A new comic book series reveals an alien world in Cincinnati sewers

'MeSseD,' written and published by Know Theatre founder Jay Kalagayan, follows filter worker Lilliput as she faces all manner of creatures and clogs in the tunnels beneath the city.

Jan 18, 2017 at 11:55 am

click to enlarge Jay Kalagayan (left) and Dylan Speeg in MSD’s Mill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Jay Kalagayan (left) and Dylan Speeg in MSD’s Mill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Deep in the bowels of the Metropolitan Sewer District, a young woman in a baggy MSD uniform wades through knee-deep water, a small rat perched on her shoulder. A light on her hard hat illuminates a massive worm-like creature in front of her, fangs bared on each of its four otherwise featureless heads.

With thousands of miles of tunnels comprising the sewer district — the vast majority of which are off limits to the public — it’s not too hard to imagine this enormous, slimy creature slithering through the labyrinth under the city. And thanks to MeSseD, a new comic book series from the founder of Know Theatre, readers are given a peek underground as they descend into a gooey, alien world. 

“It’s an idea that’s been brewing probably about the past two years,” says MeSseD writer and publisher Jay Kalagayan, who established Know Theatre in 1997. A tour he took of an MSD plant instilled a fascination in him for the mysterious realm beneath his feet.

“It’s thousands of miles of tunnels,” he says, “it’s billions of gallons of wastewater every day, and yet there are hundreds of men and women taking care of it all.” 

The story, illustrated by local artist and musician Dylan Speeg, follows a fervent filter worker named Lilliput as she braves all manner of creatures and clog-ups in the depths of the tunnels, accompanied by her pet rat Akka (whose scent wards off other potentially dangerous rodents). From a talkative, human-sized cockroach to monstrous alligator-crocodile mash-ups, readers get a glimpse into a surprising, volatile ecological area created by the waste that flows through the sewers. 

“My favorite fiction and science fiction have always been built on a foundation of what’s real,” Kalagayan says. “I wanted to have that (idea) underlying, so you really think to yourself, ‘We don’t really know what’s down there.’ ”

MeSseD — referring to a nickname the comics’ characters have bestowed to MSD — is being released in individual eight-page chapters, available both in print and as digital downloads. The first chapter, Choke, went on sale Nov. 1. Five chapters have been released to date, comprising what Kalagayan refers to as the comics’ first season. Additional installments are currently in the works. 

After touring the sewer plant, Kalagayan — then-director of individual giving at the Cincinnati Museum Center — found some additional inspiration by visiting the Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County, which the museum co-owns with the Nature Conservancy.

“In the main building, they have a display of all these fresh-water mussels,” he says. “They had the best names: Fat Muckut, Lilliput, Sandshell.” Each is a prominent character in the books. “And fresh-water mussels are filter feeders, so I was like, ‘Wow! That’s perfect!’ ”

Kalagayan has a rich history in the local arts and cultural scenes — in addition to his role at the museum and founding Know Theatre, he co-founded the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in 2004 and previously worked as Cincinnati Ballet’s director of development. He currently serves as director of donor engagement at the Cincinnati Playhouse. 

Although MeSseD is his first entry in the comic book world, he’s been interested in the medium since receiving a comic from his brother when he was 9. His knowledge of storytelling was long established thanks to an extensive background in theater.

“It helps you with dialogue, it helps you with pacing, it helps you with stories and how to set it up,” he says. “But what’s great about graphic storytelling is that the only limitation is your own mind.”

There are no stage restrictions, no casting issues, no impossibilities, he explains.

What Kalagayan needed was an artist, which he found thanks to a lucky coincidence. He happened to bump into Speeg at the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Rosenthal Education Center, where both of their daughters were playing. The two had previously met through CityBeat, where Speeg was promotions and marketing manager. 

Speeg — also a singer and guitarist for Cincy Rock/Soul/Roots band Heavy Hinges — was fresh off of a project creating concept art for the Syfy cable channel.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at drawing comic book-y stuff now, so if you’re looking for an illustrator, I could probably do something like that,’ ” Speeg says. “He gave me the script, and it was interesting to me because I had never had the whole complete script like that to work from.”

In addition to scripts for each individual chapter, Kalagayan provided Speeg detailed notes on his visions for characters and creatures alike — a refreshing change of pace for Speeg, who says he is often commissioned to do “sexy, pinup-style” artwork in a variety of mediums. In fact, some of the models he worked with for those pieces — then dressed in bikinis — were also models for the comics, trading in their swimsuits for something a little different. 

“I was like, ‘Nope, put on this big coverall and pretend to fight space aliens,’ ” Speeg says. 

He adds that Kalagayan ensures those aliens “remain PG” — not too gross — to keep the comics appropriate for readers of all ages. 

As for main character Lilliput, Kalagayan provided a particularly specific description, drawing inspiration from his own background as well as from his two young daughters. He also aimed to address a noticeable hole he’s observed in many popular stories and films. 

“One of the things I noticed is not a lot of strong female characters — not as much,” Kalagayan says. “So what I wanted to do was to create a character, a strong character, who happens to be a woman, who happens to be Asian, who happens to be Filipino — that’s my background.”

Although release dates for future issues have yet to be announced, Kalagayan says he’s been able to generate about 15 chapters so far. 

“I feel like he’s done a really good job of creating a full picture of what life would be like underneath the sewers,” Speeg says. “We had to have a lot of faith in each other’s abilities. We had to kind of really trust each other.

“But now we’re in so deep that neither one of us would ever back out,” he adds, laughing. 

Printed editions of MESSED are available at local comic book stores including Arcadian Comics & Games, Queen City Comic & Card Company, Rockin' Rooster Comics & Games and Trilogy Comics. More info/digital downloads: messedcomics.com.