Samax Randolph's first reader was a worn-out Spiderman comic.
His teen-age Uncle Dwight, a Spidey fanatic, would spend a few hours each day reading the same issue to a 3-year-old Samax until he could do it on his own.
"I was an introverted kid and all I did was draw dinosaurs," Randolph says. "But after reading with my uncle, I went from dinosaurs to Spiderman."
Mesmerized by the words and the frenetic ink and colors of the comic book art, Randolph knew he'd create his own comic heroes someday.
"I can remember being in third grade putting together comic books," he says. "I was always finding other kids to write while I drew. There was the Falcon, Chameleon and the Grasshopper; they were just copies of other superheroes, but I knew this was what I was meant to do."
At the University of North Texas, Randolph majored in drawing and painting and met four other comic book fans who were sharpening their skills: art major Khalid Robertson, who graduated in 1997, and art major Michael Lagocki, English major Corance Davis and business major Mario Cauley, who graduated in 1999 -- the same year as Randolph.
The five college buddies founded their own comic book company, Ghostwerks, and their first comic, Champion of Children.
The premise is simple: Little Mad Skillz, a 5-year-old black girl with massive ponytails and Bruce Lee moves, is the protector of small children everywhere -- she takes on all the bullies (super-powered or not).
The whole comic runs on a unique energy that melds hip-hop and grunge cultures, Japanese comic book style (manga) and a dab of traditional American funnies. The guys at Ghostwerks often call it "ghetto manga."
All of this is filtered through artists Randolph, Robertson and Lagocki.
The stories and concept were created by Davis, and Cauley handles the business side of Ghostwerks.
Despite the visual complexity of the comic, the characters are simple, clean and innocent.
"We wanted kid superheroes that kids could love, but we also wanted them to think Champion is cool once they grow up," Davis says
Villains like Kurt the Hurttt, a 7-year-old bully who's still in kindergarten, and the Funk Master, a villain wannabe with some serious body odor, define the light and fun mood of the stories. Both our hero and her older brother, Jr. Raw -- a former Champion of Children -- seem to attract the most comical of nemeses.
The interactions of the characters have a hint of Wile E. Coyote action. And the wisecracking, familial friendships of the heroes mirror the very sincere friendships of the Ghostwerks crew.
Randolph readily admits to being the nerdy awkward kid growing up. Everyone at Ghostwerks does.
These are the guys who were hanging out at Treasure Aisles bookstore near the UNT campus, making wisecracks and absorbing every bit of comic fare they could. They also hung out at West Hall, their residence hall, debating whose crime-fighting philosophy was better, Batman's or Superman's.
These are the guys who still love cartoons, even though they've got real day jobs to support their comic book dreams.
More than business partners, they are defined by their friendship and a love of comics like Hellboy and Captain Marvel and rappers like Nappy Roots and Nas.
But don't think for a minute that comic books are kids' play. Independent comics come and go in the thousands across the country, and success is based on discipline.
"It's a lot like trying to be a rock star," Randolph says. "You could easily consign yourself to a life of a day job and obscurity."
And many do.
"You've got guys like Todd McFarlane (the creator of the comic book Spawn) who's crazy rich, making $3 million a year," says Cauley, "and then there's the other end of the spectrum with the thousands of independents who disappear and fail every day.
"It's not enough to just be talented."
Each artist has a drawer full of rejection notices from companies like Marvel and DC Comics. And everybody in the gang has had his share of failed comic startups.
The cost to print, promote and ship the comics runs in the thousands -- all straight out of their own pockets.
Cauley can attest that getting comic book stores to carry an independent series is a mountain in itself, because often the stores lose money until the comic gains some notoriety. Despite that, the Ghostwerks crew has had success in getting area stores, like Lone Star Comics, to carry their books. They also promote them at conventions nationwide and have their own web site at www.ghostwerkscomics.com.
They're counting on Ghostwerks' unique appeal to an audience that has been left out of comics -- hip-hop fans.
But more than anything, they've got faith, says Randolph, whose sense of destiny and purpose sounds like something straight out of the mouth of a comic book hero.
"When you're born or destined to do something like this, everything you need is in you," he says. "I know there's a place for us, and I believe in Champion of Children."
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