For the comic book artists who reside and work here, Jersey City's potential to inform their work is unmatched by anyplace else.
"There is no better landscape in the world than the view of Manhattan from a Jersey City pier," says Jersey City comic book artist Ron Callari. "We live on the Hudson River. The sun rises over the Statue of Liberty. We are a PATH ride away from one of the largest cultural centers in the world. Writers and artists can communicate with publishers and media buyers on a one-to-one basis, and as I already mentioned, the views of NYC ain't bad either! If that doesn't stir your creative juices, I don't know what will."
The city's rich history, cultural diversity, and comfortable proximity to the Big Apple inspire the characters that Jersey City artists create and the stories they tell.
Ron Callari and kidd millennium
In November of 2004, longtime Jersey City resident Callari published his first comic book, Uncle Dubya's Jihad Jamboree, a provocative, inflammatory chronicle of President George W. Bush's first four years in office.
"The book is a collection of incendiary essays, cartoons and jolts of insight that are guaranteed to scrub, spindle and wring out wry," Callari says.
Callari's comic book developed out of his weekly comic strip featuring a character named kidd millennium, a cartoon descendant of Richard Outcault's early-20th century "Yellow Kid" cartoon character. Aside from becoming the symbol for yellow journalism, the Yellow Kid was developed to "kick the crap out of the political foibles of his day," as Callari puts it. Kidd millennium serves the same purpose.
"The kidd was originally conceived when people were hesitant about the approach of the next millennium," Callari says. "I thought we needed an innocent prodigy who could cut through all of that hype and spin and deliver a viewpoint that would make us laugh at ourselves."
Callari says that even though his cartoons do not focus on Jersey City topics per se, they do highlight issues that are of interest to its residents.
"I keep an open ear to what Jersey City commuters are referring to in the news," he said. "In this way, the residents are my sounding board."
Callari also says the daily stimulation he receives from people of all ages, viewpoints, and ethnicities in Jersey City inform his work.
"Jersey City is a place filled with so many different people," he says. "It's really inspiring."
For his second book, Crude Behavior, which stabs away at politicians and their pursuit of oil, Callari is collaborating with an artist online, Jon A. Donohoe, who lives halfway around the world in Dublin, Ireland. Callari says he is excited about the collaboration.
He attributes much of his success to the art of award-winning cartoonist Jack Pittman, who worked on the first book.
From his Jersey City home, Callari works 20 to 30 hours a week on his second comic book - "a bleary-eyed, affixed-to-a-caffeine-IV-drip event," he says.
"As the creator and artistic designer, I develop the ideas, the gags and visual content of each panel," Callari says. "My partner, Donohoe in Dublin, then transforms all of my craziness into pixels and dots per inch."
Callari anticipates that Crude Behavior will come out in 2006. In the meantime, Callari's kidd millennium comic strip can be found online at www.kiddmillennium.com.
Gynn Stella and Rick Sylva's Zephyr and Reginald: Minions for Hire
Gynn Stella, who was a Jersey City resident until her move to Cape Cod this past summer, works hard as a housewife and also at rescuing cats - a job she says "somebody's got to do" - but her true passion is drawing comic books.
Stella and her husband, Rick Sylva, who was a chemistry teacher at Jersey City's CREATE Charter High School for four years, publish the comic series Zephyr and Reginald: Minions for Hire, a parody told from the point of view of the henchmen who work for an unscrupulous super-villain.
The first book of the series, "The Untimely Demise of Cold Shoulder," features the super-villain trying to destroy the world with weapons created by his minions, all the while not knowing that the same people who work for him sabotage his work. It is illustrated by Stella and written mostly by Sylva, who "does 70 percent of the writing."
"Of course Gynn does the drawing. I am the proverbial can't-draw-a-straight-line artist," Sylva jokes.
Stella and Sylva say Jersey City residents can relate to the characters in Zephyr and Reginald.
"The main characters are a little bit weird, a little different, [and] are trying to make it in life," Sylva says.
Jersey City inspired Stella and Sylva's work not just thematically; it also inspired the names of the characters. One of the characters, 'Lectric Glass - who belongs to the "Legion of Good Girls," an assembled team of women who combat the super-villain - was created by looking in the city's phone book.
Another super-heroine is a Mexican-American named Olivia Alvarez. "She's from Jersey City, and was inspired by two things," Sylva says. "First, because Northern New Jersey is so ethnically diverse, and second, at the time we were creating this, I was teaching in a Jersey City classroom full of Latino students."
Stella says that though Cape Cod is a wonderful place, "it lacks the strength you can only find in Jersey City because of the nature of society here. In Cape Cod, everyone is a white suburbanite; everyone is the same. In Jersey City, everyone is different, which makes it unique."
Stella says Jersey City's diversity and its richness of friendships between people of different backgrounds motivated her to create a set of characters that were all very different but got along well.
Sylva says leaving Jersey City has been hard because it also means leaving the city's cultural scene, where he was involved in poetry readings and workshops.
"I did a lot of creative thinking on the comic book in that circle," he says.
The second issue of Zephyr and Reginald is currently in the works, but the first issue received good reviews and is currently sold online and in several stores, including Bector Comics in Bayonne and Comics Explosion in Nutley.
Jason Austin and The Cosmic Samaritan
In the coming months, New Jersey City University student Jason Austin, an Illustration major, anticipates the completion of his Christian superhero comic book, The Cosmic Samaritan, a coming-of-age morality tale that is intended to be the first issue of an ongoing series.
Already finished with the illustration side of the comic book, all that remains for Austin to do is add color and create the captions.
The main character of The Cosmic Samaritan is Joshua Price, a troubled kid who doesn't know what to do with his life. The Price character is a Christian, but at the beginning of the book he is spiritually lost. Austin says the character is very much inspired by people he has met in Jersey City.
"He is not a goody two-shoes or Boy Scout," Austin says. "I want people to relate to him, and to see that we all fall down, but the idea is to get up and stay strong."
Austin says he believes many students and young people will be able to relate to his comic book because it deals with issues of identity and tough ethical decisions.
"I think we're a confused generation," Austin says. "My comic very much reflects that belief. My characters don't always make the right decisions because they are flawed."
Austin says that anyone who reads The Cosmic Samaritan will notice just how much Jersey City informed his work.
"I actually went around Jersey City with many of my friends, and took reference photos of different city locations to use as settings in my book," he says. "I took photos of the drawbridge that goes into Route 1 & 9 because a pivotal scene in the comic book takes place on a similar bridge. I also traveled around the block from NJCU, where there are a bunch of mini-stores, because there are mini-stores in my book. [There is] a scene where the main character, Joshua, robs a store with three young boys, and the store he robs was inspired by a small store around the block from NJCU."
Aside from borrowing the city's physical features, Austin says a lot of his personal experiences and the experiences of people he knows at NJCU are incorporated into the story.
"My comic book shows Jersey City residents helping each other during tough times," he says. Austin plans to work in publishing as a comic artist, illustrator and writer.