A renowned Triangle artist whose paintings hang in the Duke University Medical Center and the N.C. Central University Art Museum has branched out into an entirely new creative endeavor: comic books.
Eric McRay, who has had a studio in downtown Raleigh’s ArtSpace for two decades, is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Giant Star Entertainment, a fledgling comic book company that to date has launched two anthropomorphic characters: Captain Mojo, a wolf who’s the “Terror of the High Seas,” introduced in 2016; and Brother Panda, a furry private eye. (The cover of issue No. 1 of Brother Panda, released last year, proclaims: “He’s black. He’s white. He’s Asian.”)
Two more characters will make their debut – each in their own story – in the first issue of “Charma and the Magic Circle” at NC Comicon: Oak City in the Raleigh Convention Center next Saturday and Sunday, March 17 and 18. They are: Charma, a magician’s rabbit, and Quack-kar the Barbarian, who is, naturally, a duck. More characters are in the pipeline.
When the NCCU Art Museum announced an exhibit of McRay’s work in 2008, the museum’s director, Kenneth Rodgers, praised “a certain joie de vivre” in his work and his “unblinking vision.” But who knew that vision extended to the art form that spawned Spider-Man and “The Walking Dead”?
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It’s an act of love,” McRay, 53, said unabashedly of his latest undertaking. “It’s about love and passion.”
It’s also a business venture that’s operating on the proverbial shoestring budget. McRay has plowed more than $10,000 in seed money into Giant Star and, although he’s willing to invest more, he’ll only do so under the right circumstances.
“Before I dump thousands and thousands of dollars and mortgage the house, I want to know it has some traction and some appeal,” he said. “I’m not a fool.”
McRay isn’t disclosing sales figures for the inaugural issues of Captain Mojo and Brother Panda. But he’s upbeat about the results given that Giant Star is relying on a grassroots marketing and sales effort. Issues are primarily sold via mail order to consumers the company connects with via social media and through appearances at comic book shows.
Up next: Giant Star plans to make its titles available on Amazon later this month.
The barriers to entry in the comic book industry were lowered considerably with the advent of digital printing, which significantly reduced production costs and made smaller print runs feasible. Still, the road to comic book fame and fortune is littered with failures.
Tiffany Young, who owns Arkham Comix stores in Wilson and Rocky Mount, has seen lots of comic book startups flop. But she believes in McRay and his cohorts.
“A lot of people, if they don’t get immediate attention right away, just give up,” said Young. “These guys aren’t like that. They are very dedicated to what they have, they believe in it, and it’s contagious.”
She’s also a fan of Giant Star’s first two titles – so much so that in January her Wilson store hosted a book signing for McRay and Mike Wilson, the co-creator of Captain Mojo and Brother Panda, and others involved in the comics. The two Arkham stores are the only retail outlets carrying Giant Star products.
Young said of Brother Panda, which takes place in the 1970s and was inspired by Dirty Harry and John Shaft: “It’s an action-adventure whatever, but it’s actually pretty funny. The art is incredible. It’s got a great story line. It’s different, it’s something that I haven’t seen before.”
Comic book sales to North American consumers totaled $405 million in 2016, unchanged from 2015, while digital downloads accounted for another $90 million in sales each of those years, according to industry trackers Comichron and ICv2. Those numbers don’t include sales of older comics snapped up by collectors.
Although McRay is publisher and editor and co-owner of Giant Star, along with his wife Frances McRay, he’s not the Lone Ranger. He recruited two long-time friends as creative partners: Wilson, of Fayetteville, a graphics artist and retired Army staff sergeant whose military service included stints in graphics shops at the Pentagon and NATO; and Darrell Brown of Washington, D.C., a law firm researcher who, along with McRay, worked as a freelancer on an independent horror comic, “The 39 Screams,” three decades ago.
“The three of us collaborate all the time on the direction of the company, ideas,” McRay said. “This is a team sport.”
Wilson and Brown are working for free right now – as is McRay. It’s something Wilson and Brown are willing to do because they retain ownership rights to the characters they create or co-create. They’re gambling that will pay off in the long run.
“I think the concepts are good enough that if you get in front of a wide enough audience, they’ll gain some traction,” said Brown, who bonded over comic books with McRay when they attended high school together in Washington, D.C.
“Eric told me once, we’re going to make this work or else it’s just a really expensive hobby,” said Wilson, who in addition to co-creating characters along with McRay also has written and illustrated stories. Brown created Charma and an upcoming superhero, Summer Girl, and serves as a writer and editor.
McRay also has amassed a far-flung network of freelance illustrators, graphic designers and the like that extends as far as Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines. “Some of these people I have never met,” he said. “I found them on the Internet. We negotiated on the Internet. … We move content through Dropbox and Gmail and Facebook Messenger.”
Ironically, McRay’s contributions to date haven’t included artwork.
“I would love to do some original art, but here is the reality,” said McRay. “The amount of time it takes to draw, say, 20 pages of content, I could do ‘X’ number of paintings and so much original art that I can demand a higher price (for). That fine art finances Giant Star in its infancy.”
McRay, who jokes that he’s “been gainfully unemployed since 1999,” sells his original art for as little as $75 and as much as $4,800.
The game plan for Giant Star includes producing new stories featuring existing characters and continuing to launch new titles with an eye toward nurturing a loyal following that will attract the attention of comic book stores and a distributor.
But Giant Star isn’t relying totally on comic book sales. McRay envisions it as “an entertainment company,” noting that successful comic books can lead to video games, TV series, movies and more.
Even in its infancy, he said, Giant Star’s sales of merchandise – refrigerator magnets, posters and prints – have exceeded comic book sales.
NC Comicon: Oak City
What: panels, exhibits, workshops, vendors and a cosplay contest.
Guests include: Orlando Jones, actor/writer whose credits include “Sleepy Hollow” and “American Gods”; Jen Cohn, voice actress of Pharah in “Overwatch” and “Lord Vash” in “Star Wars: The Old Republic”; and Kevin Eastman, co-creator of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Heavy Metal.”
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 17, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, March 18.
Where: Raleigh Convention Center, 505 Salisbury St.
Tickets: Two-day weekend pass is $40, plus taxes and fees; Saturday-only is $30 and Sunday-only is $20. Children 9 and under free with an adult. Special VIP tickets available, see web site for details. Available at the door and online.
More info: http://nccomicon.com/oak-city/