Graphic artists John Greiner and Jake Kelly spent years individually creating posters for places such as the Beachland Ballroom, Grog Shop and Melt Bar & Grilled. But it wasn't until 2011 that they collaborated extensively on an exhibit called Ten Imaginary Movies, presented by Heights Arts at the B-Side Liquor Lounge in Cleveland Heights.
"That was a good test of a friendship," says Greiner. "We were working until 3 in the morning sometimes and really pushed the limits. But it was really rewarding, and that's when we realized we should work together on other stuff."
As part of that movie-poster exhibit, Greiner created two comic book covers for The Lake Erie Monster, one of the 10 imaginary films. Greiner, 33, and Kelly, 34, who both live in the city of Cleveland, are longtime fans of the horror genre and cite comic book artists and illustrators as some of the biggest influences on their own artwork.
"I grew up on a steady diet of horror movies and horror comics," says Kelly. "I try to watch every horror movie that comes out so I have a sense of what's good and what's bad and what's so intentionally bad that it's good."
The covers Greiner created for Kelly's The Lake Erie Monster poster inspired the men to move forward with an actual comic book, which was released earlier this year. Featuring two longer stories and a single-page ender, it's a brilliant collaboration that showcases the artists' distinctive skills while paying homage to B-movie dialogue and storylines.
"We see it as a Rust Belt-anthology comic book," says Kelly.
Set in Cleveland in August 1973, the first story, "The Lake Erie Monster, Part 1," centers on the fate of a photographer and his hippie chick girlfriend who go missing one day while out on a polluted Lake Erie. Kelly wrote the story, and Greiner provided the grisly illustrations, which include a gruesome beheading.
"When I made the poster, I wanted to set it in early '70s Cleveland because of the pollution angle and the toxic waste and the river had just burned," explains Kelly. "It was a very dark time. If someone were to make an ecological horror movie, they would probably set it in Cleveland in 1973."
The book continues with "Thousand Legger," an entirely different story about a man with a physical disability who wakes up one morning to find a giant centipede has wrapped its tentacles around his legs. Kelly based the comic on his own debilitating experiences with back pain, but the paralyzed protagonist is someone to whom Greiner — who uses a wheelchair — can relate.
"Setting a character who lives with a disability and has useless legs against something that has a thousand legs provides a pretty intense juxtaposition. It's easy to correlate to everyone's daily life: You wake up, and there is always a thousand-legger in your path."
The book concludes with the one-pager "Commodore's Cleveland," a Kelly spoof about a 7-foot tall treeman who commits a series of murders along Cleveland's Train Avenue in 1949.
The creators funded the book by selling advertisements to a few of the local venues they've done projects for in the past. Those ads covered the printing expenses, and the two have made a small amount of money from the initial print run of 500 (priced at $5 each), which they say is nearly sold out. Their next comic is due out this month, and they have at least eight more books planned. But this isn't about the money.
"It's a labor of love," says Kelly. "The other day, I was just working on a mural and some other stuff, and I couldn't wait to get through that to get back to Lake Erie Monster. Once I start working on the pages and I'm feeling good about it, I don't want to stop for anything."