Cincinnati processes more than one billion gallons of wastewater every day through more than 10 thousand miles of pipeline. These pipes are woven together like tree roots just beneath our feet. Sewers are essential to our daily lives, yet seldom seen and rarely discussed.
This “ignorant dependence” is what inspired Jay B. Kalagayan to create the comic book series MeSseD, whose third installment dropped December 9. MeSseD tells the story of Lilliput, a Filipino filter worker—or “flusher”—who monitors the Metropolitan Sewer District’s (MSD) labyrinthine network of underground pipes, “the Roots,” with her pet rat Akka. The Roots are home to a delightful array of skittery creatures: gigantic man-eating tubifex worms, forests of fungi, talking insects, a tribe of Allicrocs (alligator-crocodile hybrids), and bacterial colonies known as filaments. Lilliput is also joined by human compatriots, like her colleague and friend Sandshell and MSD’s Manager of Operations, Fat Mucket.
Volume three picks up with Lilliput recovering from injuries she sustained trying to capture the filament “mother” for study in volume two. It features a secretive midnight heist, a deeper dive into the creatures of the Roots, and a battle between MSD workers and an invading army of filaments. Lilliput makes new friends—and new enemies.
Although MeSseD takes place in an unnamed city instead of Cincinnati, both its author and illustrator are locals. Kalagayan has contributed to several local arts organizations, including the Know Theatre, Cincinnati Fringe Festival, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Museum Center, and Playhouse in the Park. Illustrator Dylan Speeg has produced work for CityBeat, the Know Theatre, and the SyFy Channel.
Kalagayan was able to tour several different sewage systems around Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia, to find inspiration and conduct research.
“I got to do a ride along with the Trouble Call Crew with Northern Kentucky’s SD1 (Sanitation District One),” he says. “A former employee took me into the tunnels. It was pitch black. The smell wasn’t as striking as you would expect. The sewage flow was pretty diluted like a muddy stream. It was summer so the spring rains had cleared out the tunnels. It was fascinating. I could feel the weight of being underground and the isolation of us being the only people in the tunnels. You really have to be aware of your surroundings at all times down there. There’s no margin for error.”
Since 2016, Kalagayan and Speeg have been promoting their comic locally and regionally, waiting for the perfect moment to expand eastward. They’ve shared their work locally at Art on Vine and Crafty Supermarket, and they’ve attended the Cincinnati Comic Expo, Motor City Comic Con in Michigan, SPACE and Sol-Con in Columbus, Genghis Con in Cleveland, and the Indiana Comic Con.
“We’ve made good friends on the road and met so many amazing creators,” Kalagayan says.
Kalagayan and Speeg’s work is also featured in Cincinnati Cabinet of Curiosities, a comic anthology by the Cincinnati Comic Creators group with regional stories about haunted places, cryptids, and urban legends.