Miss Medusa: A Twisted Texas Comic

Miss Medusa: A Twisted Texas Comic

Even in the world of underground Texas comics, Paul Hanley and Matt Frank stand out. Their creation, Miss Medusa’s Monstrous Menagerie has been a runaway hit on Kickstarter thanks to its inventive and edgy premise, as well Hanley’s incredible art style. Now, it’s finally on sale for the general public at Laguna Studios.

Set in the south in the 1960s, Miss Medusa focuses on a group of “mythics,” legendary beasts and cryptids that now work in traveling carnivals. Previously, they had aided the Allies in World War II, immigrating to the United States after the fall of the Reich. This circus is run by the titular Miss Medusa (legal name Gina Tatpolous), a voluptuous gorgon who rules her clan of creatures with an iron fist in a white magician’s glove.

“She’s a ruthless, anything-goes capitalist with low regard for employee unions,” says Hanley. “I’m sure she has stuff by Napoleon Hill and Ayn Rand on that big bookshelf in her office. And like most circuses of the time, there’s all sorts of thorny questions about issues like cultural appropriation, animal treatment, etc. But on the flip side, she’d have zero liking for dickheads like George Wallace or Edwin Walker.”

Hanley’s career started as something of a carnie himself. An army brat who moved around the country before settling in Austin in 1997, he began by drawing his own weird comics in high school, eventually graduating to working on Buckaroo Banzai in 2008. That led to eight years as a cover artist for licensed properties like Godzilla, Judge Dredd, and his most well-known work, Doctor Who. Though technically in the industry, Hanley made most of his living on the convention circuit selling prints, getting increasingly frustrated as his ideas were shot down by publishers. 

“That convinced me that licensed comics (and big comic companies in general) were a lousy gamble for a career, because you could bring your absolute best game to a project and things still might not work out because of factors that had nothing to do with the work,” he says.

Conventions led to the beginning of Miss Medusa. Hanley had become fast friends with Frank, a San Antonio-based writer and artist who also worked on Godzilla. Like Hanley, Frank had a penchant for the weird and uncanny. He drew an image of a gorgon ringmaster for one of their mutual convention appearances in San Antonio, and the idea stuck.

“I was trying to conceptualize something outside of my usual wheelhouse, but still well within my capabilities to illustrate and have fun with,” he says. “Paul took that early idea and the handful of characters I was tossing around and added so much depth and complexity and nuance in a way that was much more his style of deep-lore worldbuilding. He really made it into what it’s become.” 

Hanley is now the main driving force behind Miss Medusa, but he is always quick to hand Frank credit, fearful of his friend “getting Bill Fingered,” referring to the erasure of one of Batman’s creators for much of The Dark Knight’s history.

It’s one thing to have an idea, and another to know what to do with it. Hanley threw himself into the creation of Miss Medusa, researching carnivals through books like Bruce Feiler’s Under the Big Top and Arthur H. Lewis’s Carnival. The more he got into the nitty gritty of what running a show entitled, the more he said the plot wrote itself as a twisted workplace dramedy. The rest was filled in by the oppressive politics many minorities faced in the south, something that would definitely have affected the menagerie in real life.

“I try to avoid getting preachy with my writing, or even worse, hijack characters with a life of their own into being mouthpieces for my personal politics, but there was no way we could ignore all that either,” he says. “You can’t get away from some politics because it’s set in the South in the Sixties, just because that’s the turf Matt and I knew. We’ve been to all but one of the U.S. towns the show stops in through the course of the series, and that’s only because one’s fictional. The Sixties are the first decade where it was really clear circuses were in a slow death spiral, and we wanted Miss Medusa’s operation to be in that zone where there’s always a danger it’ll go bankrupt. So, while the struggles of the mythics are definitely not allegorical to the civil rights movement, they bump up against some of the same jerkasses who would’ve had a problem with that.”

No publisher wanted Miss Medusa, so it remained a side gig starting in 2017. However, things changed when Hanley was introduced to editor Laurie Foster, who now owns Laguna Studios. She guided Hanley through setting up the comic on Kickstarter, where the first issue earned more than triple its funding goal. Since 2021, that’s how people have been able to read Hanley’s work. It’s an odd way to release comics, but it paid off well.

“Paul is the greatest,” says Foster. “He has an incredible mind for writing, drawing, and just creating in general, and when we first met it was because of [his other comic] The Unthinkables. It was right in the wheelhouse of what we wanted to publish; dark, funny, sarcastic, and then he asked if I wanted to see another series he’d been working on for years. [He] brought out archives of Miss Medusa’s Monstrous Menagerie, fantastic art, character concepts, environments. It was unbelievable. How could I say no? Plus, mythical creatures and magic with an added political layer of the 1960s USA? Again, who could say no?”

Paul has, unfortunately, left Texas right as Miss Medusa  has taken off. He and his partner contracted COVID in 2020. His partner lost her job and went on disability, and their dog sitting business went under. He moved north in 2022, though the state’s culture is still very present in his work. His sci-fi series Warp Hustler (also available from Laguna Studios) in particular focuses on a version of Austin he feels is over. 

“In the 90’s that place was an amazing little town full of so much creativity and so many cool small businesses,” he says. “I made a whole damn animated movie there (Viva the Nam) with some of my UT film school friends. Now the old Alamo Ritz venue where that premiered is owned by Joe Rogan. That kind of says it all, really.”