March 16, 2010

Sensitive new age illustrator


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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Thursday, May 8, 2008....Local illustrator and comic book writer Ben Bishop has just self-published a book called Nathan the Caveman which he created in his Portland apartment.

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Thursday, May 8, 2008....Local illustrator and comic book writer Ben Bishop has just self-published a book called Nathan the Caveman. Bishop works on his drawings in his Portland apartment.

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Staff Writer

Ben Bishop hopes his romantic heart earns him notice in the competitive world of comic book writing and illustrating.

Bishop, a 22-year-old Portlander, has just self-published a 300-page comic book, ''Nathan the Caveman.'' It's the story of Nathan and Adrianna, a couple of lovesick young things who live in Portland and fall tragically in love.

The topic may seem a bit out of place for a comic book, which most tend to think of as being dominated by biff-bam-boom superheroes.

But Bishop is here to say there's room in the world of comic books for softies.

''I guess I am just a weird romantic kind of guy,'' said Bishop, chatting over a cup of coffee on a recent afternoon. ''I get really into that with the movies. I can watch a movie like 'The Notebook' and say it was a good movie without feeling weird. When I was younger, I had all these ideas for action-adventure comics. But then I watched 'The Notebook,' and I was like, 'I'll write love stories.'''

The movie to which Bishop refers is a sappy 2004 title, based on a hugely popular book by Nicholas Sparks.

A New Hampshire native, Bishop is part of a burgeoning comic and illustrator scene in Portland and across Maine. The state has a deep history with illustration, going back to the days of N.C. Wyeth, Robert McCloskey, Dahlov Ipcar and others.

Lately, the comic-book scene has been especially vibrant in Portland, in part because of the introduction of an illustration major in 2005 at Maine College of Art.

Scott Nash, a Portland-based illustrator and animator, calls the city -- and Peaks Island in particular -- ''an illustrator's paradise. This whole area has a wealth of creative talent, specifically in the area of illustration. But there's a wealth of hidden treasures, which is too bad. The world should know more about Maine.''

People come here, as Nash did from Boston a decade ago, because of a creative lifestyle that's encouraged in the state. In addition to being a beautiful place to live, Portland has a welcoming arts culture, Nash said, making it easier for young artists to become part of a larger community.

Nash was instrumental in helping MECA establish its illustration major, which has been available for four years. In that time, 22 illustration majors have graduated with bachelor's degrees, including four earlier this month.

The infusion of young talent into an already-established illustration scene has made Portland an exciting place for new and young comics, said Rick Lowell, who owns Casablanca Comics in Portland and North Windham.

To encourage the growth of the illustration trade in Portland, Lowell is in the process of organizing what would be the first comic book festival and alternative press expo in the city. He hopes to lure about 100 creators to Portland for the festival, which is still in the planning stages.

Lowell has the connections. He is on the board of ComicsPRO, the retailing arm of the comic-book industry. He was also instrumental in bringing Brian Wood of DC Comics fame to this year's Festival of the Book in Portland, and regularly hosts comics events at his store.

He thinks Portland is in a good position to build on the momentum.

''We are blessed in Portland with a lot of creative people who are interested in doing their own books,'' Lowell said. ''Ben is a really good example. Here is somebody who really gets it. You have to keep plugging away at it, which he has done. And now he has a nice finished product to show for it.''

Bishop is mostly self-taught, although he did enroll for one year at MECA. He had to leave school because he came up short on tuition, but views ''Nathan the Caveman'' as his education. He began the book as a MECA freshman and published it at the same time he would have graduated.

His goal is to use ''Nathan the Caveman'' as his entree into the commercial world of comic book publishing. He hopes the book gets the attention of a major publisher, which would hire him as an illustrator.

''I see this as a back door in,'' Bishop said. ''The only way into mainstream comics is to wait in line at conventions with 400 other people and show them your portfolio. This might be a better way, to have this solid book that's published, and then say, 'Now can I draw Spider-Man, please?'''

''Nathan the Caveman'' consumed four years of Bishop's life.

After he left MECA, he cobbled together work to support his illustration habit, catching on behind the counter at Java Net Cafe, an Internet coffeehouse on Exchange Street in the Old Port.

In addition to giving him a paycheck, working at Java Net helped Bishop tune in to Portland. He got to know the regulars at the coffeehouse, and got to know Portland in a different way than he would have had he stayed in school.

Many of the characters in the book are based on people who get their coffee regularly at Java Net, and the book is packed with familiar city scenes, including the waterfront and Monument Square.

During his busiest times, Bishop spent his day working, then retreated to his apartment for all-night drawing sessions. ''I would work all day, then come home and live on coffee and stay up until 5 a.m. to draw, go to bed for three hours and then go to work and do it again,'' he said.

When he was really rolling, Bishop proudly showed off the calloused middle finger of his drawing hand, a badge of honor among illustrators.

Jayson Gorcoff, a friend and coworker, calls Bishop ''very creative and energetic. He is fast and accurate, plus he has good flow, which I consider a very important trait of an artist.''

Gorcoff was astounded that Bishop self-published a 300-page book. ''That's dedication. That's faith, and that's a huge part of being an artist. Ben's got that, and the book proves it,'' he said.

MECA illustration grad Ryan LaMunyon told a story from Bishop's lone year at the Portland art school. Each year, MECA hosts an art show for BFA students. As a freshman, Bishop won -- an upset for sure. Bishop's winning the show ''ticked off the rest of the school. We were all rooting for him, though.''

Bishop printed 100 copies of his book. As of last week, most had been sold locally at Java Net, Casablanca, Books Etc. and Pandemonium.

In addition to getting satisfaction for finishing his book, Bishop printed it so he could qualify for a prestigious Xeric Foundation grant. The Xeric Foundation provides grants to new comic-book creators who self-publish their work.

If Bishop gets the grant -- he should know by early June -- he will publish another round of ''Nathan the Caveman.''

The foundation was founded by Peter Laird, co-creator of ''Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'' with Kevin Eastman. It's worth noting that Eastman is a Portland native, and received some of his training at Portland School of Art, which later became Maine College of Art.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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