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Carver grad, graphic novel artist recalls his creative motivation

When Orpheus Collar first began to draw at age 2, he insisted his mother make Superman drawings for him — then he would accent them with boot markings, then a cape of his own.

Soon, he only needed his mom, Nina Rutlidge, to draw Superman's oblong logo, and he would take it from there.

Before long, Rutlidge knew her son's creativity could carry him far.

"He would draw pictures in preschool from the vantage point of inside the shark's mouth — a giant mouth was the frame of the picture" Rutlidge said. "He would draw dinosaurs from underneath. He was imagining."

"He wanted to draw comic books from the moment he knew there was such a thing," she said. "It's been a really clear trajectory."

On Wednesday, a week after the Oct. 2 release of Collar's new Disney-commissioned graphic novel adaptation of Rick Riordan's The Kane Chronicles, Book One: The Red Pyramid, Collar, now 25, returned to speak with students at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson — his alma mater — about his creative process, and the exhaustive project that comes with putting together a graphic novel.

Collar, who graduated from Carver in 2005 and the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009, worked as the layout artist on another Riordan effort, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief, shortly after graduating from MICA.

But for The Red Pyramid, every aspect of the graphic novel except for the story itself had his fingerprints on it.

As part of the proposal process, Collar conjured up all of the characters' appearances from the book's descriptions, and after signing what he told the gathered students was a "low six-figure" advanced contract to adapt the book, did the same for every word of dialogue, piece of scenery, and battle scene (his personal favorite).

He told the students that just as their own art at Carver is based on real life, much of what he illustrated for The Red Pyramid was based in reality.

When he was looking for a particularly exaggerated facial expression, he made it in the mirror and drew what he saw. He drew the birds to fly as birds do, and took inspiration from real-life places and historical and mythological figures referenced in the book.

Collar also gave the project a bit of local flavor. His younger brother, Jack Goembel, illustrated a handful of lizards in the book, and at the end, when the protagonists enroll in middle school, he drew an exact representation of Towson's Dumbarton.

With a gang of assistants at his disposal, Collar said he worked 10-hour days, seven days a week for around eight months, and as the deadline approached, he ratcheted up to 12 hours a day until the project was done.

He promised himself he'd be finished by his 25thbirthday, and to ensure that happened, he bought a plane ticket for Costa Rica — and made sure he was able to catch that flight.

Since then, Collar more or less has had to reacclimate himself to life outside of his apartment, which doubled as his workplace throughout the project. On a trip home this summer, he visited Carver and told staff there he'd like to stop by while he toured in support of the book.

When he was applying to the Carver magnet program — his family moved north from Baltimore City to Idlewylde so that he could attend — he remembers asking whether any alumni had gone on to careers in the comic business.

He sought a return visit to show students both the possibilities their unique Carver education can lead to, as well as reminisce on the opportunity to attend as well.

"It was always a love-hate with the institution (of school)," he said. I love Carver, but looking back, you see how much you learned. There's a lot of cockiness and confidence with being 17, 18 (years old). Now I can sort of look back and say 'Oh, that was me. I should have listened more.' "

Though he may be left to lament what could have been in school, now that his first book is on sale, Collar has few qualms about his efforts on The Red Pyramid.

"I'm super proud of it," he said. "I'm really happy how it turned out, and I'm happy to be proud of it.

"I could look at individual panels and say 'That could be better, this could be better,' but for what I put into it, (I know) that I couldn't do any better and that it's the full extent of my ability, my endurance, my knowledge."

He's signed on to do the coloring for the second installment of The Kane Chronicles — which he hopes will be much less stressful than the first go-around — and has a meeting this weekend with his agent in which he hopes to determine the direction for his next project.

"The next step is to hopefully come up with my own story that I can do as a graphic novel, or maybe something smaller like a children's book or piece illustration from here," he said. "I live in Los Angeles, so I have a lot of opportunities to maybe get into TV and storyboard work and stuff, but that's all kind of pie in the sky. I haven't planned any of that out."

Orpheus Collar's debut graphic novel, The Kane Chronicles, Book One: The Red Pyramid, is available at major book outlets. A limited number of autographed copies are available at Ukazoo Books in Towson. Visit orpheusartist.com for more information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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