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'Lio': no words, just weirdness

Think of our new comic as part Edgar Allan Poe, part Salvador Dali and part kid.

Published May 15, 2006

So much weirdness, so much macabre merrymaking. It's tough to know where to start.

Lio has blank holes for eyes. He's 5, 6, 7 or 8. Slimy, slithery monsters hide under his bed. But he always outsmarts them, like the time he got a giant octopus to shampoo his hair. Or the time a cobra woke him up and he sleepily got out of bed and opened a can of white mice.

Lio's alter ego is his creator, Mark Tatulli, 43 going on 9. When Tatulli was Lio's age, he tormented his younger sister by planting recordings of groaning monsters in her bedroom closet. He fancies himself an avatar of Edgar Allan Poe. There's a Telltale Heart quality about him.

He shares a "Spielbergian" home in the Jersey suburbs with his wife, three kids and three "nefarious cats." They live upstairs. Most of the time, Tatulli lives and draws in the basement, in what he calls his dungeon, which is full of "old spells and magic wands." His wife, Donna, runs a tanning salon. So though he lives in a sunless dungeon, he looks "fabulous."

Lio has just moved into our comic pages. It's a new strip being launched today in about 90 newspapers nationwide. It's so packed with monsters that Tatulli leaves out words. Words do not exist in Lio. Remember the comic strip Henry? Lio's like Henry, if you can imagine Henry drawn by Salvador Dali.

How to otherwise explain Lio? Tatulli has been wanting to draw something like it for years. He learned literacy as a child by reading the National Lampoon and Mad magazines his dad tried to hide from him. Gahan Wilson's gothic monster masterpieces were another huge influence. "That was the feeling I wanted to generate."

He invented the name Lio. It sounds Italian, but it's purely Tatullian. "I wanted a name that was short, sweet, almost foreign. I put a line over the 'o' because I liked the way it looked."

Lio's vacuous holes for eyes are like the blank stare of innocence that kids show when they're told some "big, crazy story" that can't possibly be true, except that, maybe, in a kid's mind, it might be true. "Lio's eyes are a reflection of that willingness to believe."

Back in 1997, Tatulli published his first nationally syndicated comic strip, called Heart of the City. It's about a little girl living in Philadelphia, and it's bursting with Tatulli's manic whimsy, but it's told mostly in words.

Then last year, Lio came along. Tatulli had lost a day job designing opening scenes for reality TV shows in Philadelphia and found himself with time to invent a new strip.

"Pantomime strips" like Lio are something of a lost art. Tatulli thinks of himself as a visual person more than a verbal one. Wordless cartoons, he says, "are a kind of puzzle. You figure out what's happening by just looking at it. You may spend more than the usual seven seconds you'd spend on a cartoon. You may spend nine or 10 seconds."

In drawing Lio, Tatulli channels any of his own three children. "It's not so much what they do, it's what they say. What they say unlocks how they think. The big thing is the fears they have that remind me of the fears I had as a kid. They think there is a monster upstairs. 'No,' I say, 'the cops don't allow monsters to go inside houses.' My son used to swear he could hear a ladder thumping against the side of the house."

Then again, the Tatulli family is used to strange things. Especially when Dad gets out of the basement. "Do my kids think I'm weird? Are you kidding me? They don't even want to go to the store with me. I might break out with a show tune in the middle of the Acme grocery.

"That's what they fear the most."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or

[Last modified May 15, 2006, 06:34:05]

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