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December 2, 2012

Local artist Sterling Clark talks about his love affair with comics

Most kids start out reading books like “Cat in the Hat” or “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Not Sterling Clark. From the time he could start stringing sentences together at the age of 5, he was reading comic books — lots and lots of comic books.

“That’s all I did as a kid,” he said. “Almost literally from the time I could read, I was into them. Just knee-deep in them.”

Decades later, 46-year-old Clark is still devouring comics. And he’s also creating his own, too.

For the last 10 years, Sterling, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, has worked out of his Kokomo home dreaming up, writing and drawing stories of adventure for his comic strip “Ntombinde: The Girl Who Loves Danger.”

The strip begins running today in the Tribune.

You can find Clark working most days from a small studio he built in the rear of his house, and stepping into it feels a little like stepping into a kid’s playroom.

Superman and Batman action figures line the bookshelves. The walls are plastered with large, brightly colored drawings autographed by Clark’s favorite artists. Stacked in a corner by his drawing board are boxes and boxes stuffed with comics like The Avengers and The Fantastic Four.  

“Someone told me once that you can really feel the energy in this room,” he said.

Comic book breakthrough

Clark has worked as a professional comic creator since 1991, when he landed his first big break into the business after the small, underground publisher Rip-Off Press in California put out his first comic book.

That comic told the story of The Renegade — a Hispanic superhero with super-human strength that Clark brainstormed in 1987. He said the character was based on a buddy he knew when he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1985 to 1991.

“I wanted to do something a little different, because most superheros are Caucasian,” he recalled. “You never saw very many black or Hispanic characters.”

Clark said he always had a lifelong dream of becoming a professional comic artist, so he was blown away when he learned Rip-Off Press would actually publish his work.

“It was freakin’ great,” he said. “I was so happy. Dog gone, I was happy.”

The next year, the second and final Renegade comic book came out.

Over the next 20 years, Clark landed jobs doing pinups and spreads for the comic Spawn, and drawing fan art for popular TV shows and magazines.

It’s during that time he also had two graphic novels published featuring a supernatural adventurer named Omar Lennyx.

Ntombinde is born

It wasn’t until 2004, however, that Clark said he came across the legendary character of Ntombinde (pronounced “in-tum-BEN-dee”) while doing research into African mythology for a graphic novel he was working on called “Tales from the Motherland.”

The legend told the story of Congolese princess looking for her soul-mate, who was turned into a snake by a witch. Only through love could she turn him back to a human.

Clark began tweaking and revamping the mythological character into a kind of warrior princess. He wanted her to be realistic, so he gave her a shaved head.

“Someone with long hair running through the jungle would just get it caught on tree limbs,” he said.

He ended up submitting “Tales from the Motherland” to an independent-artist contest in 2006. Sure enough, it won the top prize.

“That’s when I started thinking that this could actually work as a strip,” he said. “I just loved the character.”

In 2008, the publisher of a small Fort Wayne newspaper called Ink approached Clark about running the strip. Naturally, he was all for it, and it began running that year until the paper folded in 2010. Then in March 2011, a Cleveland newspaper picked up the strip after Clark brought in samples, and it’s still runs in that publication as a weekly strip.

An innate artist

It’s all pretty remarkable when you consider Clark hasn’t had any formal training in drawing. The only actual class he’s taken was a graphic arts course in high school Clark said he signed up for just to get out of gym.

But the fact is that he hasn’t really needed any training. Clark said he began drawing at about the same time he started reading comic books, and even as a 6-year-old he said his mother recognized his talent.

As he got older, Clark began tracing out comic books onto paper to get the feel for how to construct the dramatic action his favorite artists created in their strips.

“That’s how I really first indoctrinated myself with drawing comics,” Clark said. “Comics were coming up big in the ‘60s, and by the ‘70s they were just steamrolling stuff out. You couldn’t help but get swallowed up in it. If you were a kid, you were just loving it.”

Now, after a lifetime of drawing and writing and lifelong love affair with comics, Clark said he’s able to crank out his own strips almost like he’s working on an assembly line.

“Comic book art isn’t about how perfect the work is,” he said. “We’re not trying to draw like Michelangelo or Norman Rockwell. It’s about storytelling — about finding a hook.”

And with “Ntombinde: The Girl Who Loves Danger,” Clark said he thinks he’s found that hook.

“Everybody that’s seen the strip says she’s marketable, because she looks different,” he said “She’s unique. It seems to grab people enough that when they see it, they like it ... I figure the more exposure it gets, the better. Because from there, who knows? Maybe someday Ntombinde might be a movie.”

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He can be reached by phone at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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