Devin T. Quin writes for Bleeding Cool:
Somewhere in the mountains of New Jersey sits a scraggly ex-skater punk crankin' out comics about a cute girl fighting zombie Nazis riding dinosaurs, aided only by her pin-up model friend, some roller skates and a pair of leather moose antlers. This man is Steve Mannion, and he's that rare creature in the wilds of creativity known as the endangered, untamed American comics auteur.
Ya' see kids, there are two ways to make a comic book. The first method involves marketing meetings, editorial retreats and endless revisions. Let's call this method "The way things are." The purpose to creating comics in this fashion is to make titles that the board of directors can sell for licensing agreements, movie deals and toys. The comics themselves are just a by-product, the coal that fuels the fires on the money train that is merchandising.
Controversially, let's call the second approach "The Way Thing Were." This involves a snot nosed creator sitting in a dark room, forgoing all human contact and sanity to draw a comic so whacko he would want to read it, and hoping someone else might, too. These crazy, caffeine fueled monster-minds have only the pipe-dream of financial success, and nothing to lose.
One of these approaches has proven, time after time, to GROW the comics industry. From the independent boom of the 80's to the retro fun of the Silver Age, heck, even going back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, inventors of Superman and the modern superhero, good comics come from having fun and an earnest desire to entertain.
The other approach is simply treading water until market fatigue drowns us all.
For the past few years Steve Mannion has been writing, penciling, inking, lettering, often self publishing (or publishing through Asylum Press) Fearless Dawn and its predecessor title, The Bomb. It's the sort of comic which gets old timers excited and gives young whipper snappers a taste of the good old days. Reading Mannion's work is like drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola before they started taking the cocaine out. It's a well loved flavor, but with a forgotten kick.
Mannion's credentials are bona fide, a graduate of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Arts with a style reminiscent of the past, but very modern. Think Wally Wood meets Ed Roth as drawn by Mark Ryden. With a career spanning several decades, Mannion has worked for big publishers, small presses, worked-for-hire, sold pin ups and even gone digital through Comixology.
Lately, Steve has been kickstarting his books, and to sensational effect. His last two Kickstarters far exceeded every stretch goal they've set. His latest Kickstarter for his new comic book Fearless Dawn, Eye of the Beholder, had an initial goal of $6,800. By the end of the first day he had over $8,000. At the time of this writing it's hovering around $13,500, with the next stretch goal of $15,000 in sight.
Fearless Dawn follows its sassy, eponymous heroine as she battles atomic monsters and secret nazi science battalions in a beatnik, post-war America full of malts, hot rods and zombie roid-junkies….think Archie meets GWAR.
"Thank God comics have always had a clear icon of evil," remarks Steve on his Nazi antagonists. For a book with cyclopses, giant robots and mini-jets, Mannion insists "It's a simple comic. I don't know why I don't rein it in more?"
Prissy Jones was a good little girl who only wanted to avoid getting beaten up by her high school bully Betty, a.k.a. an alternate history Betty Page. Following the exercise regime which she mail-ordered from the back of a comic book, Prissy became toned, flexible and unflinching. Soon she discovers a trunk full of discarded bondage fetish gear, and selects the best to complete her transformation into the crime fighting teeny-bopper known as Fearless Dawn!
There's no small amount of "Good Girl" cheesecake in a Mannion book, but it always plays as nostalgia rather than pandering. Between the early issues and the current run, Mannion aged Fearless Dawn a few years because, as he put it, he "felt like a dirty old man drawing teenagers in their underwear." I mentioned during our interview that Jack Kirby could pencil five pages a day.
"Well," says Mr. Mannion, "He didn't have to draw the butts like I do. Butts are hard."
High speed hi jinx and chaos ensues, though lately Prissy has had to deal with darker themes. Having lost her best friend to a bullet, Fearless Dawn has a hard time reaping the harvest of free-wheeling violence she's been sowing throughout her teens. "I wanted to kill off Betty from the early "Bomb" days," says Steve on murdering the fan favorite support character. "When I got to the right panel I just thought 'Why don't I kill her here?'"
From the art to the story, nothing in Fearless Dawn is predictable. Mannion captures all of the fun from comics past while fueling the potential of the future. Fearless Dawn is moving, daring and superbly crafted.
Comics are at a crossroads. Print comics become increasingly irrelevant to a generation for whom digital medium is the norm, and whose first introduction to a super hero is through a movie. Independent comics struggle to find their audience amongst the clamor and noise of pop-culture. Sure, a lucky few creators find themselves overnight sensations through television adaptions or complete movie buy-outs, but most are simply scraping by. Others are sinking fast.
Mannion's star is rising. He has a gallery show coming up in Spain. He's been a spotlight creator in Diamond Selects on several occasions. WHAT is Mannion doing differently? What is the secret to comic book success?
There is no secret. If you are talented and have as much fun as you possibly can on your title, trying at all times to entertain yourself as much as your audience, it will show in the work. "I try not to police myself," say Steve. Whatever feels right goes in. No reviews, no marketing strategy meetings.
Maybe the biggest difference is the end product. Steve isn't trying to break into film through comics, he's trying to make the best comics available today. Steve Mannion believes in what he is doing, and believes in himself. Except for a small pin-up in Adam Warren's Empowered from Dark Horse, Steve has cut down on work-for-hire and commissions to focus entirely on his creator owned property.
I ask him about the runaway success of his books, and Steve laughs. "It blows me away," he says. Compare waiting months for Diamond or Comixology checks to the instant connection between crowdfunding that Kickstarter brings; the change is huge! No middle men, no lawyers. All the money goes to the original creator to support his family and continue putting out a pure product.
When asked about his future, Steve remarks "All signs point to Fearless Dawn."
This is not a man just working a job. He's not cranking comics out in a joyless 9-5, nor is he laboring in the pits of someone else's sandbox, where every decision is made in a boardroom and story lines are reworked based on selling out to Hollywood. This is an artist following his intuition, like a horse running wild.
It's just that Steve's intuition is to draw gun-molls tossing grenades at Panzer tanks, pirates and skeletons on the moon! KER-POW!
IT'S YOUR FUTURE, TOO
The Kickstarter for Fearless Dawn: Eye of the Beholder is going strong, but you can help. The more you crowdsource inspired comics, free-ranged from the controlled cages of global marketing departments, then the more you create a purer art form. The industry is once again changing, and there has never been a better chance for fans to dictate the market.
YOU deserve comic books made by madmen, comics crafted into bricks to be thrown through the windows of stagnation! If the dinosaurs of the publishing industry are more concerned with selling toys than publishing comics, it's up to the scurrying mammals of the independent world to keep the torch blazing for the next generation.
Freddy Mercury could have summed Steve Mannion up nicely. "He's for every one of us. Stands for every one of us!" If Steve Mannion wins, it is a victory for creative comics. If creative comics win, we all win.
–Fearless Dawn: Eye of the Beholder is being kickstarted at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stevenmannion/fearless-dawn-eye-of-the-beholder-comic-book
-More Mannion books are available at: http://www.asylumpress.com/titles/fearless-dawn/