I’ve always loved comics. As a kid, I’d drive my mom nuts drawing Charlie Brown and Snoopy on any scrap of paper that I could find. Those old Peanuts comics gave me a lifetime love of cartoons of all types, and it instilled a desire to be a cartoonist. Two weeks ago, a friend and fellow cartoonist Greg Beda gave me a last minute invitation to visit the Alternative Press Expo 2009, which was taking place this year in the Concourse in San Francisco. I had already been invited by some friends for Saturdays sessions, but had to work that day. I was planning to do the laundry and nap on Sunday, but since Greg had an exhibit at APE 2009, I decided to attend. It was the first time I had met so many cartoonists and it was a great experience.
The Alternative Press Expo was in a huge hallway, with cartoonists sitting behind a table, with their comics and self-promo materials available for people to look at. The different range of cartoonists included superhero comics, autobiographical comics, satirical comics and social commentary comics. I think one of the things that surprised me was the large contingent of lesbian comic artists in the expo.
Some of the comics were slick and were professionally produced. Other comics were more rough, with a raw drawing style and produced by photocopies and handstaples. I loved looking at all the different styles of comics, and the rawer comics were especially daring and experimental. Being around these cartoonists made me feel more underground.
I tried to talk to each cartoonist and ask them questions about their art and the influences on their style. Some cartoonists were chatty and loved to talk about their art. Some were more shy. They all seemed grateful when someone takes the time to look at their comics and read the comics for a couple of minutes.
The first cartoonist that I met was in the expo was Stephen Notley , the creator of the comic Bob the Angry Flower. He was a very friendly man, even if he looked odd with a flower on his head. Bob the Angry Flower is featured in the cartoonist collection by Ted Rall called Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists . Bob the Angry Flower started up in 1992 in Stephen Notley’s university days when he did a weekly comic strip called The Germ. Notley’s subjects range from political subjects to stories about love and relationships. During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, Bob the Angry Flower was especially scathing of the Bush administration. When asked in Attitude 2 about his politics, Notley replied:
“I guess I’m a libertarian-socialist-technocrat. I have a mess of seemingly contradictory political beliefs that I’m always struggling to resolve. On the one hand I’m a giant believer in freedom, as much freedom as possible in the political and social spheres. But economically I operate from the assumption that we all get more out of society than we put whether you’re a beggar on the street or Bill Gates, and it behooves us to take notice of how much of our wealth we owe to other people, and that further more, we can all get better results and do things more efficiently if we recognize that there is a common good and muster up the responsibility to pay for it through taxes.”
Alexander Shen was another cool cartoonist that I met. He does a comic called Robot in the City , which is about a robot named Ritz and his adventures in a vast city. In his website, the comic is described as such:
“Ritz the Robot doesn’t know how he wound up in this city. All he knows is that his heart is pure, his imagination is wild and humans think he looks like Abraham Lincoln (that’s how he landed that job as a barista afterall). He befriends a local art student, Elite, and they begin to learn that the vastness of the big city can be close if you have the right friends with you.”
Alexander was a nice person to talk to. He was very eager to get me to read his comics and we talked briefly about his comic. He’s been doing comics and illustrations since 2005, working with Flying Bears Inc., Play Jam Inc., Comcast Spotlight, Renkoo, VooDoo Baby and Indelible Graphics and Design. His work has also been featured in such publications as The Heuristic Squelched and Hyphen Magazine. For his art, Alexander uses pen and paper, Adobe Photoshop and CorelDraw.
I had a long conversation with Vernon Smith, the co-creator with his wife Karen Chen of the comic Dexter Breakfast. Dexter is this fury wombat cowboy, similar in looks to Walt Kelly’s Pogo. We spent most of our time talking about the APE 2009. I mentioned that this was my first time in an expo with so many cartoonists, and Vernon talked about his experiences with these sort of cartoonist gatherings. He had come from New Orleans and had been working on Dexter Breakfast since 2005.
Ted Washington isn’t a cartoonist, but a poet and a wonderful pen and ink artist. He started publishing his poems and illustrations and found it so enjoyable, he began Puna Press to publish other artists and poets that he liked. I looked at his artwork and thought his pen and ink portraits were wonderful and very moody and reflective. He is from San Diego, and he talked about the vital poetry scene in that area. He frequently takes part in events where he speaks his poetry out loud. It sounds like a fun event. He was a very friendly person and was very generous with his time with talking to me and to other people about his poetry and art.
Keith Knight is another friendly person and one of the cartoonists I most wanted to meet in the expo. He is the creator of two wonderful cartoons, The K Chronicles and (Th)ink and he is the subject of a segment of SPARK , a Bay Area Public Television show dedicated to artists in the San Francisco Bay Area. I first learned about him in Ted Rall’s book Attitude 2 and emailed him once for advice on cartooning. He emailed me back and gave me some good advice on cartooning. While I was there, we talked about the cartooning field and he suggested various political cartoonists who were attending APE 2009 that I should talk to. I came back to his table later in the afternoon to buy his The Complete K Chronicles but he had left his table, I’m guessing for lunch, so I’ll have to get his book at a local bookstore.
Though many have a stereotype that most cartoonists are guys, there were a lot of women cartoonists in the expo. Walking through the convention I met a woman who created a comic called Le Menagerie. I didn’t catch her name, but she was a very good cartoonist. She was busy painting quick pictures in watercolor to sell to passerby people, and they were very good sketches of characters from her Le Menagerie comic. Right next to her was Elenore Tocyznski and her comic Brain Crease. Elenore was busy inking a comic page while people looked over her comic. I looked over and loved her sketchy thin line pen and ink style. I didn’t have as many long conversations with the women cartoonists as with the male cartoonists, but their work was just as good. Many of their works seem more autobiographical and they delved more into social commentary.
One of the comics that I bought at the convention was Susie Cagle’s comic Nine Gallons. “Nine Gallons” chronicles Cagle’s experience working in a food kitchen for Food Not Bombs, an organization founded in 1988 that used otherwise wasted food to make vegan and vegetarian food for the homeless. There are more than 400 chapters of Food Not Bombs serving vegetarian food in 1,000 cities around the world and they also protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. Cagle’s comic is an honest portrayal of her interactions with her homeless friends and the various people who help in the kitchen to make meals for Food Not Bombs. Reading the comic, I got a sense of the sadness and outrage that Cagle feels for the plight of the homeless and the growing numbers of people who need the food that Food Not Bombs serves.
Another comic that I bought that I enjoyed is Mr. Moritz and the Machine by Nick St. John. I didn’t get any chance to talk to the cartoonist, but his cartoon was a very sweet and melancholy little comic. It is about a lonely inventor who mysteriously lost his wife and son and was working on an invention to bring his loved ones back.
It looked like the kind of comic that one photocopied and stapled on one’s own, but it was also an elegant cartoon. I wish I had a chance to talk to the cartoonist.
The reason that I was at the expo was a last minute invitation of my friend, cartoonist Greg Beda. We met in college as cartoonists for the school newspaper in the 1980s and we’ve kept in touch since then. Greg has gone to many of these cartoonist gatherings over the years, selling his comic books “Zeke and Goulash” and “Postmodern Anxst”. His comics are these wonderfully individualistic comics that deals with psychology, philosophy and personal relationships. He’s built up a small but loyal following and is well known among the many cartoonists that I’ve met. We didn’t talk much that day, but I thank Greg for giving me that email invitation on Saturday.
One of the funnest conversations that I had was with Tom Manning, the cartoonist who created the comic Runoff. Runoff has a beautiful graphic black and white artwork and it about the mysterious goings on in this town where a group of people get killed. Tom Manning’s comic has gained a cult following among filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and Nick Nunziato, who admire the eery atmosphere and strong story telling. Guillermo Del Toro wrote of Runoff:
“Tom Manning has created a world that is as bizarre as it is recognizable. As scary as it is moving.”
I asked Tom about his influences and he mentioned Dave Sim’s comic Cerebus. I had seen Cerebus when I was a kid in the comic stores, and deeply admired the crosshatched artwork, but I didn’t pay much attention to the stories. Manning deeply admired the storytelling of Cerebus, explaining how Dave Sim interweaved philosophical and religious concepts into the plots of his stories. I recommended that he read Matt Wagner’s comic Grendel. I mentioned that I was a comic collector in the 1980s, but had to quit during my college years as the price of comics started to rise and I had to spend my money on supplies for my art classes. Part of the reason for my talking to cartoonists was to catch up what I missed in the comic book scene during the 1990s and 2000s.
The biggest excitement for me was to meet two great political cartoonists, Ted Rall and Stephanie McMillan. I learned about these two cartoonists a few years ago when I was in Powells Bookstore in Portland and I bought Ted Rall’s 3 books on alternative cartoonists called Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists. It was when I started doing political cartoons for the Tri-City Voice and loved the edgy satire of the new cartoonists. When I finally met the two, though, I really got nervous and tongue tied, and I smacked myself in the head when I thought of the conversations with the two later on. I managed to ask some simple questions about the political cartooning field and they both were very patient and nice in answering (even if they seemed a bit confused about what I was trying to ask.
Ted Rall is a syndicated political cartoonist for the Universal Press Syndicate and has cartoons in such alternative weekly newspapers as the Village Voice, the Washington City Paper and the San Diego Reader. Rall was inspired to become a cartoonist after meeting pop artist Keith Haring in a New York subway in 1986. Rall’s cartoons try to live up to the tradition of 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, who viewed political cartoons as a vehicle for change. He traveled to Afganistan to cover the war in that country, and the Nation magazine felt that his writings were among the best war reporting on the Afganistan war.
Stephanie McMillan is the cartoonist/activist who created the radical comic stripMinimum Security. I admire her as a cartoonist who has taken part in direct activism, demonstrating and getting arrested for anti-war, abortion rights and immigrant rights issues. McMillan named her comic strip “Minimum Security” reading about a man who had been released from prison who remarked, “I’m still not free; I’m just in minimum security.” Her radical politics inspires in McMillan a desire to use her cartoons as an agent for social change. In the book Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists, Stephanie McMillan said about the purpose of her political cartoons:
“Everyone has a point of view that is the foundation of what they write or say even if it isn’t expressed overtly. The corporate agenda underlies mainstream news. One of the great things about political cartoons is that we don’t have to hide what we really think. Informed by our basic outlook, we try to expose truths as we see them. At least we’re able to be honest about that, unlike many mainstream journalists who’d be fired if they tried.
As for people whose art or writing is their main form of political activity, what’s wrong with that? It’s taking a stand and a whole lot better than doing nothing. Making a pointed statement or exposing injustice or helping people laugh at forces they’re afraid of- this is a very valuable service that challenges people to take a deeper look at what’s going on. There are a million ways to fight the system. People do need to be out in the streets, but they also need commentators and artists who cheer them on and inspire them.”
This quote is especially gratifying to me, as I have similar aspirations for my own cartoons. I admire Stephanie McMillan’s ability to combine her art and her activism, and it follows a long tradition of political artists from Diego Rivera to John Sloan to Jules Feiffer. In the March 2009 issue of Z Magazine, talks about the roots of her grassroots activism:
“All of the political work I’ve done during my life, which has included working against police brutality and imperialist war, for immigrant rights, and protecting abortion clinics, has been with the underlying awareness that one system- structured to increase the wealth of a very few- is oppressing all the rest of us in countless different ways. I worked on issues that I thought revealed this reality and could potentially connect with other struggles to form an all-encompassing revolutionary movement. To eliminate this oppressive system, we need to attack it from every angle, and at the same time understand that we, in different struggles, have a common enemy.”
Though I consider myself more a reformer than a revolutionary, I too want my comics to reflect my left wing views and to be an agent for change. From the APE 2009, I got out of it a sense of the integrity and perserverance of the many cartoonists who are doing what they love to do. I hope people do not mind my shameless self-promotion of my own cartoons, but I am grateful to be in Everyday Citizen and that they allow me to show my longer cartoons here. I created a comic based on my pet cat Jasper, that I use to try to explore longer political issues. Here are some links to some of the longer cartoons that I have done for Everyday Citizen.
Jasper Tackles Health Care
Jasper Protests the War
Jasper and the Economy
Jasper Sings a Protest Song
Jasper Meets a Poet
A Cartoon about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Cartoon about My Experience in an Evangelical Church
A Cartoon about Political Debate
A Cartoon On Gay Marriage