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[whitespace] COMIXBYKIDZ
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Art Smart: Chayne Hampton has helped with every step of COMIXBYKIDZ, the first comic book by Santa Cruz youth. He, "Nightstalker" co-creator Jacob Williams, and other young artists will sign copies at Atlantis Fantasyworld.

The Dream Teens

'COMIXBYKIDZ,' created by Santa Cruz youth, celebrates promises kept with a Halloween book signing at Atlantis Fantasyworld

By Mary Spicuzza

CARLA VILLELA hunches intensely over her work. I approach her drawing table slowly, feeling star-struck remembering the impressive shadowing and intense expressions of her sketch, a character from The Tenth: Abuse of Humanity. Perhaps it's the nervousness that inspires me to ask Villela that insipid question artists probably hear every day: "How long have you been drawing?"

"My whole life," the 11-year-old Villela replies, a bright yellow Tweety bird smiling out from her blue T-shirt as she looks up from her latest drawing. "I prefer mixed-media, and I like the details you can capture with comic books."

While preteens in Looney Tunes T-shirts normally aren't especially intimidating, Villela is a driving force behind one of the most impressive projects to come out of the local arts scene. COMIXBYKIDZ, the first book of comic art written, drawn and produced by local youth, features the work of a diverse group of students from the Children's Art Center, including homeless children, group-home residents and students from the Santa Cruz Alternative Education program. On Sunday (Oct. 31), the book's creators celebrate with a book signing at Cedar Street's comic haven, Atlantis Fantasyworld.

'DID THEY tell you about our grant?" Jacob Williams asks. The 15-year-old artist keeps sketching as he describes his trip to the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County to apply for $1,000 to help cover the costs of the massive, 72-page comic book.

"There were about 12 agencies applying for the money. Then me, Carla and Chayne showed up and beat 'em all," Williams says with a smile. "We just showed them our stuff, and they went crazy."

Williams and Chayne Hampton, co-creators of the "Nightstalker" story in COMIXBYKIDZ, have studied comic-book art with teacher Arnie Clapman since he started in 1995. Both have helped with every step of the process, from writing and illustrating stories to fundraising and publicity.

The 10 stories in the book feature a broad range of superheroes, villains and styles of illustration. In "Nightstalker," the stealthy shadowed hero rescues a kid cornered by weapon-wielding gang members. A less likely, Hawaiian-shirted hero, "Too Much Donut Man," created by 9-year-old Eli Pechman, fights the destructive Donut Hacker Robot with an Explosive Donut Launcher.

"The Goblin King," written by Apollo Cardenes Jr.--who convinced Clapman to contribute some of his own drawings to the compilation--emphasizes fantasy with heavy doses of magic spells, wizardry and a cursed Black Night. Others, like 17-year-old Kristin Olson's beautifully crafted "The Outskirts of Nowhere," feature urban art and deal with modern world frustrations.

"Those zombies lit with blue discolored faces, wondering which battery is really better or which bag will keep their leftovers fresher (as if leftovers were ever meant to be fresh)," Olson writes of television-hypnosis. "It makes me wonder what we are coming to as a whole."

For the past year, more than 30 young artists have worked on turning sketches and stories into a cohesive project. When the William James Association, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting arts and environmental education, bought the Children's Art Center last year, it provided a new boost to the comic-book dream.

Ponytailed Clapman, a New York native who still sports a Yankees cap and a thick accent, worked professionally for Marvel and D.C. Comics and Heavy Metal magazine before moving to Santa Cruz in 1985. He says when he was growing up he always wished adults would support his love of drawing and respect comics as a valid art form.

"I'm getting a chance to be that guy," Clapman says. "A lot of these kids have had experiences with adults not keeping their word. This comic book is a promise kept to a lot of kids."

CLASS IS OFFICIALLY over, but most of the students are still hard at work on their projects, which is especially impressive considering it's after 8pm. Mike Crowder, 13, leads me over to his portfolio and displays a current project, a sketch of a dragon dangling Pokémon by the ears--something I have always dreamed of doing.

"Parents, parents," one of the students announces, sounding like a warning siren.

Not that there is anything to hide from the family unit. For the past hour, students have mostly remained focused on the page in front of them. Clapman is there to supervise and answer questions, but the back room of the Cedar Street center feels completely like kid space. Chayne Hampton proudly announces that he's been doing the comics class longer than anyone else, and he flips through his portfolio to show a wide range of works. Fantasy figures and beefy superheroes mingle with little green aliens in heart-covered boxer shorts.

"I used to be all about copying other people's stuff. Now I strive to be different. I get inspiration from other comic artists, but I like to do my own thing," Hampton explains.

He plunges his hands into the pockets of his black sweatshirt, adding, "When I see people bust phatness, right away I get kind of jealous. But you've got to be yourself or you'll always just be imitating other people."

His table mates, Kristin Olson and Joshua Fraioli, take advantage of his inspirational thoughts and get in some prime heckling. More than just classmates, the comic crew seems like it has morphed into a family.

Olson glances up as our photographer snaps photographs of Hampton. She laughs, "Chayne's been waiting for years for this."

JUST ABOUT EVERYONE in Clapman's Thursday-night class says they hope to pursue a career in art. Olson plans to go to art school next year, and Villela thinks she may want to be an architect. Hampton says he enjoys writing stories for comics but likes sketching and alternative artwork.

"People need to be educated about what is art," Hampton says. He says that kids' work, like comic's art and tagging, is often seen as vandalism rather than a valid form of expression.

Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning comics artist, visited the class when he was in town in early October. He encouraged the young artists to stick with their favorite medium regardless of others' prejudices about comics. Others are less concerned with pursuing an art career or changing the way the world views comics. Donut Man-creator Pechman says he just loves the class.

"I really enjoy artwork. But the real reason I like doing comic book art is because it gets me away from my annoying sister," Pechman says. "I also like making up stories and I really enjoy taking art classes."

Atlantis Fantasyworld, 1020 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, hosts a reception celebrating the publication of COMIXBYKIDZ Sunday beginning at 1pm. Books will be available at local shops, including Lenz Arts, Bill's Wheels, Atlantis Fantasyworld, Comicopolis, Pacific Wave Surf Shop, Streetlight Records, Clubhouse Comics and Bookshop Santa Cruz. For more information on comic book art classes, call Arnie Clapman at 438.3219.

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From the October 27-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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