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Originally published March 28, 2014 at 12:04 PM | Page modified April 1, 2014 at 9:03 AM

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Alt comics artists take us to Seattle's rough edges

Seattle and the Northwest have carved a lasting niche in the comics world by applying the same traits to cartoons that we apply to music — lo-fi, provocative and introspective.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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PROFANITY! FLATULENCE! Nudity! Gore!

If it is too crude or intense to print in The Seattle Times, chances are, you will find it in spades in one of the city’s alternative comics.

The cartoonists and graphic novelists who live and work here are a motley, back-of-the-classroom crowd, happily throwing spitballs at our conventions, our inhibitions, our unabashed pleasantness.

For three decades, Seattle has remained a force of its own in this milieu of line drawings and thought bubbles, upholding a countercultural, nose-thumbing comic-book aesthetic in an industry that is now thoroughly mainstream, whether online or at the multiplex.

For evidence, look no farther than the visual feast that is the annual Emerald City Comicon, being held this weekend, March 28-30, at Washington State Convention Center.

Every year, the event draws tens of thousands of fans, many dressed up like their favorite heroes and villains, as well as actual cartoonists and actors who play film and TV roles based on comic-book characters.

It is a costume carnival of celebrity-gawking and autograph signing that is a world away from the far more intimate and no-frills scene cartoonists such as Lynda Barry and Matt Groening fell into when their careers got started here in the late 1980s and early 1990s, or the low-brow-meets-high-brow atmosphere fostered by Seattle’s best-known alternative comics publisher, Fantagraphics, around the same time.

Seattle and the Northwest have carved a lasting niche in the comics world by applying the same traits to cartoons that we apply to music — lo-fi, provocative and introspective.

Our comics are often funny as in peculiar, not necessarily funny as in laugh-out-loud, our heroes bumbling rather than swashbuckling.

They’re as likely to get under your skin as make you grin and, for the most part, the creators of these comics wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is Emerald City Comicon and then there are grass roots shows like the more recently minted Short Run Comix and Arts Festival.

The event, held in a historic meeting hall in Seattle’s Central District each November, is very intentionally not like its flashy cousin.

With Short Run, founders and fellow cartoonists Kelly Froh, Janice Headley and Eroyn Franklin have created an alternative to what many cartoonists see as a necessary evil: peddling comic books and “zines” as well as framable cartoon art at big mainstream shows among the caped and bedazzled throngs.

Whereas at many comic-book spectacles around the country artists are relegated to alleys of tables off to the side of the main action, Short Run puts the creators, many of them locals trying to build an audience, front-and-center.

Froh describes the show as “a curated arts festival for people who often get stomped on at events” like Comicon.

“We’re going to ‘artist alley’ and rescuing them from all of that,” she says.

With a growing but still modest attendance that topped 1,500 last year, Short Run offers comics fans a real shot at getting quality time with up-and-coming as well as established cartoonists.

That’s a good thing, because the work of someone like Franklin, for example, is best appreciated up-close.

On her personal website, www.Eroynfranklin.com, Franklin describes herself as “a very happy person, but there are deep chasms in places where chasms shouldn’t be.”

Those chasms take physical shape in some of her most compelling comics, which feature pages with cutouts that expand the very definition of the term “comic book.”

Her work skirts the line between funny and serious with a highly experimental art style, taking Lynda Barry’s famous admonition to “be the unexpected” to a new level of meaning.

Her book “Another Glorious Day at the Nothing Factory” is 206 pages of hand-cut paper exploring the end of her marriage. Communication, or the failure to communicate, is a recurring theme in her work. In “Just Noise,” about an argument between a man and a woman, the word bubbles are cut out of each page, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks.

Elliott Bay Book Co. on Capitol Hill dedicated a whole shelf to her work in its small-press section, giving the general reading public access to books that are specialty in the extreme.

Froh, who has recently started doing live performances of her comics, isn’t surprised that experimentation pays off here.

“The crowd in Seattle is very culturally curious,” she says. Plus, “I feel like emotional honesty makes these nuanced zines approachable — that’s how you connect.”

That rawness and “emotional honesty” have been hallmarks of Seattle comics since their earliest days in the 1980s, when grunge was truly underground and you could rent a loft in the center of town for a few hundred dollars a month. Before Sub Pop was a record label, it was a zine whose creators eventually started producing mix tapes with cartoon cover art by Barry, Charles Burns and others.

“When the grunge era came along, there was a perfect synergy between the comics and music scenes,” says Larry Reid of Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood.

When the legendary local cartoonist Peter Bagge moved to Seattle in the mid-1980s from New York, where he was editor of comic genius R. Crumb’s “Weirdo” magazine, the “Hate” author brought a level of legitimacy to the city’s nascent comics movement, as well as a style whose acerbic attitude meshed well in punkish Seattle.

Today Bagge is an elder statesmen among alt-comics artists, but he’s still raising eyebrows. His latest book-length comic, “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story,” dares to give the nuanced life story of the Planned Parenthood founder the funny-pages treatment.

He says he wants to do more biographical comics about complicated female figures, including the African-American anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston, “people who can’t be pinned down in one or two words.”

Bagge’s willingness to “go there” with prickly topics has influenced a whole new generation of cartoonists. Take the Buffalo, N.Y., transplant Tom Van Deusen.

“I’m against the idea of the righteous protagonist,” the 28-year-old says one day at his apartment in Seattle’s University District neighborhood, where the kitchen table doubles as his art desk in the evenings after his day job at a phone company. His remark is an understatement.

Van Deusen says he finds inspiration in the kind of lead characters one might see in an Albert Brooks movie, barely lovable losers who seem to have been born without a verbal filter.

But in some of the work he’s produced in Seattle the past couple of years, the crude, self-deprecating humor gets kicked up to Judd Apatow level.

In his comic series “Scorched Earth,” the main character, Tom, is a geeky, romantically dysfunctional guy who bears an obvious resemblance to his creator. What a piece of work. In one storyline, the misogynistic, hard-drinking character goes out on a string of ill-fated dates arranged on the website Okcupid.com, each ending in a gross-out moment.

It is not always easy reading, and the visuals don’t warm the heart.

To like Tom, the character, you have to tolerate impulses and actions that are revolting yet uncannily true to life.

Van Deusen features the same Tom character in his Studygroupcomics.com Web comic “Eat, Eat, Eat.”

“It’s supposed to be like ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ but all about eating,” a deadpan Van Deusen says. The series explores its creator’s own issues around weight, body image and attractiveness to the opposite sex — but without any feel-good story lines.

“I try with my comics to be very socially aware,” Van Deusen says of “Scorched Earth.” “It’s like a parody of white-male entitlement.”

Even if some of the scenarios in his work are inspired by life experiences, “a lot of it is the exact opposite of how I feel,” Van Deusen says. “I wouldn’t want to be like that ever.”

Van Deusen, like a lot of Seattle’s cartoonists, says he does the work for love, not fame and fortune, which are hard to achieve in this business anyway.

“It’s a game of very few rewards,” he says, “just pure self-expression.”

Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon reportedly was the fourth-largest event of its kind in North America last year, drawing an estimated 64,000 comics fans. Organizers expect to exceed that number this year.

To better understand what makes these events so appealing, I went to the recent Portland stop on the WizardWorld comic con tour circuit.

There, a thoroughly geeked-out crowd formed long lines at autograph stations for the likes of Spider Man creator Stan Lee; William Shatner from “Star Trek”; “Sons of Anarchy” and “Hellboy” star Ron Perlman; Elvira, Mistress of the Dark actress Cassandra Peterson; and Billy Dee Williams, who played Lando Calrissian in the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

The vibe in the sprawling Portland convention center was electric, the costumes worn by ticket holders magnificently conceived and executed. Amateur Wonder Women, Iron Men and Captains America hammed it up for fellow fans in every corner.

Among the big names and people playing dress-up, though, were scores of artists and small-press publishers vying for the attention of convention-goers, as well as representatives of Portland’s biggest name in comics, publishing powerhouse Dark Horse, which has achieved the perfect balance between big, mainstream titles and lesser-known indie comics.

If you believe in the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, there’s a case to be made that the mainstream success of comics and large-scale gatherings helps attract more people to the artier fringes of the industry, both as creators and consumers.

Today there are whole college courses devoted to comic-book art and graphic-novel writing, including those taught by Bagge at Seattle University and one led by another local favorite, Ellen Forney, at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

Alternative cartoonists themselves, though, have found a way to stay true to their funkiest creative impulses while achieving greater legitimacy, exposure and study.

Forney, for instance, deploys her bold drawing style and cheeky insightfulness to the touchy subject of her own bipolar disorder and its impact on her creativity in the well-received graphic memoir “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me.”

It’s a heady subject, not exactly what one thinks of as comic-book fodder.

But that’s just it, she says: “The idea of taking people places they don’t necessarily want to go is one of the things comics are really great for.”

Seattle is not the affordable, bohemian haven it once was for early cartoonists. But the local community is bigger, more active and more high-profile than ever. And that rawness still thrives in discreet pockets around town.

It is the monthly Dune Night at Cafe Racer in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, and the rambling coffeehouse and bar is filling up with cartoonists.

The scene is surreal — 40 or 50 people simultaneously sketching comics that event organizer Max Clotfelter, one of Seattle’s most talented younger cartoonists, collects in an Apples to Apples board-game box. He’ll reduce each piece, reproduce them, then staple them into an edgy monthly zine called “Dune” that’ll be distributed only to contributors.

This is small-press publishing at its smallest and most grass roots, harking back to the alt-comics heyday of the 1980s and early ’90s, when self-published cartoonists would rub shoulders over the copy machines at Kinko’s.

Clotfelter, looking ever so Northwest with his full beard, lumberjack shirt and knit cap, says he’s seen as many as 68 artists at the gathering. He jokes that the group can’t get any bigger because the trusty stapler he uses to bind each issue of the zine can only handle 70 or so pages.

The atmosphere at the cafe is thick with quiet creative tension. The artists have about three hours to create their cartoons.

“There’s pressure, but the pressure helps,” says Clotfelter, whose own intricately drawn work brims with F-bombs and blob-like creatures with multiple, bulging eyeballs. “You’re also feeding off of each other’s energy.”

Clotfelter, whose life partner is Kelly Froh, is part of another group of cartoonists who contribute to an equally out-there comic-strip anthology published on newsprint called “Intruder,” which Seattle blogger Tom Mohrman called “one of your best ways to peer at the crazed and beautiful still-beating heart of Seattle (in comic form), with plenty of bones and gristle.”

One of that collective’s organizers, Marc Palm, sits at a long table in the backroom of the cafe with a half-dozen other cartoonists drawing on pads of paper. He loves the organized chaos of it all.

“Dune” and “Intruder,” printed mainly in plain black-and-white and full of what Palm calls “dark, black humor,” look appealingly cobbled-together.

“We love that ephemeral, tactile quality of print,” Palm says. “It’s like this love for the old school.”

Though there were drawing nights and publications at Cafe Racer before “Dune” started a couple of years ago, including one organized by another local legend, Jim Woodring, Palm credits Clotfelter for carrying the publishing idea forward.

In any case, Palm says, “To be in a place where there’s like 50 people drawing pages for a comic is profoundly different than when I moved here” in 2002.

Now he and Clotfelter are in the lead; just don’t call them leaders. Their publications contain no ads, and there’s no one telling contributors what they can or can’t draw or say in their creations.

“Dune” and “Intruder” are as open-ended as the subconscious mind.

You want vulgar language? Check.

Gratuitous grossness? Check.

All the things not fit to print or say in polite society have a home in “Dune” and “Intruder.”

And thank goodness there is still a place for potty humor and weird sex jokes and unflinching forays into human want and folly.

Seattle may be becoming a buttoned-up version of its raffish, old self, but its stapler-and-pen-wielding comic-book artists won’t let go of the rough edges without a fight.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. He can be reached at tbeason@seattletimes. Lindsey Wasson is a Seattle Times staff photographer.



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