Aaron Conley and Lakeland’s very own superhero

Story by Adam Justice • Photography by Philip Pietri

The comic-book universe is no longer ruled by Superman. The traditional standard of a white demigod do-gooder is as outdated and preposterous as his superhero tights. In fact, the new-aged underground comic-book scene is so inexplicably vast and diverse that even the more modernized X-Men are resigned to their back pills and applesauce. A contemporary tide of emerging artists bolsters the genre into a radically new and more widely relative standing. Today’s comic books can be found in the Library of Congress, are viewed as the focus of major museum exhibitions, and have their own category on the New York Times Best Sellers List.
Comic books first gained popularity in America in 1933 as short, illustrated episodes of adventure found in metal racks at the five-and-dime. Shortly after the release of Action Comics
#1 in 1938, which introduced Superman, comic books became a bona fide mass medium. They were eventually incorporated into the world of fine art with the emergence of pop art in the late 1950s. By using comic books as subjects for their paintings, artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein catapulted comics into the arena of connoisseurship.
The growing status of comic books allowed the genre to become more sophisticated and attracted a diversity of new artists who expanded and renovated the field. Those who push the contemporary boundaries of illustrated literature are as delightfully eccentric as the genre itself. Some are seasoned die-hards who cut their teeth on the vintage classics and cover art for science-fiction novellas. Others are the first generation of increasingly curious fans that mixed their early love for comic books with Star Wars merchandise. Others are younger fans who
were originally immersed in Japanese animation but eventually needed to leave the stock style for something more nuanced. Yet, many others cannot as easily be classified.
Hence, there is Aaron Conley, a Lakelander whose passion for drawing led him to a fascination with comic books. Although born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Conley has been a Lakelander nearly all his life. His earliest memories are of drawing, doodling, and recreating scenes of his favorite superheroes. He graduated from the Harrison School for the Visual and Performing Arts in 1996. Following graduation, he took a hiatus from his artistic pursuits. During this time, Conley worked for Lakeland-based Woodpecker Records for seven years, graduated from the Paul Mitchell School for Hair Design in Tampa and worked as a stylist for one year, then periodically as a freelance illustrator, and for the national chain Coliseum of Comics. It was during his stint as a hair stylist when he realized his creative appetite wasn’t being fed. He returned to the studio and began working toward what then was an unknown end.

[Conley’s] anxious yet controlled line quality gives life to each character, conveys the energy of each scene, and works perfectly with his knack for extremely detailed drawings.

Conley began working with artist and fellow comic-book enthusiast Damon Gentry, a former Lakelander. Together they launched InvadeMyPrivacy.com, a website and blog for promoting their work and documenting their pop cultural interests. During this time they were also sending out a barrage of material to any publisher they could contact. Eventually, they got a bite from Dark Horse Comics, the nation’s third-largest comic-book publisher. The publisher invited Conley and Gentry to submit work for a small Myspace vignette called Dark Horse Presents, an online platform for showcasing emerging talent in the industry. So impressed by the quality of their work, Dark Horse asked Conley and Gentry to pitch an idea for a full-length book. After fleshing out ideas and producing material for the proposal, the pitch was made and accepted.
In November, Dark Horse released Sabertooth Swordsman and the Mayhem of the Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician. This attractive, hardcover, one hundred twenty-page graphic novel is illustrated by Conley and written by Gentry. It’s the story of a weak Arabian farmer transformed into a sword-wielding saber-toothed tiger by the cloud god of Sasquatch Mountain. As the Sabertooth Swordsman, he vows, “Fraternities of darkness shall know fear!” He then sets out to destroy an array of evil foes, from a herd of mutant mountain goats to a couple of sarcastic Cyclops, and rescue his wife, Joleen, from the clutches of the mastodon mathematician. His superpowers aren’t exactly typical; the Sabertooth Swordsman doesn’t have the power of invisibility, or laser vision, or transformative powers. Instead, he fights those powers natural to a saber-toothed tiger, i.e., enhanced vision, sharp teeth, camouflaged fur, and powerful claws. The only supernatural powers he possesses are his superb swordsmanship, his ability to speak…and his fondness for wearing sweatpants (“the very definition of comfort and mobility”).
The production of the book proved more daunting than either artist had anticipated. As Gentry developed the story, Conley worked diligently on laying out and illustrating each page.
Depending on the course of the plot, Conley would spend between ten and eighteen hours per page. To retain a sense of reality during these long drawing sessions, he would listen to podcasts like This American Life, Radiolab, and Snap Judgment. He quickly learned that while drawing completely surreal subjects for hours, it’s good to tether yourself to reality by any means possible. By listening to NPR, Conley was able to create a sense of balance that allowed him to keep working.
Conley’s illustrations will hit a familiar chord with fans of John Kricfalusi, the creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show. His anxious yet controlled line quality gives life to each character, conveys the energy of each scene, and works perfectly with his knack for extremely detailed drawings. To read the book once is to miss the subtle details Conley sneaks past you on each overwhelmingly meticulous page. To read it a second time is to experience its artistry on an entirely deeper level. Combined with Gentry’s ability to write a spiraling and arresting plotline, Conley’s illustrations succeed in expanding our appreciation for the artistry of a 21st century comic-book culture. Sabertooth Swordsman and the Mayhem of the Malevolent
Mastodon Mathematician has been a success straight out of the gate. Even before being officially released, the graphic novel was receiving accolades from around the comic-book universe. In his June review titled “Buy This Book: Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley’s ‘Sabertooth Swordsman,’” Chris Sims at ComicsAlliance. com wrote:

High-concept books can be a pretty mixed bag. It’s one thing to come up with one of those compelling, bizarre premises that grab the reader’s attention, but if the substance isn’t there to back it up — or even if it’s done in the wrong tone — they fall flatter than just about anything else you’ll find on the shelves. When they work, though, the results can be pretty amazing, and fortunately, Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley’s Sabertooth Swordsman is definitely the kind that hits.

The momentum is likely to only increase as word of the book reaches wider audiences. As its story and artistry is so conducive to multimedia, don’t be surprised if you see the Sabertooth Swordsman unveiled in a variety of media formats in the future. In the meantime, I recommend stopping into Coliseum Comics in downtown Lakeland, congratulating Aaron Conley, and proudly purchasing your own copy of Sabertooth Swordsman and the Mayhem of the Malevolent Mastodon Mathematician direct from the artist himself. I have my signed copy.

I think my biggest inspiration is my absolute love for comics as a unique merging of art and language. Every time I sit down to work on comics I want to push myself further as an artist, and find new and interesting ways to entertain myself and my audience.