Comic book authors Tony Trov and Johnny Zito get comical about Philly

Trov and Zito created LaMorte Sisters, with artwork by Christine Larsen.
Trov and Zito created LaMorte Sisters, with artwork by Christine Larsen.
Posted: July 12, 2012

ST. MARIA Goretti High School is a home for orphaned vampire girls. An abandoned Fishtown factory is a space station infiltrated by werewolves. A Jefferson frat house is the home of murderous, demon-possessed sorority sisters.

At least in the minds of Tony Trov and Johnny Zito, two South Philly-born-and-bred comics writers who transform Philadelphia into their own fantastic, dark playground. In a panel from their comic La Morte Sisters, about a version of Goretti (now Ss. John Neumann and Maria Goretti High School) where all the students are undead, a car full of vampire teenagers races down Broad Street toward City Hall. In their latest collection, D.O.G.S. of Mars, an "Alien" meets "The Wolf Man" sci-fi horror tale, the empty electric company building on the edge of Penn Treaty Park becomes the outta-this-world lupine hunting ground.

The four issues of D.O.G.S. of Mars were recently collected into a graphic novel by Image Comics, the same publisher that puts out The Walking Dead and Spawn.

"They write what they know," said illustrator and Fishtown resident Christine Larsen, who did the artwork for La Morte Sisters. "I just filled in the visual blanks."

"It's all we know. We can't escape this place, it's what's around us," said Trov. "It's an inspirational place. All art is a reflection of the culture around it when it's being created. How could it not end up in your artwork?"

Trov (born Anthony Trovarello), 28, and Zito, 29, grew up scant blocks from each other on Passyunk Avenue, but they didn't meet until they were teenagers, when Zito was working at the now-defunct South Philly comic-book shop the Comic Book Theater: A Drama of Dreams. "I was working at the store and you just Rollerbladed into my life," Zito said with a wistful smile. They bonded instantly.

"There were only a few kids from South Philly who wanted to go [hang out on] South Street. We were always the weird alternative kids," Trov said. "And we both loved the '70s. We used go to the I. Goldberg [when it was] on 8th Street and buy sailor pants and pretend they were bell-bottoms."

The pair have collaborated since, attending Temple University and working on everything from Zito's film-school projects to a rock opera based on "The Odyssey." They got into comics in 2008 through an "American Idol"-esque search held by DC Comics looking for diamonds-in-the-comic-book rough. They won, leading to their first comic collaboration, Black Cherry Bombshells, about girl gangs fighting zombie-men in postapocalyptic Las Vegas.

Together, they've written five comics series: Black Cherry Bombshells, Moon Girl, Carnivale de Robotique, La Morte Sisters and D.O.G.S. of Mars. Each started out online, but only Moon Girl (Red 5 Comics) and D.O.G.S have made it to print. While it seems regressive to go from digital to print today, for comics, print signals success, though digital-only is gaining ground.

Trov and Zito see the medium of their work only in terms of getting their content — all produced under the moniker South Fellini — to more people. "We'd be on these panels [at comic conventions] that were print versus digital and we'd be like, ‘Y'know guys, it's all going to be the same one day,' " Trov said.

Before D.O.G.S. was published, Trov and Zito presold the movie rights to High Treason Pictures, the Philly-based studio behind the Neil Patrick Harris-starring "The Best and the Brightest," where Trov had worked as a set-dresser. They came up with the idea for D.O.G.S. while walking from the South Philly house they share to Rittenhouse Square.

When they started thinking about settings for it, they used Philly locales as touchstones for their artist, Austin, Texas-based Paul Maybury, just in case the film happened to get made in town. "We picked [the electric company] because it was gothic and industrial-looking and it had enough odd shapes to it so it could be futuristic," Maybury said. "I've never really seen that done before [using real locations for a fantasy story]. Obviously, like, Spider-Man is from New York, but this was an interesting way of, not cutting corners, but thinking ahead."

If "D.O.G.S." gets made, it will be Trov and Zito's second movie. Last summer, they made "Alpha Girls," about an evil force that surfaces at sorority, filmed at a fraternity house of Thomas Jefferson University medical students. It features noted porn star Ron Jeremy as a priest. Trov and Zito had asked a lot of semi-famous people — wrestlers, Philly media personalities — to play the part and they all said no. Jeremy said yes. He was very professional, the duo said.

They're putting the finishing touches on the film and hope to have public screenings by the fall. Their budget was about $18,000, $12,000 of which was raised through a Kickstarter online campaign, drawing donations of $25 to $30 that came with a digital copy of the movie.

Patti Weiser, director of development at High Treason, was impressed by their follow-through. When most people would quit and get day jobs, she said, Trov and Zito kept working, weathering credit-card debt and long days to get "Alpha Girls" made.

Trov and Zito do make money through royalties on their comics. (D.O.G.S. had an initial run of 10,000, with 4,000 copies preordered.) But they also pay the rent as freelance artists, working in the art departments of movie and commercial productions that roll through and designing T-shirts for South Street-based Cheese steak Tees.

They equated the fantasy versus reality of being comics writers to the characters in D.O.G.S., people who became astronauts only to find that it was a more blue-collar proposition than they first thought.

"The secret is that it's really hard," Trov said. "Yeah, it's really fun, but you're going to go bankrupt and your mom might hate you and your girlfriend might hate you. It's a quick walk to Rittenhouse Square — and that's the next three years of our lives."

Their creative empire wouldn't work if they did not collaborate so well together. When Mark A. Fionda Jr., their illustrator on Carnivale de Robotique, tried to find comparisons for their partnership, he was at a loss.

"I don't really know too many duos in comics. It's cool that they work together and live together and don't kill each other," Maybury said.

"I love being interviewed with them because they fill out each other's sentences," Larsen said. "They both fill different facets of that working relationship. They're both always super-excited to do what they're doing."

So, do they fight, ever?

Well, they had a fight on their way to the interview for this story.

"We were walking, working on a pitch for Image, and we were arguing about whether [the characters] should walk through Gummi Bears or Jell-O," Trov said.

"We can't use Jell-O …" he began.

"…because it's copyrighted," Zito agreed.

"We can't use Gummi Bears because that's ridiculous," Trov continued.

"Gummi Bears are probably copyrighted," Zito said.

Trov disagreed.

"It's a Disney cartoon," Zito insisted. "It's got to be copyrighted."

"It's not, it's not, it's not," Trov said. "We'll look it up when we get home."

"We weren't at each other's throats but, like, it was an intense conversation," he recalled. (For the record, Zito was right.) "If you feel so passionate about something, are you willing to really put it all out there for another person?"

"It's OK to fight over art," Zito said.

"In the end," Trov said. "You're fighting over werewolves anyway."

Contact Molly Eichel at 215-854-5909 or eichelm@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mollyeichel. Read her blog posts at philly.com/entertainment.

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