As a youngster in the 60s Don McQuay spent a lot of time hunkered down at the kitchen table of his family's home in the south-side Stateway Gardens housing project, drawing cartoons. "It was a dismal experience," he says about growing up there. "But I was always able to buy comic books, and my imagination was able to take off."
He modeled his drawings on the work of his favorite comic book artists--the prolific Jack Kirby of The Fantastic Four, The Uncanny X-Men, and countless other comics, and Al Williamson, who drew the syndicated strip Secret Agent X-9. "I used to walk down to the Defender office to get old issues to study his artwork," says McQuay.
After high school he worked for a while as an apprentice at an ad agency, but eventually he gave up drawing, got married, and worked a series of factory and contractor jobs to support his family. For the past eight years he's been a dock supervisor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In 1995 McQuay was suddenly inspired to pick up his pens again. "A friend of mine who teaches at Columbia College said, 'Why don't you get back into this? I know people with a lot less talent than you who are making money.' He took me to look at a bunch of comic books, and I thought, 'I could do this.'"
He created a dummy comic book called The Circle Unleashed, a chronicle of the adventures of four African-American superheroes led by John, a 159-year-old ex-slave who'd been captured by aliens after the Civil War. McQuay brought the dummy to the 1995 Chicago Comicon, where he says everyone but publishers wanted to buy it.
Coincidentally his old idol Williamson was there, having done some work for the Star Wars comic book series. "It was great to meet him 39 years after copying his artwork," he says. "He said I never should have stopped drawing and to never let anyone say I didn't have talent. That influenced me to do my own product."
Later that year McQuay, who is 49, published The Circle Unleashed under his own imprint, Epoch. Next he came out with Tsunami, the Irresistible Force, an intricate samurai/ninja story that spans several centuries. (They're available through UIC's EpiCenter Bookshop.) Later this year he'll publish follow-ups to both comics as well as an illustrated novel based on the Tsunami series.
"I should have been doing this 20 years ago," says McQuay, who would like to get into computer-generated imagery as well. "But things have changed. You can do desktop publishing now. Back then I didn't know who to go to for advice."
Someday he'd like to open an art school for gifted, underprivileged students. In the meantime, he teaches drawing and computer programs like Photoshop in his studio and at Spectrum Art Supplies in Beverly. Some of his students helped him with the historical background for his books, and he encourages them to self-publish their own work. So far two of them have.
"It's a matter of setting priorities," he says. "Some people just want to wear a pair of $150 tennis shoes. I tell them to save some of that money--buy a $50 pair, save $100, and put together your product or take an art class or learn to create a Web page. Use your money for something other than to put something on your back--so you have a future."
An exhibit of McQuay's original plates opens Friday at UIC's A. Montgomery Ward Gallery, Chicago Circle Center, 750 S. Halsted, from 4 to 7. A reception will be held for McQuay Wednesday, February 9, from 4 to 7. The show runs through February 25. Admission is free; call 312-413-5089 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.