Two Memphis friends publish a comic book about two Memphis friends publishing a comic book.
If Under Pressure, the newly released compilation of their online strip Let's Be Friends Again, becomes a best-seller, writer Curt Franklin and illustrator Chris Haley should give credit to Superman, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Queen — the band, not Elizabeth.
Haley, a graphic designer for Varsity Spirit Corporation, can't remember a day in his life when he wasn't fascinated by comic books. "At my birthday parties when I was little, the cakes were Superman cakes," he says. "When I was too young to even read, I would get Superman comics and take crayons and color over them."
As he grew older, he began to collect comics and hang out at local comic book stores. He also had another obsession: the rock band Queen, featuring lead singer Freddie Mercury.
These worlds collided four years ago, when he went to a karaoke contest at Neil's in Midtown and met Curt Franklin.
"We discovered we both had a real enthusiasm for the same things: karaoke, Queen, and comics," Haley says. "We sort of became instant buddies." A few months later, when they heard that the website LifeMeterComics.com was looking for a comic about video games, of all things, they came up with a one-page comic called Streets of Rage. Published online, LifeMeterComics liked it so much they included it in a 2007 anthology.
That same year, Haley and Franklin attended SPX, a comic book expo in Bethesda, Maryland, where — as Haley tells it — "one of the more established cartoonists challenged us to a karaoke battle, which we soundly won" by performing the Queen/David Bowie hit, "Under Pressure." Hence the book title. "That song has always been special to us," he says. "It made us realize what a good team we were."
With another event coming up at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City, Franklin decided to produce something they could distribute at the show. "So we came up with a mini-comic that featured the two of us trying to come up with a comic-book idea," says Haley. "When Curt gave me the script, I found a line that said, 'Let's Be Friends Again' and I said that should be the name of the strip. We argue about it, though. Curt always says he found it first."
The first book, a little 12-page thing, was printed at Kinko's and sold at their booth for $1. Sales weren't exactly brisk, so they posted a sign: Buy our comic and Haley would make a sketch of Freddie Mercury. "We became known as the Freddie Mercury guys," says Haley, "and we got so many requests for sketches that I was drawing them and mailing them out for weeks after the show."
After that, Franklin and Haley weren't sure where to go next — another book, or something web-based? In September 2008 they decided to go online with a biweekly strip called — what else? — Let's Be Friends Again, featuring themselves.
"Chris and I are pop-culture fiends," says Franklin. "We're the kind of annoying nerds who would compare a real-life conflict to a fight that Superman had with Lex Luthor. At some point, we decided to turn our silly jokes with one another into comics."
Some of the references may seem obscure to readers who grew up on superhero comics. Sure, they're here, but doing things you wouldn't expect: In one strip, Superman accidentally rips off Lois Lane's head when he uses his super-strength in an "island death tournament." And Sunday comic staples like Garfield and Family Circus can be found in these pages, too, but with a definite twist. Franklin and Haley show a rather darker side to this wholesome household, with Billy strapped to a guillotine in the basement, while little sister Dolly — well, we won't say what's happening to Dolly. And Garfield? His nine lives are up. "Their comic life is so happy and bland," says Franklin, "that we decided something dark and deranged had to be going on there." After a year, the two had enough strips to compile a book, and arranged to have it published by Createspace, a division of Amazon. "For something that was basically born of an extended hobby," says Franklin, "I think it looks great."
The 64-page book, titled Under Pressure, features 84 Let's Be Friends Again strips, along with illustrations contributed by friends and artists they admire. It also features often-hilarious commentary by Haley and Franklin about each strip.
For example, beneath a strip that pays homage to Evan Dorkin, an artist they admire, Franklin writes, "To this day we base every life decision on how it relates to Evan Dorkin. We're miserable." Haley says, "Trying to explain to Dorkin that we had put him in our comic, but as a monster who kills us, was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. He seemed to like us when we bought some art from him, though, so I may have wasted a perfectly good pants-wetting."
Under Pressure is available for $12.99 from amazon.com and Comics & Collectibles in Memphis.