PENvinciPALs: The nerdiest thing I’m proud of

This week my nerdiest claim to fame comes to an end. For more than a decade, one of my creations has appeared in Robert Kirkman’s best comic. No, not that one. I’m referring, of course, to “Invincible.” Back in 2003, I named the comic’s letter column: “PENvinciPALS.”

This week “Invincible” comes to an end with issue 144. I figured I would use this opportunity to reflect on how that stupid name came to be.

It all started with a comic called “Super Patriot: America’s Fighting Force,” which came out in 2002. I’m a diehard fan of Erik Larsen’s “Savage Dragon series, and when Larsen announced that some guy who always hung out on the Savage Dragon message board pimping his “Battle Pope” comic would be writing a spin-off mini series, I decided to add it to my pull list. It sold poorly, but toward the end of the four issue series, Kirkman and artist Cory Walker announced they would be launching their own original comic book: “Invincible.”

The first few issues were OK, not great, but I enjoyed Walker’s art and decided to stick with it. In one of the first issues, Kirkman mentioned they needed a name for the letter column. I didn’t think much of it, until one day, while avoiding work, it occurred to me that “In” and “ble” sound sort of like “Pen” and “Pal.” I fired off a quick email, describing my idea for how the name might look, and Kirkman responded in fairly short order that he liked it and wanted to run it by Walker. He would get back to me soon.

For a few months, I heard nothing. Then a new issue came out and on the letter page Kirkman mentioned that someone had come up with a good name, but he had forgotten it and lost the email. I emailed him again, saying “Was it ‘PENvinciPALS?” And he responded with “Yes!!!”

I believe that was around issue 7 (I’ve long since sold off my single issues for the hardcovers). That was a fairly important issue in the run of the series, where the first big twist reveals that the teenage protagonist’s awesome powers come at a terrible cost (I won’t spoil it here). It’s the issue that turned the book from “OK, not great” to one of my favorite comics every month. From there on, Kirkman managed to largely elude the “illusion of change” mentality that keeps most superhero comics treading water for years.

I met Kirkman at Wizard World Chicago in 2004 and he drew me a Captain America head sketch as my reward for naming the letter page (he was also writing Captain America at the time).

Cap sketch

I ran into Kirkman a few more times at San Diego Comic Con 2005-2007, getting my “Invincible” hardcovers signed by him. That was a few years before his popularity shot through the roof, so there weren’t really lines to see him. I even got a few sketches from Ryan Ottley, the artist who took over from Invincible‘s co-creator, Cory Walker.

Despite “PVP” creator/human garbage Scott Kurtz declaring the name to be “gay,” I’ve always been proud of my little contribution to the book’s history. It even paid off a little professionally. A few years back I was writing a profile on Iowa writer/artist Phil Hester, who was writing an “Invincible spin-off book at the time. I thought a quote from Kirkman about why he chose Hester would really add to the story. The problem? At that point, Robert Kirkman had become ROBERT “CREATOR OF THE &#&@&IN’ WALKING DEAD” KIRKMAN. He had a publicist and everything.

So I emailed her, pleading my case. I wasn’t some journalist trying to leach off the success of “The Walking Dead.” I was the guy who named the letter column of the comic this comic was spinning off of. I just needed a paragraph from a guy busy with the biggest show on TV.

She seemed amused by the backstory, and she came through with the quote.

A few months back, a letter writer mentioned PENvinciPALS being a lame name and Kirkman responded with “Boo! PENvinciPALS for life!” I agree. PENvinciPALS for life. I made a nerdy mark on the world, and I’m proud of it.

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