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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.