Superhero Worship

Armed only with their pens and their pit-bull protagonist, Rolando and Josue Matos sic Lycanthrope on Miami and the comic book world

"They fill a niche," opines Dan Leibow of Key Biscayne Comics, a local retailer who is high on Lycanthrope. "They feature Miami, a city whose problems have been well publicized -- maybe overly well publicized. They highlight critical issues from this culture dish."

Lycanthrope is the first title in a projected series of books published by Matos's company, Black Tiger Press, Inc. In the summer of 1992 Rolando Matos was the lead artist for another prospective Miami-based comic book publisher named Spectre Comics. Spectre, Matos says, had several artists and writers in its stable, financing in the low six figures, and was about to debut with four glossy, full-color books that would compete with the large independents. Lycanthrope was one of those books. Spectre's offerings were listed in one of the two leading catalogues for national comic book distribution, Capital City Distribution's Advance Comics. Orders from retailers around the U.S. began to arrive. Then came Hurricane Andrew, and suddenly Spectre's investors and staff had higher priorities than publishing a comic book.

Matos stayed with Spectre for a few months, but under the new circumstances decided he'd be better off going it alone. (Spectre, run by Bill Kennedy, who also owns the ABC Comics retail store in Kendall, kept its three titles, Modern Warriors, Nite and Day, and The Enforcer. Kennedy and Matos remain friends.) Taking Lycanthrope with him, he began the search for financial backing. Initially, he says, he hooked up with a smooth-talking wanna-be partner who promised to make Matos's character "bigger than the [Teenage Mutant Ninja] Turtles." In fact, Matos says, the prospective venture capitalist was surreptitiously trying to license the character outside of the U.S. without Matos's knowledge or permission. Then Josue, a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon at FIU, introduced biological brother Rolando to frat brother Carlos Veloz. The two formed an immediate bond. Veloz agreed to back the Matos brothers' efforts, albeit on a far more modest scale than Spectre's original plan.

With $5000 in seed capital (less than four percent of the backing Spectre initially enjoyed), the threesome launched Black Tiger Press from the living room of the Matos brothers' West Kendall townhouse, which serves as drawing studio, conference room, and office. On such a limited budget, color printing was out of the question. In February of this year the 5000-unit first edition of Lycanthrope was printed in black and white by Brenner Press of San Antonio, Texas. About half the copies of this first volume have been sold at $2.95 per issue. The second issue is due to be printed in July.

Matos draws the old-fashioned way, sketching everything with a pencil and then inking it all with a combination of Rapidograph drafting pens and crow quills, which resemble calligraphy pens with very fine points. Working alone he is able to draw an entire 22-page issue in about a month. While only one edition has been printed to date, Matos has completed two others and is nearing completion of the fourth and final book in the Lycanthrope miniseries. (A miniseries is the comic book equivalent of a television show's pilot episode; its primary function is to introduce characters to readers. If the characters catch on, the miniseries is expanded into a regular, open-ended series.)

Black Tiger Press is mounting a grassroots campaign to attract collectors and to establish its characters both within traditional comic book circles and without. While they negotiate with national comic book distributors such as Capital City, Carlos Veloz also has taken Rolando on the road to promote Lycanthrope at onventions, not to mention in-store appearances as far away as Houston and Carrollton, Georgia. Closer to home Matos has made personal appearances and autographed copies of his work at retail outlets.

While the book is not nearly as polished as the offerings of DC or Marvel A the quality of the artwork in Lycanthrope varies from amateurish to very good, and the captions could have used some proofreading (a mysterious figure with a strange scent "wreaks" of death) A the Lycanthrope character has strong appeal. Already Prepaid Telecommunication International, a Miami-based telephone calling-card company, has approached Black Tiger about the possibility of licensing the character. And Veloz is hard at work on a series of proposals to lure corporate sponsorship.

"I think they have good potential," asserts Leibow of Key Biscayne Comics. "They're very aggressive. They tour, they self-promote. They're personable; they love kids and the kids love what they're doing. If they can do around the U.S. what they've done here, they'll be extremely successful."

"What they're doing is tough work," amplifies Briggs. "In-store appearances. Living out of hotels. I wouldn't do it myself. But if they stick it out, they'll make it. We had lots of customers who bought the first issue when they came down here and really liked it, and now they're waiting for the second issue. The next time out, they might sell twice as many copies. And so on. You can't start a company like that without being motivated, and these guys are motivated."

For a recent Saturday-afternoon appearance at the Card and Comic Depot in Homestead, Rolando Matos and Veloz arrive promptly at 9:00 a.m. A few kids are already there; during the week leading up to this personal appearance, store owner Darryl Boyette has presold some four dozen copies paired with coupons good for a free Matos autograph. (Top comic book penmen are cult heroes. Thirty-two-year-old Todd McFarlane, who while drawing Amazing Spiderman for Marvel earned a salary many Fortune 500 company chief executives would have admired, is a prime example. When McFarlane and five other top artists left Marvel to start their own independent, Image Comics, the company became a major player in the market overnight.) A small crowd immediately forms at the Lycanthrope table set up in the back of the store. The baby-faced artist jokes and converses with the kids, most of whom approach him as shyly as if he were a sports star or a TV personality.

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