Office worker by day, creator of spacemen and superheroes by night

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2003

LENEXA, Kan. By day, Jai Nitz works in an office. By night, he inhabits a world of spacemen and superheroes, mad scientists and talking monkeys.

With his goatee and his taste for Hawaiian shirts, the 27-year-old Nitz hardly resembles the buttoned-up Clark Kent of Superman fame, but he's rapidly making a name for himself in the world of comic books, writing stories for long-beloved icons as well as his own self-published creations.

And the promising newcomer does it all from his home in Lawrence, about 50 miles west of Kansas City.

''It used to be that you had to go to New York, Los Angeles or Portland, Ore., actually if you wanted to work in comics,'' Nitz said. ''Now, you can work from anywhere. I never mail anything. It's all e-mail.''

Working in Lenexa, a Kansas City suburb, hasn't proven to be a handicap for Nitz, who says he can't imagine it any other way.

His self-published work from Monkey Boy Press more on that name later recently earned him a grant from the Xeric Foundation, established by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator Peter A. Laird.

The $3,000 grant won't let Nitz quit his day job as a customer service troubleshooter for a payroll firm. Bu it will help him publish the second installation of ''Paper Museum,'' his homage with a twist to the adventure comics of yesteryear.

''I told the people at Xeric, 'With the grant or without it, I'm going to publish this. But it would be nice to have the money,''' Nitz said.

The second ''Paper Museum,'' illustrated by various artists, is the first with Nitz as sole writer. It follows on the heels of his first exercise in self-publishing: the ''Novavolo'' series, which has everything from inside-joke jabs at comics conventions to a segment called ''Nosferatu Kennedy'' in which a vampire runs for president on the platform of banning sunlight and legalizing public bloodletting.

But don't file Nitz in the ''too hip for kids'' category just yet.

His ''Fantastic Four'' installment for Marvel Comics' ''Double Shot'' series has scientist-superhero Reed Richards the improbably stretchy Mr. Fantastic explaining his belief in God to his son.

It's by turns sardonic and sweet, referencing everything from ancient religions to pivotal events in the Marvel universe to the beliefs held by Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Jefferson.

''I did a bunch of research on Einstein and Gandhi, on their writings at the time,'' Nitz said. ''Einstein always responded to his fan mail, and he was talking about how he believed in God. This is what Reed Richards, as a scientist, would have read and said, 'I can get behind this.'''

And if that sounds like something a college professor might say, Nitz freely admits that the atmosphere in Lawrence home of the University of Kansas finds its way into his work.

''I really do think there is a Lawrence ethos to what I do,'' said Nitz, who grew up in Olathe and graduated from Kansas with a film degree in 1998. ''The people here are incredibly interesting, and there's a level of support for the creative community that you don't find in suburbia.''

Nitz also has done a Joker story for DC Comics, contributed to Wildstorm's ''Genactive'' and written a role-playing game installment for Dark Horse's Hellboy character his personal favorite. The challenge, he said, is to integrate his own work into a long-running story even though his pieces so far have been intended to stand alone.

''I hate to sound like I'm a wet-behind-the-ears kid, but the fact is that the Fantastic Four are older than I am,'' Nitz said. Stan (Lee) and Jack (Kirby) and Roy Thomas were telling stories even before I was born. Those stories are ingrained in people's heads.

''It is daunting at first, but it's not as daunting when you can pay homage to those guys and say, 'Yes, I read what you did. I loved it. I love you guys, and that's why I'm doing my damnedest not to step on your toes.''

Nitz's mainstream pieces also were illustrated by others. He used to draw but doesn't anymore. As a writer, he said, he's used to artists getting most of the attention.

''It's a visual medium,'' he said. ''It's a collaborative medium, but it's ultimately an artistic one. It's like songwriting it makes a difference whether it's U2 or Huey Lewis and the News performing a song. It's the same song, but it's not going to sound the same.''

Not that Nitz has given up entirely on drawing.

''I just found all my old art supplies from high school and college,'' he said. ''I would love to go back and do just cartooning work."

In the meantime, there's always Jungle Boy Press to keep him busy.

''My mom named me for Jai (the orphan boy who was Tarzan's sidekick in the old TV series),'' Nitz said. ''I just sort of pulled the name for the company out of the air one night but it's a great name for a comic book company.''

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