AUBURN — Thirty-four years after issue No. 1 hit the streets, there’s still Zen.

Back in the early 1990s, writer Steve Stern and artist Dan Cote’s self-published creation “Zen Intergalactic Ninja” spawned two video games, a line of action figures and a publishing deal with Archie Comics.

Eighty-plus issues later, Stern’s latest book with the alien hero debuts Saturday at Freeport’s DotCom Comics on Free Comic Book Day and they’ve just signed a new deal with a maker of retro video games.

“Between all that, we’ve got a lot of Zen activity,” he said.

When Stern moved to Auburn the first time in the 1980s, drawn to the area by his best friend, he worked in advertising and wrote for black and white magazines with names like Psycho and Nightmare. At that time, Zen was a one-page pitch “about an alien floating in space” that hadn’t gone anywhere, tucked in a suitcase.

“The way it worked at the time was you wrote a little synopsis and if the artist sparked to it, then you had a story published,” he said. “When I moved here to Maine — and this is the God’s honest truth — that suitcase cracked open when I was unpacking and out flies this page, which I hadn’t looked at in 15 years.”

The next day, a meeting with a new advertising client led him to a talented young artist and they quickly discovered a mutual love of comics. Stern said when Cote asked about working on a comic together, he remembers telling him, “I have this cool idea that came out of a suitcase yesterday …”

A detail of a page from “Welcome to Paradise City,” which writer Steve Stern is calling “Zen illustrated fiction,” with art by Ron Williams. It’s debuting Saturday at DotCom Comics in Freeport during a Free Comic Book Day event. Co-creators Stern and artist Dan Cote published the first issue of “Zen Intergalactic Ninja” in Auburn in 1987 and it’s been going in different forms ever since. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Issue No. 1 of “Zen Intergalactic Ninja” came out in November 1987, selling 3,000 copies. Within two years, after some savvy marketing, USA Today ran a story about the comic, which “changed everything,” Stern said.

Along came the Konami games, the Just Toys toys, even Halloween masks, as well as Archie Comics.

Stern and Cote have been with publisher 1First Comics since 2011, with Stern also co-writing a graphic history of Alexander Hamilton and writing a trade paperback of “Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants.”

He’s calling the latest book, “Welcome to Paradise City,” a work of “Zen illustrated fiction” — 6,000 words and six full-page illustrations by artist Ron Williams — and has several more planned.

“I’m a big fan of mysteries and in this particular book, Zen is basically playing the part of a private eye,” he said, hired by an actress after her agent is killed. “What I like about writing Zen is that I have the opportunity to constantly recreate him, as a soldier-of-fortune, a bounty hunter and even a private investigator. He’s also served as a platform for me to express my feelings about events such as 9/11, as well as have a lot of fun with pop culture.”

Cote is still active with the book, writing and illustrating the graphic novel “Zen Intergalactic Ninja: Zenith Orb” five years ago, Stern said, but with the art so time-intensive, he’s also worked with other artists on the title over the years.

Over the course of the series, that’s led to covers by some of comics’ big names, including Jae Lee, Sam Keith and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.

Stern moved back to Maine last year from Los Angeles, where Cote still lives, again convinced to move by his friend and thinking this time that he’ll stay.

He’ll be at DotCom Comics on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. with both a regular cover of the new book and a variant cover by Maine artist Ryan Wing.

“(Zen’s) just a very cool character,” said Stern. “If I could be roaming the space ways, I’d want to be Zen.”


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