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Drawn to the dark side

Axistence, not to be confused with existence, is a land of dreams, an exaggerated landscape to which children retire after spending their days in the corporal Wake World of Planet Earth.

Beneath it is a largely red and black underworld of cragged rocks and molten lava inhabited by evil "screamers" with aggrieved names like Dogface who prey upon the young.

Helpless as they are, the children turn to a legion of guardians called "binders" with an array of weapons and powers to protect their spirits.

The three worlds, 17 years in the making, burst forth from the dark imagination of Richmond Place resident Ben Rosa onto the pages of his first self-published comic book: Invisible War.

The goal, he says, isn't simply to draw iron-jawed idols with fancy gadgets and impenetrable body armor. Rosa sees himself as a storyteller.

"I'm trying to break the rules," Rosa said. "(Most artists) are all following a pattern. They are trying to create superheroes."

Invisible War is a PG-13 comic and many parents will find its themes disturbing. For example: The "screamers" break children's necks as they dream. For inspiration, Rosa, 27, spent two years studying mythology and religious texts, browsing the shelves at Toys "R" Us and checking out the children's bestsellers on

He moved back in with his parents and worked as a technician at the Busch Gardens Moroccan Palace show, saving $3,000 to print 500 copies of his work.

Now he is reaping the success. He has sold about 300 books at local collectors' shops and comic conventions for $4 a pop. He has received his first piece of fan mail, which he laminated, and heard from his first acerbic critic, who demanded a refund.

While promoting Invisible World at a convention this month, Rosa accepted a job as a graphic artist with a Chicago comic book company. He planned to leave this weekend.

Once a leading form of popular culture, comic books have declined steadily in circulation over the past 60 years. But the characters in strips and panels still generate commercial and artistic appeal. Novelist Michael Chabon won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about an American teenager and his Eastern European cousin. The two create their own superhero, the Escapist, during comic books' golden age. The movie Spider-Man grossed nearly $400-million at the box office this spring.

As a boy, Rosa was a loyal reader of Spider-Man and Thor but dreamed of becoming an archaeologist like his Hollywood hero Indiana Jones. Eventually Rosa's talent with a pencil and paper landed him at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

The geneses of Invisible War were childhood nightmares. Freddy Kruger, the villain from A Nightmare on Elm Street who slashed his victims with knives attached to his leather glove, would torture the 10-year-old Rosa as he slept.

To fight off his demons, Rosa created Nikko, a brash, self-confident "binder" _ like Tom Cruise's Maverick in Top Gun.

"He was everything I couldn't be," said Rosa.

Nikko appears briefly in Invisible World, but Rosa has also inserted friends and family into his stories. Dogface kills his nephew Jonathan's dream world spirit in the comic's first episode. (Jonathan, 3, has not weighed in on his demise at Dogface's hands.) A friend, Yan Yan, who juggles a 28-pound table with her feet in the Moroccan Palace show, will be an angel named Sky in an upcoming issue.

After his grandfather Guadalupe Rodriquez died in October 2001, Rosa recommitted himself to finishing Invisible War. University of South Florida graduate student Chris Perez, 34, a co-worker at Busch Gardens, wrote the dialogue.

"I approach each character as if I was acting," said Perez, who holds an undergraduate degree in theater arts from USF. "What are their motivations, their strengths, their weaknesses?"

Rosa's next goal is to turn Invisible War into an animated film. He'll be living with Nikko, Dogface, and the rest of the demons and angels for some time to come.

"You become part of the character's world, living the drama and the suspense," Rosa said.

_ John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at

Dogface takes form for the artist's Web site and a possible T-shirt design. Rosa's next goal is to turn Invisible War into an animated film.

"You know you're having fun when you draw for eight hours straight and don't realize it," Ben Rosa says. "That's when you know it's your life."

A character in Invisible War hints that all is not sweet and nice in this world.