Local artist Russ Kazmierczak has been drawing his comics since he moved to Arizona after college. (Photo by Diana Lustig)
Satirizing local and national news events gives local comic book artist Russ Kazmierczak inspiration for his Amazing Arizona Comics.
Kazmierczak started creating stories by pulling items from the news to provide fresh and new outlooks on everyday life around Arizona by satirizing authority figures like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Gov. Jan Brewer and creating new origin stories for beloved figures like ASU’s Sparky.
“I started looking into Sparky’s history, and I didn’t know that the ASU mascot before Sparky was an owl, so I thought that was pretty cool,” Kazmierczak said. "The development of Sparky himself was supposedly by a former Disney animator who was hired to create the initial design of Sparky, and knowing that, when you look at the face it looks a lot like Walt Disney.”
From that story, Kazmierczak got the inspiration to create an origin story of his own for Sparky.
“In the story the character is created with a magic pen with ink infused with some of Walt Disney's blood, so naturally the drawing comes to life, and he is used throughout history from that point forward as kind of a secret agent fighting crime in Arizona,” he said. “So by day he is the mascot, and the friendly devil, but by night, he is a little more ruthless towards criminals, and so that’s the basis of his origin in my stories.”
Adding interesting stories to popular characters creates a depth that allows Kazmierczak to be creative with his story ideas.
“When he appears, it is with the pretext that the Sparky we see is ASU’s mascot, but there is more to him and his natural agility and energy than the average student believes,” he said.
Sparky hasn’t appeared in many recent comics, as Kazmierczak doesn’t try to use characters he didn’t create, but he is sure Sparky will be reappearing in the future.
“I try to use them as an homage or as a background story, but I really do love that idea for Sparky’s origin, so at some point, the pen may resurface to create characters that he has to fight and stuff like that,” Kazmierczak said.
Kazmierczak started drawing once he moved back to Arizona after college. A friend of his helped him create his comics.
“I moved back here, and my buddy was back in California, so I would say my art was just necessary, and I would show it to people in the Valley, and they would compare it to golden age books,” he said. “I really like that it has the spirit of the original comic book, and I’ve always looked at good comics as having some connection to reality, like those first comics where Captain America is fighting Hitler or Superman is fighting corrupt landlords.”
Drawing inspiration from the original superheroes and the way they reacted to the world around them gave Kazmierczak the idea for Amazing Arizona Comics as a way to connect with people who may not be comic book readers.
“I would like to think there is some solid expressionism going on, and my work isn’t confusing,” he said. “My wife doesn’t read comics, so I always throw them her way to make sure somebody who doesn’t normally read comics can just glance at the page and know what is going on, because I want anybody who wants to read a comic about Arizona to be able to pick one up and read it easily.”
His comics are sold locally, but the web comic deal with national topics. Even though the comics have gained popular, neither Sheriff Joe or Gov. Brewer have responded to being depicted in his comics. (Photo by Diana Lustig)
Amazing Arizona Comics
Local authority figures play a major role in Amazing Arizona Comics where Arpaio appears in a large majority of issues, and occasionally Brewer will make an appearance.
“You can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing some crazy caricature of Sheriff Joe,” he said. "I don’t dislike Sheriff Joe, but I think he puts himself in positions that are easy for satire, and I just take advantage of that like everyone else does.”
If superheroes really existed, Kazmierczak said he believes Arpaio would definitely utilize their abilities.
“Like Lou Ferrigno or Steven Seagal or any of these celebrities that come through his doors wanting to fight crime, he would use superheroes the same way,” he said. “If he could, he’d sanction superheroes, and he’d use them to capitalize on the media attention, so that is basically the premise of his involvement in the stories.”
Arpaio’s over-the-top antics speaks to the duality of his comic book character, he said.
“He’s this tough-as-nails, no-mercy-on-crime kind of guy, but is also shaking hands and kissing babies,” Kazmierczak said. “I think he’s the closest thing we get to a Commissioner Gordon in real life.”
Throughout the years, Kazmierczak has featured Arpaio and Brewer in many issues but has never received any backlash over using the popular figures.
“Sheriff Joe is in the comic all the time, and Jan Brewer is in the comic all the time too, so I’m always braced for a call, but I know through the stores and different comic-cons hundreds of my books are out there,” he said. “I don’t know if any of them have ended up in their hands, but no one has ever said anything.”
Along with the comic books issues in stores around the Valley, Kazmierczak produces a web comic that puts his local superheroes on a national scale.
“America’s Super Secret Service is my web comic, and that is an extension of Amazing Arizona Comics,” Kazmierczak said. “So like Sherrif Joe has created this super secret deputized posse of heroes and President (Barack) Obama gets the same idea, so he creates the super secret service recruits based all over the country, and that allows me to take that idea locally and apply that formula nationally.”
By nationalizing his superheroes, Kazmierczak can draw inspiration from stories happening around the country.
“If there is some crazy event coming out of Florida, I can create a character that has some attachment to it and satirize that as well,” he said.
Arpaio and Brewer are the national figures Kazmierczak draws on the most because of their intricate ways of going about their business, he said.
“In Arizona, we get so close already to characters that would be in a comic book, like Sheriff Joe or Jan Brewer,” he said. “There’s a part of their persona that doesn’t even seem real, but more like a crazy story that we can watch unfold, and it’s hard to imagine bumping into these people and having a conversation with them outside of their public personas.”
Kazmierczak attends many of the comic-cons in the West and has seen a resurgence in the popularity of the comic book.
“The comic scene in general is interesting because the resurgence of the superhero in popular culture is beneficial to people like me who have always liked them, always drawn them, and now I want to tell original stories,” he said. “People are looking at it as more of legitimate storytelling because they have seen Captain America or they have seen The Avengers.”
Kazmierczak said he likes to base his comics on local events because it maintains a connection to classic comic books. (Photo by Diana Lustig)
The comic book world
Marco Regalado, owner of Pop Culture Comics, has seen the same revitalization in the comic book world.
“There has definitely been a resurgence, especially with the video games and the movies, and I see that going on for a very long time because it seems to be a recurring trend,” he said. “People want to get their fix in between the big movies and they go to video games and comic books.”
Drew Sullivan, owner of Samurai Comics, said he thinks people are looking for new media and new stories to consume.
“People are looking for new ways stories are being told,” he said. “I certainly think people are paying more attention, especially if they were introduced through a movie.”
The creation of new genres of comics is also helping drive comic book sales, Sullivan said.
“More and more different kinds of genres are being represented in comics, and I’m seeing more people who didn’t grow up with comics starting with these new genres,” he said.
Kazmierczak is creating new characters and looking toward the future for what is going to happen next, and is looking at possibly integrating ASU President Michael Crow into a coming issue.
“I haven’t had Michael Crow in the comics yet, but in issue 8 of my comic, one of my characters, June Monsoon, is on Parallel Earth 1070 where Sheriff Joe has taken over the world where he considers everyone an alien and has rounded them up in these concentration camps, and his base of operations is the solar panel fields of Tempe, so I haven’t had Michael Crow in there yet, but it is alluded to,” he said.
Kazmierczak said he is looking forward to creating more characters and new issues as he prepares for the Phoenix Comic-Con in June but is still nostalgic for his earliest superhero, Sparky.
“I just want to go back and emphasize that he was drawn with a magic pen infused with Walt Disney's blood,” he said.
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