Matt Bryan couldn't let the diver go.
A shaggy artist with a beard and shoulder-length hair, Bryan had been playing around with drawing in the high-contrast, black-and-white style he first encountered in Mike Mignola's Hellboy series. The result was a deep-sea diver, and Bryan couldn't help imagining the lonely explorer on a deep ocean floor, just a small circle of light in the surrounding black, searching for...something.
"It was just a couple drawings of him, and I started thinking of what he could be," Bryan says.
Eventually he took the diver to his high school pal and fellow cartoonist/writer, Mike McCubbins. Together they spent a coffee-fueled night at a diner hashing out a plot and laying out storyboards. Bryan threw in another character, a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and McCubbins integrated one of his own: a huge tentacled pyramid. Two years and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, their graphic novel Book of Da has shipped across the world.
The pastor narrates the story of the diver and his battles with Da — an omnipotent, eight-tentacled pyramid that somehow controls the emotions of all sea life. Bryan spent months crouched over a child-size red aluminum desk, inking and drawing the 148-page book inside his south St. Louis home.
In those hours he fashioned a mystical and surreal world complete with an ink-black ocean through which the diver wanders, trailing an air hose with no discernible source. The depths of the sea is a place of untold secrets and danger in the form of huge creatures with suspicious eyes, snaggled teeth and oddly placed fingers.
"That was a main reason I wanted to do it," Bryan admits, laughing. "I have this diver guy, and I want to draw a bunch of sea monsters."
Bryan and McCubbins originally planned for Book of Da to encompass just 50 pages or so, with McCubbins' writing driving most of the story. But as their work progressed, they began breaking the sentences and descriptions into pieces, and from those pieces Bryan created more illustrated panels. One or two sentences of text became fifteen new panels for Bryan to play with.
The pacing of Book of Da is deliberate and cinematic. In the novel's frequent stretches without narration, Bryan builds context and tension on the page from light and shadow — or from zooming the perspective in close, say, on a crablike horror with winking eyes swiveling on stalks. Nothing is static or at ease in the dark recesses of the sea. Everything is alive and moving.
"Matt put himself down into that world," McCubbins says, describing Bryan's creation as one "overwhelmed with negative space." To this day, the writer says, he's still discovering small details and nuances that Bryan injected into the pages of their novel. "As I'm watching him draw these pages I saw him getting better and better," he says.
The two long-time friends grew up together 65 miles south of St. Louis in Potosi, and they've worked on more than a half dozen smaller projects in the last decade. Tackling a concept as ambitious as Book of Da was something else entirely.
At the outset Bryan assumed that he and McCubbins would have to front a significant chunk of the $3,000 required to print a few hundred copies. So they completed the entire graphic novel before offering the finished product the masses. "Matt wanted to make something bigger. I think we both did," says McCubbins.
Kickstarter noticed and featured Book of Da on its homepage three days after the campaign went live. Money poured in, and not just from the U.S. but also Japan, Australia and Europe. In the end, they'd raised more than $17,000, and this past June they shipped around 700 copies of the novel to their backers.
Before Book of Da Bryan was perhaps best known for Moses and Bean, a six-volume comic series he created with his wife, Jeanie Bryan. Matt draws the stories. Jeanie writes them. Both are part of the core of St. Louis' independent comic-book community. Though, like most working artists, they have day jobs. Matt works for a catering company, and Jeanie is a children's librarian.
Matt Bryan cut his teeth producing comic books when he helped edit five editions of the Mixed Feelings anthologies from the Urchin Collective, an affiliation of local artists and illustrators that Bryan helped found in 2008 with local artist Corey Tyson and Webster University assistant professor Chris Sagovac.
Jeanie says that members of the group call Matt "The Machine."
"Matt has the self-discipline and the self-motivation to produce things," Jeanie says. "I'm the idea person and the writer, and he does. He just does."
Tyson met Bryan back when Urchin Collective would gather at the Luminary Center for the Arts, before the group moved to its current spot at Stone Spiral Coffee and Curios.
"He's not afraid to experiment, which is great to see in an artist," Tyson says. "Matt sticks to his guns, he's consistent, and to actually see this completed and done? It's inspiring."