City Paper is not for tourists
Matt Dembicki stands on a small wooden platform next to a tiny pond near a jogging trail in Fairfax. It’s an unremarkable body of water—shallow and weed-choked, with dead leaves floating on its surface. Most pass it without stopping, but Dembicki is practically soaking it up with his eyes, scanning the surface, searching for something.
“Looks like he’s not out today, but that’s where he lives,” Dembicki finally says, pointing to a spot on the far bank less than 40 feet away. There, a metal drainpipe opens into the water like a little half-submerged cave. “When he comes out of there, he hits that concrete lip underneath and makes this crack! It sounds like he’s busted himself in half, but he’s all right.”
“He” is a large snapping turtle that Dembicki and his wife, Carol Dembicki, have dubbed Mr. Big. And the couple have done more than given the turtle a name; they’ve made him the center of a story that involves hubris, treachery, and murder. For the past two years, Mr. Big has been the star of Mr. Big, an ongoing comic-book series published under the Dembickis’ imprint, Washington Area Small Press Comics. Matt draws the comic; he and Carol collaborate on the story.
For whatever reason, Mr. Big has chosen not to leave his pipe today. Maybe he knows about the insurrection, chronicled in the comic, that’s building among the other pond animals. He’s got a nasty habit of eating their young, see, and they want his reign of terror to end. And how would Mr. Big know that? Apparently, he knows just about everything that happens in his world.
“He’s always there in the background,” says Matt. “He’s omnipresent.”
Since the real-life Mr. Big chooses to remain unseen on this overcast November day, Matt produces a film roll’s worth of photos he and Carol have taken at the pond and points out those that include Mr. Big. “There, you see him?” he asks. The turtle appears as a blurry green presence under the water.
That Mr. Big remains enigmatic even when photographed seems appropriate, given his role in the comic, where the snapping turtle is a shadowy but inescapable presence: a devourer of ducklings and fry, an embodiment of red-toothed natural law.
“Mr. Big is mysterious,” Matt says. “You don’t know what he’s going to do. There’s a God-like element to him.”
Mr. Big the comic originated several years ago in Matt and Carol’s first visit to the pond, which is a couple of miles from their condo near U.S. 50. That was also their first sighting of Mr. Big the turtle. “When he swims, you can see where he goes because he parts the lily pads,” says Matt. “As soon as they see him, all the other animals split. It’s clear he’s the boss.”
“I remember I said, ‘Oh my God, he’s like Mr. Big,’” recalls Carol. The name stuck, and both Dembickis were fascinated by the natural authority he held over his pond. The couple wondered, What would a day in the life of Mr. Big be like?
In an effort to answer that question, they produced a 20-page black-and-white comic book in October 2002. Planned as a one-off, “Spring,” as the issue is titled, is slow and meditative. The plot is summed up in its first 15 words: “Spring is in the air. Mr. Big is waking up…/…and so is his pond.”
Quiet scenes from nature fill the panels: Small turtles slip into the water as the shadow of a crow darkens the surface of the pond; a dozen baby snakes twine around their mother as a spring day grows warmer; frogs sun themselves on lily pads. The illustrations work something like a graphic version of a Henry David Thoreau or Bill McKibben essay, encouraging the reader’s mind to downshift into earthy rhythms. It’s a far cry from the natural-history didacticism of, say, Mark Trail—or, for that matter, the talking-animal fantasia of Pogo. The only real action occurs at the end, when Mr. Big breaks his fast by snacking on one of the pond’s cutest critters: a recently hatched baby duck.
In the comic’s last panel, its shell-suited antihero looks at the reader with one eye open, the other half-shut. Matt says many readers interpret it as a wink, but in fact the expression was inspired by the real Mr. Big: One of the turtle’s eyelids droops, possibly the result of a long-ago fight.
Matt, 34, grew up in Hartford, Conn., and studied journalism at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. He moved to the Washington area in 1993 to work on an environmental newsletter and currently works for Kiplinger’s Retirement Report. Until recently, Carol, 31, worked as a consultant for an energy-efficiency company. She’s currently at home awaiting the arrival of the couple’s first child.
It was Carol who introduced Matt to the world of independent comics. In Ohio, where she grew up, she says, “There are lots of small-press people. You have to do something out there.” Matt had read comics throughout high school, when he was a fan of Steve Bissette’s horror-movie-influenced work for Swamp Thing, and had even taught himself to draw. After graduation, however, his interest had waned. On their first date, in 2000, Carol recommended that Matt read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. He was soon not only reading comics but drawing them—a skill he taught himself.
Matt and Carol put copies of the first issue of Mr. Big on sale for $1 each at Big Planet Comics in Georgetown. They also took it to indie-comic shows such as the annual SPX in Bethesda. E-mail soon started to arrive from readers, who wanted to know what would happen next in the pond.
Many fans mentioned the slow pace of the book as part of its appeal. Matt and Carol decided to do a second issue, “Night Owls,” which appeared in April 2003. Like the first, it’s mostly quiet studies of life at the pond, though now under the cover of darkness. This time, they introduced dialogue, allowing the pond animals to communicate through thought balloons. Again, reader response was enthusiastic enough for them to undertake another issue, February 2004’s “Something Darker.”
It was at the Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo in Columbus, Ohio, that the Dembickis met Tony Shenton, a New Jersey–based indie-comics sales representative. Shenton immediately knew he wanted to represent their work.
“Most indie comics are either autobiographical, sci-fi, or superhero books,” says Shenton, who works with about 100 independent-comics presses and artists. Not only did Mr. Big break that mold, but Shenton also thought the draftsmanship was excellent. Matt, he says, draws with “a crisp, clear line and lots of detail, which is best for his storytelling method.”
With Shenton’s help, Mr. Big and Matt’s other books—including the lauded anthology series Attic Wit—have been put on the shelves of comics stores across the country. Mike
VanderWerff, who manages one of the two Zanadu Comics in Seattle, reports that Mr. Big has sold out at his store. He believes the artwork drove the sales and says that Matt’s drawing style “falls into the ‘new school’ of indie comic artists, along with Craig Thompson and James Kochalka.”
However, unlike Thompson or Kochalka, Matt doesn’t anthropomorphize his animal characters. He uses books of wildlife photography as references for his drawings, working to give his animals species-appropriate features. Because their faces don’t express emotion in human fashion, Matt says he has to find other ways to cue the reader.
When, for example, a mother fish learns that Mr. Big has eaten her young in “Something Darker,” backlighting momentarily darkens everything except her seemingly rage-filled eyes. “SHE FELT AS IF SHE HAD SWALLOWED A HUNDRED PEBBLES,” the accompanying narration reads. “BUT SHE KNEW THAT THIS TRAGEDY WAS PART OF NATURE’S LAW.” Later, Matt highlights the fish’s determination for revenge by zooming in for a close-up on her hard-set little mug.
“Mr. Big isn’t sweetness and light like animal stories usually are,” says Shenton. “I’m not sure I know anyone who’s telling nature stories in quite this way.”
“From an animal’s point of view, you’re either being hunted or you’re hunting,” Matt says. “Mr. Big is something your kid can read at one level and say, ‘Wow, animal drawings.’ But an adult might say, ‘Wow, that’s dark.’”
Mr. Big No. 3 kicks the Dembickis’ pond-life plotting into high gear: The animals, tired of seeing their offspring disappear into Mr. Big’s gullet, decide to get rid of him. Unable to take him on themselves, they try to outsource his murder to, well, a murder of treacherous crows.
At this point, the themes of despotism and regime change suggest a commentary on current events. But Matt denies any geopolitical agenda: “The story is about meddling with nature,” he says.
The twist is that it’s the pond animals themselves who try to meddle with the ecosystem by taking out their own top predator. Naturally, things don’t go as planned. Also, a new animal appears representing yet more interference with nature: a northern snakehead.
Matt and Carol invented the snakehead character for their story—none have ever been spotted in Mr. Big’s pond. But in the fictional world, a showdown between turtle and snakehead seems inevitable. Just don’t expect a climactic battle between the forces of light and dark: Matt says that neither creature “is necessarily good or evil. They just happen.”
Indeed, throughout the series, Mr. Big remains aloof and silent. He’s the only animal in the book that doesn’t “talk” in thought balloons. Yet he’s also the only animal with a name. Matt speculates that’s part of his appeal to readers—though he admits that others’ interest in Mr. Big, like its title character himself, remains a mystery. “I don’t know what other people see in it,” he says.
For his part, Matt says he just enjoys the challenge of drawing realistic nature scenes. He also finds the book more relaxing than his other main project: Attic Wit has earned him nominations for both a Gene Day Prize and a DIY Book Festival Award, but he says that working on it “makes him tense.”
Carol has already posted Mr. Big Issues 1 though 3 on the couple’s Web site. When
No. 4 comes out Dec.11, tension in the pond will build as word about the snakehead spreads and the crows prepare for their attack. The Dembickis say they’ve got Issue 5 scripted, too, and will get to work sometime after their baby is born.
Which raises a question: How far can a mysterious, God-like turtle go in his own comic book? At the moment, Matt and Carol aren’t sure, but they aren’t sweating it, either. They use the word “organic” a lot to describe Mr. Big, both in the biology-class sense and the artistic make-it-up-as-you-go-along one.
“We did the first issue for ourselves,” says Carol. “When you have no expectations, success is easy.”CP