Pat Lewis and Muscles Diablo
The above narrative is not from the latest Hollywood film or television drama, but an online comic created by Pittsburgh native Pat Lewis. “The idea was to do something that would just be fun for me,” Lewis explains of Muscles Diablo in Where Terror Lurks. “Comics take so long to create. So I had this idea to do something that was more loosely-plotted and drawn, and post it online a page at a time where I could get feedback instantly. I knew I wanted to do something with a big, dumb lummox-type character who could go on missions and have adventures that I could basically make up as I went along. Somehow the idea of a low-level gangster occurred to me, and I figured if I had him fighting a variety of monsters I could keep myself interested and wouldn’t have to get too bogged down with any one scenario.”
Pat Lewis became interested in becoming a cartoonist at a young age, first by an attraction to the Sunday comics in the Pittsburgh Press and then later when he discovered Mad Magazine. While in college, Lewis began submitting his own self-created comic strips to various syndicates. Although he received positive feedback and even landed a development deal, it was during the time period when the Internet first began having a negative impact on newspaper sells, adding to the already competitive nature of the industry.
Instead of becoming discouraged, Lewis started to freelance as an illustrator, a career move that enabled him to make a living ever since. While freelance work may help pay the bills, however, Lewis soon discovered a way to tell his own original stories as well.
“An article in the Pittsburgh City Paper around that point clued me in to the world of self-publishing and minicomics and I found that there were a lot of other people doing what I was doing—making comics for their own satisfaction and to share with others,” he says. “I started talking to cartoonists online, and then began selling my stuff at conventions, where I met other Pittsburgh-based artists like Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor, Jasen Lex, and Tom Scioli, who helped me further figure out what I was doing.”
The World Wide Web also offered the ability to create independent comics with the advent of the online comic medium. “I feel like I’ll always have an affection for print, since that’s what I’ve known all my life, but posting comics online has opened up a whole new world for me,” Lewis explains. “If you want to do a comic of unusual size, or length, or in color, or whatever, it’s unlikely a publisher will want to take that risk and it’s expensive to self-publish. It feels amazing to have total control over content and format without worrying about marketability or anything, and the ability to share it right away makes me feel a lot more connected and productive.”
Online comics also offer a wider variety of content for fans. “It’s great for readers, and it’s great for creators,” Lewis continues. “As a kid, I always had so much trouble finding comics I wanted to read—you were pretty much limited to whatever books they had at the store, or the strips the local paper carried—but now there’s almost an endless supply of stuff available, for free, catering to any possible interest you can imagine.”
Pat Lewis himself has an affinity for non-mainstream and innovative publications. “I really like Steve Purcell, who put out a little comic called Sam & Max: Freelance Police when I was a teenager,” he says. “I was always more into comic strips than comic books as a kid, mainly because the comic books I saw in the store all seemed to be boring, serious, superhero dramas. Sam & Max was the first genuinely funny comic book I ever saw, and it was exciting to see the cartoony style I liked used to tell a longer, book-length story instead of the short three-or-four-panel gags the newspaper strips were limited to.”
Then there’s Mad Magazine, which has had an influence on many comic artists. “From an illustration standpoint, my favorite cartoonist is Paul Coker, who drew for Mad and designed the characters for a lot of the old Rankin-Bass holiday specials,” Lewis remarks. “His work always has a real fun sense of movement and expression and I love the way he uses contrasts—showing a really fat character juxtaposed against a super-skinny one, for example. I could look at that stuff for days.”
Just as Pat Lewis received advice about pursuing a career within the comics industry from other notable Pittsburgh artists, he likewise has advice for anyone starting out on a similar career path as well.
“There’s a huge difference between doodling in a sketchbook and actually making finished work that people want to see,” he explains. “So many artists have notebooks full of ‘ideas’ that never wind up seeing the light of day. Whatever it is you want to be doing—start it now, get it done, and show it to people. Then repeat. Also, I guess I’d say a good thing to do would be to learn how to define and set goals for yourself and do some research into how to accomplish them. If you want to make money as a comic artist or illustrator, you need to follow a different path than someone who just wants to entertain his or her friends. The one thing they have in common, though, is that you need to be self-motivated enough to do the work without a boss or teacher or someone nagging you to get it done.”
Pat Lewis has been able to “get it done” throughout his career, and many of his comics have been nominated for a variety of awards, including the Ignatz, the Day Prize and the S.P.A.C.E. Prize. Muscles Diablo, meanwhile, received a 2013 Reuben Award nomination, often considered to be the industry equivalent of an Oscar and annually handed out by the National Cartoonists Society. In 2007, IDW Publishing released a hardcover collection of Lewis’ work entitled The Claws Come Out, while Lewis himself has self-published an original graphic novel called Cragmore.
Despite his success, Pat Lewis is still a Pittsburgher at heart and continues to remain a resident of the Steel City. “I can’t think of a better place to live while doing creative work,” he says. “It’s a big enough city to afford lots of opportunities, but not so large that you can’t get noticed. Plus, the cost of living is so low that you don’t need to make a ton of money to support yourself. The best thing, though, is that whatever it is you want to do—make comics, create fine art, organize a non-profit, start a small business, or anything else—it’s fairly easy here to find and approach someone willing to help you along. I’ve gotten so much out of my association with other local artists and institutions like the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators, the ToonSeum, Phantom of the Attic, the Pittsburgh City Paper, etc., that I can’t imagine doing it anyplace else.”
It is a sentiment shared by the multitude of other artists and illustrators who likewise call the Steel City home.