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Spotlight Iowa City: Writer knows when to park day job

BY MITCH SMITH | FEBRUARY 11, 2010 7:30 AM

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John Thomas has a secret identity.

He spends his days working in the UI Parking and Transportation Department.

But by night — or “early evening,” because he’s getting older — the Coralville resident is in a much more graphic line of work.

Thomas, 40, is not a super hero, although he occasionally creates them. He is a published author of graphic novels.

Graphic novels, also commonly described as “book-length comics,” have been Thomas’s passion for as long as he can remember. He published his first work in 2003, and he has released 14 graphic novels since.

“What I love about the writing is the accomplishment,” he said, taking a lunch break at Panchero’s early last week. “When you finish a book, there’s nothing like it.”

He spends his time away from his desk at the parking office in the IMU parking ramp creating, among other characters, the world’s worst team of super heroes.

The series, titled Zoo Force, follows the adventures of a super-hero team whose home base is in a trailer park. The group is made up of a man with a 6-foot-long tongue, a polar bear that can read, a chicken claiming to be a Greek philosopher, and a prairie-dog man.

Some of his other published works include Lost in the Wash and Numbers. He’s also in the beginning stages of working on a graphic novel about the first eight years of the Iowa football program.

Thomas is a learned man. He received an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Texas Tech, then went on to get master’s degrees in classical humanities and Latin, the latter from the UI, where he also served as a teaching assistant.

The Lamar, Colo., native’s dedication and commitment was evident even before he began his writing career, said Carin Green, the head of the UI’s classics department.

“He has always been somebody who follows his passion, and he brings others along with him,” she said.

During his time at the UI, Thomas found a group of people in Iowa City who shared his passion for comics. He met four other writers/illustrators in the early ’90s. The group collaborated under the name Candle Light Press, which they still use today.

One of the illustrators, Will Grant, sees Thomas not only as a friend but as an inspiration.

“I think he just sort of proves that if you’re an artist, you don’t have to suffer too much for your art,” Grant said. “You can have a day job and put out your own stuff without losing your soul in the process.”

One of the most important aspects of writing graphic novels, Thomas said, is the collaboration with the illustrators. Because Thomas only writes the novels, he must work with an illustrator to make sure the images on the page match the images in his head.

The second most important part is finding the time to write the story.

“You just have to go do it,” he said. “That’s the real test to see if you really want to [be a graphic novelist].”

Thomas has passed the test. He may not be making enough to quit his day job, but that doesn’t bother him.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to do. It’s the very sort of art I want to make,” he said. “The fact is, I want to make the thing and make it valid that it exists. It’s out there, and that’s good for me.”


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