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

Hardly anyone is wearing a superhero T-shirt. Instead, there are quite a few men in suits holding briefcases. One guy in a dress coat says he stopped in on his way to dinner at the U.S. ambassador's house. A few peruse a price sheet, which lists published pages starting at 1,000 euros, worth about $1,300, and covers from 6,000 to 11,000 euros.

About an hour into the opening, a thin 40-something man with dark hair, wearing a pinstripe suit, rushes in, and word soon gets around that he works in finance and has come all the way from London for the show. Cho's art dealer, Steve Morger, makes sure to introduce him to Cho. The man's name is Asad Khan, and he has never read "Liberty Meadows." He tells me that he was hooked after reading Shanna. He wants to buy a page, but he's torn between the cover of "Ultimates #3," which features a trio of female superheroes, and a page from "New Ultimates #1" that shows Thor sitting in hell while Hela, queen of the underworld, takes off her helmet and gives him a come-hither look.

In the end, he doesn't buy anything.

Later, at dinner, Cho asks the gallery owner, Bernard Mahé, about the show.

"How did it go? Are you happy with the turnout?" he asks.

Mahé's answer is slightly cryptic. "Yes," he replies. "I am happy if you are happy."

We're seated around the table with a handful of other guests: Morger the art dealer, Belair the translator, and Juanjo Guarnido, a Spaniard living in Paris and highly respected creator of a comic called "Blacksad." Guarnido is going through a divorce, and throughout the evening has poured out his frustrations to Cho, who handles it all with surprising finesse.

"I'm sorry to hear that, man," Cho says, placing a hand on Guarnido's shoulder.

The conversation turns to comic book conventions and the women who show up. Cho always gets at least one of them asking him to sign her breasts or buttocks. These women are not to be confused with actual groupies, who hover by the artist's table and might be decked out in Princess Leia's slave bikini from "Return of the Jedi."

Cho rests his chin on one hand and glances over at Guarnido.

"With the success of 'Blacksad,'" he says in a quiet voice, "you could, you know -- "

He pauses, then, with all eyes on him, finishes the thought with a couple of sexually suggestive thrusts of his fist.

Guarnido smiles, slightly embarrassed, and shrugs while the women at the table groan.

"Frank," Morger says later, "has the thinnest filter of anyone I know."

***

Cho has built a career drawing voluptuous women and catering to other men who share his stubbornly adolescent sense of humor. But even in the hyper-male world of superhero comics, his depiction of women has not always gone over well. Three years ago, when he drew a "Mighty Avengers" cover showing Ms. Marvel getting shot in the back at an angle that shows off her peach-like bottom, Steven Padnick, a comics blogger, complained: "Okay, we get it. Frank Cho likes to draw women's butts. But this is getting ridiculous."

Cho says he understands men much more fully than women. As he once explained, Brandy's personality is completely made up. He has no idea what real women think, so he simply made her the sanest character. "Brandy is the fixer. All the men are weak," he says. "Brandy is a straight man, and you need the goofballs."

Cho still rails about how many of the readers who complained about the raciness of "Liberty Meadows" failed to appreciate its feminist undertones. At its peak, the strip appeared in 100 papers; that number started to decline as papers that found it too risque began to drop it.

"I would get 200 positive letters from college kids and guys in the military, but my editors would listen to the one old lady in Topeka," he says.

Women have written Cho praising him for drawing females who are not anorexic-looking -- although their hair is always perfectly styled, and they always manage to have a bikini wax. Cho's women are also strong and often physically overpower men. One storyline in "Liberty Meadows" has Brandy throwing an unconscious Frank over her shoulder and carting him around in knee-high snow to safety. (She then wraps Frank in her clothes while she lies naked next to him -- ostensibly to keep him warm.) It's just enough female empowerment to disarm some potential critics.

"If you look at 'Liberty Meadows,' there's a chimp, a wimp and this totally hot girl, and you think, 'Are you still 13 or what?'" says Paige Braddock, creative director of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates and the creator of "Jane's World," a comic about a lesbian and her circle of friends. "I recognize it for what it is, and I don't get mad at it. He's respectful in his way."

Ultimately, Cho cares very little whether his work is criticized for being sexist or tasteless. What he really worries about are people's changing tastes, and that his style will one day fall out of favor. He can rattle off the names of hugely successful comic book artists from the 1970s and 1980s who have a hard time getting work now.

At a comic book convention at George Mason University in May, he shares a table with Herb Trimpe, the seminal Hulk artist of the 1970s and co-creator of Wolverine. After being laid off from Marvel in the 1990s, Trimpe returned to school and became a teacher until he started to get commissions from fans who had grown up with his work. "It's a young man's game," Cho says, commiserating with Trimpe.

Cho manages a pace that lets him finish about six comics a year for Marvel, enough to bring in a low six-figure income. And though he tends to blow deadlines, his tardiness has not cost him work, at least not yet. Cho, like every other successful comic book artist, is keenly aware that there is always someone younger, hungrier and cheaper coming up behind him.

In the end, Cho knows it's not critical who draws Spider-Man. Marvel owns Spider-Man. The ultimate security for an artist is owning what you produce and capitalizing on that. In Cho's case, that means bringing "Liberty Meadows" to the small screen.

Breaking into television has proved harder than he imagined. Sony Pictures, which bought the rights to turn "Liberty Meadows" into an animated series and shot a pilot, ditched Cho's script because, even in the era of "Family Guy" and "South Park," it was too risque. In Sony's version, the punch lines lacked bite, and the art was inferior to that of the strip.

After Sony let its option lapse in January, Cho bought back the rights and started talks with Comedy Central and Fox, and later with the Jim Henson Studios to make a "Liberty Meadows" feature film. If all else fails, Alonso, his editor at Marvel, says Cho can always fall back on what he does best.

"He was put on this Earth to draw beautiful women," Alonso says. Alonso places Cho in a long line of illustrators associated with "good girl art" -- im-ages of attractive women mostly in skimpy attire -- that include Frazetta and Wally Wood, whose work remains popular and coveted by collectors.

"His women have a light and intelligence behind their eyes you rarely see," Alonso says. "Others can draw a curvaceous body. What he does is different. It's the difference between a classic beauty and a Playboy centerfold."

Alonso dismisses Cho's fears of fading into obscurity as absurd. "He is a once-in-a generation artist," Alonso says. "I say that without hyperbole."

***

Cho says the final tally from the show in Paris fell short of what he needed for a down payment for a new home, but he sold some art at Comic-Con International in July, so he plans to move to a larger place, where he will have a separate studio again. The trip to Paris has sparked his interest in doing work for the European market, where governments sponsor comic art exhibitions, top-selling artists are asked to produce only a single graphic novel every two years, and publishers practice far less censorship. He is planning another exhibit in Paris in 2011. The art Cho saw there also reenergized his interest in painting and sculpture.

Before Cho left for Paris, he learned that the talks with Comedy Central and Fox were unsuccessful, and the talks with Henson are on hold. "So much of it is out of my control," he says. "I'm going to focus on what I can control." He plans to revive "Liberty Meadows" and hopes to have new issues out early next year.

In his personal life, Cho feels less sure-footed about his future. "To be honest, even I don't completely know who I am," he wrote in an e-mail. "At 38 years old, I'm still dicsovering new feelings, new ambitions and questioning sacred things I once held dear to my heart. ..."

"I am sure and confident when it comes to art, but during my down time, I rethink and analyze my decisions. Peace is hell."

***

Cho is sitting at the kitchen tableinside the Beltsville house where he grew up. It's a boxy split-level, just off the Beltway and down the road from the library, where Cho says he spent his summers because his parents didn't believe in air conditioning. Despite yellowing newspaper clips about him when he was younger, cut out from local papers, and a picture of him holding his Schulz award adorning a family room wall, he says his parents are still baffled by what he does for a living.

His mother, a petite woman with short gray-and-black hair and eyeglasses, has just finished serving lunch and is cutting up watermelon. I ask her what she thinks of Frank having a show in Paris. She speaks very little English, and Cho, using a kind of pidgin Korean, does his best to translate.

"Paris?" she replies, keeping her eyes on the watermelon. "I was there four years ago."

Frank, who hadn't told his parents about his trip, tries to explain to her what a gallery show is and that he had one. She is quiet for a second, then looks up and asks, "Why don't you go to Korea?"

Cho looks slightly exasperated.

After a while, we head downstairs to talk to his father, who is sitting at a computer in the family room. He is a little taller than his son, with receding gray hair and a quick smile. His own paintings of Korean landscapes are displayed prominently throughout the house.

I ask whether he knew about the show in Paris. Again, Cho translates. His father understands almost immediately and starts asking questions in Korean. You mean, with framed pictures? On a wall?

"Well, now he knows," Cho says.

"Why didn't you tell me?" his father asks.

He is not angry, though. He asks where else his son is traveling. Cho rattles off his itinerary for the summer. His father says he has never seen him at a comic book convention, so they agree to meet at the Baltimore Comic-Con in August, at which point his mother interjects: "He should really go to Korea."

"Why don't you go to Korea?" his father asks.

Cho explains that he hasn't gone because he hasn't been invited by anyone. His father has a suggestion: Call into a Korean radio show.

"No," Cho says, looking pained.

His father then offers to try to talk to people involved in the art world when he and his wife travel there later this year. Cho begs them not to.

I ask his father whether he is happy his son became a cartoonist. Not at first, he says, because he thought having to come up with new idea every day would be too stressful for Frank.

"What job would have been better?" I ask.

"Medical doctor," he says in English.

He then tells a story about how he himself won an art competition as a kid. He wanted to major in art, but his parents told him he would starve, that the best job he could hope for was painting billboards or teaching high school. So he studied business instead.

Cartooning, he says, is a dead end. His son needs another job.

He holds up his hand to help count out suggestions. You could do movies, he says, unfurling one finger. Maybe stained glass?

I look over at Cho.

"You know, you say the same thing," I say. "That you only have this 10-year window before you fall out of favor. And [that] you need to find another job."

His face contorts in disbelief. "Yeah, I do," he says.

His father is still talking, only now he is standing next to a gray glazed ceramic pot. He bends down and turns it slowly so that we can see the flowers painted on one side.

People need to paint these, too, he says. He straightens up and sees a scroll painting hanging on the wall -- another potential career option.

His father disappears for a few minutes. When he comes back, he is holding a Korean-language newspaper. He opens it to the comics page and lays it on the floor. He talks about his favorite strip, how well drawn it is and how entertaining. "Can you believe the guy manages to come up with a new idea every day?" he says.

As he talks, Cho stuffs his hands in his pockets and tries to smile.

Annys Shin is a Washington Poststaff writer. She can be reached at shina@washpost.com.


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