Oklahoma Fertile Ground 10

for Burgeoning Field of Graphic Novels

When comic books first became popular in the 1930s, they were greeted with skepticism at best, and outrage at worst. Many failed to spot the potential impact of a fledgling art form that would continue to evolve and hook new readers for the better part of the century. Today, one need look no further than the Marvel movie franchises or the extravaganza of Comic Con each year to recognize the enduring popularity of sequential art—and no further than Oklahoma to find outstanding examples of the medium.

“At our shop, we call comics the gateway drug to literature,” says Charles Martin. Martin is the creative director of Literati Press Comics & Novels and its accompanying book shop, located in the Paseo Arts District of Oklahoma City, as well as the author of several graphic novels. “I’m sure we’ve stolen that from somewhere, but it is true. Comics are immediate and accessible in a way that neither art nor fiction can be.”

Martin says that at the heart of our passion for comics lies the human craving for stories. Comics creator Jeff Provine agrees. Provine teaches the History of Comics to incoming freshmen at the University of Oklahoma and is the author of alternate history and horror comics as well as web comics and novels, and says the lure of sequential art for the imagination is powerful.

“Stories are always gripping, thanks to their ability to draw in readers by the imagination and emotions,” he says. “I think this is especially the case with graphic novels, since humans are such visual creatures. While films have images, too, they also have special effects and music to contribute, which is great, but graphic novels require the reader to engage their own imaginations stimulated by the images and text.”

While there is a common perception of comics and graphic novels as forms of entertainment, the medium also lends itself to more practical applications. Jeremy Short, professor and Rath Chair in Strategic Management at OU’s Michael F. Price College of Business, is the author of the Atlas Black series of graphic business management textbooks. A voracious consumer of comics who cut his teeth on Classics Illustrated versions of such titles as Moby Dick, Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities, Short was seeking a more compelling and affordable alternative to the traditional textbooks found in college classrooms.

“You might find this surprising, but having taught college classes for over two decades now, I’ve learned that many students describe college textbooks as (1) boring and (2) overpriced,” Short says. “So my colleagues and I set out to create works that were the opposite. At the same time, I know I (and my students) love to hear business stories as evidenced by popular movies and TV shows (“The Office,” “Office Space,” “The Big Short,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) so I wanted to find a medium that incorporated these storytelling aspects as well.”

“You can do anything in a comic book,” says Oklahoma graphic novelist Jackson Compton, author of Illustrated Girl and Nadir’s Zenith, among other titles. “ANYTHING. If it can be imagined, it can be drawn. This is a medium where any idea can and will come to life, no matter how silly or complex. Sequential art is where it happens.”

If you can do anything in a comic book, you can also do it anywhere, as members of Oklahoma’s thriving comics community can testify.

“Oklahoma is pulsing with potential in sequential art,” Provine says, listing some of the state’s local comics superheroes. “Several members of Oklahoma Comics Creators [a local collective of sequential art authors and artists] have made it their full-time jobs, such as illustrator and artist Jerry Bennett, who created the famous Ghostbusters/Admiral Ackbar “It’s a trap!” T-shirt. Natasha Alterici has won a pile of awards for her comic Heathen and does work on DC’s Gotham Academy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Oklahoma is capable.”

Rob Vollmar, book review editor for World Literature Today magazine and author of the Eisner Award-nominated Castaways, has watched the transformation of the state’s sequential art community over the years.

“Oklahoma’s local scene is so rich now in comparison to when I started working,” Vollmar says. He believes the key to helping Oklahoma’s graphic storytelling environment continue to flourish is to support your friendly neighborhood comics store.

“The best thing anyone wanting to support local talent can do is to get to know the folks at their local shop and support their stocking of locally generated material by purchasing it, or encouraging them to start by indicating that you’re interested,” he says. His colleagues are in vigorous agreement.

“If you want to nurture the local scene, then buy from independent creators at either cons or local comic book shops,” Compton says.

“If local readers want to nurture the scene, the first step should be to shop at local comic book shop that supports local comic book creators,” Martin says. “When you are loading up on Marvel, Image, DC or Dark Horse titles, ask the clerk for recommendations. Take a chance and know that those small purchases do make a difference.”

Like so many other art forms, comics and graphic novels also have launched into the digital realm. Martin recommends that fans consider starting an online reading account through such services as Comixology, an online reading platform for sequential art, if they want to support local authors and artists.

“I can tell you, those digital sales rack up and nothing pushes sales faster than social media,” Martin says. “Digital comics are good impulse buys, so if you find a title you like, advocate for it to your friends who also know what’s up. Comments on Goodreads, Amazon, Comixology and other online stores go a long way toward legitimizing our work.”

Oklahoma’s comics creators also have some advice for aspiring authors.

“Comic book scripts are simple to write when compared to novels, but the art is a massive endeavor,” Martin cautions. “Even for a 24-page comic, the artist must create over 100 individual pieces interlocking to form pages that keep setting, characters and stylistic elements consistent while also telling a compelling visual story. When new writers contact us with their ideas, I tell them that the biggest hurdle in the process is finding an artist who believes in your idea and is able to execute this Herculean task of bringing that script to life. And they must pay them well. Editors and artists are the biggest expenses of production, which comes as a shock to new writers. But if you skimp on either, the end product will be unsellable. This is as true for novels as it is for sequential art.”

“Comics have a way of reaching us throughout our lives, from childhood to adulthood, if we are diligent about searching out material that is relevant to our current concerns and state of development,” Vollmar says. “The only limit to diversity is our imagination in seeking out creators who are eager to share their vision of the world with us through their comics.”

Tara Malone is a freelance writer and former Norman resident who currently lives in Oklahoma City.