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Art and letters run wild in the city

Ovi Nedelcu sharpens his pencil on afrustrated hero, a cute chanteuse, a talking pig and his new hometown in the comic book 'Pigtale'

A private detective who rides around Portland on a Vespa? Who, while being chased by yobs, nearly crashes into Ringler's Annex? And is finally rocked by the explosion of a secret science lab in the Pearl, out of which emerges a talking pig who becomes his friend?

This is all in 'Pigtale,' the new comic book from Ovi Nedelcu. The book's young hero, Boston Booth, can't get a job because his late father was a great detective and nobody thinks Boston measures up. He lives with his grandmother and has a crush on a cute singer named Carmen. That Vespa is starting to look pretty appropriate.

'It gives the impression maybe you can't afford a BMW, you know?' says Nedelcu, 25, with a laugh. 'But I wanted him to be mobile. And it's just a cool design Ñ so many interesting shapes to it. Anyway, trying to draw his head inside a windshield would be horrible.'

Nedelcu's eye for design pays off in 'Pigtale,' which is beautifully drawn. The pacing is electric, the observation keen, but what will really thrill Portlanders is the roller-coaster ride through real landmarks. There goes the Steel Bridge, there's the pointy top of the KOIN Tower, there's Carmen on stage at the Ash Street Saloon.

Not bad for someone who moved here from Los Angeles in November 2003. Nedelcu was born in Arad, Romania, but his family left for the United States when he was 1. He grew up mainly in Sacramento, Calif., and studied illustration at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. He thought he'd be a book illustrator but fell into the world of moving pictures, getting jobs doing character development, and storyboarding at Warner Bros. Animation ('Batman,' 'Looney Tunes,' 'Justice League'), then at Sony Animation and the Cartoon Network.

'Pigtale' is his baby. He draws at home in his spare time, often until late into the night. The first issue, black and white with color covers and 24 story pages, debuts this week. He expects the tale to unfurl over 20 issues, to be published every two months.

Seventy percent of comics are consumed by adults these days, according to Nedelcu. He himself does not fit the stereotype of the lone, male, comic book fan or author. He's married to a former model, whom he met at a Romanian-American Christian convention. She looks after their 2-year-old daughter in their home near Ñ holy suburbs, Batman! Ñ Clackamas Town Center. And he drives a Nissan Sentra, not a scooter.

He moved to Portland after promising his wife he'd relocate to be near her family and the Romanian community here. These days cartoonists can work anywhere with a flatbed scanner and broadband Internet connection.

'I love the look of the buildings in Portland; it's urban, but it's not so big you can't get around,' he says, gazing up Southwest Third Avenue. He photographs buildings so he can draw them accurately.

High-tech fairy tale

The story of Clyde the talking pig is Nedelcu's attempt to mix the fairy tale with the more modern tale. The animals have chips implanted that allow them to talk and feel.

'Boston Booth runs into this talking pig in this science lab that exploded. The pig has an evil stepbrother, a talking wolf named Taxx who possesses a superplasma device that enhances his strength and ability.'

Superplasma device? Nedelcu explains in human terms: 'Their father was a scientist who created Taxx first, then the pig, who was the one that he liked Ñ he basically played favorites. The wolf builds up anger and jealousy and is going to force people to love him.'

Deft penmanship and attention to detail convey a strong sense of character, making the players seem fully realized from the first appearance.

Financially it's hardly a high-stakes game. Publisher Image Comics in San Francisco must sell 2,500 copies of each issue at $2.95 for Nedelcu to see any income. (Image was formed in 1990 by disaffected Marvel artists who wanted more creative freedom.) It's like a band releasing a single: If it flops, 'Pigtale' might never get finished.

Erik Larsen at Image agreed to publish the series based on seeing one issue. He says that a lot of cartoonists are lazy when it comes to drawing place, but the Portland angle won't make that much of a difference to comics fans. More important is Nedelcu's imagination.

'People like him don't come along as often as you'd like,' Larsen says. 'He has a vision; he's bringing something unique, not derivative.' He notes that mainstream comic books Ñ such as Marvel's Ñ have become too realistic for his taste.

'Comics have gotten to the point where a lot of them are more like photographs; they're more like classic illustrated stories than cartoons. Ovi's stuff is expressive. If a cartoon character has fingers that look like a bunch of bananas, our eyes see it and we understand. If I want to see reality I can look out my window.'

Friend of a friend

While at Warner Bros., Nedelcu impressed Brad Bird, who directed 'The Incredibles.' When Bird's old friend from his Cal Arts days, Henry Selick of Vinton Studios, was looking for talent last year, Bird told him Nedelcu was already in town. Selick bagged him for 'Moongirl' and also the upcoming 'Coraline.' Basically Nedelcu draws the stills that are later turned into moving pictures by others.

For 'Pigtale' he draws on basic 8 1/2-by-11-inch copier paper with a Mirado Black Warrior 2B pencil, which are cheaper at Wal-Mart than at the art-supply store. 'It's a regular pencil,' he says. 'It doesn't do any magic tricks. It's used by a lot of animators.

'I was always into comics as a kid,' he says. 'I used to draw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all the time, copy them and make up stories.'

In college he learned illustration Ñ his Web site (ovinedelcu.com) has exquisite examples of his watercolors Ñ but comics tugged at him. Influences include the usual suspects Ñ the 'nine old men' of early Disney, also Alex Toth, and Will Eisner, the creator of 'sequential art' pioneered in 'The Spirit,' who died Jan. 3 at 87.

He also likes children's book illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen ('Treasury of Myths and Legends.')

'I've written about 30 almost grotesque poems for kids that I want to illustrate myself one day, a bit like 'Where the Sidewalk Ends' by Shel Silverstein,' he notes.

Batman in space?

His toddler is just getting into 'Dora the Explorer.' He puts up with it. There is little about mainstream animation that impresses him right now.

'Like the new Batmans are basically created and written to sell toys Ñ it's pathetic. They have these supergeneric cheesy characters, and they have the space gear and extra weapons and accessories. Batman himself has spacesuits and scuba gear and all this crap. Come on man, they're ruining the character!'

In the future, he wants to share a studio downtown with some other Portland cartoonists.

'Mike Mignola ('Hellboy') was a big inspiration to me. His stuff is just gorgeous Ñ the compositions, the use of black work, is amazing. But he moved from Portland to New York just before I got here! It made me mad because I wanted to go and hang out in his studio.'

It's a lonely job, but he feels solidarity.

'When you're doing everything Ñ the inking, the coloring, the character design, the writing Ñ you've got your hands full. Anybody who does comics, even though 80 percent of them are just horrible, you still have to give the guy some respect. It's a lot of work.'

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