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Read. Vote. Create.


That’s the Zeitgeist of Zuda Comics, a new online DC Comics site that’s putting adventurous comic creators on the same page - or, rather, screen - with comic readers interested in expanding their horizons beyond familiar superhero fare.


Make that well beyond.


Each month zudacomics.com invites those who may be weary of caped crusaders and wall crawlers to check out a genre-defying mix of 10 fresh comic stories by up-and-coming creators.


Non registered users can read the comics. Registered users can vote for their favorite comics and add comments, sometimes creating dialogues between fans and creators. Each monthly winner receives a contract from Zuda to continue producing exclusive installments on the site for up to a year.


It’s a unique development in the evolution of comics, says Zuda editorial director Ron Perazza.


“This is the first time in DC history that editorial projects are being signed to contracts that are approved externally,” Perazza says. “We select what goes into the competition, but the users select what comes out of the competition. It’s like ‘Thunderdome.’ Ten go in, one comes out.”


And “Zuda” stands for?


“We hit upon the idea of, ‘Why not just make up a word?’” Perazza says. “Comics have a long history of nonsense words that just sound cool.”


Zuda Comics isn’t goofing around when it comes to its mission of supplying all-ages variety, including, but not limited to, science fiction, horror, fantasy, crime, satire, day-in-the-life dramas and oddball funny animals.


In addition to competition winners, there are “instant winners” selected by Zuda editors and awarded ongoing status.


Take, for example, “Bayou,” a spellbinding story of a black girl in the Depression-era South who is confronted by mindless bigotry and violence, even as she makes a phantasmagoric discovery.


At 31, “Bayou” creator Jeremy Love has already achieved much as a cartoonist, releasing two graphic novels through Dark Horse Comics, selling an animated short to 20th Century Fox and developing several children’s TV shows. But “Bayou,” he says, is his biggest breakthrough.


“Zuda definitely exposes work like ‘Bayou’ to people who would never read it, who would never be exposed to it if they had to actually pay for it,” Love says. “It’s kind of a risk-free way to try out new and different types of material.


“And I’ve never been able to tell a story of my own in an unfiltered fashion like this. I’ve never been given this kind of complete creative freedom. And that’s huge, because it gives me the opportunity to show exactly what I can do, to kind of flex my muscles and really play with the comic medium.”


When the North Carolina native began thinking up “Bayou” - with some events inspired by stories handed down by his family - he admits originality wasn’t a priority.


“I was just trying to come up with a story that compelled me, that I always wanted to read,” Love says. “I’ve always found something haunting about the South. Every time I’d go back and visit, it just seemed like there was something underneath the surface that was intangible. I really wanted to explore that and give the South and American culture a fantasy epic similar to ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ I wanted to give us something that tapped into our folklore.”


The result is powerful stuff, filled with hope and hate and trust and betrayal - and the N-word, which Love agreed to have partly blocked out by stars in the story.


“I originally had the full word in there,” he says. “But since Zuda doesn’t have a mature-readers function on the site, then I kind of do have a responsibility. Everyone knows what word was used.”


Still it strikes Love as odd that his depictions of racist violence in “Bayou” don’t fall under the same circumspection.


“It’s very ironic that, in this culture, an image of a lynching or any kind of violence is much less of a hot topic than a word,” he says.


Words don’t really come into play in 27-year-old Lenexa, Kan., native David Daneman’s Zuda comic, “Danetroplis,” whose silently absurdist characters are all represented by the author.


“I hope that people take the ‘multi-me’ metaphorically,” Daneman says. “The gimmick has come to symbolize that one man’s protagonist is another man’s antagonist. We are all background action in other people’s lives.”


Daneman likes the action on Zuda’s message boards, although he’d rather be spared the kidney punches.


“One of the funniest things someone has said to me is that the strips are ‘clever’ and that ‘clever is not funny,’” Daneman says. “I told him I thought that was clever. He thought that was funny.”


Dwelling in a zone where humor is at best a murky proposition is Gary Epting’s “A Spelunker’s Guide to the City.” The scene is Null City, which is nowhere, and full of dark, complex, conflicting images that somehow blend into a whole. Its dour protagonist is nameless and imprisoned for reasons unknown.


“I was floored that I got into this contest, to be honest,” Epting says. “I just could not imagine that they would choose this, just because of the opaqueness. This is thick and dark and very hard to get a foothold of.”


At 56, Epting is a veteran multimedia artist who treats the computer screen like a mystical canvas. His comic crams in a crazy library of images culled from his paintings and clay sculptures, as well as photos, video grabs, folded paper and even remnants of 3-D animation.


“The homogenizing factor is, you can use the computer to smooth the edges, to make it all have a similar atmosphere so it feels like it’s all the same thing,” Epting says. “I’m really hoping that I can be delivering something that feels like the first time it’s been done. And the comics are the way in.


“But traditional comics are very flat. They don’t have the depth of the (computer) monitor. So I get really jazzed when I think, ‘I’m actually opening this window into this space that can go way back there and, with a 24-bit card, is capable of 16 million colors.’”


But for all of the high-tech possibilities inherent in online comics, including Zuda’s innovative full-screen-image delivery system that eschews scrolling, “Bayou” creator Love still relishes drawing his Zuda comic by hand rather than with a computer stylus.


“I need pencil and paper,” Love says. “I need that contact. I think that creates life in the drawing. I’ve tried the stylus, and it just doesn’t feel the same. It just doesn’t have the same organic touch to it.


“The thing the computer screen can’t do is let the mistakes shine through. And the mistakes are what actually give the drawing its personality.”


Love has become a celebrity on Zuda Comics, with “Bayou” receiving more than 52,000 hits since November - a big audience in comic circles - along with oodles of supportive comments.


“It’s overwhelming,” he says. “It’s given me a lot more confidence. It’s really the first time I’ve been able to get that instant reaction to my work. And that instant reaction is very good. I mean, usually you have to wait a whole month to read a couple of reviews on the Internet about your comic book.


“But if I’m doing like a few pages and posting them up and getting that immediate response, it kind of amps me up to make it better. It gets the creative juices flowing to get on with next chapter.”


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