Hawai'i artists up against industry's speeding bullet
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
In its first month of widespread distribution, Pineapple Man's eponymous independent comic locally outsold DC's Batman and Marvel's The X-Men, two of the most popular and enduring titles in comic history.
That's pretty impressive, especially when you consider that the secret origin of the distinctly Hawaiian hero had nothing to do with radioactive insects, mutated genes or exploding planets, but rather a distracted Kahuku High School student's desperate desire not to flunk his art class.
"I used to read comics in class all the time," recalls Sam Campos, Pineapple Man's creator. "So we had this anatomy assignment, and my teacher (Ted Urutani) said that if I wanted to pass the class, I had to come up with original characters with stories and histories, and everything. I only had the weekend to do it."
Pineapple Man the homework assignment eventually turned into Pineapple Man the comic book, illustrated by Campos and scripted by his wife, Genesis.
At the peak of its run, Pineapple Man was distributed internationally and received glowing accolades for its surprisingly serious art and story lines.
Then came the "but ..."
"The comic industry started slumping about six years ago," Campos says. "And I got into it right when that was starting."
Campos and other independent publishers say changes in the comics industry and the cost of self-publishing, the isolation of Hawai'i from Mainland deal-making centers and the cliquishness of comic artists all contribute to the difficulty they have in keeping afloat.
"The whole real-world thing is kind of up in my face at the moment," says Campos, who works a full-time job at an installation company by day and operates his own design business at night.
Campos' story is hardly unique. Over the years, dozens of local illustrators and publishers including those from the critically lauded No Talent comic line have dropped out of the comic business.
"It was really hard," Campos says. "We had no support, no answers to our questions. There were a lot of people I ran across who were standoffish or discouraging. It was sort of like crabs-in-a-bucket syndrome."
William "Doc" Grant, vice president of sales and marketing for Limelight Media (formerly Limelight Publishing) echoed Campos' take on the situation.
Limelight Publishing was one of the most successful independent publishers in Hawai'i, releasing several comic and graphic-novel lines from 1995 to 2001.
"There's a whole truckload of talented artists in Hawai'i," says Grant. "But they aren't organized, and a lot of them tend to be cliquish. They stay in little groups and don't like to interact much."
That, Grant says, only compounds the issue of Hawai'i's geographic distance from major markets on the Mainland, where it's easier for publishers and artists to make contact with fans, distributors and retailers on the comic conventions circuit.
"The problem is we're too remote to effectively promote our work to the public," Grant says. "It's not as convenient for people here to get out to all of the (conventions)."
Another inconvenience: getting indie comics distributed, when one company holds a near-monopoly over the medium.
Diamond Comic Distributors, which publishes the industry bible Previews, holds exclusive contracts with the largest U.S. comic producers, including Marvel, DC and Dark Horse.
To distribute nationwide, doing business with Diamond is a necessity. But it's not necessarily easy. "If you're an independent publisher, they'll gouge you any way they can," Campos says.
Diamond's vice president of marketing, Roger Fletcher, says the distributor provides independent publishers easy access to comic audiences through Previews and supports up-and-coming talents.
"If we feel a product has promise, based on its art or storytelling, we'll carry them for a while to help them gain an audience," he says.
According to Fletcher, Diamond buys comics for 50 percent of the cover price and sells them to retailers for 60 percent. "We make the smallest percentage of the sale," he says. "The problem for a lot of independents is they don't sell enough to cover their expenses. But to say that we gouge people, I think, is unfair."
Casting a wider Net
As it has for other industries, the Internet has provided local comic artists and publishers opportunities to bridge geographical gaps to potential audiences and contacts.
Campos and his wife operate an online magazine, Da Kine Zine, through their SoloGraphics design business. The site features new Pineapple Man art, as well as work from other local comic artists.
Limelight Media last year launched "Anime in the Limelight," a half-hour radio show on KUMU2 (1500 AM) dedicated to music from anime production. The Saturday show is a spinoff from a long-standing Limelight Webcast, offered via www.limepub.com.
The Web site offers RealAudio replays of Limelight's radio shows as well as the regularly updated Animeco magazine. The site gets up to 90,000 hits a month.
Limelight executives hope to get "Anime in the Limelight" into national syndication sometime in the next year. If all goes well, Limelight intends to make another stab at comic publishing.
Diamond "took comics out of the mom-and-pop stores and put them in exclusive specialty shops," Grant says. "So there isn't the same kind of access to comics as there used to be. Besides that, in the last few years, the number of specialty shops has declined from 10,000 to 3,000. At the same time, the price of comics has gone up to $2.50 or $3.95 an issue."
Grant wants to produce a line of 99-cent comics on hybrid-newsprint paper ("No foil covers or any of that fancy, expensive collector stuff"), complemented by a subscription-based Web page offering configurable panels for easy viewing and downloading.
With relatively low overhead costs for maintaining a Web site, Grant believes, a nominal annual fee per subscriber, around $10, could go a long way.
The challenge, Grant knows, would be in keeping up with content-production demands, which are greater in the online medium. Some of the old Limelight comics stalled because artists couldn't produce work on a regular schedule.
Ryan Kerns, a graphics arts student at Windward Community College, spent years pursuing publishing venues for his comic illustrations. While the rewards were modest, he found that maintaining a Web presence helped him ferret out opportunities.
"Living in Hawai'i, you have hardly any chance of breaking into comics the traditional way because you can't attend the conventions," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "The way it used to be is you take your portfolio to a convention to be evaluated by the pros.
"The Internet does really close the gap. I've won all sorts of online art contests, even a Japanese one."
The Internet also provided Kerns with access to like-minded artists. Through "fan art" sites, Kerns was able to refine his style which melds such disparate influences as "Garfield" artist Jim Davis, X-Men illustrator Jim Lee, and Japanese anime with the likes of future professional comic artists like Long Vo and Robert DeJesus.
"During those early days, I was completely devoted to my art and made some money, mostly working for writers looking to send a proposal to a publisher," Kerns says. "They look for young artists who work for cheap, but with the prospect of being a regular artist if the comic is approved."
While Kerns is now working toward a degree in graphic arts, he says, the potential for an industry-shaking movement in the direction of online publishing is still there.
Kerns points to Image Comics, which started out as a collective of young artists, as cause for optimism. "I see the open possibility for another comic movement of that caliber in online comics," he says. "The talent is definitely out there. It's just a matter of finding someone with the incentive to gather it all together."
A vibrant Dead Tree
Part of the frustration local independent artists and publishers feel stems from the realization that Hawai'i is, in many ways, particularly fertile ground for budding artists.
"There's a kind of cross-cultural awareness here, and a lot of kids here grow up familiar with anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comic books)," says Campos, who used to teach a class in comic illustration for the University of Hawai'i's continuing education program. "That kind of art is just getting popular on the Mainland, but I saw a lot of it in my class. I think a lot of artists here got a head start in that way."
That's certainly true for Edwin Ushiro, a Maui-born artist who now does concept work for television and film.
"A lot of other kids started with Marvel and DC," says Ushiro, who earned a degree in fine arts from Arts Center College of Design in California. "But my grandmother lived in Japan, and she would send me manga books."
During a trip to San Francisco, Ushiro and his friends from college started talking about how much fun they each had making their own comics in high school.
One thing led to another, lightbulbs appeared above heads, and the group Ushiro, Matthew Carver, Tony Ianiro, Steven Redd, and Patrick Williams decided that what was once fun could and should be fun again.
The five organized themselves under the name Dead Tree Books a commentary on the moribund state of the contemporary comic and began publishing their own books.
Dead Tree has released five comic anthologies since its inception in August 2001. Pressings are small, and the independently handled distribution is limited. Still, the comics have attracted attention at regional bookstores and comic conventions.
Ushiro's lifelong interest in comic illustration was good preparation for his present work with clients such as Warner Bros., Touchstone Pictures, NBC, CBS, 20th Century Fox and the Jim Henson Co.
Campos also has tapped his comic background (and real-life martial-arts experience) in his work for various film productions.
Still, they, like many other local artists and publishers, hold out hope that independent comics from Hawai'i will find a niche in an industry in need of fresh voices.
"Like I always tell my students, there will always be a place for another good comic. You just have to find a way to get out there. It's that easy and it's that hard."