Fresh out of a screening of "Man of Steel," local comic book writer Eric Esquivel is feeling a bit betrayed by one of his oldest heroes. "It's just nuts that marketing dollars affect story." Esquivel shakes his head, shifting in his black T-shirt emblazoned with - what else? - the Superman emblem. His complaint concerns Clark Kent knocking back a Budweiser in the film, the same man who used to blow out Lois Lane's cigarettes from space. The product placement went unnoticed by most, but for loyalists like Esquivel, it violated an unspoken moral code.
But, no matter. Esquivel doesn't waste time dwelling on lost potential when he's so eager to prove his own. This month, the 26-year-old is leaving Tucson, his home since adolescence, for what awaits him in LA: a job with Boom! Studios, a comic book and graphic novel publishing company, and a reunion with his girlfriend and fellow Boom! employee, 25-year-old Hannah Nance Partlow.
Like any powerhouse couple, Partlow and Esquivel counterbalance each other like the two faces of a coin. He tells the story, and she brings that story to life on the page, like they do every week in their comic for the Tucson Weekly (aptly named "Smell Ya Later!," it chronicles the often deeply personal story of their move to LA), or on a wall, like their mural on Toole Avenue between Sixth Street and Stone Avenue. Finding their creative identities, though, came with ventures of trial-and-error long before their relationship began.
Partlow, a native Tucsonan, studied journalism briefly at the University of Arizona before transferring to the Southwest University of Visual Arts, where she earned her degree in graphic design. The work challenged her artistically, but instead of developing her own style, she labored on clients' designs and ideas. Working part time as a sign artist at Trader Joe's also provided an outlet, but only with all the craftmanship that organic carrots will allow. Stagnation seemed like the ultimate surrender so soon after graduation, so Partlow returned to school to study fine arts.
Originally from Illinois, Esquivel chose to forgo college ("I have nothing against it, but all the money that I would have spent on tuition, I spent on comic books") to immediately pursue his lifelong passion.
"When I was a kid I didn't know that people wrote comics. I thought that superheroes just told their stories to people," Esquivel says. "It didn't really occur to me to be a writer. I wanted to be a superhero."
As a kid, he read comics incessantly, fully embracing his two-dimensional heroes as father figures and even adopting their behavior: the sobriety of Superman (now a sore subject), the willpower of Batman and Aquaman's vegetarianism. When Esquivel discovered his heroes were the byproduct of human imagination, the Santa Claus-esque reveal left him feeling inspired rather than discouraged.
He set out to get as much experience as he could, writing a freelance column briefly for the Tucson Citizen during his senior year at Rincon High School, working the 3 a.m. stocking shift at Target (where he'd hide Batman toys and shoes to purchase them later) and as a barista at Safehouse Espresso Bar, because it was acceptable to write on the job. He eventually secured a marketing position at local comic store Heroes and Villains; by then, writing his own comics had morphed from a side hobby into a full-time endeavor, and Esquivel began self-publishing and collaborating with student illustrators at the UA. Two of his earliest works, "The Blackest Terror" and "Thor: Unkillable Thunder Christ," are among his most well-known, and, he says, his most self-fulfilling.
"I feel like as a writer, people pay you to have a unique perspective," Esquivel said. "So if you're in a classroom with, like, 30 or more people who are taught the same thing, that's going to affect your output. The fact that I didn't come from that makes me odd, and being odd gets me paychecks."
The easiness with which Esquivel and Partlow talk about their (imagined) senses of arrogance could potentially be what brought them together a little over a year ago, but they'd never admit that. Instead, they say they met through mutual friends after admiring each other's work from afar for months. Partlow would drop in on a few of Esquivel's book signings, and Esquivel would stop by Partlow's gallery showings.
"I was a fan of you, and then I got to date you," Esquivel addresses to Partlow. "It was either you, or Eliza Dushku."
While there are much worse places for artists and writers to get noticed than Tucson, Arizona, Esquivel and Partlow agreed that to truly make an impact in their field, they needed to leave the comfort they'd built for themselves here and seek out peers - and a new fan base - elsewhere. Both had connections in LA, some from Esquivel's years of visits to San Diego, where his friends would sleep 19 people to a two-person hotel room all so they could pass out their work at Comic-Con. In that group was Natasha Allegri, now a character designer and storyboard artist for Cartoon Network's enormously-popular cartoon "Adventure Time." Allegri also created a gender-swapped version of the cartoon, named "Fionna and Cake," and also works for Boom! Studios.
"The two of us got in, years apart, but the other 17 people didn't," Esquivel says. "It's heartbreaking growing up and seeing that. I thought we would be this wave of people. That's why we're going to LA, is to try and find that feeling again, of everyone creating things and being in the same battle together."
A "battle" seems the most fitting way to describe securing a self-made, creative career, or, as Partlow summarizes, a career that's impossible to sum up in an elevator ride.
"If it was easy to be a comic book writer or an internationally known artist, I probably wouldn't want to do that," Partlow said. "I'm all about growth. That's why I live, and I can't grow if something's handed to me."
The continued push for acknowledgement made significant headway exactly a year ago: per tradition, Esquivel and Partlow made their annual pilgrimage to Comic-Con, stretching granola bars and complimentary peanuts into meals and fantasizing about a permanent move to California, the mecca of the comic book world. Esquivel was handing out samples of a recent comic he'd written, and stumbled across Matt Gagnon, editor-and-chief of Boom! Studios and fellow former Tucsonan.
"His eyes kind of lit up, and that's why he gave me a chance and read my book," Esquivel says. He was hired practically on-the-spot, and freelance assignments began pouring in.
"Eric is that rare writer who knows how to market both his work and himself," says Gagnon via email. "He has talent, he has hustle, and he's unrelenting."
Boom! started flying Esquivel out almost every month to sign at Comic-Cons around the country, and Partlow would follow both for support and to preview her own work with other companies. When Gagnon's team approached her during one trip at another publisher's booth, conversation inevitably turned to Esquivel, and Partlow handed them a few samples of her own.
According to Esquivel, all Partlow had to do was give them a napkin doodle with "a few ketchup stains on the side," and Gagnon and the rest of Boom! were sold. Partlow, though, took a bit more convincing, mostly because she was surprised that they wanted to hire her in the first place. But the puzzle pieces were coming together, and a job offer made moving to LA no longer seem like a mere leap of faith. She accepted, and weeks ago began working in-house at Boom! in production design, as well as freelancing as a letterer until December of this year.
"She's an incredibly talented graphic designer and fantastic with typography," Gagnon says. "...There's some people you just know have what it takes to be successful in this industry. As I got to know Hannah and Eric it became clear to me that they had an exciting future in comics."
Partlow drove back to Tucson every weekend to spend time with Esquivel until he joined her in LA, because, put simply, they just work better together.
"Making comics, it just means sitting alone in the dark with a keyboard for like 12 hours a day," Esquivel says. "Since Hannah's a creative, she understands all of that. We sit back-to-back and write. We have deadlines at the same time, and it's a partnership. Every part of life clicks, and I'm really grateful for it."
The separation has been difficult, but the self-proclaimed "Brangelina of comic books" (Esquivel coined the term, jokingly, but it's hard to pass up that level of catchiness) have kept themselves busy with projects both commercial and personal. Esquivel recently sold a script to "Adventure Time," is writing the teenage supercrew comic series "The In Crowd" for publishing company Big Dog Ink and yet another book, "Forgotten Boy," about a forlorn sidekick with "abandonment issues." The goal is to keep his options open and, above all, reintroduce the classics to all of the other "8-year-old Eric"-types in the world.
Partlow is also looking outward, and hopes that opportunities to exhibit her work, as well as earn commissions for public art and do more editorial illustrations, will manifest in LA. Both are well-aware that the move, however promising, holds many challenges that can pose as successes.
"People are like, 'Once you make it, it'll get easier.' That's the exact opposite of the truth. Once you make it, it's much harder. You have to be much better," Esquivel says. "Our common thread is that neither of us have an end goal, which for a lot of people, like family, is hard to explain."
His comment seems daunting, but Partlow looks calm, even confident. They smile at each other, and suddenly it's as if there's no one else in the room.
"There isn't one answer. I don't know what it is, and that's how I can keep living everyday," Partlow says. "I have to keep trying everything until I'm happy, and when I am happy, keep doing it."
Esquivel and Partlow will be at the Boom! Studios booth today through Sunday at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
Kate Newton is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org