Before Art Baltazar met his wife, he was a different man.
At the time, the acclaimed comic-book artist from Streamwood was a struggling graphic artist working for a hardware store on Chicago's South Side.
"He didn't even have enough money to buy a burrito," his wife, Rose Baltazar, recalled.
It wasn't drinking a magic potion or meeting an alien who bestowed him with great powers that changed Baltazar's life. It was the constant support of his wife -- and a small collection of superheroes.
"I told him, 'Do what you have to do to make your dreams happen,' " Rose Baltazar said.
And those dreams are coming true, thanks to "Tiny Titans," an award-winning comic book collaboration between the 42-year-old Baltazar and his friend, Franco Aureliani.
The comic, which features elementary-school versions of popular superheroes, was first published by DC Comics in 2008. The colors and youthful play of DC's flagship characters tugged at the heartstrings of adult comic book fans. More importantly for Baltazar, the books' fun renditions of old characters like the Flash and Wonder Woman enrolled in Sidekick City Elementary School provide the perfect introduction to comics for children.
"I don't call him 'Killer Croc.' He's just 'Croc,'" Baltazar said of the popular Batman villain, giving an example of how he portrays characters for the book's young audience.
The book's signature phrase is a rallying cry for the heroes: "Aw yeah, Titans!" The saying is directly ripped from Baltazar's enthusiastic everyday speech and e-mails.
Baltazar and his fans are saying "Aw yeah" quite a bit these days. In 2009, "Tiny Titans" earned a prestigious Eisner Award, known as the Oscars of comics, for best publication for kids. A bound collection of issues made The New York Times best-seller list the same year.
Fans flocked to Baltazar during the recent C2E2 comic book convention at McCormick Place in Chicago. Arriving wearing a trademark hat and dressed in purple -- that Sunday was "Wear Purple Day," after all -- he patiently signed autographs and drew sketches for fans.
"He's loved by so many people," his wife said.
Baltazar, who lives with his wife and three children, also speaks at local high schools, inspiring students with his story. While speaking at Elmwood Park High School last month, Baltazar was asked how to react to advice from naysayers.
"If they're hearing that, I tell them they're doing exactly what they're supposed to," he said, noting years of negative response to his work.
Waiting for his shot
While growing up in Chicago, Baltazar was inspired by the work of Hanna-Barbera, the producers behind popular animated characters like Magilla Gorilla, the Flintstones, Scooby Doo and the Jetsons. He graduated in 1992 from Columbia College, learning to draw and paint figure models in a studio.
He learned computer animation after college, and in 1994 started Electric Milk Creations as a way to publish his own characters, like Gyro-Man and Patrick the Wolf Boy. The latter is another collaboration with Aureliani, who goes by his first name, Franco.
The age of the typical comic book fan has grown older, away from the young demographic "Tiny Titans" targets. Even at C2E2 that's evident, with aspects of the convention decidedly for the adults, including the nearly R-rated skimpy costumes some patrons wear.
Yet "Tiny Titans" and Baltazar's portfolio have drawn plenty of grown-up fans, including former DC Coordinating Editor Jann Jones. When DC announced a new line of books for youngsters in 2007, Jones sought Baltazar's input and "Tiny Titans" became part of the kid-friendly line.
Users of Online message boards instantly raged about how the book would feature "dumbed-down versions" of popular characters. Critics, without reading the book, complained that only 3-year-olds would appreciate it.
Those critics were wrong, said Allen Costell, a Chicago comic book fan who brought his sons, William, 13, and Basil, 8, to meet Baltazar at C2E2. They walked away impressed by how he treated them.
"We like everything he does," Costell said.
Baltazar first met Aureliani at a comic convention in New Hampshire after watching a young fan lay into Aureliani's art work. His future partner responded in animated fashion.
"I told him that's not how you make friends," Baltazar said.
Aureliani lives in New York and the two use Skype to videoconference while working. Depending on prior commitments and the creative flow, producing a single 32-page issue of "Tiny Titans" takes between three days and a month. The two see each other a couple of times a year on the convention circuit.
"We work well together, but obviously we can't stand to be within 5 feet of one another," Aureliani joked.
Taking the stage during the final day of C2E2 in Chicago, Kids Day, the two engage in a friendly competition. Fans yell out a character and Baltazar and Aureliani race to see who can sketch the character first.
The chemistry between the two is apparent. Aureliani attempts to sabotage his friend's art, trying to slow Baltazar down so he can win the contest. It's like a skit.
"Who here reads 'Tiny Titans?'" asks the contest's emcee, Mike Nagin.
The crowd of young children replies in high-pitched unison: "Aw yeah, Titans!"
In the 1995 movie "Mallrats," Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee joked about competing with Rolling Stones' frontman Mick Jagger for his fans' affections. At C2E2, the rock-star treatment for Baltazar isn't far off. Fans constantly stop him and Aureliani as they walk the convention floor. One fan stopped the pair to share a comic he drew.
"They are my art heroes," said 23-year-old Cory Butler from Manteno, north of Kankakee.
"That's what it's all about," Aureliani said later.
The attention is constant. Even as the two walk out of the bathroom, a young fan is already engaging them in conversation.
Not just kids' stuff
It's not all play for Baltazar. He's charged with handling the comic-book version of Cartoon Network's "Young Justice." Unlike "Tiny Titans," the television show has a darker, more brooding edge, including scenes showing heroes getting hurt.
The role means Baltazar is responsible for properties and characters worth millions. But despite the responsibilities, Baltazar works to keep things fun and doesn't take himself too seriously.
For example, there's no sleep lost when one of the children in the crowd at the Chicago convention asks him to draw a certain flagship character from Marvel Comics, DC's chief rival.
"I'm not used to drawing Spider-Man," he admits.
The rise of the Internet has changed all industries, and comics aren't any different. C2E2 featured a section of its artists' alley dedicated to digital comic creators. Tablet computing, popularized by the iPad, has companies working on ways to deliver their monthly editions via the Internet.
But it's also changed the way news about comics is distributed by media and fans. A scoop could come via a Twitter feed or an online message board, and while Baltazar and Aureliani banter freely with their fans, they're also careful not to say anything that could be taken out of context.
Once when Aureliani was asked about the possibility of adapting "Tiny Titans" into an animated cartoon for television, he responded that the only way it would happen is through fan support.
That was taken out of context by the fan, who shouted into cyberspace and declared a cartoon was on its way.
"I'll get in trouble with Dan (Didio, DC co-publisher) -- 'Did you say there was a "Tiny Titans" cartoon?'" Aureliani said.
While some artists view work on children's books as a steppingstone toward working on more mainstream and featured stories -- the ones that Hollywood turns into movies -- Baltazar says he's living the dream and hopes to continue to flourish in his current role.
He's already done a comic with his Tiny Titans meeting Archie and the crew from Riverdale, then there's a "Super Pets" storybook out, featuring the adventures of Krypto, Superman's dog.
"We're doing what we love," Baltazar said.