The first ever Maui Comic Con took place last year at the Lahaina Cannery. An estimated 2,000 people attended, many in costume with their keiki. The event featured appearances by top tier comic book artists, an Artist’s Alley of local comic book artists, buyer’s booths, scores of comic books, a VIP room and panels pertaining to comic book films and TV shows. The Lahaina Cannery hadn’t felt so cram-packed in years and the event proved to be a dream come true for anyone living on the Valley Isle who had never made it to either a mainland or inter-island comic book convention.
A year later, Maui Comic Con is back and even bigger than its inaugural year. Now, UH Maui College will host the event, which will create a more expansive landscape, a more centralized location for attendees and more variety for lovers of all things comic books, movies and pop culture.
In the weeks leading up to the event, most of the inventory at Maui’s sole comic shop, Maui Comics and Collectibles, is being boxed and stacked. Alika Seki, the owner of the store that hosts multiple gamer meetings and the NERDWatch podcast, has rarely been busier. In addition to being the orchestrator of another eagerly anticipated Maui event, he’s also in the process of moving his shop. His cozy, charmingly stuffed store at the Akaku Center is moving across town. In fact, starting Nov. 1, Maui Comics and Collectibles will be right next to Paradise Video, making Wakea Avenue the hippest street on Maui (sorry, Market Street, you had a good run).
While Seki has shaved his samurai hairdo and has his hands full, his enthusiasm for the upcoming Maui Comic Con and a new store address with lots more room is contagious.
MAUITIME: How will this year be different from last year?
ALIKA SEKI: We’re moving our location to the college, which is where I always envisioned it would be. Not too much else. The formula is the same: we’re free to the public but offer VIP tables for patrons to pay to see the headliners. Stan Sakai, Mark Texiera and Joe Rubinstein will have their own booths, where they’ll charge for signatures. Our Artist Alley will have its own room. It’ll probably be a zoo in there with all those artists! Last year we had 20 artists. We have 30 this year.
MT: What was the response like from the public after the first Maui Comic Coin?
AS: Huge. People for the entire year have been coming in and talking about it, how they’re looking forward to it. Since we’re more centrally located, more people will be able to attend this year than last.
MT: Did it create a greater awareness of your shop?
AS: Awareness of the store is the same but I think it’s a symptom of the demand for comics.
MT: What are some of the highlights you’re looking forward to?
AS: The highlights include the Brian Kohne and Adi Ell-Ad’s exclusive clips for the Kuleana panel and Stan Sakai’s drawing demo. Mark Texiera is doing loose sketches and free signatures for the first hour of the convention each day. The first 50 people in line will get a free poster and those on Sunday will get a free comic. There’s a super high concentration of local talent in one room.
There are so many people volunteering to make things happen. There’s many who we trust to run with the ball. Francine Walraven did the concept art and she organized an after party. James Welch of Geek Design Firm is doing our graphic design work to make it professional. All of the support from the Hawaiian Comic Book Alliance.
MT: What are some lessons learned from last year?
AS: It went how we expected it to. I loved how much of the cosplay community came. The largest cosplay convention on Maui so far. It’s very impressive to me, that Night Darling was able to rally the community like that. Needless to say, she’s in charge again. Being a comic fan, seeing the old, rare vintage comics. This year, we’ve got a guy who purchased the remainder of a pedigree collection. There will be a lot of silver and golden age comics, like Wonder Woman. Those kind of things, when you’re a comic fan, it’s just the best.
MT: Tell me about your guests.
AS: The main three are Joe Rubinstein, a legendary inker. Mark Texiera from the 1980s’ Ghost Rider and The Punisher and many more. He has a dark, grittier style. most notable from the 1990s’ Spirits of Vengeance series. As for Eisner award winning Stan Sakai, when you hear other artists talk of him, it’s with reverence and respect for his complete body of work. It’s rare that an artist’s cannon is so pure and complete. He’s really an artist’s artist. He recently put out the crossover Usagi Yojimbo/ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The art is incredible on that one.
MT: Tell me about the big move to Wakea.
AS: We’re going to be occupying the same building as Paradise Video. That was originally the first spot I wanted to open the store. The Kidney Foundation had made the agreement and got it. They’re downsizing their space, we could use more room, it works out for everyone. I’m super excited. We’ll have Magic events, a separate gaming room, and more storage in general. We’ll be outside of Queen Ka`ahumanu and Sheiks and down the street from the college. We luckily survived long enough for us to open again. Our first day is Nov. 1.
BW: How did the comic con venue relocation come about?
AS: Ken Gardner is the catalyst for the convention. He went to the Lahaina Cannery last year–they were a great location and partners. We may work with them in the future to do something else. As far as this event being free to the public and the school/educational outreach goals to the community, it’s a better collaboration with University of Hawaii. I went to UH when it was MCC and was on the student government in 2000. I was on it for two semesters. I can’t get away from Kahului! It’s where all the action on Maui is anyways.
BW: What is the Hawaiian Comic Book Alliance?
AS: Sam Campos, Chris Cravalho, Todd Bernardy and DJ Keawekane are the founders. It’s an associated group of local comic creators and writers who work to help each other out, pal around and keep each other informed about the industry. They’re a team. I’m inducted as the only comic book store owner. It was a kick listening to them debate as to whether they should induct me. They decided I was worthy. I get to pick one person to kick out… and that person is Todd.
Alika’s long-time, all-in-joking (we think) clash with Todd Bernardy is well known to anyone who listens to the NERDWatch podcast. The topics of the X-Men movie costume designs (a topic that inspires a rage of hellfire from Seki) and the integrity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Bernardy’s personal fuel for geek outrage) is enough to get the two of them into a Superman/Batman-worthy showdown. Bernardy, who resembles a young George Lucas, exudes a sharp wit and genuine warmth when discussing his lifelong passions. His Kukui Project comic book became a local sensation and his work reflects his distinctly irreverent mindset.
MAUITIME: Who inspired you to become an artist?
TODD BERNARDY: I always drew pictures. Everything overwhelms me and it leads me to drawing or painting. Drawing de-saturates reality. Art is like sensory deprivation. My Uncle, Terry Bernardy, was a commercial artist and art director who helped me develop most of my skills. I like art because it helps me discover something, but Terry created art like he just knew. My Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Burgess, was really surprised by my strength in art. She encouraged me to pursue it. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Miles, was an artist. She encouraged me draw my first full comic book when I was seven or eight. I had two really good art teachers in high school. I also studied with Michael Cook, and Ellen Koment at the University of New Mexico. The strength of the art program at UNM was that it was all chaired by working artists and exhibited at galleries. I also became interested in writing around middle school, so I had some really encouraging teachers. My favorite teacher from high school actually was my fifth grade teacher. We had a small school district, so he went from fifth grade school teacher to high school computer teacher. His name was Richard Barton. I got to scan and letter my comics digitally, so I could print them and bind them. Most of my teachers had an impact on my life. They all gave me license to pursue my interests in drawing and writing, so I’m grateful for that latitude.
MT: What were your first comic books?
TB: My first comics were superheroes: Superman #16 in 1987 by Karl Kessel and John Byrne, and my first Batman Comic was Legends of the Dark Knight #1, by Denis O’Neill, Ed Hannigan, John Betty. The next big event in my life was Image comics. I loved Spawn By Todd McFarlane, Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen, Jim Lee’s Wildcats (although I am a bigger Gen 13 fan). Pitt by Dale Keown, Maxx by Sam Keith, Cyberforce by Marc Silvestri. These comics were a big influences on me and still inspire me.
When I turned 10, I got Soundgarden’s Superunknown on cassette, and I became aware of James O’Barr’s The Crow, which inspired Kukui Project to be in black and white. I saw the film adaptation on VHS and was amazed how the book came to life. In 1995, I got Smashing Pumpkin’s Melancholie and the Infinite Sadness double CD, and every Heavy Metal magazine from 1977 until 1984. Heavy Metal had reprints of Moebius, and Richard Corben’s Den, and (maybe most importantly) Tex Arcana by John Findley, which is why Kukui Project is graphite. I later discovered Kabuki by David Mack while I was in high school. If you twisted my arm and made me pick five or six comics that led me to creating my own comics, it would be Kabuki, The Crow, Tex Arcana, Gen 13, Savage Dragon, and Spawn.
MT: What Inspired you to create Kukui Project?
TB: Kukui Project grew out of my concern that politics influence scientists’ cooperation, especially in the face of climate change. I taught English in China, and the class used some of our time in English to catch up on trigonometry. The teachers made them do their homework in ink. When the students checked their answers against the smarter kids in my class, they would use tape to gingerly erase and correct their answers. Only three percent of them were going to college. Someone asked me when I got back from my trip if the US government would ever let the Chinese astronauts on the International Space Station. I thought it would be a catastrophe, if that line in the sand was drawn along our eastern and western hemispheres. If that line was drawn, it would be drawn right over Hawaii. Hawaii was a place where a line had been drawn in the sand during the ’70s over the bombing of Kaho`olawe. I saw the metaphor for Kukui Project evolve from the bombing of Kaho`olawe to the breaking of the international space treaty. If humanity lets our politics get in the way of cooperation, it could lead to nations that haven’t ratified the international space treaty, equipping satellites with WMDs. If we can all cooperate to clean up Kaho`olawe, then we could dismantle satellites carrying nuclear and biological payloads that could be dropped anywhere on Earth. The science in Kukui Project is stuff that we’ve already invented but we haven’t implemented. The Kukui Project isn’t about discussing what is right or wrong, it’s about doing what is Pono.
MT: Does living in Haiku inspire your work?
TB: Yes. I love it here. I love Maui. My wife is from Makawao. I had a huge plot point in Kukui Project that I had no idea how to solve until I lived here: The two astronauts investigating the reappearance of a missile, which was thought to be completely extinct, were using an image on the casing to trace the manufacture of the explosive. I had no idea what that image would be, until I say this gigantic rooster behind the Thai food truck at the Haiku Cannery. I looked at the rooster and thought, “That rooster must eat tons of centipedes to get so huge.” That became the cover of issue #5, and is part of the coat of arms for the villain. My wife won’t let me give any more story details away. The prologue for the trade paperback of Kukui Project also features the banana trees from my backyard. If it wasn’t for Haiku, Kukui Project wouldn’t have any cocks or bananas. How’s that for subtext?
MT: Does your subsequent comic, Disco Thunder Groove Bone, come from an insatiable love for coffee?
TB: I do love coffee. Disco Thunder Groove Bone is about two guys looking for the last coffee plant on Earth. Coffee was wiped out by a genetically altered blight, created by an evil energy drink company called Thunder-chicken. I go to Maui Coffee Roasters all the time for the Happy Hour Cappuccino. I was at an event for 24-hour comic book day when I conceived Disco Thunder Groove Bone. I had just watched Pulp Fiction, Black Dynamite, Dolomite and Superfly. I sat down on Saturday at 12pm in early October 2011 and I didn’t stop drawing until Sunday at 11:15. At about 2 or 3 in morning, I thought to myself, I hope I never have to live in a world without coffee.
MT: There’s an irreverence and cross-hybrid of genres in your work. Is the aim to blend seemingly disconnected elements or do you envision a narrative that naturally accommodates them (ala, Ninja Turtles)?
TB: Most of the premises of my stories come from an episode of history crossed with a certain topic in philosophy. Most people think all comics are only the superhero genre. It isn’t true. I don’t like traditional superheroes. I think most people don’t realize that comics have just as many genres as most other media. I write a story I want to draw. Then I try to show it to people. I try to come up with a concise description to tell my readers at conventions.
The big two Marvel and DC have been rebooting their superheroes for the last 10 or 15 years. They have alienated their readership by trying to recast these superheroes. Can I be an angry nerd for a second? This is a great question, because I want people to stop calling Marvel movies “comic book” movies. Philistines think comic books mean only superheroes. DC and Marvel Movies are only one genre, superhero movies. People need to stop calling them “comic book movies.” Comic book movies are art like Persepolis or American Splendor or Ghost World or Atomic Blonde. Don’t tell me an adaption of American Splendor can sit on the shelf with that awful Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Age of Ultron at a video store, because they’re both “comic book adaptations.” This is why comic books like Maus probably won’t be adapted into film or animation in our lifetime, because something that won a Pulitzer shouldn’t be put into the same category as Spiderman: Homecoming.
MT: Please tell me about the Hawaiian Comic Book Alliance.
TB: The Hawaii Comic Book Alliance is a group of comic book creators that actually creates their own comics. We actually write and draw original stories that are created in Hawaii for the local community in Hawaii. We believe that if you like comics you should read comics. Sam Campos, creator of Pineappleman, started the alliance to share knowledge between all of the members. Now the alliance exists to promote Hawaii’s diversity and literacy through comics. We will always stop to answer questions from future creators if anyone wants to talk story about comics. Sam was getting lots of questions from other creators about how to complete their projects, so instead of getting individual creators together, he brought a community of people together that have something constructive to contribute. I think part of the aim is to bring comics back into artist alley at conventions.
MT: Where can we find your work?
TB: Anybody interested in my work can see it at Kukuiproject.com, shop at Mulberrygroove.com and at Maui Comics and Collectibles. If you’re on island, please go to Maui Comics. All those guys are pretty cool. Swan, Travis, Phormat, but don’t talk to Alika. I’m the upside down version of Alika, without a gift for math. I think that’s why Alika is trying to banish me back to my dimension.
A final conversation to share in exploring the personalities of Maui Comic Con is one of the most esteemed guests in the convention’s brief history, Stan Sakai. His career is one of the most legendary in the comic book world. Sakai is the creator of Usagi Yojimbo (portraying a samurai rabbit’s adventures in Japan) and The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy. The former series began in 1984 and continues today, while the latter is inspired by Sergio Argones’ classic Groo the Wanderer, which Sakai contributed to early on as a letterer. He’s the recipient of multiple Eisner awards and has been nominated more than 20 times. He is the Kurosawa of comic books, a humble, extraordinarily skilled and highly experienced master of storytelling and comic book craftsmanship.
MAUITIME: Usagi Yojimbo has evolved so much over the years. Are there places you still hope to take the story that remain unexplored?
STAN SAKAI: There are many aspects of Japanese history and culture on which I would like to focus stories. There are major story arcs I have wanted to do for a long time such as Tomoe’s Wedding, in which I delve into traditional arranged marriages or Tengu Wars which revolve around these mythological creatures. I am just starting to write a few stories about Christians in the Tokugawa period, having introduced the first European character a couple of years ago.
MT: What was the initial response to Usagi Yojimbo from the Japanese community?
SS: They were very supportive and saw Usagi as a way of sharing their heritage to their kids. I did talks for Japanese community groups and libraries.
MT: You’ve mentioned in the past how the actor Toshiro Mifune has influenced your work. Which other artists and works of cinema influenced your character and storytelling abilities?
SS: Much of my storytelling is inspired by cinema and directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock. I like straight-forward, clear storytelling with good pacing and frame compositions. I like the way James Cameron introduces characters, or I may like another director for how he stages his action sequences. My artistic influences vary from Japanese Osamu Tezuka to American Steve Ditko to Italian Milo Manara.
MT: What is the collaborative process with Sergio Argones like?
SS: I do the lettering for Sergio’s Groo the Wanderer and other projects. Usually, Sergio comes up with the story then hands it off to Mark Evanier for scripting. I say “usually” because sometimes Mark comes up with the story, gives it to Sergio, who gives it back to Mark. Anyway, then the rough penciled art comes to me with a script for lettering. I still do traditional hand lettering directly on the original art. It then goes back to Sergio for inking, and finally to Tom Luth who colors everything digitally and sends scans to our editor. We also travel. Sergio and I have been around the world together, and just returned from the UK last week where we were guests at The International Comics Arts Festival in Kendal where they inaugurated the Sergio Aragones International Award for Excellence in Comic Art.
MT: You’ve brought your talents to Groo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Peanuts and many others. Is there an established story still out there that you’ve always wanted to take part in?
SS: I have done pretty much what I wanted to do. I grew up with the early Marvel superheroes so it was a thrill many years ago when a Marvel editor called and asked me to do a short story using any of their characters in whatever kind of story I wanted to do. I did a Samurai Hulk story, integrating the green guy with classic Japanese folktales. I just loved drawing the Hulk in armor fighting an army of samurai.
MT: In this climate of so many comic book properties being adapted for film and television, have you been fielded with offers? Since Usagi Yojimbo is your independent creation, is this something you’d even want?
SS: Usagi has been optioned for movies and television many times, but never made it into his own series. He is in the current season of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in a three-part story which is very good. The toys are in the stores as well, with three exclusive action figures through Walmart.
MT: Did growing up in a place as beautiful and rich with history as Kyoto also inspire your artistry?
SS: My dad was in the US army, stationed in Japan where he met and married my mom. I was two years old when the family moved to Hawaii where my dad was born, so I remember nothing of Kyoto. However, there is such a large Japanese population in Hawaii and I was able to experience much of the traditions, history and culture. I really enjoyed growing up in Hawaii, but I never really appreciated it until I moved to the Mainland. I return a couple times a year to visit with family.
MT: You’ve been drawing Usagi Yojimbo for so long–do you ever dream about him or the other characters?
SS: A few of the stories have been inspired by dreams.
MT: Please tell us what your latest projects are and anything you’d like to promote.
SS: The ongoing Usagi series continues through Dark Horse. I am currently writing and drawing a seven part story involving Usagi and Inspector Ishida, a Sherlock Holmes-type character who was inspired by the Hawaii detective Chang Apana. It is a murder mystery involving high ranking officials who were much more than suspected. Other than that, the DVDs of the TMNT/Usagi crossovers will be on sale in December and the Usagi toys are on sale right now.
MAUI COMIC CON 2017
Sat., Oct. 28 – Sun., Oct. 29
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover illustration: Francine Walraven