When Leila del Duca moved back to her home state, she figured she had enough contacts to pursue her career in comics from afar.
Less than two years later, she’s proved herself right. This month, the Missoula artist has her first comic on a major publisher.
“Shutter,” debuts this month on Image comics. The fantasy-adventure series follows Kate Kristopher, daughter of a famed explorer who finds herself sucked back into the world she’d left behind.
The title was written by Joe Keatinge, a Portland, Ore.-based scribe who’s won awards for his writing and editing work at Marvel and Image.
The two met at the New York Comic Convention in 2012, and bonded over similar tastes in comics.
Keatinge had been mulling over the “loose idea” for “Shutter” for some time – the Kate character, her adventurous past and a mysterious book she’s written. It wasn’t clicking, and he moved on with other projects.
Impressed by del Duca’s portfolio, including her work on indie comics like “The Pantheon Project” and “Deadskins,” he made a pitch.
“I saw her art, and I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what’s missing, that’s why it’s not working,’ ” he said. “When she came in, it became the book that it is.”
“Shutter” is set in the future, when Kate has been quietly and anonymously working as a real estate photographer. Through flashbacks, a happier, more glamorous childhood with her globetrotting father is revealed.
The alternate-reality Earth is populated by creatures of all stripes, a sort of oddball menagerie for the artist’s and writer’s imaginations. For instance, Kate’s alarm clock is a Felix the Cat-like creature that bounces around the apartment, dispensing news and advice.
Keatinge said “Shutter” wasn’t initially going to have as many fantastical elements. It would be grounded in reality, but only as grounded as, say, “Indiana Jones” or “Tintin.”
But he soon realized an outlandish environment could contrast with Kate’s character arc.
“She’s trying to find her way in this insane world that’s bigger than anyone can deal with,” he said.
Enter the minotaurs in business suits, the alligators dressed as bellhops, the glowing purple ghost ninjas, the giant monsters. Her dad was an adventurer, right?
Del Duca told Keatinge she was up to drawing almost anything, allowing him to push it further.
Her ability to create those “weird, insane” elements while also conveying Kate’s emotions makes the comic work, Keatinge said.
“Even though the situation is absurd, the humanity’s still there and so pure and so relatable,” he said.
Providing the lush,
eye-popping color for the “Shutter” universe is is Owen Gieni, who previously worked with Keatinge on “Glory.”
Within the first issue alone, he uses three different coloring styles for the present, the sepia-toned flashbacks with Kate’s father and the adventures in space.
The first issue, mind you, sets up this world – establishing the protagonist’s past and her personality, creating a reality that’s otherworldly but believable.
As fantastical as some elements of “Shutter” are, others correct mistakes that still exist in the superhero realm – the lack of racial diversity and unrealistic bodies.
The two decided early on that Kate’s father would be a “blonde white guy” to pay tribute to “Tintin,” the classic adventure comic by George Remi. Kate’s mom would be a different ethnicity, though.
“We’re both tired of seeing mainly white people in comics, and I personally find it boring to draw. It’s also not a believable story to me if a comic lacks other races,” del Duca said.
While Kate is in shape, her body is not “so disproportional that she’s not believable.” Hence, there’s no cartoonishly large bust.
She’s pretty, but not idealized – del Duca gave her a pointy nose.
“I liked the idea of a woman in comics not having the typical rounded, idealistic features but who is still beautiful. I want to mimic the beauty in diversity that I see in the real world, and that’s something that’s constantly on my mind when designing the people and locations in ‘Shutter,’ ” she said.
It provided numerous ideas for pent-up visuals for del Duca, who grew up in Missoula, Billings and Fromberg.
She studied illustration at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Denver. She moved back to Missoula in late 2012 after looking for a smaller city that was bicycling- and hiking-friendly. With the convenience of scanning and email, she’s able to work with writers and colorists across the country.
Beyond the visual ideas, it was a personal work for her.
“I really love being able to draw the relationship between Kate and her dad, because that’s something that I didn’t really have growing up,” del Duca said. “And so it’s kind of fulfilling this part in me to have at least in my mind to have an ideal happy relationship with a father figure.”
For Keatinge’s part, he says all of his work is personal, but this project is the most personal work he’s written thus far.
“ ‘Shutter’ is like a step away from very thinly disguised journals,” he said.
While he’s careful to note that he has a great relationship with his parents and step-parents – nothing like anything readers may discover in “Shutter” – he is fascinated by the idea of family.
To both of the creators, it’s a story about what you do with the family you don’t want to have and who you adopt into your life in their place.
Local comic book artist Leila del Duca will have a release party and signing for issue No. 1 of “Shutter” (above) on Wednesday, April 9, from 4 to 7 p.m. Also signing comics are artist Tony Gregori of “Unmasked” and Tim Daniel, creator of “Enormous” and “Curse.” The signing takes place at Muse Comics, 2100 Stephens Ave.