Department

Island Sup’pah Men

The Few, the Proud, the Broke: Hawai`i's indie comic book creators are doing it for the love
Story by Dave Choo. Photos by Elyse Butler.

In 1997 Batman was defeated by a piece of fruit. Actually, a man with a head made out of fruit. Actually, a nunchaku-wielding fruit-like superhero. In February of that year, Pineapple Man No. 2 outsold both Batman and X-Men. It was the first—and last—time that a locally produced comic book beat the big boys.

The story of Isamu Pahoa, a former gangster who’s reincarnated as a thick-skinned crime-fighting bromeliad, captivated Island comic readers with its absurdity and inside humor. But a year later and after just four issues, Pineapple Man rode off into the sunset, defeated not by an evil supervillain, but something far more powerful: economics. “When my distributor wanted to charge me $3,400 for an order of $300 worth of comic books, I realized that it was time to move on,” says Pineapple Man’s inventor, O‘ahu resident Sam Campos.

Turns out that Pineapple Man arrived on the scene a little late. The comic book industry had reached its apex just a few years earlier, and by 1997 it was in the early stages of a steep and prolonged decline. Reader tastes changed, and other entertainment media, most of them digital, were taking over the market. Campos saw the writing on the panel, packed up his pens and started teaching art at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

But now, nearly twenty years later, the comic book landscape is being redrawn again, transformed by the very things that put it in peril in the first place. “Technology has widened the comic book marketplace,” says Hawai‘i-born and raised artist Peter Steigerwald, who co-owns Aspen Comics, an independent publisher in Los Angeles. “It’s much easier to produce a book on your own thanks to desktop publishing, and you can do distribution by just posting stuff on a web site. Even promotion, which is always the toughest part, is possible through social media. It’s still very hard to do, but it’s possible now.”

Christopher Caravalho released his comic ‘Aumākua: Guardians of Hawai‘i in September of 2014. The comic follows the exploits of a group of local superheroes–an Island-style Avengers. “For me it all comes down to telling a good story about something you love,” says Caravalho.

Thus empowered by technology and encouraged by the recent surge in comic book sales—fueled by a seemingly unending string of high-grossing superhero movies—Campos dusted off Pineapple Man this year for a reboot. Campos is one of a cadre of artists in Hawai‘i who are tapping the web’s resources to create and distribute original and uniquely Hawai‘i comic books. They work long hours and with little hope of recognition or commercial success, but as with any true labor of love, it’s not so much about fortune and glory as it is the fulfillment of a dream.

For Campos, Pineapple Man redux has invigorated a creative career that had hit a wall. After teaching art for a couple of years, Campos moved to LA, where he worked as a storyboard artist and stunt coordinator on such movies as The Mummy Returns, Soldier and Van Helsing. He moved back to Hawai‘i in 2003 and for nearly ten years has been developing a Hawai‘i-themed television show called Dragonfly, which Campos describes as “Kikaida meets The X-Files.” He produced a pilot episode, featuring local martial arts phenom Cole Horibe throwing kung-fu moves in 3-D-printed and hand-painted armor. Campos has been shopping it around for several years with a couple of near-miss production deals, including one just months before being interviewed for this story.

But that’s TV. With Pineapple Man, Campos has total creative control. He doesn’t have to justify why he chose to set his story in Hawai‘i. He doesn’t have to address criticism that his characters are “too ethnic.” He doesn’t have to convince anyone of anything. He can just let his imagination run wild, which it often does. Pineapple Man, who was inspired by Wolverine, Bruce Lee and Kikaida, is a chop suey superhero who carries a lei o mano (a Hawaiian war club lined with shark’s teeth), nunchaku, hand grenades and a red ‘ukulele. And, of course, there is his fearsome pineapple head reminiscent of Kū, the Hawaiian god of war.

Campos plans to release a Pineapple Man graphic novel in September, and he’s working like a superhero to meet his deadline. Now a stay-at-home dad, he works about six hours a day during his son’s bed and nap times. “It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think many people would do this with financial gain in mind,” says Campos. “But Pineapple Man indirectly led to my work in film and television, so who knows where this will end up?”

Campos says that he’s always surprised at how far and wide the original comic spread. “I was at a Starbucks on Maui several years ago and wearing an old Pineapple Man T-shirt. The guy helping me asked me where I got the shirt,” says Campos. “When I told him that I was the creator of Pineapple Man, he got excited, ran around the counter and shook my hand. He told me that he read the comic book when he was a kid and wanted to live in Hawai‘i ever since. He finally made the move a couple of years before and was loving it. I didn’t know what to say. How does something like that happen?”

During a spirited poker game three years ago, Gabe Peckham and Rusty Baily were making small talk between hands. Baily mentioned that he always wanted to do a daily comic strip, but he couldn’t come up with a compelling story idea. Those words were music to Peckham’s ears. Since he was 12 years old, he’d been kicking around a story about a man who wakes up one day to discover that he has been transformed into a mutant sea creature.

Campos who plans to release a Pineapple Man graphic novel in September of this year, works about six hours a day at his Ka‘a‘awa home studio to meet his deadline. Between frames he cares for his 2-year-old son.

Peckham scratched out a few doodles and handed them to Baily. Soon they were meeting regularly to hash out ideas. Eventually they were joined in what they named the Manoa Comics Group by Ransom Edison, a fellow comic book lover and an avid diver with an appreciation for Hawaiian culture and mythology. The result of their collaboration is Kipaku Kai, the story of a human turned into a sea creature so bizarre that even the octopuses he meets are stumped as to what he is. Joined by a wise and wise-cracking humuhumunukunukuapua‘a (“but you can call me Glen,” it tells him), Kipaku Kai sets off on a multi-issue quest among the reefs of O‘ahu to solve the mystery of his transformation and return to life above water. Part of the appeal, says Edison, is the setting. “There haven’t been that many good underwater adventures,” he says. “If you look at Aquaman, he spends most of his time out of the water. The ocean is a gimmick rather than a real background. I wanted to make an underwater world that has as many possibilities for adventure as the surface world, and I wanted to keep the ecosystem accurate. Every one of the fish, for example, is an identifiable native Hawaiian species.”

Above, the Manoa Comics Group’s Rusty Baily (left), Ransom Edison (center) and Gabe Peckham (right) collaborate on the second installment of Kipaku Kai, the multi-issue story of a human transformed into a mutant sea creature off Waikīkī.

None of the group are professional artists or storytellers. Peckham is a scientist who writes biotech research grants. Edison works at an English as a second language school, where he taught The Odyssey—a big influence, he says, on the narrative arc of Kipaku Kai, which concerns a hero’s quest to return home. Baily is a maintenance supervisor at a skilled-care facility. “We’re learning as we go. And as you can see, we do most of our work old-school,” says Peckham referring to stacks of dog-eared paper, the next two drafts of Kipaku Kai, done in pencil sketches. “We couldn’t do the things we do without Photoshop, Dropbox and email. But it always comes down to ink on paper. Feel, flow, emotion —you can’t convey that with a computer.”

Kipaku Kai’s release was gradual and modest, three hundred issues over the course of three printings, which were sold at Gecko Books in Kaimukī and through the web site comixology.com. When they release the second issue in September, they hope to expand distribution to local dive and surf shops. Peckham and Edison have scripted six of the eight issues that will comprise the first chapter of Kipaku Kai. However, the group’s plans don’t include a foreseeable conclusion to Kipaku’s quest, and they haven’t mapped out any long-range business plan, either, beyond the intention of eventually releasing the complete adventure as a graphic novel. But like just about any indie comic producer, they’re not even thinking about commercial success—though it’d be nice, says Peckham. “For me the biggest thrill is to see a nerdy idea that I had thirty-two years ago come to life.”

Christopher Caravalho moved around a lot growing up. His father had a bit of wanderlust, so the young Caravalho spent time in towns and neighborhoods throughout O‘ahu: Wai‘anae to Hawai‘i Kai, with stints in Kalihi, Papakōlea and Kailua. At each stop he found that creating comic book characters and writing stories were the ultimate icebreakers. Not only would the young artist’s sketches start a conversation; Caravalho would often cast himself and his newfound friends as a team of superheroes.

But his friends outgrew their comic book phase, and so eventually did Caravalho, sort of. “My dream was to work at Marvel or DC Comics,” says Caravalho. “But by high school I realized how good you had to be to do that, and I was just an OK artist.” After high school he got on with life. He got married, had a child and became a kind of ersatz superhero by joining the Honolulu Police Department. About two years ago Caravalho went through a tough divorce and found himself needing a new sense of purpose. “I needed to move forward and find focus in my life,” he says. “It started out as an effort to check things off my bucket list, and at the top of that list was being a comic book artist.”

Caravalho, a Honolulu Police Officer, moonlights in his Kailua studio to create the second issue of ‘Aumākua: Guardians of Hawai‘i, due out this September.

Caravalho knew how specialized and labor-intensive the comic book production process was and realized that he couldn’t do it all himself. He found a layout specialist, colorist and letterist on the Internet and started a Kickstarter campaign that raised $4,000. Last September Caravalho released issue No. 1 of ‘Aumākua: Guardians of Hawai‘i, which follows the exploits of a group of local superheroes, an Island-style Avengers. The guardians are led by the Royal Hawaiian Guard, an immortal who has been protecting Hawai‘i since ancient times. A lot of the members are playful takes on Island stereotypes: There’s Super Size Sole, a Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i student who can increase his size and strength like the Incredible Hulk; Seoul Hot, a part-Korean roller derby girl whose pyrotechnic powers mimic her fiery temper; the Mighty Moke, a speedy and powerful athlete whose main weapon is his left fist, which he calls “false crack”; and the Phantom Surfer, a mysterious entity with a wooden surfboard which he uses to shred waves and unlucky adversaries.

In the thirty-page first issue, the guardians take on a Godzilla-like monster that attacks Waikīkī. The story is almost all action, with the team nearly causing a catastrophic tsunami before (spoiler alert) saving the day. Caravalho admits that because he originally planned on producing just one issue of ‘Aumākua, he threw in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. In retrospect, he says, some of the action is too slapstick and some of the humor too middle-school. For instance, the lavalava-wearing Super Size Sole mistakenly goes commando on the day of the big battle, and the guardians (but not the reader) see that not everything about Sole is super-sized.

Caravalho printed only three hundred copies, which he sold through Collector Maniacs in Kaimukī as well as directly. The second issue is due out in September. He hasn’t made any money from ‘Aumākua and doesn’t expect to, which is fine with him because his definition of “successful comic book artist” has changed since he was a kid. “Twenty years ago I thought I wanted to be a successful comic book artist. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that I really wanted to make my own stuff,” he says. “Drawing Superman or Batman would have been great. But for me it all comes down to telling a good story about something you love.” HH

Story by Dave Choo. Photos by Elyse Butler