Getting to Know the Guy Holding the Pen
“I don't really understand buying comics so you can put them in a clear, plastic sleeve and never touch them again,” said Rafael Nieves. “You know what I think comics are meant for? You buy 'em, read 'em, enjoy 'em and then roll them up and put 'em in your back pocket for later.”
Sounds like blasphemy in the age where Superman #1 sells for over a million dollars. But for Rafael Nieves, comics are inexpensive, convenient but no less important as a storytelling medium.
In his 20 years as a comic writer, Rafael Nieves has produced enough material to start his own personal collection. His career began, and took off, when he helped chronicle the life and times of a 1980's Peace Corps volunteer in Africa in “Tales from the Heart.” It led to a gig at Marvel Comics where he resurrected Son of Satan in “Hellstorm: Prince of Lies.” He later went on to established himself in the alternative comics market as the co-creator of Moonstone and Transfuzion Comics.
His latest work, with art by Dan Dougherty, presents the end times as seen through the camera lens of a grind house late night feature in “The Apocalypse Plan.”
A longtime resident of Berwyn Illinois, Rafael lives with Amy Nieves, his wife of 13 years and his most stalwart and die hard fan. “She is my rock,” said Rafael. “I couldn’t do what I do without her.”
Amy is one of the reasons he still has raw enthusiasm for comics, according to Rafael. Same as he did when he first started reading his brother Lee's the extensive collection.
“My first real memory of comics was going though my brother's collection,” said Rafael. “He read everything; Casper, Archie, Marvel, DC. I tried to count them all once, I stopped at 4000. I feel bad that I haven't honored my brother for what did for me.”
As a student at Roberto Clemente High School he quickly started to appreciate film and how film techniques are used to tell a story. His exposure to comics also motivated him to start reading more classical literature.
“Through comics I went to the classics like Poe and Shakespeare,” said Rafael, who added that both are his favorite authors.
After graduating, Rafael held positions at a number of ad agencies, which were suggested to him by a teacher impressed with his writing talents.
“My first ‘real’ job was at Ogilvy & Mather, where I worked in the production department,” said Rafael. “After about 5 years there, I went to Foote, Cone & Belding, where I worked as Assistant to the Director of Creative Services. After that, I went to a small agency called Hamilton, Carver and Lee, which specialized in medical advertising.”
Tales from the Heart – From Underground to the Top of the Sky
It was at Hamilton where he met Cindy Goff, and from that meeting he would change from comic reader to writer with “Tales from the Heart.”
“ [Cindy] agreed to type up some of my short stories and poems, since I’m a lousy typist,” said Rafael. “When she found out I was trying to break into the comic book industry, she began to tell me about her experiences in the Peace Corps, and how she’d often thought about writing a book. The problem was, there were so many books out there by former Peace Corps volunteers. Once I heard some of the stories, I suggested to her that she turn her tales into a comic book series.”
Raf and Cindy co-wrote the story with art by Seitu Hayden and published their work through Minnesota's Entropy Comics.
“I met Seitu at one of the ad agencies I worked at, where he was a storyboard artist. He’d done some comic strips before, and when Cindy and I created the concept for 'Tales from the Heart,' he was my first choice to draw it. I might have promised him scads of money, since I just 'knew' the book was going to sell like wildfire!”
“Tales of the Heart,” published in 1987, was a fictionalized account of Cindy Goff's time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. The protagonist representing Cindy was Cathy Grant, a Minnesota native who, when we first meet her, is living in an African village,
The first issue has Cathy remembering the nightmare simply getting into the country. It starts when she and her fellow volunteers are suspected of being CIA by the African authority because they are from America. Her Peace Corp friends are later petrified and start regretting being in Africa after hearing about local debilitating diseases like elephantiasis. By the end the whole group nearly experiences a gorilla safari gone wrong.
But to Cathy, she has to learn to walk and talk again if she's going to make a life for herself in this strange and unfamiliar world.
“Oh, Cathy gets involved in quite a number of adventures, all very humanistic, with the occasional real-world danger,” said Rafael.
The trials of Cathy were reflections of Cindy Goff's experiences in Africa, according to Rafael. Much of what is depicted in the comic struck very close to current events in the region. One issue even has Cathy dispelling ugly rumors about how AIDS became an epidemic throughout the country.
“This actually happened to a friend of Cindy's and was related in the short story 'Mourning Son,' published in the 1988 anthology 'Strip Aids,' a benefit book that was spearheaded by Trina Robbins, I think,” said Rafael.
Though it was Rafael's freshman outing in the comics, its' telling of real world problems garnered plenty of attention from the comic community. Sadly, it wasn't enough to boost sales for the underground comic and soon the harsh realities of the business were made all too apparent.
“We did two issues for Entropy, both sold horribly,” said Nieves.
“I think it was simple economics that forced Entropy to cancel the book. Then Dan Vado from Slave Labor Graphics picked it up. I think he left us a voice message or something, saying he wanted to continue publishing the book, because he wanted to read the story. He knew sales were crap, but went ahead anyway. I'll be forever indebted to Dan for having the courage to do that.” Despite switching publishers from Entropy to Slave Labor, who were impassioned to complete the story, “Tales from the Heart,” has still not yet been completed.
“It got to the point where no one could afford to complete it,” said Rafael.
Even if it couldn't pull in enough sales, “Tales...” was a still comic that generated spirited fans and genuine enthusiasm from publishers. Award winning comic writer Neil Gaiman was even in on pushing the comic and its writers, according to Rafael.
"During the Tales run, Cindy got a voice message from none other than Neil Gaiman, telling her how much he enjoyed the book,” said Rafael. "We were both very excited, and even moreso when we found out, later on, that, when DC wanted to turn Neil's limited series Black Orchid into an ongoing title, Neil actually recommended us to the editor to take the book over! We didn't get the job, but Cindy and I were both honored and humbled.”
As if that wasn't enough Gaiman also did more then just enjoy the comic, according to Rafael.
"When Dan Vado published the first collection of Tales stories, Neil wrote a wonderful introduction to the book. Seems odd that, after all these years, I've yet to meet Neil, being the fan that I am.”
During the book's Slave Labor run, Cindy and Rafael got the attention of Marvel Comics. The House of Ideas offered them the opportunity to produce two original graphic novels based on the book for their Epic Line. It was there that Rafael's freshman outing into comics would take him to its highest peak as “Tales from the Heart,” was nominated for an Eisner Award.
“Of the two Epic editions of Tales, 'The Temporary Natives' and 'Bloodlines,' the latter was nominated in 1993, in two categories; Best Single Issue (Self-contained Story) and Best Graphic Album,” said Rafael.
In that moment, “Tales from the Heart” shared a spot with the likes of Gaiman's “Sandman” and “Hellblazer” from Vertigo Comics. With such an accolade attached to his name, Rafael has been quick to point out that “Tales...” was always a team effort.
“The nomination was not for me,” he said. “It was for the comic.”
But even with a nomination from the Eisner awards, the remainder of “Tales...” has still yet to be completed.
For fans, Rafael said not to lose hope, since there's a possibility of re-publication.
“Anyone interested can either find the issues on Ebay or something, or look up the two collections published by Slave Labor Graphics. Or, it they really want the goods, they should keep an eye out for the Tales from the Heart Omnibus edition, coming… soon, I hope, from Slave Labor! That edition will have all the 'Tales' stories, including the Epic one-shots.”
The rise and fall of “Tales...” would be the beginning of the the Rafael's own trials and tribulations through the comics business. But as to why he kept wanting to create despite the harsh business, he put it thusly:
“In comics, you can create –and destroy—worlds. Although it is primarily a visual medium, all that wonderful art depends on a story. Besides reading, my other favorite hobby is watching movies. Writing comics allows me to make my own little movies, with a small budget and a very small crew. I love the challenge of trying to evoke an emotional response in the reader through the use of art, text, and sound effects. I can do anything in comics, tell any kind of story there is to tell. Comics helped me learn to read, they helped me to discover literary works, they taught me what it means to be a good person. If I reached out to try to be a super-hero, and only wound up being a decent man, then I can be proud of that. Comics taught me what being a hero is.”
Up next: Rafael's job at the House of Ideas and brining back the Son of Satan!