By GIGI COWELL
Perhaps one of the reasons that superhero comic books continue to capture our fancy—regardless of our age—is that they offer us a window into ourselves that is often mired by the doldrums of our everyday existence.
After all, who wouldn’t rather “leap tall buildings in a single bound” than sit in rush-hour traffic at the end of a long day? Run “faster than a speeding bullet” when it comes time to take out the trash? Or even shout out “Shazam!” in the middle of a meeting when we’d rather change into Captain Marvel than sit and stare at a whiteboard one more second.
For Jai Nitz, whose first name is pronounced with a hard “J” sound and a long “I,” the decision to perpetuate the fantastical world of superheroes was made at such an early age that he probably didn’t yet comprehend that real people couldn’t actually shoot webs out of their wrists, or turn their entire body into a fireball and fly.
A nationally acclaimed, award-winning comic book writer living in Lawrence with his family, Nitz started reading and collecting comics when he was just a kid.
“My older brother read comics, and I wanted to do everything he did, so I started reading comics, too,” says Nitz. “I worked at a couple of comic book shops like B-Bop at 95th and Nall, and Elite Comics at 119th and Quivira. Once I decided I wanted to create comics, I went to the University of Kansas and studied screenwriting—pretty much the closest I could come to a degree in comic book writing.”
After graduation, Nitz published his first comic, “Novavolo,” acquired his first professional job on Wildstorm’s “Gen-Active” series, and bounced back and forth between self-publishing and working for other comics, such as Marvel, Image and DC. In 2010 he was finally able to quit his full-time job, and now works primarily for Dynamite Comics writing “Silver Star” and for Disney Publishing, doing various books.
Nitz discovered along the way that comic book writing is a lot like screenwriting. His storytelling skills and razor-sharp wit control every word on the page, including those that give the artist direction as to what each of the story’s characters will be doing. According to Nitz, that can be accomplished through a variety of means, such as using sound effects, word and thought balloons, or caption boxes. Collaborating closely with artists is essential—and a real team effort—to make sure the art and the dialogue match.
Even with this similarity, Nitz explains that writing comics is different enough, and poses challenges for distinct reasons.
“In a film you have movement and sound, and the timing is the same for all viewers,” says Nitz. “On the comic page, you have static images, and the reader determines the speed and pacing of the story.”
Because comic books stimulate both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, the reader must be engaged by both the written word and the visuals. To help explain this, Nitz notes that the military and the public sector, such as the airlines, have used comics for years to communicate messages.
“Look at the safety instructions the next time you’re on an airplane—they’re basically comic books,” says Nitz. “They need to convey a lot of information in a short amount of time, and they need to transcend language barriers. Comics can do all of those things.”
Good versus evil
One of the bonuses that comics provide is the opportunity to get in touch with our own mortality, albeit in a strange, fantasy-like way, says Nitz. They also help to shape our identities, and give us a sense of who we are—and perhaps most importantly, what we stand for.
Nitz likes to describe comics as “guy-centric power fantasies like professional wrestling … because they both have guys in brightly-colored costumes beating the stuffing out of each other.” But Nitz contends that the stories told through comics are really just parables about human nature.
“The problem is mistaking superheroes (content) for comic books (the medium),” says Nitz. “The medium can tell any kind of story. The American comic book industry is mostly driven by the character of the superhero, so many people mistake the two. I try to write stories about us, but I often include superheroes or superpowers. Why? Because a guy who shoots lightning out of his fingertips is cooler than a guy who just shoots a gun.”
Nitz is currently working on a story about the most powerful man on the planet and how he reacts to the world changing outside his window. It’s a character created by the late, great Jack Kirby, regarded as the King of American comics, and brought into the modern day by Nitz and Alex Ross, today’s premier comic artist.
“I’m having a blast writing it!” he grins.
But let’s face it—who wouldn’t enjoy writing a comic book? Leaving our lives for a moment to enter a make-believe world might just help lower the collective blood pressure.
The Nitz File
Lawrence-based comic book writer Jai Nitz has collected some prestigious awards for his creative efforts and continues his high-profile work in comic-book writing.
2004 Bram Stoker Award for Achievement in Illustrated Narrative for “Heaven’s Devils,” the story of an American expatriate drug-runner, who also happens to be a wizard. Other Stoker Award winners include Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.
2003 Xeric Grant for Self-Publishing for “Paper Museum,” a pulp-inspired anthology that includes stories about jungle lords, space criminals, fantasy swordsmen and funny animals. This award was given out by Peter Laird (the co-creator of the iconic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) to self-publishers who had non-commercial dreams. Other Xeric winners include National Book Award nominee Gene Yang and New York Times bestselling author James Sturm.
• “Green Hornet: Parallel Lives and Green Hornet: Aftermath”
• “Tron: Betrayal,” the inbetwequal (Nitz’s word) between “Tron” and “Tron: Legacy”
and the set-up for the Tron: Evolution videogame.
• “Silver Star” from Dynamite Entertainment
• “Iron Man Versus Whiplash” from Disney Publishing