Comic book series set in Chicago and 'love letter' to the city launches on Kickstarter

With words by John Dudley and art by Scott Gray, “Big Shoulders” explores the journeys of several characters in Chicago who have big aspirations. The “urban fantasy” will feature aliens, dragons and immortal beings — but also plenty of Chicago history.

SHARE Comic book series set in Chicago and 'love letter' to the city launches on Kickstarter

Schubas Tavern in Lake View (left) was the inspiration for the fictional venue the Fire Escape (right) in “Big Shoulders,” a new comic book series set in Chicago that launched on Kickstarter Wednesday.

Google Maps/Scott Gray

Chicago is about to be invaded by snarling dragons, rogue artificial intelligence and alien visitors from a distant world.

No cause for alarm, those are just some of the fantastic elements in “Big Shoulders,” a new comic book series set in the city that launched a Kickstarter campaign for its first issue Wednesday.

John Dudley, indie comic scribe and co-creator of the series, said the project is meant as a “love letter” to Chicago, using characters and story to highlight the city as a crossroads of America, where people can dream bigger than Lake Michigan.

“We’re showing the crossroads journeys of people that kind of follow their passions, follow their dreams,” Dudley said. “But then we heighten it. The storytelling medium of comics is really great for heightened realities.”


The cover for the first issue of “Big Shoulders,” left, by Scott Gray, and an alternate cover by artist Charlie Adlard, known for his extensive work on the popular series “The Walking Dead.”

Scott Gray/Charlie Adlard

The series is named after one of Chicago’s many monikers, the City of Big Shoulders, from Carl Sandburg’s 1914 poem “Chicago.”

Dudley and co-creator Scott Gray — artist on the project — describe the story as an “urban fantasy.” That’s where the aliens and dragons come in.

But readers can also expect plenty of real Chicago history within the pages, which are colored by illustrator Faz Choudhury. The narrative includes an immortal character named Greg who has been stuck in Chicago since it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

“That’s where having the immortal character gives us an avenue to explore Chicago history but blend it into the narrative so it’s not like anyone is getting lectured,” Dudley said. “Revealing real historical facts while also leaving breadcrumbs for the next layer” of the story.


The first few pages of the first issue of “Big Shoulders,” recreating a Chicago train station and introducing readers to some of the story’s characters, members of a band called Broken Oar.

Scott Gray/provided

The series will explore several characters, newcomers to Chicago with big aspirations, over a span of six issues. Tales will showcase different genres — sci-fi, crime thriller — but be tied together through Greg, the immortal, who weaves in and out of the plot lines. The issues will be collected into one volume once completed.

Keen-eyed readers may also spot familiar-looking buildings in the series’ version of Chicago. Several well-known landmarks will be featured in the pages, but there will also be fictional locales inspired by real-world haunts.

One example is a music venue named the Fire Escape with a red-brick exterior that resembles Schubas Tavern in Lake View on the North Side.

Such details belie that Gray — a longtime writer for Doctor Who magazine who also has worked on projects with Marvel — has never been to Chicago. He lives in the U.K.


Early version of a sequence in “Big Shoulders” where Coda, one of the main characters, travels back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during a dream sequence.

Scott Gray/provided

Gray has consulted Dudley — who lives in Chicago — and has traversed the city virtually via Google Maps to re-create Chicago with a “fantasy veneer.”

“There is this element in the comic that Chicago has got one foot in fantasy. verything is sort of hyped up,” Gray said. “I’m having fun drawing things that aren’t quite right but still recognizable as Chicago. But there will be this element that lurking around every corner could be something absolutely cosmic, or ethereal.”

Gray said he’s been impressed with the immensity of the city on his virtual walks, singling out the “L” train network as a particularly striking visual to re-create.

“It’s not going to be a grim-looking Chicago, not the mean streets of Chicago,” Gray said. “This is very much a Chicago where anything can happen.”

The first issue, which will have 30 pages of story, should be completed within three months, as long as they hit their $8,000 fundraising goal, Dudley said.

Dudley’s love affair with the city began when he moved to Chicago in 2007. He met his wife the day he arrived in town. But he’s also lived in Bangkok, Virginia and Montana, among other places. He said there was nowhere as welcoming as Chicago.


Fantasy elements such as dragons and immortal beings collide with Chicago in “Big Shoulders.”

Scott Gray/Provided

“It’s so ingrained for Chicagoans to be welcoming people from everywhere that they don’t even realize they’re doing it,” he said. “It’s like this great unspoken thing about the city, that it’s the most welcoming place I’ve ever been.”

Dudley said Chicago in the past has been associated with Gotham City — Batman’s crime-laden turf — but he hopes his comic can give people a different perspective.

“Not to pretend that there aren’t problems, but this is an opportunity to look at things through more of a fun lens,” he said.

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