The Amazing Adventures of Metro Detroit's Comic Industry

Here in this Never Neverland of ink-stained imagination, mashed with equal parts geek pride, conflicted heroism, psychosexual baggage and a bunch of strung-out, nature-defying plot twists straight out of some pre-pubescent daydream, Dan Merritt finds art in its truest form.

A comic book is "just like a piece of art behind a frame," says Merritt, owner of Green Brain Comics in Dearborn ("A brightly lit store, where you won't bump into creepy people," he says). "We're really trying to change the thinking from what people think comics are to what comics actually are."

In Michigan, that means a new wave of fiercely independent and exquisitely unique graphic novels that are gaining national prominence.

"There's a lot of people in this state that publish their own stuff," says Merritt, pointing out that most area mini-comic creators like Jane Irwin (Vogelein) and Matt Feazell (The Amazing Cynicalman) have day jobs in addition to their artistic pursuits.

To appreciate comic books, especially those being produced by homegrown local artists, you don't have to know the name of that kangaroo-dinosaur looking thing that Han Solo sliced open and stuffed Luke Skywalker in, you just need a willingness to explore this world for a spell and more than a little sense of whimsy.

"I'm really trying to get people to look at it as another art form," Merritt says.

Take a brief glance at who's doing what around here, and you won't write that statement off as mere nerd worship. Michigan is home to a surprising number of comic book artists, gurus, big names, what have you, but in true geek fashion, they exist to the rest of the world mainly on the Internet, communicating with their publishers and fans through blogs and Facebook. 

There are established names like Guy Davis, who draws B.P.R.D., the sequel series to Hellboy, for publishing biggie Dark Horse Comics, and dedicated independents like Hamtramck mini-comic creator Matt Feazell, creator of The Amazing Cynicalman

"There seems to be a lot of us here in Michigan who are working," says Dave Petersen, Ferndale resident, artist and creator of the award-winning Mouse Guard series.

If you're not familiar with Petersen, 31, or Mouse Guard, don't worry – chances are you will be. The elegantly drawn epic ditty about some heroic mice has won two Eisner Awards (the comic book equivalent of an Oscar) and has a nationwide following among pre-teens and adults. The second hardcover book in the series is expected this summer.

On a recent stifling early summer night, Petersen stood inside the Vault of Midnight in Ann Arbor among a small crowd of teenage girls in blue eyeshadow, middle-aged men in hipster wear and others in between to celebrate the recent release of his friend Jeremy Bastian's new book, the stunning Cursed Pirate Girl for the small publisher Century Guild.

Like Petersen, Bastian is not only generating a lot of buzz with Cursed Pirate Girl (Hellboy creator Mike Mignola has called it "genius."), he too is a native Michigander who does his art from his home in Michigan, not lured by the larger markets in Chicago or New York. "I've been to New York a couple of times, and I absolutely hated it," says Bastian, who lives in Salem Township.

About four years ago, inspired both by Petersen's Mouse Guard and Alice in Wonderland, Bastian self-published his story of a vivacious little girl claiming to be a pirate. After shopping it around at comic book conventions, he caught the attention of Century Guild.

Bastian thinks Michigan's easily accessed wilderness informs a lot of the art he sees coming out of local comic creators. Unlike the graffiti-inspired art you see in New York and Los Angeles, he says, "I'm much more into looking at a twisty, knotty tree and drawing little gnomes coming out of it."

Petersen, too, says he loves the Michigan outdoors and doesn't feel his success is predicated on leaving the state. "Things are such that you don't have to live anywhere near the publisher," he says. "As long as I have an Internet connection, I could live in a cave."

Petersen, Bastian and Ann Arbor-based comic artist Katie Cook have started a group called "Ink 'n' Stein," in which area comic artists meet at a pub to bounce ideas off one another, work or just drink. As Petersen puts it, "I need to get out of my basement sometimes."

Cook, 27, draws for the site and is also a toy designer. She says the vibe among Michigan artists is more down-to-earth than in some of the larger markets. "There are some people who think you have to live in California to be in the entertainment industry," she says. "You don't have to live in New York anymore. You don't have to live in California anymore. You can just stay at home and draw comics."

Davis says he doesn't know of any comic book artist who feels they have to move to a big market to work. "I think the company bullpen of artists, where they would have to be under the publisher's roof to get work done, is a thing of the past," he says. "I've always worked in Michigan since I grew up here. I work out of a studio in my home, and between FedEx and the Internet I can send my artwork anywhere that it needs to be printed. … E-mails between editors is even more the norm than a phone call these days."

If Michigan doesn't seem like the hub of any comic book scene right now, you should have seen it in the 1970s and '80s, says Merritt of Green Brain Comics. "At one time, the Detroit area was one of the biggest markets for comics," he says. "It was a market grown on a wartime economy. It had a little more of, let's say, down-to-earth people who were looking for that form of escapism."

According to Lauren Becker, owner of Warp 9 comic shops in Clawson and Auburn Hills, the area was home to three major direct distribution companies: Capital City, Friendly Frank's, and Diamond Comics. 

The region also was home to Marvel luminary Jim Starlin (Warlock, Captain Marvel), fantasy artists Greg and Tim Hildebrandt --who are best known for their Lord Of The Rings paintings, not to mention the original Star Wars poster-- and Gary Reed, who launched Calibre Comics in 1989. The imprint was best known for Deadworld and The Crow, which Reed co-created with Guy Davis.

Even though artists like Davis and Geoff Johns work for the "Big Two" (Marvel and DC), a large bulk of comic creators in Michigan today are self-publishers. 

The comic book market started to suffer in Michigan and nationwide in the mid-1990s, due partially to competition from bookstores as distributors of graphic novels, which were finding a more mainstream audience. This led to distributors consolidating or going out of business. Today, only Diamond Comics remains in Michigan, says Becker.

Comic book shops in the area have seen a thinning customer base in the last few years, an expected side effect of a flagging local economy. In addition, comics are often released with the goal of being collected into a trade paperback or graphic novel to be sold by major bookstore chains or Amazon.  That's prompted a lot of comic book shops like Green Brain to focus more on hosting events like artist signings and book release parties.

Brian Kelly, co-owner of Detroit Comics in Ferndale, says he's tried to tailor his store to be more welcoming to comic neophytes and to appeal to what he sees as the new comic book audience: older and more professional than in years past. "Comics are more expensive now," he says. "The stories are more geared to adults rather than kids. … The industry as a whole has come full circle."

Besides, things have changed since Kelly was a young geek. Now middle-class kids and professional adults sport Marvel brand T-shirts with pride. "When I was a kid," he says, "you got beat up for that shit."
Merritt, meanwhile, hasn't given up on the youth market for comics, something he sees as integral to the comic industry's survival. To that end, he and comics writer Dan Mishkin, librarian Edith Burney, and cartoonist Jerzy Drozd earlier this month hosted a two-day event in Chelsea called "Kids Read Comics", probably the first comic book convention geared toward kids and teens.

"Ninety-five percent of my clientele is over 20," says Merritt. "Kids do read comics, but not as much as they used to."

Interestingly, Merritt may find a ray of hope right in his own backyard; Petersen says Mouse Guard has a huge following of elementary school teachers and librarians. It seems many of them believe the potent blend of good, evil, and epic heroism is a quality introduction to studying mythology in later grades.

Petersen is amazed by that assessment, especially since he always heard Star Wars was previously considered the introduction to mythology for the elementary set.

He smiles at the thought. "Maybe I'm their pre-'Star Wars.'"

By the way, if you care to know, that kangaroo-lizard thing that saved Luke Skywalker's life was called a "Tauntaun."

Megan Pennefather is a Royal Oak-based freelance writer. Her previous article for Metromode was John Fetterman's Rustbelt Revival.

If you want to geek out on your own, metro Detroit has loads of opportunities: