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Artist draws on his childhood dreams

Paul Ryan says he becomes so focused, "I feel as if I'm in the story, taking the part of each of the characters as I draw them.' (BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

For more than two decades, Paul Ryan has made people fly, given children the strength to bend steel, and banished villains from the earth.

As a syndicated comic artist, Ryan has breathed life into such characters as Superman, The Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Batman. Since 2005 he has been drawing the Phantom, which runs daily in hundreds of newspapers nationwide and internationally, including those in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Australia.

Ryan, 55, collaborates with writer Lee Salk to produce the strip, working from his Hudson studio. On average, Ryan said it takes around four hours to pencil a strip and three hours to ink it in, crafting lighting and shadows. It's important, he says, that a comic strip artist be able to produce visual prose.

"I find that while I'm illustrating a story I become so focused that I feel as if I'm [actually] in the story, taking the part of each of the characters as I draw them," Ryan says.

Throughout history, society's idea of beauty has dictated what body type is in vogue, so it's not surprising that Ryan has witnessed the metamorphoses of the superhero physique.

"In the early days of Superman, he was rather squat," says Ryan. "And then along came a fellow named Wayne Boring who made him a barrel-chested 6-footer."

Since then, Ryan says, artist Curt Swan made Superman look more realistic and most recently, John Byrne gave him an enormous chest.

Ryan's work reveals his anatomical knowledge, with superhero muscles defined at every angle. He keeps volumes of medical books in his studio for reference but says for the most part, he's learned about the human body from observation; looking at magazines and real people. In fact, many real people, including family and friends, have made cameo appearances in his comics, as have some shops in Hudson.

His daughter Heather had a scene in the Flash comic series, and various Spiderman strips have included his parents and the front of the Hudson salon Lucille's Hair Place, now called Scissors Edge.

A few years ago, while chatting with some fellow artists, Ryan had an epiphany, realizing they really do see the world differently from others.

"Whenever I'm in any situation, I'll constantly try to memorize things. I'll memorize a face, a room, and actually mentally outline everything." He says he looks at shadows as well, and is especially drawn to older faces that exude character. "You see so much history in the face. And that's something I try to bring into the work."

Ryan began his training as a child, growing up in Somerville. He'd park himself in front of the television each night to watch George Reeves and the "Adventures of Superman." When his family spent time on Cape Cod, he'd tie a towel around his neck and jump off sand dunes pretending he was Superman. A highlight of his youth came at the age of 7, when his parents bought him an official costume.

Ryan's daughter Heather, 28, still gets a kick out of her father's career.

"To this day," she says, "I hear grown men say, 'Your dad draws comics? That's so cool!' "

To view Paul Ryan's work, go to secondstargraphics.com.

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