CLEVELAND — “That’s not how this story ends” – the catchphrase for Cleveland’s newest superheroine, “Stealth Hammer,” could easily apply to her creator, Ryan Drost. At 45, he’s started a new chapter in his life, finding opportunity in the pandemic to pursue his passion project: his own comic book, which he has successfully kickstarted online and is now for sale at a local comic book shop.
“I have been a comic book collector since the early 90s,” Drost said in a virtual interview with News 5 from his Strongsville home. “And I’ve hosted a podcast that talks about comics for the last 11 years. So, I've gotten to know a lot of people in the industry, and it just sparked my interest in storytelling, which I've had since I was a little kid.”
By day, mild-mannered Drost works at a customer service center for Vitamix, an Ohio-based company that he says has been “awesomely supportive” of his superheroic endeavor.
Drost and his wife have been exceedingly cautious during the pandemic, forgoing the sporting events and shows that many Northeast Ohioans enjoy while in complete lockdown.
“I think like a lot of people, I viewed it as — this is an opportunity that I have some extra time on my hands, so not commuting and not having to travel, not going out as much,” Drost said. “So, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream.”
That dream was “Stealth Hammer,” which Drost describes as: “an all-ages superhero comic that takes place in a world of high-tech gadgetry and supernatural mythology. How I relate it to people, things they might be similar to: it's kind of like Miss Marvel and Iron Fist in the world of Megaman meets Labyrinth.”
The protagonist Jami, also known as Stealth Hammer, shares her name with Drost’s wife, and the premiere issue sets up her origin.
“She is going into college, and she actually finds herself, through an accident of sorts, with superpowers,” Drost said. “And she finds out later that she's actually destined to get these powers. And she's part of the legacy of protectors.”
To create the vivid world of Stealth Hammer, Drost worked with several artists from around the country, including one from here in Ohio, though that fortuitous turn came following some adversity.
After coming up with the idea for the comic and writing the script, he found an artist, Alexandra Scott, who created the initial character designs and a short five-page story.
“And then we tried doing a Kickstarter the first time,” Drost said. “It wasn't successful.”
Undeterred, Drost continued work on the comic, but Scott was no longer available.
“I had to find a new artist, and who I found was this amazing talent named Joel Jackson,” Drost said. “He lives in Columbus, Ohio, so he was very close by, which was great. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we only recently met face-to-face.”
As comic book fans know, the art and designs are only part of the creation of the comic – coloring and lettering are other vital components. Drost was able to find colorist Ross Hughes through a friend.
“When it comes to coloring on this, I get so many compliments on coloring, and anyone who knows the comic book industry, that's not normal,” Drost said. “He just makes Joel's artwork pop out like it needs to.”
As for the comic’s text, Drost said he went the traditional route and found letterer Dave Sharp.
“I actually had someone lettering it out, all those word balloons and sound effects and everything else, and then found a printer,” he said. “I went very traditional in creating this. But I also surround myself with people that have been in the industry for a while so that I could have the best talent possible.”
While the comic’s artist Jackson is from nearby Columbus, Hughes lives in Florida, Sharp lives in Pennsylvania, and the first artist Scott lives in Georgia.
“We were all over the country, thankfully, due to technology and everything else, that was not a problem,” Drost said.
In fact, the pandemic may have played a role in bringing these artists together for his project.
“People were looking for some work to do because they weren't going to conventions and things like that,” Drost said. “The way to make money was to take on more projects and more work. So that really helped me to open doors to maybe some people that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to work with before.”
Getting to work with these talented artists was made possible through Kickstarter, the platform on which he raised over $10,000 – more than his $8,500 goal – with the help of nearly 200 backers.
“Kickstarter was great. It was a very user-friendly place that was unsuccessful the first time I launched it, but I was brand new to it,” Drost said. “I really didn't know how to market myself or how to promote the project that much. Even with having a podcast and having a lot of people that I knew in the industry that were helping me promote it, it still was unsuccessful because I just wasn't really marketing it the right way. And I learned a lot from being unsuccessful. And that's the biggest thing, is you can fail multiple times, but if you learn from those failures, you'll eventually be successful.”
A small change in how Drost presented his project resulted in a big success the second time around.
“One of the big things I learned was that as much as I'd like to think that people care about who I am and that I'm creating this thing, they care about the story and they want to be invested in the characters,” Drost said. “And that was the best piece of advice I got from somebody, was that you made the project about you the first time. You want to make it about the character and the story and get the people invested in those characters. So the second time I launched it, I made it about the project. I made it about why you should want to back this. What is it? What's in it for you as the consumer? And obviously, that was very sound advice.”
His project is backed and "Stealth Hammer" is a reality, but Drost’s story isn’t over yet.
“My next step with this is to find a publisher. And I know that there's going to be a lot of noes, but as the saying goes, it only takes one,” he said.
He said he’s looking at traditional publishers like Penguin and Random House, as well as comic publishers like Image.
Whether or not Drost lands a full-scale publishing deal, Clevelanders can already find a copy of his comic at Carol and John’s Comic Shop, a Cleveland institution in Kamm’s Corner.
“I've known John for several years there. He's a great guy — loves supporting local talent, loves supporting local businesses. I could not ask for a better place to be having my comic featured,” Drost said. And it's worked out so far — Drost said they already sold out of the first 40 issues that were on sale. He dropped off more copies this week, and the store is restocked.
For Drost, this journey was years in the making, but it wasn’t until recently that he had the physical proof that his dream was becoming a reality.
“Nothing made me happier than the day this showed up on my doorstep,” Drost said, holding up a printed copy of his comic book. “And I got to actually hold it and touch it. And it became real. That meant more to me than anything that came before and probably anything will come afterwards.
Drost’s advice for others looking to get their passion projects off the ground?
“If you have that type of passion, if you're like, ‘I just want to see this become a reality,’ and that's where I was, just don't give up on it,” he said. “You're going to have a lot of people telling you it can't be done. I'm 45 years old. ‘You're late in life to try to start these things,’ and stuff like that. Don't listen to them. If you really believe in what you're doing, that's really something you've always wanted to do, don't give up on it.”
Or take it from Stealth Hammer and tell the world: “That’s not how this story ends.”