Growing up in the Navajo Nation had its pros and cons for Damon Begay — he was near his family, but he had never been to a comic book store.
When Begay came across comic books for the first time at a gas station, he knew he wanted to become a storyteller utilizing both visual elements and the written word. After he moved to Phoenix 11 years ago, he became a regular at every comic book store he could find.
Now, Begay helms his own comic book series and sells his work at several comic book conventions that travel through Arizona every year.
"On the reservation, there's no comic book stores," he said. "When I came out here and I lived out here, there's a store right next to where I lived, so that's what I spent all my allowance money on."
Begay said he discovered his love for comics — and the art therein — at an early age, but was not able to foster that love into something more because of his limited access.
Growing up, Begay pored over the pages of major superhero books, such as Spider-Man and Batman. Once he made his way into the artistic community, though, he quickly began drawing inspiration from the work of more local, independent writers and artists.
"(My books are) pretty random, kind of like Power Rangers" Begay said.
Begay said some of his greatest inspiration stems from the Marvel Comics Ultimate Comics series.
"What I liked about them was ... they would take a power like Ant-Man growing large and try to base it in reality," he said. "Something about that science and the logic and just the realism of the stories got me."
Begay said he has since shifted focus off of origins and explanations of superpowers, and onto more fun, fast-paced stories.
In addition to his love for comic books, Begay is a film and television buff. Going back to classics such as "The Twilight Zone" gave him the idea to focus on the meat of stories rather than spend time crafting a clever genesis, he said.
In addition to a rapid pace and fun spirit, Begay said he values honesty in art. He enjoys artwork which portrays people as they are, as opposed to comic books which paint pictures of people with unattainable physical forms.
Begay is able to make a living off of his work. He sets up at comic book conventions, including the recent Phoenix Comicon, and drops off his most recent issues at local comic book stores for distribution.
It may be common practice for him now, but Begay did not set up at a convention until he was about 19, he said. Now, at 24, Begay experiences a larger draw through venues such as Phoenix Comicon than he did when he first started.
"I went to this really small convention, it was called CopperCon," he said. "It's super tiny, there was only like 50 people there and it was in a hotel ... that's where I made my first sale ever."
At the most recent comic book convention, Begay had an opportunity to cross paths with more than 100,000 people, according to the Phoenix Comicon Facebook page.
Although Begay uses local stores to get his work out there, he said he does not charge them, because they're closer to family than business partners.
"I love those stores, and I wouldn't feel right for them to pay me," he said. "A lot of the fun is creating it."
Begay also offers PDF downloads of his comics on Gumroad, a site for independent artists.
Begay, a graphic information technology senior, said his major has allowed him to learn more about the fundamentals of printing, which he has put to use after he decided to do the majority of the printing on his own.
Although Begay works largely independently, he has a group of acquaintances he refers to as his "comic book uncles." These friends have helped Begay get established in the comic book scene and have become some of his closest friends.
One such "uncle," Denny Riccelli, said he first met Begay while working on a mini-comic with local artist Eric Mengel.
"He would come and say, 'Wow, I like these books, I like these books,'" Riccelli said. "He handed us a mini-comic and then took off. And then the next time we were at an appearance, he showed up and he goes, 'Hand me another book.'"
Their relationship continued to grow as Begay stuck around longer and longer with Riccelli and Mengel, Riccelli said.
"I've seen his books from the first book he made to the Interstellar Comix he's making now — I have a copy of almost every one of them," Riccelli said. "He's so free to kind of just try and experiment ... instead of him forcing the tools to work right, he is figuring out what tools work for him."
Brad Dwyer, another of Begay's "uncles," said he's constantly impressed by Begay's energy and creativity.
"I like that he does anthologies, there's a lot of variety and he gets to experiment with a lot of different types of stories and styles," Dwyer said. "He constantly has new things going and it's all different."
Dwyer and Begay teamed up on a recent project, called "Kaiju Counterattack," where the two collaborated with another artist on a book's story and artwork. He said working together illustrated how diverse Begay can be in his storytelling.
Mengel, who met Begay at the same time as Riccelli, said he's impressed with the way in which Begay tackles his work.
"He's fearless — I've seen this guy draw on paper that wasn't the right size, he always makes it work," Mengel said.
Although a friend of Begay's, Mengel has been making his own comics for over 20 years. He said he sees Begay as a little brother and is excited to see him move forward in the artistic community.
"I started drawing comics roughly around the same time (of life) that he did, and I know that he is just going to do some amazing things," Mengel said. "I can't see him ever not drawing, and I'm just really looking forward to the future."
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