A journey to the underworld Mar Vista’s Ron Bassilian finds a gateway to hell underneath our city in “Inferno Los Angeles”
By Michael Aushenker
For Ron Bassilian, the road to hell began with a Craigslist ad.
No, it isn’t like that. What the Mar Vista information technology specialist was looking for was the right collaborator to visually translate his reimagining of Dante Alighieri’s “The Inferno” onto the pages of a graphic novel.
Bassilian connected with illustrator Jim Wheelock, and after five years of work they published “Inferno Los Angeles.”
The author and illustrator are signing copies of a 136-page deluxe hardcover edition of their book this weekend at Pulp Fiction Books and Comics in Culver City, followed by signings in December at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica and at Dream World Comics in Mar Vista.
Dante’s “The Inferno” is a complicated allegory depicting the author’s journey through the nine circles of hell as he is guided by the Roman epic poet Virgil.
“Inferno Los Angeles” follows a protagonist, modeled after Bassilian, who discovers a gateway to the underworld beneath the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles. Along with various ogres, obstacles and horrific prophecies, the hero also encounters contemporary figures that include Hollywood filmmakers and President Richard Nixon.
“I was always a lover of the classics—especially Dante, who has such an evocative imagination,” Bassilian, 40, said of his first foray in publishing under his NeoClassics imprint. “I was heavily involved in politics in my twenties. I’ve met a lot of people in my life who had read Dante. It was one of those things that you feel like you have to do it, a calling.”
Wheelock — who in the 1980s and ‘90s animated the TV cartoon “G.I. Joe: Extreme” and storyboarded videos for Ted Nugent, Hall & Oates and Earth, Wind and Fire — had minimal experience producing comics despite a lifelong love for EC titles, Warren Publishing, and the art of Wally Wood and Alex Toth.
He had also been burnt on Craigslist before by unscrupulous filmmakers exploiting artists to storyboard their films for free under the guise of audition pieces, but Bassilian’s 2008 ad won him over.
“He did have an unusual concept, and I was at the point where I wanted to do a huge project,” Wheelock said. “I’m not really a superhero artist. I’m more of a fantasy and noir-ish artist.”
Wheelock wanted his art to echo the Dante’s “Inferno” engravings of Gustav Doré, infused “with a comics energy — as if Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were doing it, or Bob Powell.” “Grandville” cartoonist Bryan Talbot compared Wheelock’s resulting artwork to “the 1930s woodcut picture stories of Lynd Ward,” praising it as “a phantasmagoria of an often hallucinogenic intensity.”
After initially collaborating on four preliminary pages via email and Dropbox, the two met in person at Lulu’s Café in West Hollywood, and Bassilian admits that he did not have the best first impression.
“Everyone’s there dressed to the nines, looking like Brangelina, and he’s in the back looking like he never get out of the house,” Bassilian said.
However, Bassilian was impressed by the “depth of his expertise, the depth of his intellect.” It became apparent to him that “if there was one person you’d want to talk to in the room, it’d be Jim.”
Wheelock convinced Bassilian to use the still-nascent crowdfunding website Kickstarter to fund their “Inferno 2010” project, and the pair raised $6,000.
However, like the story’s Hollywood types and politicians, the “Inferno 2010” title became one of the book’s casualties due to the project’s demanding workload. Bassilian later hired a team of inkers to assist Wheelock in the massive undertaking.
“We did go through a lot of changes to get what we wanted,” Wheelock said, but “once he got used to what I was doing, we had a good flow with it.”
Since the first batch of “Inferno Los Angeles” arrived from the printer in Oct. 2013, promoting the book has been a learning experience. Efforts included posting a billboard along Culver Boulevard near its intersection with Inglewood Boulevard.
“If somebody had just given me a page of instructions, we’d be so much farther ahead of the game,” Bassilian said.
Yet Bassilian, a resident of Mar Vista since 2004, has come a long way from those early days at his Inglewood Boulevard pad, watching Dante lecture DVDs while eating Chinese take-out.
“I honestly feel that I’m bringing something new,” Bassilian said.
Wheelock said he ultimately enjoyed the collaboration.
“In comics, a lot of people don’t follow through,” Wheelock said. “I had a feeling that [Bassilian] would take it to the finish. It was a bigger project than either of us expected. Basically, there are a lot of dead people in the underworld who had to be
Bassilian and Wheelock sign copies of “Inferno Los Angeles” from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at Pulp Fiction Books and Comics, 4328 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. Call (310) 572-6170 or visit pulp-fictionbooksandcomics.com.
Future signings happen from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, at Barnes and Noble, 1201 3rd Street Promenade,
Santa Monica [Call (310) 260-9110 or visit barnesandnoble.com] and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, at Dream World Comics, 12402 Washington Place, Mar Vista [Call (310) 390-7860 or visit dreamworldcomicbooks.com].
Copies are also available for $29.95 at infernolosangeles.com.