Comic books not kid stuff for aspiring graphic novelist


 Freehold Township native Brendan Leach returns to his roots for his graphic novel “Iron Bound,” which revisits old haunts in Asbury Park. The award-winning graphic artist will appear at Asbury Park Comic Con this weekend.  ERIC SUCAR staff Freehold Township native Brendan Leach returns to his roots for his graphic novel “Iron Bound,” which revisits old haunts in Asbury Park. The award-winning graphic artist will appear at Asbury Park Comic Con this weekend. ERIC SUCAR staff A sbury Park has been Brendan Leach’s childhood playground, his adolescent hangout and, more recently, his comic book muse. And this weekend, it will be a fitting site for a sort of homecoming.

Just don’t expect Leach, who left behind his childhood in Freehold Township more than a decade ago to chase his dream of being an artist, to be overcome by waves of sentimentality as he’s sitting at his table at Asbury Park Comic Con, set for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

He reasons that there are chapters in his life’s story — a kid who discovered that his knack for drawing was his ticket to social acceptance grows up to become an award-winning writer and artist — still to be written.

 Brendan Leach Brendan Leach “I’m not far enough along in my career to reflect on where I’ve been yet,” shrugs Leach, 34. “I feel like I’m still starting out.”

Comic book fans and critics would argue that he has already arrived.

Asbury Park’s beaches and boardwalk — even the distinctive roof on the old Howard Johnson’s restaurant — are like supporting characters in “Iron Bound,” Leach’s sometimes-violent, sometimespoignant misadventures of two street-level hoods.

Set in the early 1960s, the story opens with Benny and Eddie returning to Newark after a visit to Asbury Park. But these streetlevel thugs can’t stay out of trouble for long, and soon they’re making a run for it after stabbing a man on the bus. When the world, not to mention the police, seems to be closing in, where will they turn?

“One is a hothead and one is more levelheaded,” Leach said. “They’re going to have to make some choices that will affect the rest of their lives.”

Leach made a choice a long time ago to devote himself to art. Maureen and David Leach fostered their son’s passion, taking him to museums and signing him up for art lessons.

After graduating from St. John Vianney in Holmdel, Leach earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He was working toward becoming “a serious artist or maybe a cinematographer,” though he was unsure of whether they were “practical” vocational choices. His life, not to mention his career trajectory, changed when a classmate handed him a dog-eared copy of Chris Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.”

The book exploring the author’s complicated relationship with his father through the lens of a fictional character made Leach realize comics and graphic novels, which he had forsaken as too corny as a teen, could be a viable medium to tell stories. When he uncovered a whole world of underground comics that eschewed fantastical tales of heroes in gaudy colored capes and tights for more serious matters of the heart, he had found his calling.

“These indie graphic novels,” he said, “were more personal and intimate to me than the Spawn or Spider-Man comics that I had been reading in the 1990s.”

He developed an idiosyncratic art style, moved out to Greenpoint and immersed himself in Brooklyn’s vibrant comic book community. He was awarded a Xeric Foundation grant in 2010, and in 2012 he won a prestigious Ignatz Award for his comic, “The Pterodactyl Hunters.”

If the Xeric and Ignatz got his foot in the door of the competitive field of comic books, “Iron Bound” has all but kicked it down.

He found himself mining his childhood memories to bring to life the scenes set in Asbury Park. He recalled snapshots of seeing the rock band Weezer at The Stone Pony and huddling on the beach with friends to listen to the muffled echoes of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band practicing inside the Convention Center.

Maintaining a realistic look to Asbury Park in “Iron Bound” was no small task. So when his memory failed him, Leach utilized Google Maps to get a bird’s-eye view on the town. He didn’t just want you to see the boardwalk, he wanted you to feel the sunwarmed beams burning your bare feet.

“I love Brendan’s ability to evoke a particular place and time,” said Fair Haven’s Mike Dawson, who created the graphic novel “Troop 142” about Boy Scouts from Eatontown who spend a week together at summer camp.

“My favorite stories take place in specific locations, where the place and time almost feel like a character themselves. ‘Iron Bound’ is especially pleasurable to read, as the characters all feel well-defined. It’s a ripping good yarn.”

But since his own story isn’t finished, you won’t catch Leach blathering on about the life of a comic book artist. That’s not to say he isn’t proud of “Iron Bound,” which took him about a year-and-a-half to draw and incorporates influences as disparate as Japanese gangster movies and Richard Price novels. And the Asbury Park Comic Con will afford him the chance to get his work in front of a new audience. He’ll even get a rare chance to have dinner with his parents.

But about as close as you’ll get to Leach talking about the circle of life is when he looks at comics’ bigger picture and how the Asbury Park Comic Con has become a safe haven for comic fans to let their capes down and be themselves.

Leach says it is a source of pride for those who have watched it grow into a twoday event that attracts hardcore comic vendors, fans dressed as their favorite heroes and even legendary comic creators such as Chris Claremont and Jim Steranko.

And it attracts people such as Leach, who feel like they are only getting started in this medium as uniquely American as jazz.

“I’m excited to be a part of it,” he said. “But for me, I’m just one of the many artists that signed up for a table.”

Asbury Park Comic Con will be held at the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, 1401 Ocean Blvd., Asbury Park.

Advance tickets, available through April 11 are $18.50 on Saturday and $17 on Sunday. Children under age 12 will be admitted free both days with a ticket-holding adult.

Two-day passes are $30. Day-of-show tickets are $20.56.

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