Writer sees Billings through a comic's lens
Greg Thelen of Billings is the creator of Magic City, an online comic. CASEY RIFFE/Gazette Staff

It's cheaper to write a comic book for the Web than for print.

Just ask Greg Thelen, who's writing an anthology of comics about Billings for his Web site, MagicCityComic.com.

Thelen came up with the idea after reading a series of articles by a writer named Dirk Manning, who, like Thelen, was trying to break into comic book writing. In articles on Newsrama.com, Manning detailed how he had started his own Web-based comic book, a horror anthology series.

It was perfect.

But what would be the central theme for Thelen's work?

"I don't like staying in one genre too much," he said.

So horror or sci-fi was out. He struggled with the idea for a while until one day, he was driving around town and realized: "Hey, I live in Billings. I can write about Billings."

Thus, Magic City was born.

In September 2007, Thelen began his quest to find artists for his scripts with a series of advertisements on a Web site called DigitalWebbing.com, a site where artists and writers can connect. After three or four months, he found some takers. In August, his Web comic was launched.

He publishes a page every Tuesday and Thursday (except holidays), and all of the pieces have Billings as the setting.

The first comic, "James Murphy is My Hero," is a collaboration between Thelen and a Connecticut-based artist named Nick Palazzo. The eight-page comic features a disenfranchised teenager named Chad coming to the realization that maybe Billings isn't such a bad place to live - at least, once he finds a friend with common interests.

The theme, said Thelen, is that "it's not where you live, it's who you hang out with that makes a city special."

To date, Thelen has completed three full-length comics, including "James Murphy"; a crime piece with Eduardo Risso-esque art called "A Clear Voice"; and "Tunnel Vision," a touching look into a little girl's fantasy world. Also on MagicCityComic.com are small one-shot pieces illustrated by Thelen. While funny, they provide clear evidence why the 27-year-old is constantly scouting for artists: The characters are all stick figures.

As someone who works in both the traditional literary landscape and the illustrated landscape of comic books, Thelen says there are differences.

"With writing prose, you can control everything," he said. "You set up the scene. You can control how you want the reader to view it, to some extent.

"In comics, it's a collaborative process. When you write a comic, you have to write with your artist in mind. You have to know their strengths and weaknesses. When they read your script, they're going to see something you don't see. You have to give up some control when you're writing a comic script."

Still, it's all worthwhile for Thelen, who was first exposed to comic books as a child in small-town North Dakota, when his father, who worked at a grocery store, bought him a couple of X-Men comics off the rack. In high school, Thelen and his family moved to Billings, where he discovered local comic book store The Splash Page, where he continues to pick up X-Men comics, in addition to works by Bryan K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Wood.

He's also a big fan of comic book legend Alan Moore, writer of the acclaimed "Watchmen," "From Hell" and "V for Vendetta," among other works.

"He's probably my biggest influence in terms of how I structure my scripts," Thelen said.

The Web comic is taking up most of Thelen's creative skills right now, but he hopes to someday write prose: some novels and short stories.

"Prose is kind of on the back burner right now," he said. "My focus is on comics."