Published Date Written by Timothy Gillis
A local graphic novelist has Kickstarted his career. Joseph Schmalke, a Westbrook resident, published the first four issues of "The Calamitous Black Devils" with money raised from Kickstarter. He then began traveling to comic book conventions along the East Coast where he connected with Broken Icon Comics, which was impressed with the work and published the fifth and sixth issue.
"There's a pretty great underdog angle here," said Jarrett Melendez of Coast City Comics, where Schmalke will launch a release party during this month's First Friday Art Walk. "He's a family man with no real connections in the comic world. Now, a year or so later, he's got international distribution through Barnes and Noble and Amazon and has been submitted for Diamond Comics Distribution."
Schmalke, who graduated from UMass, Boston with a degree in Fine Art, is a master controller at WMTW in Lewiston. The TV station is moving to Westbrook, into the old Fox building, so he'll have less time on the road and more time to create.
"As a kid, I read kid books," he said. "In my early teens, the Vertigo comic line came out with DC comics. It was dark, R-rated, edgy stuff. From then, I wanted to do comic books. I grew up thinking I'd move to a SoHo loft in Manhattan, painting, but that didn't work out."
A passing interest in music and discord with his high school art teachers stymied his comic aspirations for a spell.
"I was kicked out of art class junior year," he said. "I played guitar in a band and was more dedicated to that than school. I had a lot of conflict with art teachers. I wanted to learn the technical side so as to become good at the creative side. Teachers were all about 'feeling' the artwork."
After college, he was a social worker in Manhattan for a while, and made a short horror film called "Acrylic Midnight."
"The original concept was pretty amazing. I wrote it and partially directed it, but the responsibilities were snagged from me at one point by the producers to turn it into slasher film," said Schmalke, who then moved to Los Angeles and got into the entertainment business as editor of Authentic Entertainment. He returned to Maine eight years ago.
The Calamitous Black Devils, which he wrote, illustrated, and colored, is set during World War II and follows the exploits of an elite brigade of Army operatives — the Black Devils. The team is comprised of mostly American and Canadian soldiers, joined by British secret service and the Russian Night Witches. Their mission is to stop a top secret Nazi plot to harness a multidimensional gateway that will allow an Ancient One, Anan-Zaha, to cross over into our world. But while battling the Nazi forces, the team is pulled into another world against their will. The Black Devils find themselves scattered across an Alien Planet at the center of the universe. Now they must fight their way through hordes of the undead, aliens, mutants, and ancient Gods trying to get home.
Schmalke wanted to write a World War II story, but didn't know where to start. He saw a documentary on Operation Tidal Wave, where his book begins.
"There is so much unexplained. Why did these bombers go off course, with planes mysteriously crashing?" he said. "It was a good jumping off point."
His characters are based on the Devil's Brigade, a United States military force, "the first special forces," he said. "I contacted the military to see if I could use their patch. I was starting to draw up the uniforms. Originally, they were going to look just like them, but I got a letter from the Pentagon saying they had the trademark, so I'd have to show them the finished product. My lawyer suggested I just make it up."
The graphic novel's style is based on WWII Russian posters that he first saw at a bar in Boston. Schmalke also is influenced by the Black Paintings, 13 or 14 images from the later years of Francisco Goya. And there are some Raiders of the Lost Ark motifs as well.
"As far-fetched as it is, the SS were into some serious pagan stuff," Schmalke said. "They were dabbling in weird sacrificial magics. We wonder how something so weird and pagan could exist in a not-so-distant history. It captures the imagination and makes for rich speculation."
"The Calamitous Devils" took about a year to write before illustrating began in earnest.
"I usually see part of the story, so I write that — just text. There's almost no character development at beginning. Almost every time, the first one I write is a throwaway, but I'm starting to create a new reality," said Schmalke, who is now working on a three-issue miniseries called "The Infernal Pact," an all-new story, which takes place in the 1990s and features meth addicts who sell their soul to the devil.
"It's over-the-top, like a Grindhouse movie with violence, sex, and drugs," he said.
As a collector, he prefers single-issue comics.
"I'm a graphic novel guy. My wife, Hilarie, is more into the whole novel. She wants to consume a whole story at once," he said. He loves the ability of comic books to tell a big story with a small price tag.
"If I want to make a big budget movie, I can just do it, make something gigantic without all the money," he said.
Schmalke's book is dedicated to two good friends, Ryan Tierney and David Piekos, who both passed away in 2013.
"I grew up with David. He was a childhood friend. Ryan was my best friend in college. They both encouraged me to do the book," he said. Schmalke was halfway through creating the book when Piekos committed suicide. He was finishing it when Tierney died of cancer.
"The character (named) Priest - Ryan wanted to be a character, so that's kind of him. And David is actually drawn in at the end of the first comic," he said. His friends would have been proud to see Schmalke make it into the bigger world of comics.
His new publisher encouraged him to make up prints for the First Friday event.
It will only be available there and in limited quantity. If you buy the book, you get a free print. In addition to Friday night's Coast City Comic appearance, Schmalke is also appearing at Biddeford's Friday Art Walk on July 25, at the Awesome Hobby Shop, 311 Main Street. (Original date of July 11 was changed, the shop announced.)