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Local Illustrator Explores What Makes a Hero in Debut Comic Book

'RISE OR FALL' is a story about how when ideals fall short, maybe it's hard to tell who's a hero and who's not

Frank Antonio sits in a chair holding a copy of his comic book ‘RISE OR FALL.’
Frank Antonio holds a copy of ‘RISE OR FALL.’(Photo by Lydia Bittner-Baird)

As a kid, Batman was everything to Frank Antonio. He would spend hours at a time glued to the TV watching Batman: The Animated Series and looking at comic books starring The Caped Crusader.

Whenever his parents allowed him to pick out a new comic book at the store, he always gravitated toward Batman. There was something about the superhero’s aesthetic — the ears, his long, draping cape and dark, Gothic feel — that drew Antonio in. Batman looked like he should be a villain, but he was the good guy.

Antonio was obsessed with the art in comic books and would stare at the bright colors and action scenes, often glazing over the adult themes and subtle nuances he didn’t understand. At that age, he hadn’t yet grasped that someone made the comic book in his hands, let alone the work that went into each page. He especially didn’t think that one day he’d create his own.

The 37-year-old Charlotte illustrator understands that process now after spending the past five years creating his first comic book, RISE OR FALL, a story about how far ideals can take a man and how, when they fall short, it can become hard to tell who’s a hero and who’s not.

Released on May 3, the 44-page, full-color book is available at Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find comic book store in the Elizabeth neighborhood, and online at frankantonio.bigcartel.com.

Antonio will promote RISE OR FALL at HeroesCon on June 16-18 at Charlotte Convention Center, where he’ll be on Indie Island — a curated section of HeroesCon’s Artists Alley featuring artists from the world of indie comics.

It’s a dream come true for Antonio, who began as a fan reading comic books off the shelf and recreating the pictures, hoping to one day draw for mainstream comics. That is, until he realized he has his own stories he wants to tell.

“I thought the best way to do that would be to create my own characters, create my own story, look inward, put a little bit of myself in some of these characters and narratives, and then after a while, it turned into this,” Antonio said.

Creating characters

Antonio has been chipping away at RISE OR FALL for the last five years in between storyboarding and animation projects for commercials and movies. He drew the entire comic book in Photoshop on a tablet using a stylus pen — first as quick, small thumbnail sketches that he later refined and colored.

For some pages and panels, he drew the pictures first then decided what the characters would say, which he said isn’t typical in the industry.

“In a lot of bigger comics they break up the responsibilities. There’s the writer, the penciler, the inker, the colorist,” he said. “That it’s all on me, I can kind of play around with that process.”

A comic book drawing of New York City on one half and a close-up of a crowd of people on the other
A scene from ‘RISE OR FALL.’ (Artwork by Frank Antonio)

With RISE OR FALL, Antonio said he wanted to create something heavily character-based that existed in a real-world setting — New York City in the 1990s — and also had fantastical elements, such as people with superpowers known as The Sentries.

The first chapter follows the perspectives of Matteo Ortiz and Ethan Cutler, two very different characters whose worlds will eventually collide. There are people with supernatural abilities out there, and one young man is about to become one of them. But with heroes come villains, and Ethan and Mateo are about to find out which camp they fall into.

RISE OR FALL is about what happens when you think your life is supposed to go one way and then one thing changes everything and how you react after that, Antonio explained. Do you roll with the punches? Do you ascend and try to be the best version of yourself? Or do you fall into a role of anger, resentment and entitlement?

A comic book drawing of a fight scene
A scene from ‘RISE OR FALL.’ (Artwork by Frank Antonio)

“I tried to look into myself, like, how in times have I been my best self? And how in times have I been my worst self?” Antonio said. “And let me see how I can put that into these characters so they feel somewhat relatable within this world that has people who can fly and who can shoot things out of their eyes, to ground them a little bit with human experience and emotion.

“There are some characters that we’ll meet that you may think they’re the protagonist, and at some point they’re maybe not as great as we thought. And vice versa,” he continued.

Antonio said some of the characters and story beats — events, actions and choices that prove the arc of a character’s development — in RISE OR FALL are somewhat based on real-life experiences as well as observations.

Matteo and Antonio are both Puerto Rican, though Matteo identifies more specifically as “Nuyorican” — slang for someone of Puerto Rican descent who lives in New York City. Antonio said he hasn’t seen much Latino representation in comics and originally defaulted to a white male character as his lead before realizing he hadn’t made a conscious decision.

“I’m not white. I don’t know what it is necessarily to be white, but I am Puerto Rican and I have my own experiences. Why don’t I put that into the main character?” he said. “Hopefully, there’ll be other Puerto Ricans or people who are Latino who will read it and say, ‘This character looks like me. I relate to that.’

“Once I made that decision, it definitely helped to inform the rest of the story — setting-wise, motivation-wise, culture-wise and language-wise because there’s a bit of Spanish in there.”

Building a world

Creating an original, made-up world for a comic book is difficult, but recreating a place and time that already exists is its own challenge as readers are keen to spot inaccuracies.

Antonio said he was up for that challenge when he decided to set RISE OR FALL in New York City in the ‘90s. He thought it would be fun to include callbacks to the outfits, music, references, culture and style of the time.

But he also had to make sure he got it right, so he researched and looked at pictures of the city in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s — from the graffiti on the subways to the cityscape to what types of cars were on the streets.

The first chapter of RISE OR FALL is heavily influenced by this ‘90s aesthetic, as well as movies set in New York City like the 1990 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, and what Antonio called “doomer movies,” where the climax is always destroying the city —  Escape from New York, King Kong, and Godzilla, for example.

Matteo sits in a dimly-lit subway that's covered in graffiti
A scene from Frank Antonio’s debut comic book ‘RISE OR FALL.’ (Artwork by Frank Antonio)

“A lot of those movies, they always made New York look wet, like it had just finished raining and there was smoke always billowing through the streets, and I really wanted to do that in this book,” Antonio said.

“New York has that draw for whatever reason,” he continued. “It’s also a city that I think most people would recognize and could connect to in some way, even if they’ve never been there.”

Antonio made a point to use colors popular in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in RISE OR FALL — fluorescent pinks, bright yellows, light blues and purples — a stark contrast to his early childhood drawings of Spider-Man, Batman and Wolverine, which were void of color due to his own insecurities, he said.

Ethan and Matteo scream in opposite frames
Ethan (top) and Matteo (bottom) in ‘RISE OR FALL.’ (Artwork by Frank Antonio)

He also showcases his style of using shadows and light to inform a scene.

“​​If there’s a light in the room, I definitely want the viewer to notice,” Antonio said. “There’s one scene that’s inside a seedy hotel and there’s one light and it’s this bright red light, so I make sure that all the characters are lit that way, and hoping that it gives it a mood or some kind of tense feeling.”

RISE OR FALL is intentionally presented like a movie. The colors and lighting within scenes look cinematic and many of the panels are slim and horizontal like a movie screen. Antonio said he wants readers to see and feel the story in motion.

“I want people to take time with each page because there are a lot of panels that don’t have any text to them, and I’m trying to tell the story just through the visuals,” Antonio said. “If they’re anything like me, from when I was a kid, they’re gonna want to take their time reading it.”

The next page

The plan is for RISE OR FALL to be 12 chapters, but Antonio assured he won’t be tackling them at the same pace as this first one. He intends to finish them much faster and already has a script in place for Chapter 02.

While the first chapter is about establishing Matteo and Ethan, what their motivations are and how they seem to be on two different trajectories, Antonio said going forward, their lives will be torpedoing more and more toward each other and it’s going to change them, for better or worse.

He also intends to do more world building, as the story doesn’t just stay in New York City, and introduce more colorful characters.

Now that RISE OR FALL is out, Antonio said he’s excited and a little scared for what’s to come because, for what felt like a long time, the story had been in the planning stages and a work in progress. With the release of the first chapter comes expectations, yet he’s just trying to catch his breath and take it all in.

Antonio said it’s rewarding thinking about how his life has come full circle — from being a kid and picking comic books off the shelf to now putting his own on a shelf for someone else to enjoy.

He likes to think as a kid he would have been interested in RISE OR FALL, had it been on the same shelf as his beloved Batman, but admits he’s a little biased.

“Maybe my parents wouldn’t let me buy it, but I would at least pick it up and be like, ‘Can I buy this?’ And they’d tell me no, or maybe I’d have to wait until I’m 16 and then I would make a mental note and on my birthday I would go and buy it.”

RISE OR FALL might not be appropriate for young readers due to some adult themes and language, though Antonio noted “it has good messaging about the difference between being a good person and a not-so-good person.”


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