the school newspaper, the Diamondback. He also fell in with a group of rowdy pharmacy students, who were a constant source of inspiration, and met his future wife, Cari Guthrie, a social work student, when they served on a residence council together.

With the nursing school located in Baltimore, the only time Cho drove to the main campus in College Park was at night to drop off his strip. He had no idea how popular "University2" had become until he arrived for a signing at the student union and saw a line of people snaking outside. Still, Cho didn't think he would become a syndicated newspaper cartoonist -- he saw the funny pages as boring and poorly drawn. (In "Liberty Meadows," he often parodied "Dilbert," "Cathy," and even "Peanuts.") But he was encouraged to try his luck at syndication after he won a Charles M. Schulz Award, for college cartooning, from the Scripps Howard Foundation. Just before he graduated, he applied to every major syndicate. The only one that accepted him was Creators Syndicate, which gave him a year to prepare his strip. "Liberty Meadows" debuted on March 20, 1997, in 30 newspapers nationwide, including The Washington Post.

Two years later, Cho and Guthrie married. Their first child, Emily, was born in 2001, followed by Samantha in 2004.

Before "Liberty Meadows" hit a single newsstand, his syndicate editors asked for a number of changes. And once the strip was up and running, they asked him to make alterations to anything they deemed too risque. Cho kept an online diary of his clashes with his editors. Here are a few entries from 1999 and 2000:

"July 31 -- Jen, Brandy's roommate is licking and sucking her fingers after eating BBQ chicken. Da Man almost censored the entire strip but we reached a compromise and just deleted the sound effect word 'Suck' from the strip.

"August 20 -- Original: Third panel. Ralph, drunk, picks his nose. Apparently, a cartoon bear picking his nose is an affront to the American way. Go figure.

"April 10 -- Fifth panel original line: 'Got milk?' (Dean is practicing pick up lines. My editors said that it was offensive to women.)"

After five years, he grew weary of the arguments and the pressure of the daily deadlines, and yanked "Liberty Meadows" from syndication in December 2001 but continued to print the strip uncensored in book form.

Months later, Marvel Comics then-senior editor Axel Alonso approached Cho about drawing superhero comics. Alonso had read "Liberty Meadows" and was impressed by the way Cho drew women. While most of the male characters, animal and human, were cartoonlike -- Cho drew himself as a chimp -- the females looked like pinups, anatomically precise down to the last curve.

Cho was initially hesitant about the idea, but when Alonso suggested he revamp a third-string character called Shanna the She-Devil, a scantily clad jungle lady who first appeared in the early '70s as a college-educated defender of wildlife and opponent of firearms, Cho was drawn to the possibilities. He recast her as an Amazonian naïf, the product of a Nazi experiment who has the power to kill dinosaurs with her bare hands but no sense of morality, a quality that makes her unpredictable and lends tension to the story. It became a sleeper hit for Marvel. From there, Cho moved on to Marvel's biggest franchise players: The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Mighty Avengers and the Ultimates.

Cho always had confidence in his abilities, but the pace of his ascent surprised even him. "I've just been stumbling up," he says.

It wasn't long before Cho started wondering how long it would all last, how long before his style was no longer popular. "I'm at my peak," he says. "Maybe my star will fall."


<          3           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company