Since day one, the East Bay’s quirky independent cartoonists have been making us laugh—and think.
Romy Mimi Ilano, 34, draws comics. But her work doesn’t look like the strips in the daily newspaper. Instead, it’s brimming with surreal, free-associative images—cat-headed women, killer cupcakes, a living scarf that eagerly whimpers, “Meep! Meep! Meep!” as its wearer stuffs it into his coat pocket. Then there are the strange storylines, which segue smoothly into totally unrelated plots, each a hodgepodge gumbo with its own dream logic. Ilano, who lives in Oakland, names autobiographical cartoonist Lynda Barry as inspiration. Clearly, though, her fluid, meandering stories and blunt, aggressive linework are all her own.
“I like comic zines because they’re so anti-establishment,” says Ilano. “In the ’90s, when zines started to go mainstream, everything came from the Bay Area. There’s vibrancy here, a freedom . . . that you don’t find anywhere else. It’s like Burning Man—if you had something like that in New York, people would just say, ‘Oh, that’s stupid.’”
In fact, the Bay Area’s reputation as an independent cartooning hub dates back to the ’60s. During the height of the counterculture, San Francisco and Berkeley formed the epicenter of an underground movement, attracting visionary artists like Robert Crumb, Vaughn Bode, and Trina Robbins. Later, in the black-and-white boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was host to a gaggle of hopeful start-ups like Viz and Studio Proteus. Today, our area retains its rep as a rebel’s paradise, with the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, well-known publishers like Image Comics in Berkeley and Last Gasp in San Francisco, and some of the country’s biggest comics-oriented shops. Artists agree that there’s a certain unique spirit here, where creators come to write and draw on their own terms.
Although the two biggest mainstream comics publishers, Marvel and DC, are located in New York, “the Bay Area was really ground zero for independent comics,” says Derek McCulloch, 46, an Oakland writer known for the hit graphic novel, Stagger Lee, illustrated by Shepherd Hendrix. “Historically, everyone who was a freak wanted to be here,” says McCulloch, whose latest collaboration (this time with artist Greg Espinoza), Pug, comes out this month.
Once upon a time, comics publishers avoided printing anything more outrageous than kids’ adventure stories with lantern-jawed superheroes punching bug-eyed monsters. No one wanted to run afoul of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a regulatory board of the Comics Magazine Association of America established in 1954 in response to parental fears about the corrupting influence of horror and noir comics. Although the importance of the CCA has waned in recent years, at the height of its influence it functioned as a de facto censorship committee; few newsstands stocked comics that didn’t bear the board’s seal of approval.
Newspaper cartoons, too, were squeaky clean. Although not subject to the CCA code, most dailies adhered to the so-called “cereal test,” refusing to print anything scandalous enough to cause a reader to spit out their morning breakfast cereal in shock. While newspaper syndication was the surest way to commercial success, it was a realistic goal only for those producing mainstream, sanitary material.
While most ’60s newspapers continued to publish non-offensive standards like “Peanuts” and “Blondie,” Crumb and his peers reveled in pushing the envelope with frank depictions of sex, violence, and drug use. Their alternative, uncensored, anything-goes work—known as underground comics—wasn’t sold on newsstands, but through music shops, head shops, and similar small businesses. On Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, a tiny poster retail store called the Print Mint was once the area’s biggest purveyor of such fare, featuring titles like Crumb’s “Mr. Natural,” Bode’s “Cheech Wizard,” and George Metzger’s “Moondog.”
Meanwhile, over in San Francisco, a little business known as Last Gasp was making a name for itself as a wholesaler of underground comics, lowbrow art and photography books, and other literary oddities. “The Beats descended on this area, followed by the hippies,” reminisces Kristine Anstine, current sales manager at Last Gasp, which still reprints many of the best known undergrounds. “Robert Crumb came from the Midwest, Gilbert Shelton [of “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” fame] came from Texas,” she says, recalling some of the big-name iconoclasts who found their way west.
In addition to crossing just about every line that could be crossed, the underground comics scene gave a voice to marginalized groups—minorities, women, gays—fighting for recognition. Women’s liberation, for example, was still a new concept in 1970, when cartoonist Trina Robbins was drawn from the East Coast to San Francisco by the creative boom. “This was the Mecca of underground comics,” says Robbins. “There was almost a lemming-like migration because a lot of other New York underground cartoonists were moving out here. Everyone was on their way to San Francisco with ‘flowers in their hair.’”
But when she got to California, Robbins initially found that the cartooning world was a real boys’ club—females need not apply. Then she happened across an early issue of It Ain’t Me, Babe, which she describes as the nation’s first women’s liberation newspaper. Robbins asked the publisher—a women’s collective in Berkeley—if they needed a cartoonist, and soon she was commuting to the East Bay every few weeks to draw strips for upcoming issues.
While working with It Ain’t Me, Babe, Robbins helped put together the first all-woman comic book (also titled It Ain’t Me, Babe). “People loved it—especially women,” says Robbins. “No one had ever seen anything like it.”
While the term “underground” often refers specifically to the psychedelic-flavored work of ’60s cartoonists, the anti-establishment sensibilities of those pioneers carried over into subsequent generations of Bay Area artists. “What started as underground eventually became independent comics,” says San Leandro collector and author Robert Fowler, 62. The owner of thousands of underground titles, Fowler appreciates “that there’s a sort of jollity to them that you don’t find elsewhere.” But, he says, these unique, very personal endeavors were not the sort of comics that mainstream artists were encouraged to draw and sell.
“With the giant comics companies, the idea was that the big guys kept all the rights,” Fowler notes. “Often the artists didn’t even get to put their names on their work.” It was different, he says, in the underground realm, where it was understood “that the artist should keep the rights” and “there was more of a cooperative relationship.”
Fowler, who published The World of Chick in 2001—a guide to the fundamentalist Christian comics of Jack Chick—is a particular fan of the over-the-top artistry that characterizes Chick’s controversial pamphlets. Riddled with lurid illustrations of sinners in hellish torment, the small religious booklets—planted by the faithful in public bathrooms, bus stations, and so on—have been decried as obscene by both non-believers and some of Chick’s fellow Christians. Chick is known, for example, for graphic depictions of the pagan holiday Halloween (a pumpkin-headed killer attacks trick-or-treaters with a chainsaw), rock music (evil agent Lu Siffer seduces a struggling band into the world of drugs), the TV show Bewitched (Satan created the series to popularize witchcraft), and so on.
Although Fowler disagrees strongly with Chick’s views, he finds the lavishly illustrated pamphlets charming in their own twisted way—and he sees them as a “natural and unrecognized” successor to the underground oeuvre of the ’60s.
“At DC and Marvel, you have a deadline and a schedule,” Fowler notes. “You have inkers, pencilers, sketchers, etc., because no one is good at everything. But underground artists had to do everything,” he says. “You didn’t see much separation of labor in the underground. There was a real warmth and honesty to these comics. No advertisers to please, no parents to please. Not trying to please anyone but their own sense of ethics.”
Post-counterculture, there was still a strong “artistic vibe going on” in the Bay Area, says Thomas Dye, a former El Cerrito resident who pens the webcomic “Newshounds” (a social satire following a TV producer who hires a crew of house pets to staff a struggling news channel) and “Something Happens” (a strip that uses puns and wordplay to spoof everyday situations and pop culture). “It just seemed like the place to be.”
As an aspiring cartoonist in the early ’90s, Dye, inspired by the San Francisco Chronicle’s city-based cartoon “Farley,” created a similar strip about pets wandering around scary places like Walnut Creek and Berkeley. To his delight, The Montclarion in Oakland decided to run it.
“This was absolutely the highlight of my existence there [in the Bay Area],” says Dye, who now lives in Seattle. But, he confesses, “To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was so amateurish. My cartoons were drawn in ballpoint pen and they had to gently tell me that might not reproduce very well. So I got a Paper Mate Flair and redid everything. But they ran the cartoons, and I’ll never forget how they gave me the start they did. I felt like I was ready for bigger and better things.”
Today, some local cartoonists still aim to get their work published in mainstream venues. Others, however, follow the lead of the early-’60s pioneers. Whether or not they make a profit from their art is secondary; first and foremost, they just want to create and share their work.
“It’s hard work and you won’t get rich,” says Chris Juricich, general manager of Comic Relief, a nationally known comic store in downtown Berkeley and author of Tokyo Days, an autobiographical comic about his experiences in Japan. “It’s like teaching—you do it because you love it.” But judging by the crowded shelves at the 23-year-old Shattuck Avenue institution, there’s no shortage of love these days—at least not locally. (At the height of the comics boom in the ’90s, there may have been as many as 3,000 comic shops across the country; today, Juricich says, it’s conceivable that as few as 2,000 remain.)
And while some patrons stop in to browse among the rows of superhero adventures, traditional, old-fashioned comics are only a fraction of what Comic Relief stocks. Here, you’ll find graphic novels (illustrated stories for adults) by Art Spiegelman, whose Maus: A Survivor’s Tale—a dark allegory about his father’s incarceration in a World War II concentration camp —won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992; works by Marjane Satrapi, whose autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, published in English in 2003, explores the promise and despair of the Islamic revolution in her native Iran; newspaper strip collections by Bill Watterson of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz; glossy coffee table books by underground artists like Mark Ryden; lots of manga (Japanese-style serials), and much, much more.
Then there’s the table covered with stacks of comics by authors most of us have never heard of—and that are definitely not available on Amazon. Hand-cut, photocopied, and stapled, these tiny booklets bear esoteric names: “Ninja Girl,” “Possum,” “Scrilla.” Some boast elaborate, painstakingly detailed covers—a girl in a hoodie brandishing a Japanese sword, a subdued charcoal overview of a Tokyo street. Others are simple scratchy doodles, almost illegible, featuring characters that appear to be stylized rabbits or dogs but then again, might just be crudely drawn people. This is the table that the staff has dubbed “Mini-Comic Island”: the altar to creativity—and Lady Luck—where handmade comics (sometimes also known as zines) by local hopefuls reside. Most of these self-published labors of love retail for only 50 cents to a dollar, barely enough to recoup photocopy costs.
Few stores (only about 10 percent) accept mini-comics for possible sale—one such venue is Isotope Comics in San Francisco, which sponsors an annual contest to find the best mini-comic. And even at Comic Relief, where staffers look for and buy minis with sales potential, the chances of success are, well, minuscule. Beneath a set of bins at the back of the store, Juricich keeps a stash of a dozen or so battered cardboard boxes—each one containing hundreds of the little handmade pamphlets. Comics have a very short shelf life, since new material is constantly being churned out. If one doesn’t sell in a month or so, it’s relegated to the back bins to make way for newer work. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Ten percent of these are going to be great,” says Juricich, gesturing at the brimming boxes of rejects. “And 90 percent are going to be great for kindling.”
But if they find an audience, mini-comics can lead to big things. Anstine of Last Gasp, also a former manager of Comic Relief, recalls when a young Adrian Tomine first started bringing mini-comics into the Berkeley store. Today, Tomine is one of the country’s top alternative comics creators, the writer and artist behind the award-winning “Optic Nerve” series—a low-key slice-of-life saga following cynical movie theater owner Ben Tanaka and his struggles as an Asian American in a white society.
Oakland-based cartoonist Jason Shiga, 34, the creator of four books, also got his start in mini-comics. As a student at U.C. Berkeley, Shiga visited Comic Relief to buy the assigned reading material for a class on comics. Noticing Mini-Comic Island, he asked the staff whether they would be interested in buying some of his own work. They were. In fact, says Shiga, over time “they pretty much bought anything I brought in.”
Shiga’s drawing style is simple, featuring blocky pop-eyed characters that look like Fisher Price figures, but his comics present a labyrinthine world of possibilities. While Shiga graduated from Cal with a mathematics degree, math per se rarely intrudes on his comics world: instead, he puts his analytical mind to work crafting the intricate logic puzzles that vex his characters. In “Fleep,” for instance, a man wakes up to find himself trapped in a telephone booth encased in cement with nothing but the contents of his pockets and his knowledge of scientific principles to save him. He figures out where in the world his phone booth is by building a pendulum with his watch and studying its reaction to the Coriolis effect.
Shiga’s most recent graphic novel, Meanwhile, pays homage to his favorite childhood reading, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series published by Bantam in the ’80s and ’90s. “Kids like these books because when you’re a kid, you don’t get to make a lot of decisions,” says Shiga. “Adults make them all for you.”
Meanwhile opens as hero Jimmy decides whether to snack on chocolate or vanilla ice cream. That’s only the first choice readers face in this twisting tangle of decisions that ultimately leads to Jimmy determining the fate of the entire world. Rather than reading panels left to right, color-coded lines sprouting between the panels tell you where to turn next depending on how you want the story to progress—forward, backwards, up, or down. “I wanted all the choices in the books to be visual,” Shiga says, “so that you could actually see what happens because of your decisions.”
Shiga worked on the book for 10 years, mostly publishing it as a series of mini-comics, then shopping them around to local comic stores and conventions like Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. Two years ago, he was picked up by publisher Amulet Books, gave notice to the Oakland Public Library (where he had worked for the past decade as a library aide), and turned to making comics fulltime.
This March, Shiga found himself signing copies of his new book at Comic Relief, the same store where he sold his first mini-comic. “It was pretty surreal,” he says, “especially when someone came in with a copy of the very first mini-comic I ever made. That blew my mind, but there it was, just a couple photocopied sheets stapled together with my little ‘Copyright 1999 Jason Shiga’ mark on it. He’d held onto it for 11 years.”
In many parts of the country, where there aren’t strong networks for local comics creators, aspiring artists and writers turn to the Web to connect. But in the Bay Area, members of the comics community still like to get together in person. “Doing things online isn’t the same as meeting face to face,” says Ilano, a tiny, wiry woman with strands of black hair tumbling in front of her oversize glasses. “Online collaboration is not as good as real life collaboration.”
During the day, Ilano works as a product marketing manager for Myriad Group in San Mateo, but she devotes her off time to her real love, creating comics. Sitting in Farley’s coffeehouse in downtown Oakland, cradling her cup in her hands, she displays her latest creation: a photocopied booklet of her own pen-and-ink comics. She has been making zines since she was in high school in Winter Park, Fla.—crazy, off-the-wall work that might scare a potential publisher, but that, she feels, needs to be shared.
Ilano also shares her time, often helping out, for example, at the Rock Paper Scissors Collective, established in 2004 in Oakland. The group holds zine-making classes and crafts nights, and maintains its own library of zines and mini-comics. And Ilano regularly attends meetings of the Cartoonist Conspiracy, 15 to 20 professional and amateur cartoonists that gather each month in San Francisco’s Borderlands Cafe to doodle and discuss. The group was founded in 2004 by Brian Roberts, who goes by the professional name of Doctor Popular. Roberts is especially known for his comic “Robots Don’t Know Anything About Twitter,” featuring a pod of androids struggling—and failing—to understand key facts about human beings (they believe, for example, that we flesh-and-blood types worship cupcakes).
When Roberts arrived in the Bay Area a few years ago, he—like Ilano—felt a need to connect with other local cartoonists. But, he says, “no one could tell me of any groups.” So he took matters into his own hands, and, remembering the Cartoonist Conspiracy meetings he’d attended back in Minnesota, quickly established a San Francisco chapter. “There are a lot of cartoonists who want a local group but never thought to look on Google,” he says. “You’ll show up and discover 18 other cartoonists who were living next door to you and you never knew it.”
At one recent meeting, a member brought an old copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, whose stilted illustrations provided inspiration for a comic jam. Each attendee drew the first panel of a comic—based on a random illustration from the book—before passing the page to their neighbor. The end result was 12 sketches, each vaguely tied to Mark Twain’s original story, but diverging in several peculiar directions. One postulated Tom’s stern maiden Aunt Polly living a double life as a dominatrix. Another began with a romantic interlude between Tom and his girlfriend Becky but ended with a fight between a top hat–wearing skeleton and a giant insect in a dress.
Such meetings allow cartoonists to learn, network, and draw inspiration from one another. Also, they’re a great excuse to shoot the breeze with kindred spirits. Fremont-based Jeff Durham, a graphic designer and illustrator for MediaNews Group, which publishes several local newspapers, including The Oakland Tribune, likes to attend meetings of the East Bay chapter of the National Cartoonist Society. “We meet and eat and drink and talk biz,” he says. “The times I’ve been present, there were different folks there each time, with only a couple who were repeat attendees. It was a good opportunity to see how other artists live, and to learn about what other artists are doing.”
Despite the local preference—at once retro and forward-thinking—for photocopied mini-comics and personal interaction, cartoonists throughout the country have increasingly turned to the Internet to get their first exposure. “Webcomics”—comics posted online—have been ballyhooed as the next big thing. Today, you’ll find more than 20,000 webcomics on the four major free comics hosting services alone (Comic Genesis, DrunkDuck, Smack Jeeves, and Webcomics Nation).
Lauren Davis, 27, whose blog, “Storming the Tower,” is devoted to alternative comics and webcomics, finds it “surprising” that the Bay Area—the center of the dot-com boom—isn’t a place where cartoonists obsess over catching people’s attention with flashy web gimmicks. “I think it may have to do with the prevalence of mini-comics as an art form here,” says Davis, who lives in San Francisco.
Whatever the reason, while many locals do maintain websites to display their work, the consensus is generally pro-paper. “Any dork with a computer can make a webcomic,” Juricich says. “It’s a lot easier than putting together a mini-comic and you don’t need to pay for supplies. Then you can just put it online and instantly get lost among the million or so other webcomics out there.”
Plus, Juricich notes as he scrolls through several pages of “The Walking Dead” (the acclaimed series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adland) on his iTouch, the small screen displays only one story panel at a time. That’s not how comics are best read—the page layout is often vital to establishing drama or atmosphere. And confined to a tiny area, the scenes of zombie carnage from “The Walking Dead” seem small and subdued.
“It’s harder to hold people’s attention online; there’s no space for something like Love and Rockets,” agrees Ilano, referring to the tangled multi-volume comic series by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez from Oxnard. “You look at a painting different when it’s on a screen.”
And although many cartoonists express enthusiasm for Apple’s new iPad, which, with its relatively larger screen, allows readers to view comic pages in their entirety, it seems that print is unlikely to lose its cachet anytime soon.
“The iPad really broke the barrier of reading webcomics on the toilet,” says Chuck Whelon of San Francisco. The creator of the web fantasy “Pewfell Porfingles,” featuring a lazy, incompetent wizard, Whelon relies on modern technology (a sort of wizardry in its own right) to reach his many readers. Nonetheless, Whelon admits that he’s a still a big fan of print comics—tangible work that you can actually hold in your hand. And, he says, he’s not alone. “If you go to Zine Fest in San Francisco or Alternative Press Expo, people still make things to sell. People do creative little things,” he says. “There’s always a demand for a finished product. It’s nice to have something to show people—like coming back from a fishing trip [with a prize catch].”
Back at Farley’s, Ilano is still scribbling down new ideas in her steno pad. Just as her comics leapfrog from topic to topic, Ilano herself rarely stays on point. Talking a mile a minute, she jumps from comics to music to snowboarding. She knows that neither her conversational style nor her comics-obsessed lifestyle comes close to conventional—laughing, she describes herself as someone who’d get chased out of any small, conservative town. But she fits in here. And while her quirky work is one-of-a-kind, one thing she shares with her fellow Bay Area cartoonists is a boundless enthusiasm for creating.
“I love making things,” she says. “And this is a good place for doing that. At the Rock Paper Scissors Collective recently, we had an event where we covered the walls of the [U.C.] Berkeley Art Museum with paper, put out a big tub of markers, and invited people to draw. People were scared at first, but soon we had little kids drawing all over the walls.”
“It’s like making comics,” she adds. “It’s all about not being afraid to go ahead and just draw.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. His work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, Sacramento News and Review, and PBS Mediashift. He blogs at www.mikerosenmolina.com.