Peering into a copy of Knight S.T.R.I.K.E., a comic book authored and illustrated by Rolla resident Brian Clifton, is a visit into the popular and proven theme of hero-protagonist versus evil-villain. The black and white panels of illustrated art beg to be read, but that’s always been a comic book strength according to Brian. Even the most high-brow readers can’t resist the flow of the quick read and the graphic art bound between the covers. But as Brian will tell you, in various ways, the protagonist character in a comic or book really shines a light upon the author’s personality—their desires, fears and interests. It’s an author’s creative exercise in introspective therapy and Brian Clifton has been fortunate to have a way to express that in his art.

And for Brian, it was always about the art—it drove the story-telling of hero John Quaid, who is a product of genetic manipulation, strange medicinal injections, surgical implants and the best education from the finest scholars.  It’s all a regimen to morph flesh and bone into a special suit of armor called “Strike” (Stealth, Tactical, Reconnaissence and Integrated Kinetic Equipment)—sort of a bio-mechanical super hero in the making.

Knight S.T.R.I.K.E. really has been an evolution, because Brian has been living with this character for most of his young and adult life.
“I started working on Knight S.T.R.I.K.E. when I was eight years-old,” said Brian. “He (Knight S.T.R.I.K.E.) was raised to be the worlds first super hero—this icon for “good.” Brian thinks this was probably reflective of his age at the time, when boys are looking for heroes, be it baseball players or even Superman.

A self avowed “geek”, he’s an assistant manager at Game Stop, a job that fuels his creativity and allows him to share like interests with others. He practices martial arts, something he’s done for thirty years. He has always been a fan of DC comics, the home of Superman and Batman, but was always focused on the artists that illustrated those classics. What should a super hero look like? How did shading make a character stand out in a two-dimensional medium? Why did they place the dialog balloons in a particular place in the panel? Why AAWWRRK! and GGGWWWAAK!  to express an emotion?

“[Artist] Jack Kirby, from Marvel [Comics] was a big influence,” said Brian. “He created The Fantastic Four, The Hulk and Thor. George Perez is another one.”
“I was one of those kids that was really caught up in my imagination, more than anything,” he said. In art classes he took in school, he was the disruptive one drawing a super hero instead of the assigned still-life composition. But he’s more of a draftsman and not so much a painter.
“I’ve always appreciated more the fine-line artwork in comics,” he said. “I love the character design [process].” “The action scenes are fun to draw—I love drawing a character in action, so I’m very character driven.” Brian notes that it is a super hero’s interaction with other characters that brings out their personality, so in many cases, it could be actions more than words that allow the reader to relate and understand a character.
“There are a lot of subtle things about myself in the Knight S.T.R.I.K.E. character,” he notes, “like some of his little personality quirks.” “It’s almost an exaggerated version. But I studied martial arts, not because I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle, but because I just thought it was cool and something that I’d like to learn.”
According to Brian, it’s tough to break into the comics business as an artist, though specialized skills increase the odds. He’s what is known as a “penciler,” which is composing and drawing the line art of a particular story-line scene within a panel, as opposed to an “inker” who, traces the line art with ink and may choose the areas to shade, lending depth and contrast to the overall scene.  A “colorist” adds the color to the characters and scenery, creating the mood and energy within the panel, depending on what’s going on at that point in time in the story. Most of this is done digitally these days with computer software.

Like writers sending in columns or drafts of novels, Brian tested the water in the 1990’s by sending samples of six to eight pages of penciled art, with dialog, to a handful of companies, such as DC or Marvel Comics. So far, the years have produced rejection slips, but he has gotten close. His wife Lesa is his biggest supporter and has encouraged him to attend regional comic conferences, such as Comic Con-Chicago, to network with people in the business.
“Now, you go to the big conferences and you bring your samples with you to give it your best shot,” he said.
“In Chicago, DC and Marvel were there in force. You put your six to eight-page samples in an envelope and drop them in a box. The next day, you find out if you had a review with somebody.”
Brian didn’t get a callback from DC Comics, but he did get an interview with Marvel Comics. The Marvel editor was encouraging and gave Brian some constructive criticism, but the meeting ended with “stay in touch.”
A dialog with Marvel was started, but faded to an eventual silence. Brian learned this particular editor had moved on to become a story editor for WWE wrestling.
“I was so close—that was my “in,” he said.
He had another close call with Top Cow Productions which is lower tier, but still respected and a player in the business of comics (Witchblade, The Darkness, Wanted, etc.). The editor that liked his work also moved on.
So now he is on another path that may give him his ticket into working for the big boys. He’s producing his own comics as a self-publisher. He and some local friends, Dakota Stoops and Colton Begley have formed Small Town Comics—a kind of comics coop—where each member operates independently, but help out as needed with creative skills, networking and marketing ability.
“Each comic is like having a whole job application in one little handout,” Brian said.
Though his ticket to working on big-time comics hasn’t materialized, Brian doesn’t stay discouraged for long. He channels John Quaid, the hero character he created for Knight S.T.R.I.K.E.
“He’s supposed to be this hero icon and then everything gets pulled out from under him, so he’s coming back to overcome his adversity (those challenges arise in another comic because comics most always end with a cliffhanger that is “to be continued”).
“No matter what dark tragedies befall him, he stays true to himself—he does not let it change who he wants to be, [it makes it clear] who he should be,” explained Brian. “He realizes he’s here for a bigger purpose and he needs to fulfill that purpose.”
So maybe Brian the author, is really John Quaid the comic book hero, who over the years has followed his path down a geeky road only to be tripped up by a fickle entertainment business, but while battling his fear of failure, finds the grit to push gamely on, come hell or high water.
So he’ll continue to hold a steady job, spend quality time with his family and draw like there’s no tomorrow.

He’s in it for the long haul. He knows reality bites. And in his very practical way, he says, “You have to get content out there before you try to take over the world.”