Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

October 9, 2012

They're Pretty Much All Comics-Related Trips Now


By Tom Spurgeon

* so I spent last week in the Great American Midwest on a trip revolving around my 25th High School Reunion. There was enough comics-content involved to generate a post like this one, even if it ends up being on the higher end of the self-indulgence scale in order for me to get there. I hope you don't mind. I'm not kidding in that most of my travel seems comics-related now. It's not just that I tend to do comics-related things and that my life is more comfortably oriented in terms of the comics parts of it. I also tend to travel these days as if I'm going to comics shows even when I'm not. I don't sleep a lot, I orient my time so that I sit around gabbing about stuff for significant portions of every day, and I bargain shop. There are worse ways to be on the road. The not-sleeping is actually a big deal. The fact that you get a little rattled and giddy and immediate through exhaustion is a big part of the euphoric high of comics shows.

* one of the great things about going from the western United States anywhere east of the Mississippi is that everything out there is relatively close together. I have to drive three hours just to get to an airport where I live. When you land in Indianapolis, it's only a little more than three hours and sometimes less to get to St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago, Columbus or Detroit. I think this is a big deal for comics culture, particularly the small-press variety, because a lot of what the folks that make non-mainstream comics do right now relies on attending shows and festivals. It is a lot easier to get to a number of shows from a starting point in, say, St. Louis and working your way east. I think it was Nate Powell -- who has roots in music as well as comics -- who told me that's why he and a lot of his friends had settled into Bloomington, Indiana: living someplace like that facilitates an enormous number of one-day travel opportunities.

image* my flight landed in Indianapolis. I skipped my usual Comic Carnival-oriented first few hours in the state of my birth in favor of an immediate drive in the rental car to St. Louis. I stayed with my friends Evan Sult and Paige Brubeck of Sleepy Kitty, the music/screenprinting house that was designed I think to thwart any sort of reasonable google search. They have a giant, no-wall, two-floor studio and living space in a building in a neighborhood making that most delicate of all gentrification transitions: "stabby" to "hip."

* as more people take to making their own comics in a more serious, sustained, across-their-lifetimes fashion, I bet we see a lot more studio/homes like theirs.

* I met Evan Sult when we both worked for Fantagraphics back in the 1990s. He was an art director -- a talented one. He left to tour with his band. He's since worked for Devil's Due. Evan is one of those friends with which you tend to be blessed when you hang around comics long enough. It's like you meet all of these people that if had they grown up down the street from you wherever that street may be, you would have been friends for years and years and done all the same stuff at the same time. You start conversations with these people the exact place you left them years earlier. They always have a couch or a guest room with your name on it. Life is better for friends like that.

* Evan and I used to hang out at Fantagraphics when Evan was between whatever odd tasks he'd been sort-of assigned in the company's madhouse of an art department. I'd say I was between stuff, too, but that would make it sound like I ever worked hard enough for there to be stuff for me to be in between. We used to go to lunch with a third Fanta guy of that period, Dave Lasky, so it felt appropriate to be eating sandwiches and drinking beer when Dave has a major new book out.

* I think I have the most fun talking to my friends that have a passionate interest in comics without being immersed in them. My friend Gil Roth is like that, too. It's good to be reminded of a perspective driven more by basic concerns of "I know the comics that I gravitate to because I super-like them" as opposed to hearing from someone with a more general interest in "comics." I think we need to better cultivate and serve fans like that, because that's where a lot of the growth lies -- $50 a quarter customers as opposed to $50 a week customers.

* Paige is more of a generally arts-oriented person with some knowledge of comics, which is also a group to which we should cater although that's by definition a hard reader to corral into an increased level of readership in any kind of significant way. What's fun with folks like that is they tend to have super-eclectic taste because their interactions with comics tend to be erratically and randomly formed. She's a big fan of Ed Brubaker's Lowlife, for instance, and it's always a pleasure to meet someone familiar with Ed before he became known primarily as a crime-books writer.

* I did walk by Star Clipper, but it was closed. Looks fantastic, though.

* of all the cities I visited, St. Louis seemed the most frontier-like in terms of it being a comics town. There's not enough of a foothold for me to predict what St. Louis might look like as a comics city 15 years from now, the way you can with a lot of places. They have at least one fine shop, they have more space than they know what to do with, and they have some talented pros, so I think there's a lot of potential there.

* Chicago was the next day. That was a fun trip, too. I had to head there early, so I missed having lunch with the great St. Louis-based comics-maker Kevin Huizenga, one of the smartest people in comics and cartooning. I regret that.

* it struck me when I eventually left the City Of Big Shoulders that this was the first time in maybe 35 years I ever went to Chicago and didn't go to a comics shop. Even on that trip I stopped by a newsstand out of the Mercantile exchange and bought a copy of Warlord. I love the Chicago comics stores -- I even love the ones that no longer exist, like Larry's on Devon. I just ended up with no time to comics shop. It happens.


* I had lunch with that good man Ivan Brunetti, who graciously let me dominate his noontime hour away from Columbia College where Ivan teaches comics and teaches them well. I like the way we've settled into a matter-of-factness about comics education at so many institutions. He's not the only comics-maker teaching class in the Loop. It seems to me they're generally adding adjunct professors at places like Columbia; it's not like I'd have any chance of naming all the cartoonists working in comics education now, and I might have had a shot at that in 1996. The photo above is Ivan sitting in his office, about to kick me out and over to the computer lab so that he could begin four hours of student meetings. His office is pretty great. Ivan and I gossiped about people we know, groused over the fact that neither of us was doing a lot of creative work, and laughed about how many years in a row Ivan attended the Wizard-owned Chicago convention.

* I met Ivan giving him a ride from the then-new Southside Fantagraphics warehouse to Jim Woodring's house back in the Seattle now. He was always around at shows and stuff back then, and is wrapped up in some of my fondest memories of those time. You are encouraged to ask me about the Ivan Brunetti-related Eisners memory -- my favorite Eisners memory -- if you ever see me in person.

* one slightly more serious thing Ivan and I talked about was his hopes for CAKE. I guess that was put together by some of his former students, thus his uncle-like interest. Chicago is a fantastic comics-town, and deserves a small-press, arts-focused, creator-centric show that sticks. Paul Karasik told me in Bethesda that if he could move anywhere right now, he'd choose Chicago. Ivan mentioned that CAKE is maybe going to move more in the direction of anchor guests with future edition, which I think is a big part of getting shows like that off of the ground -- it provides a spur to getting people to attend that otherwise might not, and it gives the PR some focus.

* Ivan also has a new book coming out from Yale University Press next year, which is awesome news. I'll have more on that in another post.

* visited the artist, actor and general positive life force Tony Fitzpatrick at his home in Little Ukraine. Tony is a painter that does narrative series with a verbal-visual blend, someone who loves cartoonists and cartooning even as he suffers a bit less attention from the comics world due to the fact that our definition of comics is a bit too tied up in cartooning elements, maybe. Tony employed me when I was a graduate student at seminary a thousand years ago. It was an important time in my life because I was learning to write and transitioning away from the thought that I would have to work according to pre-established precepts for what that meant. It's a bit different now, but the thought of working in a non-traditional job was super-scary to me back then. Seeing Tony -- who couldn't have been older than his early 30s -- work on his career in DIY fashion by throwing his own shows and parties in his own gallery was a life-changer and I'll always be grateful to him. I think it's been good for comics that this isn't the leap it used to be.

* Fitzpatrick is a fine artist and a wonderful talker, too, the living spirit of Chicago to my mind. We ate giant sandwiches and talked about politics and history and Dan Clowes and Laura Park and the history of the Labor Movement and Studs Terkel. What a great thrill for me, or for anyone that gets that opportunity. The experience will generate a feature for this year's Holiday Interview Series.

* Tony stopped casually in the middle of our conversation to take a phone call and offer studio space to an artist burned out of his by fire, which made me think of how the comics community is maybe doing a bit better about responding to similar life circumstances when they hit one of our own.

image* Fitzpatrick is working on a new series about the state of Ohio, looking at its move from America's frontier into a bastion of Northern Liberalism and birthplace of "all our lousiest presidents" to its long, tragic transition to festering cauldron of national resentments. That should eventually be a good book. All of Tony's books are really, really good.

* I had originally intended to take Kiel Phegley with me on that interview, but ended up visiting the CBR news guy briefly in his home instead. I got to meet his beautiful now-fiancee that way, so bonus for me. He gave me a phone so I could talk to Jonah Weiland, which is not the oddest place I've ever had a phone conversation with Jonah Weiland.

* Phegley and I quickly industry-gossiped, which for those of us who cover comics rather than spend the majority of our time making them usually settles into recounting hilariously over-the-top complaints about our coverage and who sent them, followed by general industry-health projects which never tend to conform to reality -- which is good, because they tend to be apocalyptic. I don't know Kiel very well, and while the CBR approach would not be my approach to them all of the time, I think he does a generally nice job over there. I always enjoy talking to him.

* I ended my Chicago run by having dinner with Jessica Campbell, a graduate-studies level art student and painter and until recently a much-beloved Drawn and Quarterly staff stalwart. She's making really funny comics now, if you haven't gone and looked. I had a very nice time.

* the Muncie part of my trip was reunion-fixated, but I did have a tiny bit more time to shop. I went to two comics stores -- it's astounding to me that Muncie has multiple shops -- during my time there: Bob's Comic Castle and Alter Ego Comics. I ended up buying a combination of mainstream material and $1 small-press stuff. I buy mainstream material at comics shops because I don't have any other way to get to that material. When I lived in Seattle, this used to lead to hilarious encounters with clerks only too happy to throw all of alternative comics off of a cliff in conversation with me, an obvious fan of "real comic books." Mostly now I just look like a traditional middle-aged man in a funnybook shop. I'm not that good at talking anymore, either. The guy at Bob's that's been there for twenty years saw my Winter Soldier and Hawkeye selections and said, "Like the non-powered guys, huh?" I thought, "Well, that's a really weird way to describe Matt and Ed." I didn't know that clerk -- and I never learned his name -- was a big fan of Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns and Gilbert Hernandez, so that was nice to find out. Not sure how we got started talking about that stuff.

* I only talked a few times about comics while in Muncie and in a funnybook shop; one was in discussion about the Marvel v. Kirby Family stuff around the table at my friend Dan Wright's house; one was a subsequent discussion about Jeff Smith and Lewis Trondheim one room over in the same building; one was a high school classmate asking about the comic-book renaissance (his phrase) out of the blue at the reunion. Dan Wright, of course, is a super-talented cartoonist in his own right.

* I did find some comics at the local arts walk, which I talked about here. No comics at the farmers market, at the local you-should-visit bakery or eating Pizza King. I had abandoned an earlier idea I might try and visit Jim Davis' studio out in the county. Davis has a totally awesome studio building, that I think gets visited by people with no interest in comics or licensed material just for its architectural flourishes. You should go if you get the chance.

* I spent a very comics-focused day in Columbus, Ohio on Sunday. It was a great day. I was driving someone to the airport, plus I wanted to visit Jeff Smith. Jeff was the first comics professional I befriended in that industry-pal manner that happens, back when I started working at Fantagraphics. I didn't have any friends in Seattle at the time and I was only too happy to talk to Jeff for a long time when we were putting together his issue of the magazine, which was only my second of what turned out to be about 40 or so. He was nice enough to talk to me back then, and I still feel like I'm feeling the benefit of his kind nature today. When I was in the hospital last year, Jeff somehow figured out (very few did) that something was wrong and called me when I was still in intensive care, which I thought I might have hallucinated except for my brother thinking this was totally hilarious and asking if Dave Sim or Steve Rude were going to call next. Jeff also sent me a care package, which because since it was from comics in Smith's studio consisted of things like a 1947 Captain Marvel Adventures funnybook. It was a very nice thing for him to do.


* I got to see Jeff's studio, which was a model "building behind the home place" set-up all settled into a cool-ass, adjacent-to-downtown neighborhood marked by fascinating structures and streets with stones rather than paving. I got to see some color pages of the forthcoming RASL collection -- another sustained, quality effort from Steve Hamaker that changes entirely the way the work reads -- and two issues worth of RASL original art pages. Jeff doesn't sell his original art. I think I'm going to only look at comics this way from now on, showing up in people's homes and studios and demanding to see original pages.

* one thing that was interesting to me about the RASL boards is how much digital work gets done with a book like that now, including previous images dropped in during production. I would not have been able to tell. Smith's approach to comics-making is intensive and old-fashioned, and he admitted to feeling odd about working that way at times.

* we went to lunch with the perpetually, criminally under-appreciated industry fixture Vijaya Iyer and talked about Columbus and Paul Pope and where everyone went to high school and when. It could not have been more pleasant.

* okay, this is turning into the most self-indulgent thing to ever appear on this site, which is saying something. This means I'm probably going to stick it into the commentary section after its initial appearance today. I don't mind being self-indulgent -- this is a blog with a cartoon version of me in its masthead -- and I think there's a decent amount of comics content here, so I hope on balance it's okay. Here's the thing. I think about comics all the freaking time right now. I bet that's particularly true of anyone who went to that recent SPX. Two people I've seen in the last couple of weeks started out our conversations with, "Whoa, that SPX." A big part about comics for me post-surgery is to stop acting like I don't work here, to no longer conduct myself as if I'm here on my way to somewhere else. This isn't an uncommon thing with comics people. So self-indulgent this site may be, every so often at least, until I can figure out a better way to present my now comics-obsessive self through CR. I think a lot of us may be making that kind of personal reckoning right now, too, from readers to industry people to the cartoonists themselves.


* so anyway, Smith and I went from lunch to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum where Caitlin McGurk and Jenny Robb met us to show us around -- on a Sunday, which was so, so, freaking nice of them -- and let us paw through comics art like the super-nerds we are. I hadn't met Robb before. I'm a fan.

* my special requests were to see an Oliver Harrington and an Edwina Dumm or two, work from two of the most undervalued cartoonists of the last century. The Harrington was fascinating. I think he was a wholly admirable cartoonist despite and maybe because of the fact that I have strong disagreements with his politics, at least as expressed through his work. He was lucid, and mean, and uncompromising and I wish there were a dozen like Oliver Harrington working today. Harrington didn't work that big, which I would not have expected given the visual power he generated. The Dumm strips were beautiful. She had this great, casual elegance with figure drawing and faces that I greatly admire, a really confident way of nailing a look or a movement in three lines or less that is rare in comics. Jeff wasn't familiar with Dumm, which was great to see, actually: we all have comics left to read and cartoonists to discover.

* the usual dollop of industry talk, of course, including positive reports from that week's Chris Ware presentation at the CCAD show. Someone said that the audience questions were even great, which is always good to hear.

* the greatest-hits material Jeff and I saw was incredible, too -- Caniff and Davis and Kelly and Foster (oh my God, the Foster) and a quilting project made from a Kerry Drake Sunday and a Herriman and a painted Calvin and Hobbes and those wonderful early McCay strips... why the hell I'd never visited before now stuns me. What was I thinking not going there? There are maybe a half-dozen places in comics I think one should visit, and this is one of them. The plan for the new building in which Billy Ireland be housed, opening next year, are stunning. That's going to be one of the Crown Jewels Of All Of Comics moving forward, and we're lucky to have institutions like that one and the smart, talented people that work there. Hooray for Billy Ireland.

* said goodbye to Jeff and spent some time hanging out with McGurk, the Patient Zero of what I'm expecting to be a viral outbreak of small-press folks and younger comics people moving to Columbus in the next five years. Columbus feels like it was created in a laboratory to have comics people live there; mark my words, it could be the Next Big Thing.

* one of a couple of things we did was go to a birthday party for Roy Doty. Ninety! He's a veteran comics-maker and artist well known to a lot of cartoonists and especially cartoonists in that region. On a table in Doty's studio I saw a gift of art from Bill Griffith that Bill had signed as "a longtime fan." Doty has a freakishly tight line for someone his age -- it's a controlled stroke for someone any age, really, but for 90 the look of his work is astonishing. He still works, actively and in a commercial context. He showed us some posters that are being put out and some comics for a European publisher. Doty has a small library housing some of his 100-plus children's books and I enjoyed a close-up look at works like this one, which I've admired when I've seen it on-line.


* there are two Sunday Herrimans on one of Doty's studio walls, which is the kind of thing you encounter and hear a movie-style music cue in your head when you realize what you're looking at. I mean, come on. Holy shit, right? Doty said he bought them in 1946 from a former assistant of Herriman's who was down on his luck in New York City. He paid I think $125 for the pair. It was delightful to stand there with the cartoonist and hear him enthuse over the work as if it were the first time he'd read them. Sometimes with older, much-valued historical comics work you forget that it was made to be read and enjoyed. At any rate, that guy was a total delight and it was an honor to hang out with him briefly.


* Mr. Doty, by the way, also owns this item, which is a martini dispenser made by a man who later used the all-glass faucet part of this invention to make a fortune by helping people that want to store acid find a way to do so. I guess there are only three of these in the world, and one of them is in a collection at MOMA. So wow. I was doubly impressed by the fact Mr. Doty took two full pulls into his glass from the device while we were talking.

* one of the great things about hanging out with some of the newer people that work in and around comics like McGurk -- and like Phegley, whom I had seen the previous week, or even the cartoonist I met briefly in Muncie, Malik Head -- is that their orientation towards comics is different than one's own. Usually that means a lot of "those kids today"-type fist-shaking and complaining from the olds like me, but I think there's something to be learned from the people that have arrived in the wider comics community closer to the time of comics being its own fully-realized phenomenon, people that don't remember an era where your interaction with comics over a three-month period outside of the books themselves might be spotting some on Radar O'Reilly's desk during an episode of MASH. To come along and start working now, or in the last few years, brings with it a different attitude than existed for those of us that showed up in the arguably more creatively fallow and less hopeful 1990s. It's community-based, or at least community-reinforced and very DIY, and sort of both more casual and more matter-of-fact hardcore. It's good to see people focused and all in. It's inspiring and so are many of these people individually, for reasons specific to their own stories.

* I returned to my desert-mountain home yesterday, refreshed and ready to plough ahead until my next trip: BCGF.

* this may be the subject of its own essay at some point, but I feel tremendously privileged to have any sort of professional interaction with comics these days. There's an enormous amount of work to do, but for whatever reason -- and it may be a complete misapprehension on my part, fueled by exhaustion and by staring at dazzling original art and by hanging out with cool people and by general nostalgia -- I think it's work that can be done, that can be accomplished. I still don't believe in empty-headed boosterism, and I believe more than ever in a rich and full life for comics people that doesn't involve growing stale via cloistered obsession over the art form and the people in them. But even if we're not all on the same team many of us are on similar paths, and it's a lovely, invigorating thing when those paths cross. My thanks to everyone that spent time with me in the last several days.
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