If you're the parent of a child who's a voracious consumer of comic books, don't make the mistake of worrying that he or she won't grow up to be anything. That child could, after all, grow up to be an artist. Or an educator. Or a detective. Or ... a superhero.
At least, those are a few of the career titles held by Dominic Velando and Jarrett Crippen, two adult comic-book lovers who will be presenting workshops at this year's QC Planet Comic & Arts Convention on July 13. The fifth-annual event will, of course, boast dozens of comic-book, action-figure, and graphic-art vendors with publications and collectibles for sale, plus adult and children costume contests and a silent auction held throughout the day. But it will also feature educational presentations by Velando and Crippen, who, in a pair of recent interviews, shared some thoughts on public art, eccentric teachers, Stan Lee, and the perils of aging into one's Spandex.
The Student Becomes the Teacher
"I'm a Ninja Turtles kid," says Davenport artist Dominic Velando, "and I kind of grew up during the '90s comic boom when X-Men and Spider-Man were really huge. Between the Saturday-morning cartoons - and those same cartoons were also pretty hot in terms of their comics - and the Batman movies coming out, the '90s were a good time for comic kids."
Consequently, for Velando, "being a comic-book artist, at that time, was kind of the pinnacle of what you could do when you grew up. It was one of those glamorized careers, like being a rock star or being an astronaut. At least for me and a lot of the people around me."
You might, therefore, presume that Velando created comic books of his own as a kid. If so, you'd be right. And you might presume they were superhero adventures like the comics and cartoons he grew up loving. If so, you'd be wrong.
"It was mostly me degrading existing teachers," says Velando with a laugh. "It was me taking our teachers and poking fun at them.
"I mean," he continues, "they were doing the best they could. They were trying to deal with us. But some of these people were just, you know, living cartoons. And when you're in junior high and high school, all you do is pick up on the eccentricities of your teachers. So I would take those and magnify them in comics. And everyone really wanted to read them. People would look forward to me coming out with my comics because they already knew all the characters."
Presently, however, Velando has to be hoping there's no such thing as karma - at least if he doesn't want some enterprising young artist to make a comic book of him.
"I've been kind of steeped in the profession of being a teacher my whole life," says Velando, who has taught courses on comic-book art for numerous area venues, including the Figge Art Museum, for the past decade. "My dad was a teacher in the Davenport school system for over 30 years, and he was a martial-arts teacher. And my uncle teaches comics, and even develops curriculums all the way up to college-level based on learning about comics. So it comes pretty naturally to me."
Velando attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, but his career as an educator, he says, began "with Quad City Arts. I apprenticed during their summer Metro Arts program, and I became of age where I was eligible to help lead one of those classes. So I actually joined forces with my uncle, and two years in a row we taught the art of making comics, and ended up creating published works both of those years.
"Then I picked up at Rivermont Collegiate," he continues. "They were interested in doing a summer camp, and the art teacher there, Colleen McCarty, knew me from high school, and said to them, 'Call that guy if we want somebody to teach comics.'
"And I'm currently at the Family Museum, which is really inspiring. I've been able to do some pretty cool creative stuff there that's kind of lined up with what I do as a freelance artist, which is mostly murals."
The artist's large-scale artworks will be recognizable to guests of Davenport's STACKD Fitness or Bettendorf's Gravity Fitness Center, where Velando's colorful figures and images grace workout-room walls. (Samples of his work can be seen at DomVelando.com.) And if you've been to Davenport's Main Street Library, you can't help but be wowed by the "Imagine the Possibilities" murals decorating its walls and support beams - artworks that, during their creation, allowed Velando a dialogue with his audience.
"Showing up every day," says the artist, "and getting up on a ladder in front of everybody, and talking to people - that's always rewarding. It's kind of my version of performance art. People really wanted to run up to me and tell me how much they appreciated how they [the murals] were beautifying the space. It was a huge undertaking, but it was fun. Tortuously fun."
At the QC Planet Comic & Arts Convention, however, Velando will offer guidance on the creation of much smaller works.
"I'm going to be running several exercises that are going to teach one of the more important parts of making comics, which is just telling a story. I'll be running my projector and kids will follow along, and I'll show them some of the techniques of the trade.
"Then we're also going to have an exercise called Jam Comics," he continues. "That's where you start a comic and then pass it on to the next person, and they continue the story in the next panel, and so on, and then when you get it back at the end, you can see how far your initial idea got. It's kind of like my early comics. A lot of the ideas and the dialogue were inspired just by me and my friends goofing around.
"You know, I've worked with making comics on a local level," says Valendo. "But right now, I'm finding more and more that I'm a pretty good teacher. It's not an easy job by any means. It's definitely been a bumpy road and I've made some mistakes. But I might actually be a better teacher than artist."
Defuser-ing the Situation
Describing himself as "a comic nerd since I was a kid" - with a current inventory of more than 12,000 comic books in his garage - Jarrett Crippen has been on the Austin, Texas, police force for the past 22 years, and a detective for the past 13. "I hate to follow the cliché," he says, "but once I figured out that I was never gonna be able to crawl on walls, or have a billion-dollar trust fund to make super-crime-fighting gadgets, I decided being a cop was the next best thing to being a superhero."
But the thing is: Crippen also is a superhero, and has a thumb's-up from Stan Lee to prove it.
The victor from the second season of Who Wants to Be a Superhero? - a reality-competition series, hosted by Marvel Comics mogul Lee, that aired on the Sci Fi Channel (now Syfy) in 2006 and 2007 - Crippen may be known to many in Austin as a mild-mannered detective. To many others, however, he's the Defuser, a costumed defender of justice (and bane of drug kingpins) whose strength, speed, agility, and senses all function at 110 percent.
As part of his competition winnings, Crippen was given both a small role on the Sci-Fi Channel movie Lightning Strikes and - aside from meeting Stan Lee - perhaps the highest honor a comic-book fanatic could receive: seeing his costumed crime-fighter as the main character in his very own comic book.
"I try never to forget the feeling I had the first time I held that comic in my hand," says Crippen of the 2009 Dark Horse Comics publication bearing the Defuser's name. "For a comic-book nerd to have my own creation turned into a real comic? That just doesn't happen outside of being in the industry. I will forever be grateful to [Kajo] Baldisimo and [Jeremy] Barlow, the artist and the writer, because we really worked together on the look and feel of the comic, and the wording, and my actions ... . And they allowed me to put my wife in the comic, and one of my old sergeants who had died in the line of duty. Pretty amazing."
Yet for all the pride he takes in the comic book, Crippen appears even happier that he has managed to make his fictional character a real-life advocate for the forces of good.
"I think cops need guns," says Crippen. "But I do think there are times when, because it's such a readily available tool, we don't go to other tools when we maybe could. So I wanted the Defuser to be in line with my own personal philosophy - that everything he does is non-lethal, and that under no circumstances would he kill.
"When I was a patrol officer," he continues, "I was not the gung-ho, choke-out-the-bad-guy kind of cop. I was the cop my sergeants would always send into the schools, or the neighborhood groups, or when people were arguing. I did a lot of mediation training, so I did hostage negotiation and that kind of stuff. I would go in and calm everyone down.
"Basically, I had a longer-timeline approach to fighting crime. You know, a lot of cops don't want to go to schools. They want to catch bad guys and whatnot. But I was always more like, 'Let's get these kids to like cops, and like what cops do, and understand why we have to enforce certain rules."
Consequently, the Defuser has shown up in schools throughout central Texas and comic conventions throughout America, leading a 45-minute presentation on "How to Be a Superhero in Your Own Community."
cIn its basic nuts and bolts," Crippen says, "the program tells kids that if you want to be a hero - no matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how big you are - all you have to do is wake up every day and ask yourself, 'Who can I help today?' And before you know it, you're gonna be a hero to somebody. It's mainly about civic responsibility. 'Have I done something to be a contributor to this society, or am I just a consumer of this society?'
"At one point," says Crippen, "the programs were going over so well that it looked like the Austin police department was going to make that my job - that I was would hit every elementary school in central Texas with this program. But you know, I'm an investigator, and yanking an investigator from duty was kind of a big deal for them."
However, in addition to his presentation on "Cons & Competitive Cosplay," Crippen will indeed be momentarily yanked from duty for "How to Be a Superhero in Your Own Community" at the QC Planet Comic & Arts Convention. You probably shouldn't expect to see his alter ego, though.
"I just started wearing a tuxedo to conventions, actually," says Crippen. "I was doing about a convention a month as the Defuser, and putting a lot of wear and tear on the costume, and it was costing a lot of money to keep it together ... .
"A-a-and," he continues with a laugh, "I got lazy and gained a bunch of weight, and Spandex only stretches so far."
July 13's Fifth-Annual QC Planet Comic & Arts Convention takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Rock Island Holiday Inn (226 17th Street). Admission is $3 for ages 13 and older, and more information is available by calling (309)788-1653 or visiting the event's Facebook page through RCReader.com/y/comics.