The Comic Book Guy. You've seen him on The Simpsons. Mealy-mouthed and overweight, goateed with a short greasy pony tail, a Slurpee in one hand and an issue Aquaman in the other. It's hardly an image comic book creators revel in.
It's also terribly out of date.
Today, comic books are hip. Or, at least, popular. From the ballooning box office receipts of The Hulk, Iron Man and The Dark Knight ($966 million and climbing) to literary critiques in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, comic books (or graphic novels, if you prefer) have found a generation of serious readers and fans. And their writers and artists have found a new level of respectability.
Enter Ann Arbor's Jerzy Drozd and Mark Rudolph. Both are comic book writers/artists and neither fits the stereotype. Instead, these two unabashed fans are producing work that bucks expectations of how and where super heroes are created, and how to attract new audiences.
The story of how Drozd and Rudolph (both 33) came to collaborate follows an abnormal trajectory.
Both grew up in Mt. Pleasant in the 1980s and early 90s, losing themselves in old issues of Mad Magazine and "Silver Age" books like Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen and Metal Men. Enjoying their comics, and eventual interest in writing and art separately, the planets finally aligned when the boys first met in high school.
Drozd says, "At first we had a somewhat friendly/somewhat unfriendly competition between us. We were both huge fans of the Spider-Man comics, and we'd constantly try to outdo each other with illustrations of various Spidey characters. I'd be furious whenever Mark trumped me with a fantastic new piece."
The softer-spoken Rudolph refers to their competitive friendship as, "a strange rivalry."
Instead of falling into a DC Vs. Marvel-like epic battle for artistic/nerd supremacy, however, rights Drozd and Rudolph became fast friends. Still, the idea of professionally teaming up never occurred to them.
Drozd explains, "For most of our lives we worked independently, exploring our own styles and voices. I think it's an important thing for a young artist to do, finding one's own voice. I don't think I would have figured out what I wanted out of my work as easily if I was constantly deferring to a collaborator on aspects of the work with which I was not comfortable."
So instead, both pursued separate projects.
Drozd started humbly publishing his own books at age 19, but soon scored a job with Antarctic Press, and began working on their Ninja High School title. Through his career, he has collaborated with Tom Root of Robot Chicken fame, started his own imprint in Make Like a Tree Comics, and by 2006, had published his first graphic novel called The Front.
Inspired by the Saturday morning cartoons of his youth, Drozd also collaborated with Sara Turner on online and published comics with kids of all ages in mind, including books like The Replacements, Equalizers of the Divide, and Silver and the Periodic Forces.
Meanwhile, Rudolph was busily working as a record store clerk, designing album cover art for bands on progressive heavy-metal labels like Relapse Records, and from 1992 to 2001, he was co-editor and art director for extreme music magazines The Requiem and Eclipse. Inspired by the Jack Kirby-esque free-spirited, adventure themed books of the 1960s and 70s, Rudolph – under his CV Comics imprint – also published works like Closing Doors, Say it in Slugs, and Mulligan's Run.
But just as Batman was half as strong without Robin, or Lennon needed McCartney to finish "A Day In The Life," some of the best work that has come out of Drozd and Rudolph has been the result of their eventual collaboration.
Up until two years ago, both Drozd and Rudolph were working comfortably on their own projects, until it hit them: why not work together? Both were now living in Ann Arbor (Drozd moved to Arizona in 1999, but returned to Michigan in 2004), both had kept tabs on one another's work, and they had a shared aesthetic to create images that truly focus on storytelling.
Rudolph says, "In comics it helps to have more hands on a project to complete it faster, but more importantly, by joining our powers we create projects that are better/different than what we could have came up with on our own. We each have our own strengths that bring different ideas to the table."
Elaborating, Jerzy says, "Collaborating is also useful when developing and refining ideas, especially when you work with a creator with different strengths than your own. Mark is very good at coming up with stunning visuals for characters, while I tend to focus on the characters' inner lives before deciding on a look for them. By working together we can expedite the development of an idea by focusing on what we do best and leaving the rest to the other."
It's in their home basement studio, where the true nature of Drozd and Rudolph's collaboration becomes evident. Strewn with action figures and totems to 80s-cartoon nostalgia (the "Masters of the Universe" sheet hung on the wall is a nice touch), their do-it-yourself imagination workspace contrasts radically with the condo's conservative upper floor. The studio is filled with screen printing machinery and cutting boards, where both men create homemade and limited edition books. Their desks are covered with character sketches and storyboards. There is a computer in the corner, where Drozd and Rudolph update their online collection Sugary Serials – which Drozd describes as, "an all ages web and print comics anthology told in the style of Saturday morning cartoons." It includes such Drozd/Rudolph classics as Galactic League of Marshals and Switch Runners.
This is also where they do their weekly Art and Story podcast; a discussion of their experiences as professional and independent cartoonists creating work on their own terms.
The Incredible Mitten Men
But one has to wonder: why would anybody want to be a comics artist based out of southeast Michigan? Wouldn't New York or Los Angeles allot these two undoubtedly creative guys bigger and better opportunities?
Not so, they say.
Just as art and story are important to both cartoonists, so is community.
Drozd says, "It has been my personal agenda to create a scene in the Midwest."
How does one do that? Well, start with the youth, and move on up. In 2006 Drozd – with the occasional aid of Rudolph – began teaching comics workshops at libraries, public schools, and universities, including a six-week course at the Chelsea Public Library.
Rudolph says the classes are, "sharing the kind of knowledge that I wish I could have gotten from a more seasoned artist when I was a kid – give them a head start, so they hopefully don't have to make all the mistakes we did."
Plus, it can be assumed that with less competition in town, the kids can get the kind of attention they need to be turned into life-long comics fans.
It also doesn't hurt that both Drozd and Rudolph really enjoy living here.
As Rudolph explains, "I really like Michigan. I've lived in other states and Michigan has the right mix of what I want. [And] Ann Arbor is an epicenter of the arts in Michigan. It's close to Detroit and in my opinion, is one of the most happening places in Michigan. You've got two universities, all the shopping you'd need, but still has a smaller town aesthetic."
Still though, Rudolph offers some advice: "Southern Michigan has a great arts scene, but it needs a shot in the arm, like tax incentives for artist to stay here.
As soon as the economy begins to tank, the arts are the first thing to go. Creative types need a reason to stay."
Still, it's the small town aesthetic that ultimately keeps both cartoonists local; functioning as town criers for comic books and their benefits.
Drozd says, "We want to show kids that people who are into comics don't sit around eating candy and playing with toys all day. We want to evangelize comics, and show that there is a power and value in it."
Best. Quote. Ever.
Jerzy Drozd and Mark Rudolph are all over the Internet. Check out their work at Mlatcomics.com, Cvcomics.com, and Sugaryserials.com.
Ryan Allen is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. He has also contributed to Model D and Metromode. His previous article was A New Way To Work.
Jerzy Drozd and Mark Rudolph in Their Studio-Ann Arbor
Where the Magic Happens-Sugary Serials Drawing Board-Ann Arbor
Jerzy Drodz Hard at Work-Ann Arbor
Mark Rudolph Gets Paid for Having His Head in the "Clouds"-Ann Arbor
Examples of Sugary Works-Ann Arbor
COBRAS!!!!! Ssssssss-Ann Arbor
ALL PHOTOS BY DAVE LEWINSKI
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He hated the Deceptacons.