[deck]A team of Oregon artists and writers work toward creating a story worthy of Dark Horse Comics.[/deck]
Mason Welsh speaks in archetypes.
“This guy is kinda my Luke Skywalker character,” he says as he lays out a series of sketches on the floor of his home in Springfield, Oregon.
In one frame, a character points a gun directly at the reader’s face. In another, a band of deformed humans descends on their prey, a thirst for destruction made evident by their gnarling maws. These are just a couple of scenes from the comic book Welsh and his cadre of collaborators have spent the last few months creating.
He describes it as Star Wars meets Johnny Quest meets Indiana Jones. Depending on what part of the process Welsh is in, he’ll throw another famous work into the equation.
The characters on each sheet of paper may be sketched in gray pencil, but Welsh and his team have drenched the project in color—every player in the story, big or small, has an expansive back-story penned by Ray Nichols, another Springfield resident who’s playing point guard for the narrative.
“We didn’t just conjure these ideas out of nothing,” Welsh says.
Some of the characters slated to appear in the book originate from Welsh’s days as a camper—and later, counselor—at a summer camp in Colorado. He and his brother were fascinated by the stories they heard from their own counselors. As the years went by, the Welsh brothers inherited the stories and made them their own. Now Welsh has the opportunity to spread some of those tales beyond the campfire.
These stories have traveled with Welsh for some time. Since his childhood days, he bounced around in Fort Morgan, Colorado until he settled into a semi-permanent residence in Kansas City, Kansas. It was there that he started making small films with a group of friends. It was also where he fell in love with his wife, Pam.
She recalls the first time Welsh met her family. They knew he was an artist and when they asked him to sketch something, Welsh was happy to oblige. Instead of preparing a piece of paper on a table, however, he set it on the floor.
The man could draw with his feet. And he did.
Pam says it was stunts like this that won her heart—she could always count on Welsh to make her smile.
“I don’t have an ‘off’ switch,” Welsh admits.
The two moved to Oregon shortly after they married so Pam could work as an athletic trainer at Northwest Christian College.
Just like Welsh’s journey from Fort Morgan to Oregon, comics have come a long way since their days on the back page of the morning paper. From Batman and Spider-Man to Scott Pilgrim and Tintin, the industry has made its mark on popular culture in ways nobody could have predicted.
“There’s an amazing and interesting legacy of failure in American comics,” says Andrea Gilroy, a doctoral candidate in the University of Oregon’s comics and cartoon studies program. “It’s borne of the people who weren’t good enough to get into newspapers.”
In fact, one of the most iconic figures in American pop culture never made it to press. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster pitched Superman as a comic strip to newspapers in the 1930s, nobody would take a chance on the character, citing his resemblance to the lead in Hugo Danner’s Gladiator as concern for a lawsuit. That’s when a little-known upstart called DC Comics took a chance on the two artists. If litigation came, DC figured it could cease publishing the book.
But it didn’t need to. The strip was an instant hit.
Soon enough the comics industry was rife with a cascade of ever-diversifying genres. Crime dramas, thrillers, and romantic comedies followed the success of superheroes. The comics scene leading into the ‘50s was as diverse as the marquee of a Cineplex in the middle of the summer. It wasn’t until Congress began holding hearings condemning the effects of comics on American youth that publishers began toning down their material.
After that, books containing tamer subject matter dominated the pages of mainstream comics. But that didn’t mean the more sophisticated material wasn’t out there. Readers just had to dig a little.
Zines and niche publishers filled a void that DC and Marvel failed to address. Every so often, these fringe properties made it into a mainstream publication. For example, The Mask, starring Jim Carey, was an adaptation of a comic book published by Dark Horse Comics, a firm based in Portland, Oregon. Then the Internet came.
Suddenly there was no gatekeeper, meaning that as long as the content was good, there was an audience for anything. The modern market is so expansive that there’s a series for nearly every interest.
“There’s a place for The Dark Knight and there’s a place for the 1960s ‘biff-pow’ Batman,” Welsh says, referring to the onomatopoetic bubbles in a comic strip.
A cursory search for “comics” or any related terms on Tumblr yields a plethora of results, from original work to fanart of popular characters. Andrea Gilroy mentions artists such as Kazu Kibuishi, who writes the Amulet series; Faith Erin Hicks, the woman behind Demonology 101; and Natalie Nourigat, whose work has been published by the likes of Penguin Books and Dark Horse.
“They got their following—got their fanbase—from the Internet,” Gilroy says.
Dark Horse is one of the places where Welsh hopes he ends up after the collaboration is published. When he approached the publisher about working as an artist, he was told he needed to prove himself with published clips. When he began to plot out the project in earnest, Welsh realized the undertaking was beyond his talents alone and set out to assemble a team.
His strength lay in drawing, so Welsh posted an ad on Craigslist in search of collaborators. That’s how he found Nichols—the story guy—and Vince Jordan, who’s in charge of dialogue for the book.
The three meet and talk shop every Thursday morning. They lay out Welsh’s sketches and discuss the story’s progression, overall plot, and recount any new developments that may be foreshadowed.
“He’s got kind of a Pandora’s Box sort of thing going,” Welsh says as he points to one panel where a character unwittingly releases the aforementioned deformed humanoids.
A few weeks after that meeting, Welsh scans his sketches and they’re ready to be traced in Photoshop with darker, bolder lines before they can be colored digitally, a process still known as “inking.” Jordan sits in a recliner in the Welshes’ living room, meticulously running a digital pen over a tablet as the lines magically appear on the MacBook in front of him. In addition to his role as the dialogue guy, Jordan’s also getting some experience in the production side of things.
“I’m a slave to the lines,” he says, his brow furrowed as he follows the strokes he produces on the screen.
Although the process is tedious at times, the end result is well worth it. In fact, Jordan, Welsh, and their fellow collaborators are often lost in their projects while time passes around them.
“Oh, right! I’m still in a body. I’ve still got to feed myself,” Jordan says when he remembers it’s been a while since his last meal.
Although the project has a dedicated “tracer” and “inker,” Jordan is doing it on his own to gain more experience in the craft. And for Welsh, that’s part of what makes the project special: it’s a learning experience for everyone.
Like so many artists before him, Welsh’s work has been inspired by the myths and stories he grew up with. One such influence is the Bible. Welsh says the beasts in his story are descendants of Cain, the elder son of Adam and Eve who slaughtered his brother Abel in vain.
Welsh’s goal in presenting his story is to keep some of it rooted in reality, even if it seems fantastical at times. “We don’t know half as much as we think we do,” Welsh says. “I’m far from a skeptic.”
It’s not just movies and books that inspire him. Some of Welsh’s characters are loosely based on people he’s met in real life. Often those characters will take on lives of their own, hardly resembling their real-world counterparts when it’s all said and done, but that doesn’t mean Welsh’s friends and family forget about the characters they consider theirs.
“My wife’s still like, ‘Is that my character? Is that her?’” he says. “She’s not as interested in comics as I am, but bless her heart she’s trying to be.”
Even though Welsh knows he and his team have made great strides toward creating their book, they’re still trying to break into a risky industry.
“You could end up doing The Avengers or you could end up in the quarter bin at the dollar store,” he says.
But at the end of the day what’s important is that Welsh is doing what he loves. He’s tried other lines of work but what keeps him happy is knowing he’s being creative.
“I keep ending up on the path of art,” he says.