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

By Annys Shin
Sunday, August 29, 2010; W08

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.

(PHOTOS: Frank Cho's life and work)

"It's back to square two," he says of his predicament.

The first order of business is to escape the basement abode, he tells me, but he hasn't had the money to buy a new place. He may be able to move by the end of the summer if he sells enough art in Paris. The question is whether there is a sufficient number of people willing to pay as much as $13,000 for one of his original pen-and-ink covers.

Cho is hopeful, having already met one major collector, a Frenchman who invests money for a Middle Eastern country. When Cho showed him a fully inked drawing of Dejah Thoris, a character from Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, the collector had but one complaint: She was wearing clothes.

***

Cho knew nothing of Burroughs or comics when he arrived in the United States at the age of 6 with his parents, Kyu Hyuk Cho and Bok Hee Cho, and two brothers, Rino and Austin. The Chos were among the tens of thousands of South Koreans who came to America in the '70s in search of better economic opportunities. His parents had college degrees but didn't speak English well and took whatever jobs they could get to support the family. His mother worked in a shoe factory; his father worked as a carpenter during the day and a janitor at a Greyhound bus station at night. They didn't have the money to spend on extracurriculars, so Cho made up his own.

"Childhood was rough," he says. "We were latchkey kids. We had to fend for ourselves."

When he was 10, his older brother, Rino, brought some comic books home, and Cho started copying the art. One day, he showed one of his drawings to friend David Gill, who asked whether Cho had traced it. Cho "gave me a dirty look and took another piece of paper and drew it on the spot," Gill recalls. "When he redrew it, I pestered him: 'You need to draw comic books.'"

From then on, with the exception of a couple of basic art classes, Cho taught himself. He drew friends as funny, talking animals. And he drew himself as a giant hot dog called the Fearless Frankfurter.

While many of his peers started to gravitate toward manga, a Japanese form of comics, he preferred strips that dated back to the Depression era, such as "Prince Valiant" and "L'il Abner." He studied the work of famed illustrators such as Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Loomis, and of comic book artists such as Al Williamson and science fiction artist Frank Frazetta.

Cho wanted to be a comic book artist, but his parents had other ideas. They didn't look upon comic books as a serious or practical career. "When 'Liberty Meadows' was in syndication, they didn't think it was a big deal." he said.

Later, he wrote in an e-mail, "I believe their understanding of me stopped at fifth grade, when I started collecting comic books and devoted myself to art."

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."

***

Cho's daughters, Emily, 8, and Samantha, 6, sit at the counter of the galley kitchen, eating kimbap -- rice and vegetables wrapped in seaweed. Their big brown eyes are glued to "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" on a giant flat-screen television.

Somewhere along the way to becoming a top-selling comic book artist, Cho's marriage unraveled. The couple separated in 2008 and divorced in 2009. Since the separation, he has been dating Mara Herning, 24, a graduate student, whom he first met while she was caring for his kids. A film student at the time, she later went to work for Cho as his intern.

As divorces go, Cho's has been amicable. She kept the house; he kept his artwork. And they have worked hard to make the transition as smooth as possible for their daughters. Cho still picks them up from school every day and drops them off at his old home. And twice a week, they come for dinner.

As the girls finish eating, a lanky David Gill, dressed in a T-shirt and gray sweatpants, comes padding out from the other end of the apartment. Gill, Cho's childhood friend, had lost touch with Cho after high school. Now an out-of-work Web management specialist, he only recently learned that Cho had become a successful comic book artist and tracked him down at a comic book convention last year. Since then, Gill comes over at least once a week to watch movies or just sit on the couch and read while Cho draws.

On the drafting table in the corner is a page from an upcoming "Ultimates" issue for Marvel. Cho has started sketching an archer. He asks Gill to pose and hold the television remote as if it is a bow. Samantha gets up and stands behind her father, craning her neck to see over his shoulder.

Cho sketches for a few more minutes before he gets up to take the girls home. Before they go, Gill has Cho doodle something in a birthday card for his ex-girlfriend, a big "Liberty Meadows" fan.

"Thanks, dude," Gill says. "I don't think you know how happy she will be. Next time she sees you, she'll bow down."

"I have that effect on women," Cho deadpans.

***

In Paris, Cho arrives at Galerie 9 Art in a black suit -- his only suit -- that he bought specifically for the gallery show. He's wearing the black dress shoes that he got married in. He says he looks like a Toyota executive.

The walls are covered with his black-and-white drawings -- pages he produced for Marvel over the past four years -- encased in simple birch frames.

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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