The Journey of 1000 Miles Begins (Part 1)

Greetings everyone and welcome to the very first post of my site! It’s been a long road to get to the starting line and I’m thrilled to finally be able to do this. This first blog, written in 2 parts, will center around my introduction and my goals for the site and how I want to help others achieve their goals.

Without further adieu, allow me to introduce myself.

(Me in the middle, and my Public Allies of Americorps along with the Des Moines Area Community College President on the left)

My name is Kellen Zanders (M.SE) and for as long as I can remember I’ve had a passion for storytelling and entertainment media such as film, cartoons, anime, video games, etc., I was born in 95′ so I had access to cartoons during the golden age of TV block-programming and, when you had cable in America as a kid, the big four TV channels you watched were was Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, PBS, along with popular block programming such as Toonami (after school and on Saturdays), Kids WB Saturday Mornings, Cartoon Cartoon Fridays, Disney Channel Original Movies, PBS Mornings and Afternoons, Noggin, (the list goes on). Combine this with having access to gaming consoles like the Sega Dreamcast, Playstation 1, Gameboy Color, and the parents having a Blockbuster membership (Oh Blockbuster…).

Needless to say, in an age where Internet was still relatively an afterthought and a ‘Nice to have‘ rather than necessity, I watched a lot of cartoons and played a lot of video games and got to see these medias and mediums evolve and advance over the years (I’ll make a separate blog about that). Though I loved fantasy storytelling, I had no talent for the arts whatsoever, and, pre-internet, with no mentors, I didn’t think it was a viable way to make a living outside of the concept of “Having your own show“. So my focus was on the typical 90’s African-American kid trope (post-Michael Jordan), “I wAnT t0 gO To th3 NbA.” But every school year of elementary, I’d be making little comics on the side and would share them amongst my classmates, relishing the fact that I had something I created that other people enjoyed.

My cousin, animator Christopher Wilcots was a big inspiration for me for getting into the visual arts and it led me down the path of searching for and watching anime online and on Youtube which led me to discovering Ladre/JBCoyote and his amazing work (Rest in Peace). After being in awe of their skills I decided that I wanted that for myself so that I too could tell and illustrate my own stories. I knew that animation was out of the question (due to the lack of programs that sped up the process for storytelling at the time) so I thought creating comics was the way to go.

This drive eventually led me to discovering the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that had a Comic Art program .

It was the perfect fit; a few hours from home, tuition exchange eligible, and, in my young mind, there was no better way to be a talented and successful comic creator than being at an art school that would teach you how. (I was pretty cringe as a teen).

So it was at MCAD I quickly learned just how far behind the ball I was when it came to my illustrative abilities and how little I knew. While I was off browsing the web, playing video games, running track and field, playing basketball during high school, my peers were spending their time drawing and honing their crafts. I was pretty bad and, even worse, admittedly stubborn. (More on this in another blog.)

(My first comic)

So while sulking in my lack of ability and insecurity for the better part of a year, I figured that enough was enough. I would prove everyone wrong and get one over on my peers by developing skills and abilities they didn’t have. I would dedicate my entire being to study, practice, and creation during my Junior year and part of that was learning how to program websites.

I figured, if I want to be a webcomic artist, then I better know how to program the websites the comics will be hosted on. That led me to learning the fundamentals of web development and how technology can be used as an accessible storytelling medium that’s unique solely to the people of our time. (Plus HTML5 had just released.) That’s when I really hit my stride, learning and practicing all I could to improve, all while coming up with projects that I’d start after graduation.

And improve I did:

(If there was ever an award for ‘Most Improved’ at an art school, I think it’s safe to say I would of been a strong candidate ha.)

After graduating Art School in May 2017, I was convinced my destiny was to be a web developer and a successful web comic artist…yeah, no. Turns out it doesn’t matter how many Dean’s Lists you make, what your ambitions are, or what your grades were. Unless your portfolio is so good that studios can’t turn you away, finding work in your creative field, locally, with no mentorship, is way tougher than I ever expected. The only jobs I could obtain were the same ones that never needed a degree to obtain to begin with:

  • Sales
  • Warehouse work
  • Retail
  • Fast Food
  • Customer Service
  • Data Entry

Even worse, I was being rejected from jobs I was more than qualified to do. So while I was working on “Zach Cooner: The Line Starts Here“, optimistic that I still had a path to success through this comic, I threw myself into it. Cranking out pages and learning how to produce quickly, all while watching my savings dwindle into debt. I ended up working Holiday retail at Target, then Customer Service/Data Entry at a Warehouse that winter of 2018.

By then I began falling into depression. All the confidence I had in myself and the future during graduation was eclipsed by constant rejection and, due to a lack of planning, the ZC project wasn’t getting the recognition I thought it would. It was as though my time in Art School meant nothing and I interpreted that as I was a failure and meant nothing. I wasn’t proud of myself or my work so I withdrew from family and friends in some kind of quest to find something to be proud of, all the while, still cranking out ZC pages at a high rate.

I ended up being fired from my Warehouse gig and the next month, after watching my savings literally hit 0, I began genuinely hating myself. Working on the ZC project was the only thing that gave me hope that things would turn around. A few weeks later I found work at Wells Fargo as a Shipper/Receiver for the Summer and learned about Americorps through my grandfather who happened to work at the Evelyn K Davis Center and it was the perfect opportunity for me to start something new (while avoiding paying large student loan bills), but what I got out of it was so much more. (More on this in another blog, otherwise this would turn into a big Americorps advertisement.)

I ended up finishing ZC vol 1 during my first year of Americorps:

What was supposed to be a simple 75 page comic ballooned out into a 190 page monster (again, due to bad planning) and that’s ultimately when I realized that maybe comics was not the correct medium for the stories I wanted to tell, not without it taking 2 years to do so, like Zach Cooner did. So I figured, why not switch over to a more interactive medium and actually use my knowledge of programming to tell a story.

Under the guidance of my mentors in Americorps, I got the confidence to enroll in North Dakota State University for their Software Engineering Masters program to learn what I could to enhance my work, and have a degree that would actually provide value for obtaining gainful employment post-Americorps. It was through Americorps I overcame my depression and regained newfound confidence in myself.

My 2nd year with Public Allies I was stationed at Des Moines Area Community College where I learned the inner workings of a college’s professionalism, communication, ad campaigns, outreach, and program creations. It was during my time there that I played “Blacksad: Under The Skin” (a detective game featuring anthropomorphic characters, based on the award winning graphic novel series Blacksad) and I really enjoyed one of the mob boss characters, Desmond O’ Leary.

Aside from the rampant racism, sexism, homphobia, ableism, etc., of the 1950’s , there is one aspect I feel as though is a dying breed in the present. There’s something fascinating, pre-social media, pre-internet, in the business world of 50’s and 60’s, where your word, your handshake, and your signature were the three most powerful things you could give to someone. It’s partially what crafted King, who would serve as the mascot for Kzmaster Entertainment LLC 2020.

“At your service.”

I wanted an avatar that was a modern day version of the romanticized business integrity of the 50’s, as if you plucked him from the Blacksad universe and updated him. Heading into the 2020’s, I wanted to venture into the new decade with a clear set of goals, ambitions, and projects……then Covid-19 threw all those plans in the garbage. (Literally)

2020, with all outreach events being cancelled as we entered lockdown, the ability to start a new business, let alone network, was severely hindered, so much so that my job under Americorps became nearly obsolete. (Thankfully I was under contract so I couldn’t be laid off or furloughed.)

During lockdown I did a lot of reflection (some liken their lockdowns to being in prison) at my childhood, my teenage years, college years – and took time to really understand why I got into storytelling, doing artwork, doing programming in the first place. And I realized that it all wasn’t really about me, at least, not after a certain point. After having worked non-profit, I realized that I’m the type of person who feels better when I help others achieve success as opposed to myself. Success means nothing to me if I have no one to share it with.

And after understanding that, my goals stopped being about doing things for myself and more about doing things to help others do their things. Part of that was establishing a platform that could be used as a conduit of which to help. So I started exploring different possibilities and learning what I did incorrectly during the first ZC project. One of the things that I discovered in this search was the capabilities of Virtual Reality and presentation. How you could use a 3D model and mocap yourself to create a living and breathing avatar to communicate with others, again, a medium unique to the people of our time.

So in 2021 I heavily delved into learning 3D software with Blender, Daz3D, and Zbrush. I commissioned a model to be made of King to be used in VR presentation.

I followed this endeavor through Jan-May, graduating from grad school and getting hired on with Mediacom. Finally, 4 years after graduating from college I finally obtained a day job as a developer that would pay for the night job as a creator. This was the moment I’d been waiting for right?

Well, that’s a story for the next blog 😉

Hope you all enjoyed this little read. Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter to get advice, resources, and news updates from Kzmaster Entertainment LLC 2020.