By Tim Nekritz
The easy genre-relevant lead would be to compare Aaron Lee to a superhero: mild-mannered art teacher by day and comic book author by night.
But that doesn’t tell the full story.
Lee’s inspiration was cultivated by small businesses, and another local business, The Comic Shop in Oswego, has constructed a community that supports the creative endeavors of him and others.
In addition, the genre that he and his connections love — the humble comic book and its pantheon of superheroes — has come a long way in the decades since it first caught his fancy. Once an interest on the fringes, comic-book superheroes are now firmly established in the mainstream with a series of hit movies, pop culture cachet and merchandise tie-ins.
While Hollywood isn’t yet clamoring for Lee’s creations, he is currently wrapping up his ninth and biggest comic book featuring Wesley The Robot, due out in 2023. The fun of putting the comic together and that people recognize him because of this work is gratifying enough at this point — especially as he looks forward to Wesley X, the 10th and next edition that will be more experimental in nature.
Even those who have never visited The Comic Shop may have seen his work in local daily The Palladium-Times, thanks to a clever arrangement by Evan Coy, owner of The Comic Shop. “Evan buys ads for the shop in The Pall-Times, and he puts comics in that space, including some of my Wesley strips,” Lee said.
Others might have caught Lee on the weekly streaming broadcast of “The Comic Shop Does a Podcast” on Twitch, which started as a way to stay connected with customers and fans during the pandemic.
“It started as a regular feature where I was drawing stuff from home for people to learn from or just be entertained,” Lee said. “The pandemic was tough for all businesses. If you weren’t considered an essential business — and The Comic Shop wasn’t — you couldn’t be open. But they were looking to do something for social media and stay connected.”
That evolved into a weekly series that serves a number of fandoms.
“We talk about movies, we talk about cartoons or other things we like,” Lee said. “It’s a lot like what you’d hear if you were just hanging out at The Comic Shop talking to people.”
Comics go mainstream
Watching comics become more mainstream has been gratifying, he said.
“Considering how comics were considered a fringe culture at one and how accepted they are now I think it’s a great development,” Lee said. “Part of the reason that I enjoy going to the Comic Shop in Oswego is that I like to ‘speak the language’ with the staff and customers of the shop.”
Lee has been pleased with the Marvel movies and their success “as someone who grew up reading Marvel comics I feel like I made the right investment and now seeing their pop culture takeover is enjoyable,” Lee said. “When I was growing up, you wouldn’t see a large amount of students wearing Marvel gear and as a middle school teacher today I see it every single day at work.”
This shift has provided Lee relatability with his students and shed light on other quality work previously overlooked.
“The success of Marvel also extends to more independent creators for properties like ‘Hellboy,’ ‘Paper Girls,’ ‘Umbrella Academy,’ ‘Locke and Key’ and others,” Lee said. “Not that all comics need to be adapted to film or screen but it helps draw people into the world of comics. Perhaps the best way that comics, graphic novels and manga have become more mainstream is in school libraries with books like ‘American Born Chinese,’ ‘Maus,’ ‘Smile,’ ‘Dog Man,’ ‘My Hero Acadamia,’ ‘Naruto’ and others populating the shelves over the past few years.”
Lee finds great reward in his day job as an Oswego Middle School art teacher for seventh and eighth graders.
“I do love it,” Lee said. “It’s the best job I ever had. I get to use all of my skills, be a leader and try to get people inspired.”
That includes teaching comics to seventh graders, which is an interdisciplinary exercise. “I ask them to create their own character, work on stories from introduction to conflict to resolution. I teach them about storytelling, which brings in literacy, communication, history and more.”
Moreover, Lee has had the pleasure of teaching about graphic novels, and is happy with seeing this genre earn recognition.
“I think that’s great that students have a great access to all different kinds of graphic novels at a young age,” he said. “I would have loved that as a kid. I like that comics are becoming more mainstream as a teacher and a creator. Like with the Marvel movies, it feels like an investment that has paid off.”
Local businesses fed inspiration
The love of comics and heroes goes back to Lee’s childhood and “all stems from cartoons,” he said, as well as visiting a pretty-much-defunct business model — the local video store.
“I remember going to local video stores and just scanning the shelves, looking at the cover art on all the VHS tapes, which impacted what movie we’d rent,” Lee recalled as he drank a cold-brew coffee during an interview at another locally run business, Riverwalk Coffee Roasters.
Lee learned to draw at an early age, and this interest incorporated taking his favorite cartoons and drawing them as comics. He quickly fell in love with the form and was making simple comics.
“A comic is going to take some time, but you’re in control of everything – the story, the artwork, the speech bubbles,” Lee said. “I like the labor. I like the realism, even if it doesn’t look realistic. And I like the feeling of a job well done.”
Early inspirations included Voltron, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the movie “The Blob.” But the introduction of “The X-Men” changed everything — seeing “good guys” have their own conflict and the rich mix of characters showed him that so many layers of storytelling were possible.
Growing up in New Haven, he was delighted to find that Crandall’s Pharmacy in Mexico stocked comics, and he started collecting, beginning with “Captain America.” He also browsed the now-departed Fred’s News in Oswego for additional comics.
But everything changed 30 years ago when The Comic Shop opened in an old firehouse building on East Bridge Street in Oswego. The building was owned by Larry and Arlene Spizman; Larry was a longtime economics professor at SUNY Oswego while Arlene started building a community among the customers who might not have found other places where they felt welcome and now found such a wide variety of offerings that appealed to their interests.
“From the very beginning, it’s always been a supportive community for me,” Lee said.
Which is why Lee and many of the regulars were nearly heartbroken when Arlene announced her well-deserved retirement in early 2020, and suddenly a dark cloud of an alternate universe without their beloved shop loomed overhead.
But like in the stories they all loved, heroes stepped forward to save the day. Coy, a customer turned devoted regular, bought the shop and kept on manager Martin Kinney to continue running the day-to-day operations.
Wesley’s origin story
While Lee has dabbled with other characters, Wesley The Robot has become by far his most popular and prolific. The robot with superpowers but also a childlike gullibility provides many areas for narrative explanation.
Wesley’s origin story came from a simple improvisation when Lee was doing a radio show while attending Alfred State.
“During a show, a machine started beeping — it was called the Weather Emergency System, which I just shortened to WES,” he recalled. “I just said, ‘Wes is going crazy over here.’” Lee and his on-air partner would make references to Wes from time to time and he drew the original version as a more boxy robot. The character eventually became a kind of mascot for Azltron, Lee’s music-review blog.
A sort of homecoming, transferring to SUNY Oswego, was another life-changing development.
“Going to SUNY Oswego was the best decision in every way,” Lee said. “I met my wife, and I earned degrees in graphic design and then in art education.” Wesley got his own comic strip in the college newspaper The Oswegonian and a feature role in Lee’s bachelor of fine arts exhibition material.
Lee again thought of setting Wesley aside when he started teaching, but the robot was as resilient as any superhero, especially when his creator started seeing the character as a kind of “heightened autobiography,” with plotlines that are kind of exaggerated analogies to things that he’s experienced or seen.
He published his first full Wesley comic book in 2019, but the onset of the pandemic gave him more time to really explore the character. “I came out with three issues in short succession in October, November and December 2020, in part to see if I could do it. And I got a lot of support for my efforts.”
On a recent unseasonably warm late October day, as neighboring longtime business A&J Music was holding the last day of its going out of business sale, Lee sat in the back room as The Comic Shop whirred with its usual life and customers of all ages. He handed out free copies of a 12-page preview of the ninth edition of the Wesley series. With people he either knew or a little or not at all coming up to tell him they appreciated the comic — and as this store he loved turned 30 — Lee was able to reflect on a business that means so much to him and others.
“It’s super important,” Lee said. “It was always a friendly place. Arlene was always super nice, and willing to talk to me when I came in as a young boy.”
As an artist, a regular and somebody who contributes to what The Comic Shop does for others, Lee sees a chance to help pay that kindness forward.
“When I started doing comics, this was a place that gave me a sense of a community, and let me know I could do it,” Lee said. “Everything here makes a ripple that causes other ripples. Evan supports local creators, whether it’s a book or some kind of music. If I can inspire anybody to try something, that’s amazing. If somebody wants to make a thing, we know what it feels like and we want to support it.”