Superhero Worship

Another sunny day in downtown Miami. A playful eight-year-old tags along with her mother on a shopping trip. When Mother stops to take a closer look at something, bored daughter wanders off. By the time Mom realizes her little girl is no longer at her side, it's too late. As inevitably as lions attack the baby zebra who strays from the herd, human predators abduct the wayward tot. But no! Just when it appears she has become yet another tragic casualty of Miami's mean streets, a mysterious hooded stranger in black ninja garb drops out of the sky and blocks the would-be kidnappers' path. Without a sound the stranger strikes, wordlessly running the thugs through with a pair of razor-sharp swords. The terrified little girl watches the carnage in shock, cowers as the deadly stranger turns to face her. But more violence is the furthest thing from his mind. He takes her gently by the hand, hoists her onto his back, and carries her to safety. Mission accomplished, he vanishes into the bowels of downtown's seamy underbelly as wordlessly as he materialized.

Kidnapping. Rape. Murder. Home invasions. Child molestation. AIDS. Poverty. Drugs.

This is one dangerous and screwed-up world we live in. You aren't safe in your own home (assuming you've got one); the streets are a jungle. Miamians could really use a guardian angel -- and not just the unarmed kind who wears a spiffy red beret and tries to look intimidating.

What we need is a protector of the bulletproof, omniscient, superhuman variety. Preferably one with the grace of a ninja, the ferocity of a pit bull, and Dirty Harry's willingness to resort to deadly force.

Someone like the mysterious stranger in black.
Enter Kendall resident and FIU photography major Rolando Matos, a onetime U.S. Army Ranger with bad knees from the 63 jumps he made while in the Airborne and a fondness for pit bulls that blossomed while he worked for a breeder during an eighteen-month tour of duty in Alaska. Matos is a walking contradiction, a twenty-seven-year-old man who looks like a nineteen-year-old kid; it's hard to reconcile the sensitive artist whose acrylic-on-canvas still life of a floating chair placed second in a national scholastic art competition during his senior year of high school with the street fighter who broke his nose in a barroom brawl in the army. Unlike the rest of us who daydream from time to time about taking action, Matos has actually done something. He has created Lycanthrope, the half-man, half-pit bull superhero who prowls the streets of Miami in Volume 1, Number 1 of the comic book of the same name. (Pronounced like-an-thrope, the word derives from the Greek lykos for wolf and anthropos for man, and is defined as a sufferer of a kind of insanity in which the victim imagines himself to be a wolf or other wild beast.)

"I always wanted to do something about issues like AIDS, homelessness, and missing children," says the former soldier. Rolando came up with the idea for the character and does all the drawing; his 22-year-old brother Josue, a junior majoring in education at FIU, contributes to the storylines and dialogue. "I used to have this friend, a Vietnam vet with all kinds of medals," the elder Matos recalls. "His family had just turned their backs on him when he came home from the war. He was homeless, but I don't think he was a drug addict or anything. When I met him, he was living in the park behind IFAC [the International Fine Arts College near the Omni, where Matos once studied drawing and design]. One day he just disappeared. I kept going back to the park to see if he was okay, but he never came back. You always hear about homelessness, but when you know somebody like that, it really affects you. I always wondered what happened to him, and the character of Lycanthrope sort of evolved out of that."

Matos's hero roams the shadowy maze of downtown, fighting for runaways, orphans, homeless veterans, and anyone else he feels has been victimized by an uncaring society. Lycanthrope is violent (the artist insists his book is far less graphic than the norm), but social concerns are emphasized throughout the comic's pages. Example: graffiti scrawled on the walls of this cracking, crumbling community does not convey typical gang bravado, but the words "Get high, get stupid, get AIDS." And the artist has included another altruistic feature A public service ads for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a runaway hotline, and the National AIDS Research Center. The superhero with the social conscience is nothing new in comic book country. What is unique is the extent to which Matos works his personal crusade into his art.

It's a strange and ambitious mix, this mingling of local setting, martial-arts heroics, and humanitarian sentiment. At least one retailer who sells Lycanthrope thinks it distinguishes the locally produced comic from the crowd. "I think it's very innovative," says Bobby Briggs, proprietor of Legends Comics and Cards in Houston, Texas. "It's not just a bunch of good guys with superhero powers flying around and beating people up."

"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.

The initial logjam soon trails off into a steady trickle. A thirtysomething woman and her ten-year-old son eye Matos cautiously from the front of the store, unable to decide whether to approach. Boyette intervenes, offering a capsule summary of the Lycanthrope plot line, emphasizing Black Tiger's local roots, playing up the free autograph angle. The boy purchases a copy and the two somewhat warily make their way to Matos's display.

"Did you do the shirt?" the woman blurts, referring to the silk-screened pit bull on Matos's T-shirt. (He didn't.) She blushes. The artist smiles reassuringly.

Autograph secured, mother and son make their way out of the store, pausing briefly to ask Boyette one final question. "Should he keep it in the plastic?" Mom asks, referring to the clear bag in which the book is enclosed.

"I would just not read this one," advises Boyette. "Put it away."
At 3:00 p.m. Veloz and Matos fold up their display and head home, Matos to Kendall, Veloz to Miami Lakes. A dozen customers show up after Black Tiger has departed and drop off their copies with Boyette. Matos has agreed to a return visit during the week to autograph the latecomers' books.

Boyette is pleased with the response Black Tiger has generated on the strength of the debut issue. "Meeting someone who's done something like this is real exciting for the kids," he says. "Roly's great with kids. A lot of them went back there and talked to him and came out waiting to buy the second issue. To have something done about Miami, produced in Miami -- that's really original. The books that have sold well have been the ones with a solid grounding in reality to match the fantasy element. Lycanthrope has that going for it. They're gonna do well, especially if they pay more attention to the details of the writing."

"Most people have no idea what a huge business comic books have become," says Greg Loescher, a member of the comic book cognoscenti. "Last year Marvel's newsstand titles grossed $133 million. That's more than TV Guide, People, or the National Enquirer. When I was a kid, you could go out and buy one copy of every comic book on the shelf for a couple bucks. Today it would cost you more than $1200."

Loescher, who is publisher of Comics Buyer's Guide, a catalogue and retailer's source book widely regarded as the marketplace bible, estimates that more than $700 million worth of comic books was sold last year. That figure does not include licensing, movie rights, or corporate sponsorship, which would push the total well into the one- to two-billion-dollar range. A severe case of sticker shock awaits old fogies who can remember trundling off to the corner drugstore and plunking down twelve cents to catch up on the latest exploits of Sgt. Rock, Captain America, or Archie, Betty, and Veronica. Today's comic book commonly retails for $2.95.

Like any billion-dollar industry, it's a tough market for a little guy to crack. The two traditional giants of comic book publishing, DC and Marvel, account for roughly two-thirds of the product on retailers' shelves. Four other large independents (i.e., any comic book publisher besides DC and Marvel) share another quarter. That leaves about one-fourth of the overall marketplace for the hundreds of small books published nationwide. James Eisele of Capital City receives twenty or more submissions per month from small independents seeking national distribution. "It's real tough for the independents right now," he empathizes. "There are a lot of kids out there with very little talent putting out books. If you're just starting out, have nobody famous working for you, with no money for publicity or promotions, the odds are bad."

As if that weren't discouraging enough, the comic book industry as a whole has been undergoing something of a correction in the past two-and-a-half years. (Purists can be forgiven for wincing at the appearance of the words "comic book," "industry," and "correction" in the same sentence.) As Leibow of Key Biscayne Comics explains it, after the stock market crashes of 1987 and 1989, many investors pulled their money out of equities and began putting it into a variety of collectibles. Comic books were an early beneficiary of these skittish yuppie dollars. There was an explosive proliferation of interest, and new stores popped up in every strip mall from Key West to Spokane. Big publishers offered incentives to dealers -- limited-edition runs featuring special covers with gimmicks such as gold print or holograms -- to stock as many copies of their books as possible. Initially the collector demand for these limited editions reached such a pitch that a dealer could sell the limited edition for enough money to pay for the 200 or 300 extra copies of the issue he was ordering. The cycle peaked in late 1991. Inevitably, though, oversupply led to dumping. Retailers attending conventions and offering their books at ten cents on the dollar became a common phenomenon. The dumping cast a pall over the previously go-go market. Retailers who thought they could ride the gravy train forever were rudely awakened to the realities of supply and demand. Stores went under. Collector interest waned. Production runs dropped. It became harder than ever for a new comic -- especially from a small independent publisher -- to break in.

For every Rocky, there are a thousand club fighters out there risking brain damage. And how many garage rockers have left school or quit their jobs with visions of Nirvana dancing in their heads? In the comic book business, the role model for all the independents, the archetypal underdog that defied the odds to become not just a successful comic book but a pop culture phenomenon, is that gallant green band of pizza-loving rogues, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, once upon a time Mirage was a small, independent publisher, making the rounds of conventions and autograph signings.

Rolando Matos knows that Turtle-level success is a long shot, yet he maintains a stoic optimism. "My father thinks I'm crazy," he admits. "He thinks what I'm doing is nonsense. My mother's more understanding, but I wouldn't say she really approves of it. And when I told my grandmother I was being interviewed for this story, she said, 'Are they gonna give you a job?'"

Black Tiger tortoise-steps forward, and Matos plugs away, working full-time as a security guard for FPL, pursuing a fine arts degree at FIU, drawing at night, and signing autographs and attending conventions on the weekends. The workaholic college senior sleeps an average of two hours per night; his idea of fun is attending his thrice-weekly kung fu class.

"I have to call TeleCompanions just to talk to a woman other than my mom," he admits sheepishly. "I have no social life. This book is my life."

Somewhere, crouched in the shadow of a building in the recesses of downtown Miami, a reclusive half-man, half-pit bull understands, and patiently awaits the day when he can come to Rolando Matos's rescue.


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