Forgotten dreams are often packed in cardboard boxes. That might explain a woman's white-knuckled grip as she approaches Elite Comics' counter on a Thursday afternoon in March.
"She thinks I'm selling her childhood," the woman says of her teenage daughter. The woman places a box on counter, where Star Wars action figures are piled like lobsters in a fish tank.
"You are," says owner William Binderup. "You're selling your own, too."
This scene, of mothers selling comics that are sealed in cardboard tombs, is all too familiar at Elite, which opened in an Overland Park shopping center in 1994.
Today, comics are no longer impulse items on a drugstore rack. That box could help the woman pay her mortgage. And the same kids who built those collections are now penning the most sought-after properties in pop culture. (The movie adaptations of Thor and Captain America together grossed more than $817 million worldwide in 2011.) Many of this generation's comic-book artists call Kansas City home.
A few feet from the woman's fidgeting teen is a rotating magazine rack filled with eye-popping covers: one with Wolverine's bloody claws sits next to one of a woman in a skimpy black vest standing in flames. Marvel scribe Jason Aaron wrote the former. The second title is Lovestruck, a fantastical look at love in the modern age. Released in November, Lovestruck is the second collaboration between midtown artist Kevin Mellon and writer Dennis Hopeless.
"My friends make fun of me because my plots are Mad Max meets Pretty in Pink," Hopeless says later by phone. "But I think it's easier to take a John Hughes character and throw it into a crazy world."
Hopeless is the latest Kansas Citian to quit his day job to write comic books full time. In October, the 30-year-old signed a contract with Marvel to author Legions of Monsters and X-Men: Season One, leaving his job as a graphic designer with BallyHoo Banners, an Overland Park sign shop.
Planet Comic-Con, taking place Saturday and Sunday, March 24 and 25, is expected to bring more than 5,000 comic-book fans to the Overland Park International Trade Center. They will come to meet Hopeless, a midtown resident; Aaron, who lives in Prairie Village; and actor Billy Dee Williams, who is just visiting. This year, the artists' alley at the convention will jump from 105 to 185 tables, almost a quarter of which will be occupied by local comic-book artists and writers whose works have graced televisions and movie screens and comic-book racks.
"We're still trying to figure out where to put all the tables," says Binderup, who is helping organize the convention with promoter Christopher Jackson. "I guess we'll be expanding into the atrium and hallway."
Last week, the Walt Disney Co. held its annual meeting in Kansas City. The meeting came 91 years after founder Walt Disney's first cartoon appeared on the screens of the Newman Theater at 1114-18 Main. Of course, both Disney himself and the theater are long gone. (Disney left Kansas City for California in 1923, taking with him Ub Iwerks, the cartoonist who created Mickey Mouse; the theater was demolished in 1972.)
For more than 50 years, California and New York were the only options for Kansas City kids with dreams of working in the comic-book business. One of those kids was Rick Stasi, who jumped off the garage at his family's home at 87th Street and Riley, in Overland Park, and bit through his tongue. The towel that Stasi wore like a cape in homage to Superman didn't give him the power of flight, but it did inspire his early stick-figure cartoons.
"I started drawing Superman stories," says Stasi, who drives a 1992 Trans Am that he calls his "Batmobile." I liked the idea that good wins in the end, and that I could help the helpless."
After graduating from high school in 1970, Stasi interviewed with DC and Marvel Comics. The twin titans of the comic universe wanted to know if he lived in New York City. When Stasi said no, the publishers wondered if he could take the train in from Brooklyn. Kansas City wasn't on their radar.
So Stasi followed the advice that he'd given to his students at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Shawnee Mission School District, places he taught for more than a decade. He went back to school and hit the convention circuit. Stasi recalls standing in line, portfolio in hand, hoping to catch an editor's eye. He found inspiration in the stories of other writers, such as Bruce Jones, a Kansas City native who moved to the Big Apple in the early 1970s and wrote for Conan the Barbarian and The Incredible Hulk.
Seven years after his dreams were crushed in New York City, Stasi heard from Dick Giordano, an editor with DC Comics, who offered him a chance to work on Warlord, an established comic about a Vietnam vet transported to a land of swords and sorcery. DC sent a script to Stasi in Kansas City. He inked the pages and mailed them back. But the pages got lost.
"My wife got a call from LaGuardia [Airport] a few days later," Stasi says. "A teenager had found the package. He said, 'I can't believe you killed that character on the last page.' "
The lost pages didn't derail Stasi's dreams. Over the next two decades, he drew Batman, Spider-Man and Tiny Toons.
As Stasi found professional success, Kansas City edged toward the limelight. In 1987, DC Comics made KC the setting of Doom Patrol. The superhero team was headquartered in Union Station and was drawn by local penciler Steve Lightle, whom DC had discovered in a talent contest three years earlier.
Stasi saw barriers to getting into the industry falling. He realized that he wanted to help local kids learn about the business of comics, and he started teaching storytelling and storyboarding at the Art Institute in 1990.
A promising young artist named Blair Butler was one of his first students. The daughter of longtime Kansas City Star film critic Robert Butler, she now is a writer and comic-book correspondent for Attack of the Show on the G4 cable channel. Butler has also penned Heart — a comic set in Overland Park about mixed martial arts — with local inker Mellon.
"I'm not a gentleman in a cage, but Heart is sort of a metaphor for me writing comics," says Butler, who bought She-Hulk comics from the quarter bin at Clint's Comics when she was younger. "It's about stepping up and doing that thing that seems terrifying because you're really afraid of failing."
The desire of comic-book creators to get better at their craft is both the driving force for what is happening in Kansas City and the reason that it's not a well-advertised fact. Most comic-book creators are working on a minimum of three projects at a time. That doesn't count the cocktail napkins, the pitches on editors' desks or the independent fundraising campaigns via sites such as Kickstarter. Mellon, 33, says the focus on creation, rather than promotion, is indicative of Kansas City.
"This town makes you seek things out," Mellon says. "There's a lot of talent making their way, doing their thing and being perfectly happy and content to do that. Without yelling really loudly, it's just about being really good."
Jason Aaron, 39, wasn't thinking about comics in 2000 when he moved from his home state of Alabama to Prairie Village to be closer to his sister. But in the last 12 years, Kansas City has become a hotbed for comic-book minds.
"I had no idea there was this great group of comic creators in Kansas City," Aaron says. "But we're right up there now. You see representations of all the major companies and guys writing independent graphic novels."
Even with an unforgettable beard, Aaron isn't often recognized in public. But he should be. He's one of the five "Architects" of the Marvel universe, the five comic brains responsible for determining the future editorial calendar of the world's biggest comic-book company (now owned by Disney). Another Architect, Matt Fraction (The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man), lived in Kansas City until a couple of years ago (he moved to Portland, Oregon). Aaron has worked on Ghost Rider; has released his own creator-owned comic, Scalped; and is the lead writer on Wolverine. He has carved out a career that aspiring comic-book artists point to as one they want.
"Comics is a very difficult business," Aaron says. "It's kind of like breaking out of prison. Once somebody figures out their way into the industry, that way is sealed up forever, and everybody else has to find their own way in."
Aaron's big break was a 2001 Marvel talent search. His pitch won him a contract to pen an eight-page Wolverine comic. His next project wouldn't come for five years, and he wouldn't work for Marvel for six years. During that time, he spent many hours at Elite, shopping for comics and looking for an escape from his job as a warehouse manager for Priscilla's.
"There's no union for comic-book guys," Aaron says. "We're spread all over the place. It's hard to get that insight from other creators."
Aaron still gets his books at Elite on Wednesday nights, when Binderup orders pizza to celebrate the weekly release of comics. (Binderup has made cameos in several of Aaron's comics as an injured or dying soldier.) Diamond, the distributor with a near monopoly on book distribution, delivers new issues to stores on Tuesdays, giving the staff a day to catalog and stock the latest stories. The names of Binderup's most loyal customers are on tabs behind his cash register, arranged like CDs in a record store. Many receive issues that emerge from collaborations forged over Wednesday-night pizza.
"It's like Love Connection," Binderup says. "I'm Chuck Woolery, and I tell everyone that gets work that the house gets 20 percent. I'm still waiting for my cut."
Jai Nitz, 36, is also an Elite regular. A graduate of the University of Kansas' screenwriting program, Nitz teaches a class called Comics & Film at KU. But as a high school student in the 1990s, he had hoped to find someone who shared his love of comics.
"I was the comic-book guy in my school," Nitz says. "There was nobody a year older or younger. There was just me. Today, a savvy 10-year-old could find out as much about comic-book creation in an hour as I could in years."
Like so many in Kansas City, Nitz owes his career to Disney. After writing Batman, Nitz was given a chance to write a graphic novel, Tron: The Betrayal, which he calls an "in-betweenquel." (The story was meant to bridge the 1982 Tron film and the 2010 sequel.)
Nitz's contract with Disney allowed him to leave his job at a payroll company. Today, he's a full-time writer at Dynamite, alongside Ande Parks, a native of Baldwin City, Kansas, who was an inker on Green Arrow and wrote Union Station, a graphic novel about the 1933 massacre of four federal agents and a prisoner at the Kansas City landmark.
Nitz is also the de facto organizer of a monthly lunch meeting of local comic-book creators. The lunches are designed to get them away from their keyboards and in front of other people.
"There are fewer professional comic-book writers than there are starters in the NBA," Nitz says, "and five of us got together for lunch the other day."
Hopeless frequents the lunches. It was Nitz who helped him get his start with Marvel. At a 2010 Chicago comic-book convention, Nitz introduced Hopeless to his current editor for X-Men: Season One.
"We look out for each other because that's what you do," Nitz says. "It's really just this Midwestern sensibility. We'd never do that in L.A. There, we'd shoot the other guy in the face and then stab him in the back."
Like Nitz, Hopeless studied screenwriting in college, graduating with a degree in English and a minor in radio-television-film from Kansas State University. While Nitz fully intended to be a comic-book writer, Hopeless wanted to make movies. There weren't many who shared Hopeless' passion in Kansas City in 2004.
Hopeless wrote scripts without much faith that they'd end up in production. So he sought solace in his first love and got a part-time job at Pulp Fiction Comics in Lee's Summit, his hometown. The owner introduced him to Mellon, and the duo formed a creative partnership that is still going.
"True collaboration is about bouncing ideas back and forth," Mellon says. "It's the act of discovering, that spark of figuring things out together and relying on each other for clues. It's never just as simple as drawing and writing."
Their first published creation was Gearhead, a four-issue series about a wrench-wielding girl hellbent on finding her missing brother. Mellon taught Hopeless how to letter, a skill he'd studied while attending the Kubert School in New Jersey, and they found a Russian colorist to help produce the pages. In 2006, they received an e-mail response from Arkana Publishing, which they initially dismissed as a polite rejection.
"It was about a week before we realized we had a contract," Hopeless says.
Gearhead was released in 2007. It appeared that Hopeless and Mellon had arrived. But the tricky thing about starting out in the comic-book industry is that the contract always ends.
After Gearhead was published, Hopeless wrote and pitched but received no offers. Now, he realizes that he wasn't offering editors a complete story because he didn't know the endings. Hopeless estimates that he wrote 900 pages before Lovestruck came out in 2011.
Meanwhile, Mellon dived into the freelance world. His break came two years ago, working on Deadline with local author B. Clay Moore (Hawaiian Dick, Superman). Now, Mellon's name is in the credits of the third season of FX's animated spy spoof, Archer, for his work as a part-time storyboard artist.
"I'm sitting there looking at the television, and it's surreal," Mellon says. "I can call my mom and tell her not to worry about me anymore."
Mellon believes that paying dues is what has earned him and Hopeless the respect of their peers.
"I think we struggled our way into that group of comic creators," Mellon says. "They just want to know that you're for real and you're serious — that you're not a hobbyist."
Mike Sullivan duckwalks slowly across the floor to a table of the Crossroads Coffeehouse. He stops to adjust his black bowler, with its green paisley ribbon. It's 10 a.m. on a Saturday: time for the weekly meeting of a loose collection of local artists, writers and comic creators called the Drawing Frenzy.
"I've lived in cities this size and in other places. There's one guy that makes comics, and everybody else just hangs on," Sullivan says. "Here, people want to produce things."
The 51-year-old, out-of-work computer programmer is in the middle of three projects: a weekly Web comic, a horror anthology, and a rainbow coalition of public-domain superheroes (forgotten characters with names like the Green Giant — not the jolly one — and Blue Flame). Sullivan, Ed Bickford and Steve Daniels are the organizers of the free drawing sessions, which pull in anywhere from a dozen to two dozen artists over a five-hour period.
Five years ago, this was a two-person gathering in a Lattéland at Briarcliff Village. The group then outgrew a Northland Borders and moved to the Crossroads space in 2010.
"I work in a warehouse," Daniels says. "In the summer, it's hot. In the winter, it's cold. But I leave that all behind on Saturdays. This is my freedom. Drawing is my freedom."
Each artist gets a crack at a jam, a drawing exercise that mashes up two different themes. On a recent Saturday, a white piece of paper is slowly being colored in with odd combinations of rock stars and pop-culture icons — a Rambo-Jimi Hendrix figure stands smiling next to a cartoonish amalgamation of Pee-wee Herman and Gene Simmons.
"This is just a big drawing family," says Shawn Geabhart, creative director for a local ad agency.
The sense of community is what led Matt Fox and Adam Smith, both 29, to move their comic-book partnership from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Kansas City a week after Christmas. The two are working on a Web comic, The Long Road to Valhalla, when they're not working as servers.
"We could have a day job anywhere," Smith says. "We couldn't find a community like this, though."
Although Smith's mother was born in Lee's Summit, the comic-book team had only a passing familiarity with Kansas City before moving here. What they did know were the names: Aaron, Mellon and Nitz.
"Comics are totally why we moved here," Smith says. "The city is great, don't get me wrong. But if there wasn't such an awesome comic-book scene, it wouldn't have been on my radar."
For the artists who are already here, the notion that somebody would turn to Kansas City for the source of their material is as satisfying as writing the source material itself.
"The idea that we have enough gravity to draw in people from other parts of the country is a testament to how cool this scene is," Nitz says. "You just want to find the others and hang out with them."
Off the page, Kansas City comic-book creators keep being drawn together.