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WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
ILLUSTRATED BY PAUL SCHMID
|Jim Woodring's "Frank" character wordlessly wanders through eerie and, often, creepy adventures.|
PITY THE POOR comic book, whose very name is an adjective for shallow or moronic. It is dismissed as misfit lit, a bastard art form geared to sweaty-palmed teenage boys and arrested-development adults. Despite the ambitious way it sequences illustration with economical story-telling, the sum is considered less than its two parts.
Sales have been sliding for years and the biggest critics are folks who haven't opened a comic in years. That's because they think they have seen all that lies inside.
In the upside-down, inside-out comic-book world, "mainstream" means muscle-bound superheroes in bright Spandex, anatomically-impossible vixens, demented evil geniuses, garish art and lots of exclamation points!!!
"Alternative" is the term left over for comics that rub closer to real life, themes and thoughts. This parallel universe, born from the underground comics movement of the late '60s, accounts for a small fraction of the industry's sales but a vast share of its creative juice and original thought.
Alternative comic books are tales of angst, irony, dreams, delusions, laments and losers. They can be profane or profound, dark, demented, surreal, cynical. Some are sophisticated; others focus on bodily function humor. They vary so wildly in style and have evolved so much that artists and publishers debate about just what alternative is. One thing is for certain: Batman is not invited.
Seattle has long been at the heart of this outer comic-book world. Walk into Zanadu Comics' store in downtown Seattle, pass posing superheroes and you'll come to large shelves full of alternative titles, from self-published pamphlets to bound comic books known as graphic novels.
On display there, and at most other comic-book stores in the region, is work by Seattle's top comic creators, among them: Jim Woodring and his puzzling little character, Frank, in a comic of the same name; Peter Bagge's world of slackerdom; Roberta Gregory's female-centric adventures; and Jason Lutes and his chronicles of Nazi Germany.
The relative superstars of alternative comics are represented as well: Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and hometown boy Charles Burns, who now writes his Puget Sound-based horror comic from Philadelphia.
Many of the comics on the rack are edited, printed and distributed by Fantagraphics Books, a small, aggressively independent Seattle company celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Seattle's alternative comics have roots reaching back to Lynda Barry and Matt Groening, but the scene seemed to blossom after the company moved here from L.A in the mid '80s.
Fantagraphics attracted artists to Seattle and over the years emitted a powerful subconscious message: You can do noncommercial or off-the-wall comic books and not starve.
That doesn't mean more than a few make their living at it. Selling 10,000 copies of an edition is considered success. Paydays, like readers, can be few and far between. Combining sequential art frames with economical narration is laborious work.
But what alternative comic-book artists lack in appreciation, they make up in independence. They tell their own stories in their own voices. These comics are not about saving the world, but about the Bosnian conflict, venereal disease, pitiful lives of the lazy and stupid, and even their creators' own nightmares.
And don't look now, but they are nosing their way onto bookstore shelves and movie screens and - gasp!!! - toward a spot in your pop-culture consciousness.
His comic-book creation, Frank, is a buck-toothed, wide-eyed, balloon-cheeked character who looks like a skinny cat that walks on two legs. There's no telling how old Frank is and he never talks. He lives in an unidentifiable place that can be pastoral one frame and hellish the next.
Frank mutely moves through adventures full of strange offers, morphing objects and creepy nooks just on the other side of some portal. A lot happens to Frank, but he comes out unscathed and none the wiser.
On its surface, the comic seems simple. There aren't even any word balloons. But the work is steeped in symbolism and messages that Woodring himself doesn't always understand immediately.
Frank comes to our plane of existence from pen and watercolors applied in the attic studio of Woodring's house. Much of Frank's life is born from hallucinations and dreams Woodring has experienced through much of his.
"I was in a confused state a lot of the time while growing up," he said. "It was natural for me to tap into that in my art. It helped me to understand. I've gotten a lot of reader response from people who said they had gone through similar things. I get lots of letters . . . from psychologists and psychoanalysts who analyze my stories and tell me what they really mean. . . . Those are horrifying!"
Woodring went to a bookcase and pulled out one of two master's theses that students had devoted to analyzing the imagery and meaning of his work. Nearby was a shelf that held the popular-culture side: Frank dolls, toys and statues that fans have sent him.
When he began creating "Frank" comics in 1991, they were the polar opposite of his first comic-book series. That one, "Jim," was nakedly autobiographical, essentially Woodring's uncensored dreams splashed onto paper. Where Frank is innocent and worldless, Jim is realistically drawn, often wordy and rambling. Frank is a blank slate, a mirror. Jim is full of anxiety, a tornado of reactions.
Woodring claims he was twice turned down for mental-health counseling because the professionals didn't like the looks of his comic-book visions.
Growing up in Southern California, he suffered through a stream of audio and visual hallucinations. Later, he abused alcohol and drugs. He worked for a time as a garbage man, but dropped out in the early '70s to Everson, a small town north of Bellingham.
Eventually, he returned to Los Angeles and went to work as a studio animator. He never went to art school, but was a natural illustrator. He was inspired to try his own comic book by a surrealist-art exhibit and 17th-century Dutch art.
Working at the studio, he earned enough to self-publish his first "Jim" comic book. In 1984 he met Gary Groth, president and co-founder of Fantagraphics, then based in L.A. Groth published several issues of "Jim" and when Fantagraphics moved to Seattle in 1986, Woodring followed.
Today, he enjoys a cult following, but comic books aren't enough to support his family, which includes his wife and 14-year-old son. He designs CD covers and does contract illustrations for organizations as varied as Microsoft, The Whole Earth Catalog and the Experience Music Project. He paints fine art and is applying his unique style to a children's book. He does freelance work for Japanese companies who, he laughs, encourage him to get weirder.
A severe wound was dealt in the mid-'50s when Senate hearings and an anti-comics study titled "Seduction of the Innocent" linked comic books with juvenile delinquency. The public outcry stunted the diversity of comic books because the industry focused on what was safe: superheros.
Underground comic books became a force in the '60s, thanks to R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman and other artists who not only took themselves seriously, but felt their work, often self-published, should provoke. This non-mainstream material inspired Groth.
He grew up on superhero comics but started Fantagraphics in 1976 with more serious intentions. Along with business partner Kim Thompson, he began publishing The Comics Journal, which not only reviewed comics and discussed trends, but critiqued the industry through editorials and articles.
Groth still publishes the magazine, but the company's emphasis changed in 1981 when he received a 32-page black-and-white mimeographed comic book by two unknown artists, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez.
Titled "Love & Rockets," it was an antidote to superheroes. It was literate, alternately fun and serious. Jaime told intimate stories about two Hispanic women; Gilbert created a South American village called Palomar. Yes, the women were statuesque, but they were also given brains.
Groth saw it as a bridge between inaccessible underground comics and inane popular ones. He told the brothers he didn't want to review their work; he wanted to publish it. "Love & Rockets" became a phenomenon and is still often credited with creating a new wave of comic-book readers. It also turned Fantagraphics into a publisher with its own niche.
Fantagraphics moved to Seattle on the recommendation of Bagge, whom the company had been publishing and who had come to Seattle from the East Coast. Woodring moved up, as did Gregory, the first woman to self-publish comic books. Other artists followed to work in production jobs for the company. Local artists started paying attention. A community blossomed.
Today, Fantagraphics headquarters takes up the middle floor and basement of a scruffy house at the end of a Lake City residential street and next to a freeway offramp. A renter lives on the top floor.
Groth's office, in one of the bedrooms, is a study in ordered chaos. The floor is cluttered with manuscripts and comic books; parts of the carpet are mottled with black ink stains. His desk is clean and he seems to know where everything is.
Groth is an iconoclastic figure within the industry and an arch-villian of superheros.
"Kids don't read superhero comic books anymore," he said. "They're not written for kids. They're not written for adults, either. They're written for adults who want to read kids' crap."
Although Fantagraphics is considered the granddaddy of today's alternative market, it has little more than 1 percent of the total comic-book market. (The top five mainstream publishers account for 90 percent of a market that has been sliding for years.)
Early in the '90s Groth had to make a major compromise to stay afloat: He began publishing comic-book pornography under the Eros Comix label. The sex comics pulled Fantagraphics out of financial trouble. They also opened Groth to criticism by rivals as a hypocrite: too good for superheroes, but not for comic smut.
"Some of it is mediocre stuff I would'nt normally publish, but some of it I would," he said. "It helped us publish the worthwhile books. Curiously enough, porn bores me, yet here I became the porn king of comics!"
All of them developed in the 1980s. Now Fantagraphics and other alternative publishers are looking for the next generation of voices, like Megan Kelso and Jason Lutes. Although neither has been published by Fantagraphics, the company and its stable of artists influenced their work.
Kelso, 33, grew up in Seattle and attended Garfield High School. At the suggestion of a boyfriend she began writing a strip for the student newspaper at The Evergreen State College. She didn't think there was a future in comics but when she returned to Seattle in 1991 she wound up living three blocks from Fantagraphics and in a town flush with alternative comic artists.
"It changed my life because I didn't know what I was doing, but I learned a lot from these other artists," she said. "We all sort of orbited around Fantagraphics."
Kelso became part of a peer group of comic artists that met regularly to critique and discuss nuts-and-bolts techniques. A leader of the discussion group was Lutes, who moved here from the East Coast to work for Fantagraphics the same year Kelso returned from Evergreen. He didn't stay at the company long, and gave up comics for a year before starting a weekly strip for The Stranger newspaper.
Kelso uses cute characters like artichoke people to explore real-life flashpoints, such as unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease. Lutes' drawings are realistic. He is more of a technician, focused, as a director would be, on narrative.
Their styles could not be more different, yet they found common language in Scott McCloud's seminal book, "Understanding Comics."
McCloud arranged the book in cartoon panels and put his own breezily drawn self-portrait inside each. He narrates lessons through the word balloons, thought bubbles and action sequences. He discusses ethereal concepts of portraying motion, sound, atmosphere in comics, as well as concrete techniques, such as how to manipulate the size, shape and position of panels to communicate time and importance.
The power of the comic art, he says, lies in the human ability to instantly recognize images. A human face, he argues, can be more effective the further it is from a photographic replication. By stripping literal detail and making an image more iconic, the artist can direct the reader's focus.
The gutter of space between comic panels is a magical place, he says, because that's where the reader invests imagination and supplies transition to the next scene. The difference between one panel might be a shattering jump in time, space, even subject, but the reader usually finds an explanation.
Kelso's first comic series, "Girlhero," explored issues of interest to young women. Lutes, also 33, published "Jar of Fools," a narrative series exploring such issues as mental illness and homelessness on the streets of Seattle. Both were self-published, which guarantees low sales.
Each has a publisher now. Highwater Books released Kelso's graphic novel, "Queen of the Black Black," a compilation of some of her '90s work. Drawn & Quarterly, the No. 2 alternative publisher behind Fantagraphics, is producing serials of Lutes' historical epic, "Berlin," which takes place in the twilight years of the Weimar Republic. Lutes hopes to eventually publish it as a book of as many as 600 pages.
Both are well-regarded within the industry, but neither makes a living from comic books. Kelso long held a custodial job at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Lutes, who lives on Capitol Hill, does freelance illustration when he isn't advancing the tales of Berlin on the kitchen table of his studio apartment. There are moments, he admits, when he remembers fondly the mindless bliss of his dishwashing days.
Both blame superheroes for dumbing down attitudes toward comic art, and each of them faces specific challenges.
Lutes' work is dead serious in a medium called "comics" that depends on word balloons.
"Word balloons are a problem," Lutes says. "But if used enough in serious comics people will become used to them. I mean, what's the quotation mark? That must have looked silly at one time."
Kelso's work is geared toward women, who don't read comics like men do.
"Comic books are like record collecting; you have to go to these obscure little places that appeal mainly to men to find them," she said. "Women don't have that collector mentality where you really have to drill down and seek out the cool places. They want to go to nice big bookstores." THOSE NICE BIG bookstores offer the industry's best hope right now. More comics are being published as soft-cover bound volumes and they are inching their way onto major store shelves.
Top Shelf Productions is a small publisher that produces nothing but graphic novels from its Portland office. Co-founder Chris Staros says sales have doubled each of his four years in business. Fantagraphics is publishing more graphic novels, as are Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press, two other Portland publishers.
Book form makes sense. Serial comic books, in flimsy saddle-stitched format, leave dependable buyers hanging for a month or more and leave new buyers hopelessly adrift from the back story. Complete stories or compilations give the entire tale. A bound comic is more substantial and most importantly, seems more literary.
What grates on Groth and others in the industry is how "comic book" is a pejorative term, a synonym for lowly.
"Have you noticed," he once told a gathering a retailers, "that even the most vegetative couch potato, whose most formidable cultural activity is watching re-runs of `Gilligan's Island,' condescends to comic books?"
While the good ones - even the silly ones - are more literary than you'd expect, the way comics books coordinate images and words makes them more akin to film than literature.
And superheroes have done well in Hollywood with Superman, Batman and the X-Men. Expect the coming Spiderman movie to spin way above $100 million is ticket sales.
But even alternative comics are inching toward the big screen.
Clowes' "Ghost World," which examines the friendship and ruminations of two teenage girls facing the prospect of growing up, has a June theatrical release date. "From Hell," which examines the Jack the Ripper murders and is distributed by Top Shelf, will star Johnny Depp and Heather Graham and be released this fall.
Oni Press of Portland has had two of its comics optioned by Hollywood producer-directors James Cameron and Wolfgang Peterson. It also publishes an amusing comic book titled "Fortune and Glory," which chronicles the writer's frustrating real-life adventures when Hollywood options one of his creations.
This trend is both good news and cruel irony. Why do comics books win respect and audience only when their images move? Are the books too taxing for people to actually read? Some purists say let the masses find their own art, but others, like Woodring, Lutes and Kelso, hold out hope that one day alternative will no longer be synonymous with unread.
Richard Seven is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste|