By Brad Duban
In a world of throwaway culture and a “flush and forget” mentality, a new hero is fighting a thankless battle to keep our streets (and sewers) clean. Our hero does not wear a cape, lacks super-powers and can’t leap tall buildings. Her name is Lilliput, and she is the Metropolitan Sewer District worker and protagonist of the comic series MeSseD, who fearlessly battles the blockages that prevent sewers from flowing smoothly – tackling everything from mutant bacteria to bureaucratic paperwork.
The young adult comic, which will make its Books by the Banks debut this fall in anticipation of its second series, is a collaboration between writer/creator Jay Kalagayan, illustrator Dylan Speeg, and a host of local talent. Kalagayan, who founded Know Theatre of Cincinnati and co-founded the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, is a self-proclaimed “theater rat,” a playwright, and an avid comic book enthusiast. Speeg, a Cincinnati native and graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, is an illustrator and painter recognized for his cover work for CityBeat, a musician in local band Heavy Hinges, and occasional standup comedian. Together, they have found a medium to highlight their strengths in what Kalagayan calls “a marriage of art and language.”
His love of comics and roots in theater – through storyboarding and visual storytelling – inform Kalagayan’s approach to MeSseD.
“In theater and in comic book storytelling, you need to accomplish a lot with just the picture – or what’s not said,” Kayalagan points out.
However, the process of creating “what’s not said,” comes with its challenges.
“Sometimes I will write out a lengthy description of a certain panel and then Dylan will read it, interpret it, and show me some thumbnails or basic sketches and I’ll be like ‘where did you get that idea?!’”
Kalagayan laughs about what at first felt like miscommunication, but which is actually the product of creative interpretation – a benefit of working with a collaborator you trust.
While the heroes and stories of popular comics (think Marvel and DC) are Kalagayan’s largest influences, Speeg’s illustrative inspiration can be found on the covers of pulp novels, pinups and film noir. Together, these styles meld to create MeSseD’s gritty underground and its warrior-spirited heroes, like Lilliput and her companions – a mutant-sized cockroach and her faithful pet rat Akka.
As the father of two young daughters, Kalagayan wanted to take advantage of the opportunity of being able to introduce the world to his children. His solution was to give them an inspiring role model, and set her in a lusterless underground devoid of glamour, princesses, or fantastical fairytale plot lines.
And while the sewers of MeSseD may be the hyperbolic science-fictionesque world of comic books where we find our heroine, it is oft said that truth can be stranger than fiction.
“I like to have a hard foundation of reality or science, and embellish on top of that,” Kalagayan said of his decision to set his comic in a sewer system. “And … I don’t even know how much embellishment there is…” citing stories of caffeine levels from disposed coffee in Seattle’s waterways, or the unprocessed antibiotics in water outside of a California hospital that created a super-bug in the sewer system. Stories such as these are a real part of the world Kalagayan feels obliged to expose to his daughters. He is showing them, and his readers, that life can be full of unseen grit, challenges and adversity, but that persistence and spirit prevail.
The heroine of MeSseD possesses an underdog persistence, like many protagonists in graphic literature, but she differs from superheros typical to western culture.
“There are not a lot of strong Asian characters in the media available to us,” said Kalagayan, who wanted to “provide a strong character who happens to be Asian; who happens to be female; and who happens to be Filipino, which is my background and my daughters’ half background.”
However, Lilliput’s gender and ethnicity do not define her; her friendships, work, and spirit are what make her appealing as a character. While her name, and that of many other characters, is derived from freshwater mussel species, Lilliput is also – like Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians who fearlessly take down a giant Gulliver – a small force facing adversities many times her size.
The characters of MeSseD and the wet, vivid world they inhabit are available in print and a digital version for purchase online, or bookstores throughout Greater Cincinnati. In preparation for the upcoming release of the second series of issues (expected for November), the creators of MeSseD showcased the comic at the Cincinnati Comic Expo in late September, and will make an appearance at the upcoming Books by the Banks – an event that rarely includes graphic literature. An Indigogo campaign also was launched in August to support Season 2 of MeSseD.
Books by the Banks
Saturday, Oct. 28, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Duke Energy Convention Center
Calling all bookworms!
The 11th annual Books by the Banks festival is back with its celebration of the joys of lifelong learning through reading and writing.
The day-long event will feature national, regional and local authors and illustrators for book signings, panel discussions and family-friendly activities.
Attendees will have a chance to meet authors and browse books for purchase in a range of categories including children’s and teen books, cookbooks, fiction and nonfiction, local authors, sports, and, new this year, graphic novels and comics.
The success of Books by the Banks depends on contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations and collaborating libraries.