Art Baltazar is surely not the first artist to scrape out a living by scrubbing toilets, mopping floors or driving trucks before being discovered, but there are few with such a warm appreciation of the struggle that finally brought success.
Today, Baltazar and his writing partner, Franco, produce the hit title "Tiny Titans" for DC Comics. The all-ages comic book quickly caught fire with kids and adults alike, earning a Will Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids in 2009.
Baltazar visits Oklahoma this week for a pair of events and will to talk to college students, professors and fans about his slow burn and sudden rise in the industry.
"Tiny Titans" is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon, with Baltazar blending quick, easy-to-read stories with a bright, flashy, anime-inspired flair to create characters and stories that New World Comics owner Buck Berlin said has earned the loyalty of a wide spectrum of readers.
"They are, for the most part, geared toward kids, but on the level where everyone can enjoy them," Berlin said. "When you first see his work, it looks like that it only has kids in mind, but as you read it, the material really opens itself up for adults. It has a classic charm to it, throwing you back to when you were a kid."
Baltazar lives in Chicago and said he grew up reading comic books, but as his artistic style developed, he leaned toward what he saw in newspaper comics and slapstick cartoons like "Tom & Jerry." Although he tried to adapt to classic comic-book style, a Marvel representative told him during a job interview that he would be better off sticking to what he did best.
He started self-publishing his own comic books in 1994, including "Patrick the Wolf Boy." The series steadily won readers, including "? unbeknownst to Baltazar "? DC editor Jann Jones. When she needed a new artist to launch "Tiny Titans," she reached out to him.
DC hired Baltazar to adapt the "Patrick the Wolf Boy" style for the "Teen Titans" characters Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Cyborg and Starfire, as well as other characters culled from the DC universe, like Wonder Girl and Aqualad. Initially, he was told he'd be lucky to last through six issues, but the artist recently finished his 22nd, and is under contract for more.
Baltazar even lent his own personal catchphrase to the Tiny Titans.
"If someone would ask if I wanted to go to lunch, 'Aww yeah, let's go!' Someone asks if I want a cup of coffee, 'Aww yeah, man!'" Baltazar said. "So when DC asked for a catchphrase, I told that to my editor and she loved it. When I won the Eisner Award, it was cool, because I was on the stage trying to think of what to say. I'd hear people yell, 'Aww yeah, Titans!' from way back in the room."
University of Central Oklahoma creative studies professor James Dolph organized Baltazar's Thursday lecture at the school. Dolph pitched the idea to the artist at a conference for Mego action figures, of which the two are avid enthusiasts.
Dolph admitted these types of events are usually reserved for novelists or poets, but that he wanted to put more focus on graphic novels in his program and saw this as an opportunity to educate the students about the industry.
"Really, this event isn't as much about what I might bring the writing students, but what it will bring the medium of comics," Dolph said. "There has been more respect for comic books mounting over the last two decades. It has gotten to the point that we are teaching it at the university level, which draws better writers to the medium."
The artist also will sign copies of his work Saturday at New World Comics.
Baltazar said he was eager for the opportunity because he knows how quickly success can fade, and if he declined now, he may never get asked again. Having worked 42 jobs just to support his art, he said he has a more substantial appreciation of his success than he would have if Marvel had hired him 15 years ago.
"You have to go through all the things that you don't want to do, like driving a truck, so that you know you don't want to go back to it. But if everything ends for me, I know that I can go back to driving a truck," he said. "I can work anywhere, and it is good to know that, but I also know that I am really happy where I am now."
Art Baltazar takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday at Communications Building, Room 120 at the University of Central Oklahoma, 100 North University in Edmond and then at 11 a.m. Saturday at New World Comics, 6219 N. Meridian.