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Comic-Book Artist Draws On His Real Life
Everything he chronicles is true, Tom Beland swears, and a cult following attests to the popularity of his self-deprecating wit.
By Matthew Hay Brown | Sentinel Staff Writer
February 10, 2004
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Tom Beland makes an unusual comic book hero. Approaching middle age, he doesn't fly like Superman, climb walls like Spider-Man or rage like the Hulk.
Instead, in a series that's aimed at adult readers, he agonizes over whether to take off his shirt at the beach, gets cranky with his co-workers, suffers performance anxiety in bed.
And over the course of "True Story, Swear to God" -- the acclaimed comic book from Puerto Rico that has developed a cult following in the United States and Europe -- he falls in love.
"His only superpower is to be human," says fan Wayne Beamer.
What's more, the real-life Tom Beland says, it all really happened.
The 2-year-old series has followed the courtship of the California comic artist and his wife, island media personality Lily García, from their 1998 meeting at Walt Disney World in Orlando through her first visit to his home in the Napa Valley and his initial trip to San Juan.
Following on the boom in graphic novels, Beland has come up with something utterly new: an autobiographical romance that fairly shines with a sweet, self-deprecating wit as it explores the challenges of a relationship that spans distance and cultures.
"When I look at her in this photo . . . with me . . . smiling . . . wow," says the comic-book Beland, back in California after that first meeting in Orlando. "And yet . . . for all I know . . . she's a world away . . . and she's moved on. And has already forgotten my name."
"The emotions feel true. We believe in this love," says comic-book writer Kurt Busiek, a veteran of Superman, Spider-Man and other titles. "It's not about the story or the plot, it's about the feelings that people are going through, and the warmth and the emotion shines through."
Those qualities have earned "True Story, Swear to God" nominations for three Eisner awards, the highest honor in the comics industry. Issues sell in the thousands in the United States and Europe, fan letters have arrived from as far afield as Australia, and Warner Bros. has expressed interest in animation rights.
"True Story, Swear to God" joins a growing tradition of comic books that explore adult themes, from Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust epic, "Maus," to the Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi's girlhood memoir, "Persepolis." That boom has provided a new source of stories for Hollywood, which has made titles such as "The Road to Perdition," "Ghost World" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" into major films.
Open and perhaps still more affable than his sunny comic-book self, Beland, 41, has been expressing himself with his pen since his teen years in Napa, Calif. In the space of three years, his father and then his mother died of cancer. Clarence Beland -- "Clib" to all who knew him -- had taught his son to draw. Now producing those distinctive caricatures became a way for Tom to maintain the connection with his father as he absorbed the losses.
After graduating from high school, Beland designed labels for a winery, flipped burgers at McDonald's and worked as a stand-up comic in San Francisco. Finally, a job as a page designer at The Napa Valley Register gave him a platform to draw a weekly strip. In "True Stories, Swear to God," Beland chronicled odd and amusing experiences from his life, often involving friends and family.
So it was only natural when, after meeting García on a junket to Disney World, he spent the flight home sketching out a comic book of the weekend, from their chance meeting at a bus stop through long discussions about their lives to a kiss and a melancholy goodbye.
The moment apparently was too good to let end.
García, who hosts a morning radio show and a weekly television program in San Juan and writes a column in the tabloid Primera Hora, visited Beland in Napa. He showed her his work.
"I read it and cried," García recalls. "I gave it to my mom and my aunt, and they cried. If he wanted to win everyone over, this was the way."
As their relationship deepened, it was García who encouraged Beland to publish the book. The first issue came out in 2001 to acclaim that surprised them both.
"It's incredibly honest," says Don MacPherson, a critic at the online comics review site the Fourth Rail (www.the fourthrail.com). "Tom just pours out his heart. There's no doubt that this is how things happened. There's no doubt that this is how he feels."
"I've always been a storyteller," Beland says. "That humor has always gotten me through the tough times."
In subsequent issues, Beland introduces García to his brothers and sister at a wedding celebrated by a drunken priest, cleans his apartment in preparation for her first arrival and visits the graves of his parents to describe his new love.
Then it's on to San Juan, where, amid the colonial ramparts of the San Felipe del Morro fort and the stained-glass façade of the La Bombonera restaurant, he faces her family, strains to understand his future father-in-law and overindulges on bacalaitos and piraguas.
"This is the kind of book I was hoping someone would come up with," says Beamer, a reader in Chicago. "It's a well-told story, and it feels true. My wife and I married under those kinds of conditions. I related to that quite a bit. It's different from guys and girls in spandex whomping the stuffing out of each other."
Recent issues have focused on the couple's separation during Hurricane Georges, when Beland, in California, worried over reports on the Weather Channel while García barricaded herself, incommunicado, in her Old San Juan apartment.
Future installments will deal with Beland's move to Puerto Rico and adjustment to island life, the couple's attempts at cross-cultural understanding amid the Vieques protests and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and finally, their engagement and marriage.
The wedding at Disney World was covered by Telemundo, Univision and the San Juan newspapers.
"True Story, Swear To God" seems to be a rare title that is shared by couples and passed on to friends. Busiek, the comic-book writer, says readership is growing "virally"; Beland says he has heard from fans in long-distance, cross-cultural and even same-sex relationships.
"It's nice to know that I can write 24 pages and the first words out of people's mouths are 'I was really moved by the story,' " he says. "I never think somebody's going to buy a book and have it change their life. But if it can give 30 minutes of escape, that's enough."