Locally created MeSseD Comics takes readers underground with tough, feminist characters

At 8 years old, Jay Kalagayan’s older brother George took him to a convenience store and bought him his first comic book from an old-school spinning rack. He still has that Avengers comic, and cherishes those times spent with his brother.

“Comics have always been family time for me — it was quality time with my brother,” says Kalagayan. “He got me into comics and I’ve been collecting ever since.”

If you’re a longtime Cincinnatian, you might recognize Kalagayan’s name. He's contributed to a variety of local arts organizations, including Know Theatre, Cincinnati Fringe Festival, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Museum Center and Playhouse in the Park.

While working at the Museum Center, Kalagayan started daydreaming about the Metropolitan Sewer District facility in Queensgate. He liked the idea of building a fictional world based on an essential city service. Thus, MeSseD Comics was born.

It’s an unglamorous job that no one knows anything about — in Cincinnati, MSD treats one billion gallons of wastewater a day, and is responsible for maintaining 10,000 miles of pipes. Plus, the system is ancient.

“It’s sci-fi built on reality," says Kalagayan of his imaginary world. "And maybe MeSseD really is what’s going on."

After taking a tour with MSD and researching with the Sanitation District No. 1 in Northern Kentucky, Kalagayan says the idea just clicked. “When you’re a writer and things happen in your head, you just go for it."

Illustrated by Dylan Speeg

MeSsed takes place in the sewers of an unnamed city populated by mutated "allicrocs," creepy fibrous creatures, human-sized cockroaches and a “stable dimensional rift” that pulses radiation and affects the homeless populations living down there.

Lilliput, a female Filipino filter worker (aka “flusher”), maintains this world.

"It was a conscious decision to create a strong, female, Filipino character because of my daughters,” says Kalagayan, who is of Filipino descent. “I wanted to show them that women can be the spotlight character, get the job done and be the hero.”

Lilliput is joined by her friend and co-worker Sandshell (also female and African-American). Akka, Lilliput’s pet rat, often accompanies the pair on their adventures.

Kalagayan feels there aren’t enough strong, female characters in fiction. He cites the famous Bechdel Test that asks whether a work of fiction features two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. About half of all feature films made today pass this test.

Kalagayan also likes that because Lilliput's weapon of choice is a shovel, MeSseD doesn’t really fit into the category of superhero drama. But he concedes that it could.

“Hellboy is like that, too. They cast the prince of hell as an everyday guy who wants to drink beer, do his job and go home and drink beer,” he says.

Each issue is in the eight-page format made famous by writers like Neil Gaman and Alan Moore. Kalagayan says readers will notice a lack of dialogue that's intentional.

“Some comics have long speeches, and that’s a lot of talking,” he says. “When you’re in the sewers by yourself, hopefully you’re not talking to yourself a lot. You need all of your senses — your eyes and ears — to do the job well.”

When there is dialogue, it’s short and not always in complete sentences, much like radio contact. Kalagayan didn’t want his characters to swear, so instead, Lilliput and Sandshell use the word “dreg” — inspired by the recent remake of Battlestar Galactica that uses “frack” instead of traditional swear words.

When Kalagayan first started this journey, he was familiar with the local theater and young-professional scenes, but wasn’t up to speed on art and comic books. He soon had the option of working with artists from all over the world, but knew he wanted to keep it local, so he teamed up with illustrator Dylan Speeg, who has done work for CityBeat and the Know Theatre.

“I hadn’t seen Dylan in years, but I ran into him at an event and talked to him about the idea," Kalagayan says. "I asked if he knew any artists and he said, ‘Yeah, me.’ I sent him the first few pages and he knocked them out.”

Speeg's background is in pinup portraits and editorial; he won a "Best of Cincinnati" award from CityBeat for a spray-paint/stencil piece. He also did work for the SyFy Channel, teaming up with Kalagayan shortly thereafter.

"We create this entire universe by ourselves based on Jay's short, almost haiku-like ideas," Speeg says. "I'm a musician, too, so I'm used to that fast-paced type of work."

In all, it usually takes Speeg about 10 days to turn Kalagayan's scripts into what readers see in the comics. Speeg first brings in models to physically act out the scenes. Then he sketches rough storyboards, followed by ink detail work, at which point he turns to the computer to perfect shading.

Kalagayan regularly sends Speeg notes for what he calls “WDDGD,” or wet, dirty, drippy, grimy and/or gross. All the illustrations are in black-and-white (except for the full-color covers), lending to the feel of a dank, underground world where anything can happen.

"I really enjoy the process, and Jay pushes me to do things that I wouldn't normally do," Speeg says. He also loves that his involvement has influenced his 6-year-old daughter to start creating her own comics, which regularly feature a hotdog and a slice of pizza that go on adventures.

Speeg is the main illustrator for the first two seasons of MeSseD, but another local illustrator, Clint Basinger, joined the team to create a two-part series centering on Akka the rat’s mission to deliver a message.

“Clint’s art is totally different from Dylan’s," says Kalagayan. "In this two-parter, Akka runs into a centipede and there’s a centipede-worm war, which is disgusting. Clint’s art really lends to it. He does rats and other creatures so well.”

Illustrated by Dylan Speeg

MeSseD, which Kalagayan self-publishes under his company, Creative Mussel, launched a successful Indiegogo campaign in August to support season two. The second season's release party is scheduled for from 1 to 5 p.m. on Nov. 5 at The Underground @ Know Theatre. It's an all-ages party with complimentary hors d'oeuvers and a cash bar.

Kalagayan is in this for the long haul — he has about 13 scripts already written and is waiting for the right time to expand MeSseD's fanbase to the east coast. Season two is the focus for now, and he’s working on building a solid base in the TriState.

MeSseD will make its first appearance at the Cincinnati Comic Expo Sept. 22-24. If you’ve never been to the Comic Expo, Kalagayan says it has a little something for everyone — gamers, cosplayers, sci-fi, comic book lovers, celebrities and more.

“Geek is chic, and the expo is that spotlight on geek culture,” he says.

MeSseD will also be at Books by the Banks on Oct. 28, an annual event that rarely features comics.

Readers can catch up on MeSseD's first season (chapters 1-5) through the comic's website, or pick it up at local comic book stores like Arcadian Comics and Up, Up and Away, as well as places like Shake-It Records. The comic is also available for digital download through Comixology, an Amazon company.

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Read more articles by Caitlin Koenig.

Caitlin Koenig is a Cincinnati transplant and 2012 grad of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. She's the department editor for Soapbox Media and currently lives in Northside with her husband, Andrew, and their three furry children. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @caite_13.