Holy Batman, Chewie!

When work in the salt mines fizzled, Marty Egeland went back to the drawing board

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Chewbacca lives! Star Wars illustrator Marty Egeland. - Walter  Novak
Chewbacca lives! Star Wars illustrator Marty Egeland.
The 11th-hour boob jobs can be trying. "I'll be drawing this huge-breasted woman lifting a car, and I'll sit there and laugh, thinking, what am I doing for a living?" says Cleveland comic book artist Marty Egeland. "And then the editor calls back and says, "Make her tits bigger.'"

Score one for the American way. At age 28, Egeland has drawn 17,544 strong shoulders, 821 people with glow-in-the-dark eyes, and 13 guys with flames coming out of their heads. Or something like that.

"How many times can you see Batman strapped to a missile?" he wonders. How many fish are in the sea? A lot, if you're illustrating Aquaman every month, which Egeland did for D.C. Comics from 1994 to '98. After that, he drew Andrenalynn, an action series about an underage android with a hard drive in her belly button, as well as sundry superhero books for Marvel, Image, and Darkhorse.

Just drawing "muscle-bound people in tights" for 12 to 14 hours a day is, in a way, a dream job for Egeland, who always wanted to be a comic book illustrator.

After high school, he started at the bottom -- 2,228 feet underground, to be exact, breaking rocks at the Morton salt mine in Painesville. But he got fired, so he went to a college with a matchbook-cover-sounding name: the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Graphic Arts in New Jersey. Kubert, a veteran illustrator of war comics, really cracked the whip, and only 24 out of 200 people in the freshman class, Egeland included, graduated. They all got jobs in the comics industry.

But for Egeland, the superhero genre doesn't quite cut it. As a kid, he always favored campy comics, like the black-and-white Creepy and Eerie and the Tales From the Crypt horror series published by the dearly departed E.C. Comics.

Lately, however, things have been looking up, rather than up and away. He recently landed a plum gig with Lucasfilm Ltd., illustrating comic books for the Star Wars: Phantom Menace series. And he's taking a break from the spandex-and-decoder-ring set to draw his own book, Kung Fu Theatre, a parody of ninja movies. His coffeehouse buddy, Larry McCarley, is doing the writing.

"The five deadly drunken monkeys are our heroes," Egeland enthuses. "We have a chick named Mai Tai, who fights with little cocktail umbrellas. Then there's Lo Fat, which is the really obese, drunken guy. He wears a wicker basket on his back, which contains a little midget named Ground Round. He's this really pissed-off little midget.

"The last one is Mang Le -- Mangle -- she's the crippled master. She's always breaking her arms and legs and stuff. I don't know where it started, but the crippled master is an old character from all the kung fu movies. There's always one person who has either no arms or no legs, but they're still badasses.

"It's something that comes across as not very politically correct, now that I'm saying it out loud," he muses. "But hopefully it'll be done humorously enough that it won't matter. I wanted to get across the same cheesiness that kung fu movies have, without it being cheesy itself."

The villain is General Lee, a samurai named after the avenging Dodge Charger in Dukes of Hazzard. In the first installment, he's an underling to a demon, sent out to steal an alchemy book called The Book of Nine Elixirs, says McCarley. "And then the five drunken monkeys get into a fight."

It's at least a little ways from Tusky the wayward walrus, an Aquaman storyline that nearly sent Egeland off the deep end.

"Aquaman goes to Ocean World, which is sort of like Sea World, to rescue his walrus friend Tusky," says Egeland of "Tusk 'Til Dawn.' "He sort of went there because he wanted to be a star and didn't tell anyone."

Aquaman soon realized that he was wasting valuable superhero time trying to rescue a walrus who was perfectly happy balancing a red ball on his nose, and Egeland soon realized that, after three and a half years of drawing Aquaman, he was ready to take the octopus by the tentacles and move on.

"I started that book with Issue 1," he says. "By Issue 2, he already had his hand chewed off by piranhas."

Right now, Egeland's also working on a Chewbacca book for Darkhorse and "Uncle George" Lucas.

"Chewbacca was recently killed off in a Star Wars novel, after Return of the Jedi happens, I suppose," says Egeland. "And there was a big outcry: Why did you kill Chewbacca?' All these fans."

Hence the upcoming tribute series to the Wookiee warrior, with short stories based on his offscreen adventures. Egeland's episode has Chewie teamed up with Lando Calrissian, the galaxy-hopping gangster played by Billy Dee Williams in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

"They actually gave me a choice of that story or another one that has Chewbacca teamed up with Luke Skywalker, but I had drawn Luke, and it was very passé. I wanted a shot at Billy Dee."

Egeland's Star Wars editor, Peet Janes at Darkhorse Comics, says that he's been watching Egeland's career closely since he was in school, waiting to match him up with the right job, which turned out to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi book for the Phantom Menace series, released in conjunction with the movie.

"His work has that elastic quality," he says. "It's very lively, almost animated. A big problem with a lot of comics art these days is that the images look too much like images on a page, whereas Marty's stuff has a lot of excitement to it.

"He has a lot of youthful energy and enthusiasm that some of the more longtime professionals seem to have lost. But he really embraced everything very quickly and had a lot of enthusiasm for Star Wars."

Elasticity came in handy during those interstellar battles, but it didn't help Egeland make flesh and blood from foam rubber.

"Yoda is actually one of the most difficult characters to draw," he says. "I tried to give him some life, so he didn't look so much like a puppet, but I don't think it worked, because he is a puppet."

Since he was drawing the book before the film came out, Egeland had only photographed models of the set and a condensed version of the film script to work from.

"It sort of ruined the movie for me," he says. "The whole time I was sitting there slapping myself -- oh, I did that wrong. Oh, I did that wrong. But I thought it was a beautiful movie. As an artist, I appreciated the designs that went into it."

A distant crowd scene in the film became a detailed, close-up crowd scene in Egeland's comic. But even Uncle George himself didn't seem to be a stickler for absolute accuracy. He asked Darkhorse for only two minor, lightsaber-related changes.

"Even though I knew that a lightsaber wound would cauterize, I drew a big trail of blood, just 'cause it looked cool," Egeland says. "And they called me up and said, "Get rid of the blood.' I kinda knew that was gonna happen."

Egeland also slipped a couple of his buddies from the Coventry Arabica coffeehouse into the memorial service for the slain Qui-Gon.

"They're dressed as Jedis because they wanted to be Jedis. It's just the back of their heads," he says, but they still stand out, bathed in pink light, as opposed to the rest of the crowd's purple. "The story called for them to be looking away.

"I try to do as much as I can without getting caught, because Marvel and D.C. have this thing, if you're gonna stick any likenesses in there, [the models] have to sign off on a waiver. But that seems too involved."

When the books come out, Egeland suddenly has a lot more buddies, and everybody and their golden retriever -- especially at the Coventry Arabica, where he hangs out -- tries to scam a free copy.

"Is that an issue of Star Wars?" asks a stringbean in a parka.

"Oh geez," says Marty.

Parka-man picks up the book and flips through it. "You should have brought me a toy," he says, referring to the new Andrenalynn line of action figures, samples of which Egeland just got in the mail. "I need to get this one."

"You can't have it. That's already somebody else's, dude."

Parka-man shuffles away, empty-handed. "I actually stuck him in my last issue of Andrenalynn," Egeland says. "He's an easy guy to caricature."

It may not be martinis on the veranda with Uncle George, but it's enough attention to make Tusky the walrus turn seafoam green with envy.

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