From Newsprint to Museum: Curating Comics

From Newsprint to Museum: Curating Comics SUTTONSIGNER.jpgBy Ward Sutton

In a wonderful moment of synergy here at Grids' Alt Week, the exhibition Alt-Weekly Comics is now up at the Society of Illustrators in NYC. I got the chance to ask curators Warren Bernard and Bill Kartalopoulos about the show they've put together.

Warren Bernard is Executive Director of the Small Press Expo and a comics historian; Bill Kartalopoulos is Series Editor for The Best American Comics.

WARD SUTTON: Together, you've curated the exhibition "Alt-Weekly Comics." What inspired you to focus on the work from alternative weeklies?

WARREN BERNARD: The alt-weekly newspapers published an amazingly wide variety of comics, and it was an incubator to a number of now well-established cartoonists, including Jules Feiffer, Lynda Barry and Tom Tomorrow. This show was a combination of celebrating the great comic works of the alt-weekly world, as well as filling a gap in the canon of comics history, which does not give the alt-weekly comics their due.

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: Warren initiated this when he conceived of the alternative weekly newspapers as a theme for SPX: The Small Press Expo in 2014, where guests included Jules Feiffer, Lynda Barry, Tom Tomorrow, and several other relevant artists. I've been the programming director for SPX since 2006 and started serving the same role last year for MoCCA in NYC, which is run by the Society of Illustrators. The Society of Illustrators has a long history of organizing exhibits, including year-round comics exhibits in their MoCCA gallery space and a major comics-related exhibit in their main gallery every year timed to coincide with the MoCCA festival in April.

Warren approached Anelle Miller, the executive director of the Society, with the idea of a collaboration between the two organizations, which became this exhibit. Since I work for both events, live in NYC, and have experience curating comics exhibits, it made sense for me to partner with Warren as co-curators on this exhibit. The alt-weekly papers in general are a great subject, and I think highlight a lot of things that have been lost in the transition to digital media, despite all of the obvious gains.

AltWkly3.jpgWARD SUTTON: Alt-weeklies were by their nature somewhat throwaway publications; people would read them and dump them, as opposed to, say, comic books which people collect. Was it difficult to track down some of the material you wanted to exhibit?

WARREN BERNARD: A majority of the original art came directly from the creators, all of whom held on to their works. But the throwaway nature of the alt-weeklies made it much harder to find the actual printed comics, as well as in-house ads and colorful covers drawn by these creators. In many cases the artists did not have any of the printed material; we were fortunate that collectors and art directors held onto these ephemeral and historic items.

WARD SUTTON: Alt-weeklies were also known for being regional. In compiling this show, did you see many connections between papers from different places? Or did they seem separate, with focuses on local artists?

WARREN BERNARD: No question in the late 1970s to mid-1980s alt-weeklies took to using locally grown talent. Mark Alan Stamaty and Jules Feiffer were home-town cartoonists for the New York City based Village Voice, with Mark Newgarden, Kaz, and Ben Katchor doing the same a little later for the New York Press. The San Francisco Bay Guardian picked up local talents Tom Tomorrow and Keith Knight, and Jen Sorensen was living in Charlottesville, Virginia when she initially published in the local alt-weekly C-Ville. Though this pattern was repeated across the United States, alt-weeklies picked up on cartooning talent across the U.S. as a result of both self promotion by the artists and syndicates such as Matt Groening's Acme Features Syndicate, which syndicated work by Groening, Lynda Barry and John Callahan.

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: The exhibit, as it came together, represents artists from a lot of different places (including Cleveland, Chicago, and Austin), but the largest proportion of artists in the show are from the coasts, particularly NYC, LA and Seattle. I think there's still room to continue to explore the geographic diversity of this genre. Some artists, like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry, were widely syndicated and gained a lot of national exposure. The artists who successfully self-syndicated their comic strips to papers across the country transcended their regional status and, you might say, contributed a broader visual identity to the entire alt-weekly scene. Many of the artists who did that successfully are in this exhibit, and there are certainly more artists who we are aware of. But I think that if we had the time and resources to more thoroughly page through the archives of the hundreds of alt-weeklies that were published across North America in the 80s and 90s, it's entirely possible that we might come across some really interesting work by more local and regional artists whose work may not have traveled as widely or ever been collected into books. It's a rich enough field that there's definitely room for more exploration here.

YC9vEdFPsx7iXxJm4mrFvxX0gl7tcrAQVkndG-UuAiByIcXF3dApQ00cgCQMpzMYAntgd5g1JJSd4DuNiZobSaRNiyAl6oK_6-NAy3zOBLUf5oh3Kc6CxaNVEYaanDlxMcaF8Go0WUskyq6G4e52Yw6aibWSa6DS-a9X9YXo_HRbO6Sg1S1zaiDYSxEFaG0tDku7ebOtqJ4z9LXGjMApJFixME.jpgWARD SUTTON: What was it about alt-weeklies that bred such a rich pool of talent?

WARREN BERNARD: Well, I have to say that a lot of the credit goes to the publishers, editors and art directors such as Bob Newman (Seattle Rocket), Michael Gentile (New York Press) and James Sturm (The Stranger, also in Seattle) who took risks by exposing their readers to new styles of comics.

BILL KARTALOPOULOS:  In part, you could say it was the same thing that bred such a rich pool of talent during the underground comix movement of the 1960s and 70s: an audience and a functional economic model. The economic model for underground comix was distribution for sale through a network of head shops; for the alternative weeklies it was free distribution in local communities, supported by advertising. And artists could self-syndicate their strips to other weeklies, and potentially collect a small weekly check from dozens of publications and earn a reasonable living.

The audience for alt-weeklies was broader than the self-selected countercultural audience for underground comix. Some of these papers even received negative letters about certain comics, and that's kind of thrilling! On the internet, everyone can curate their own reading experience and every audience becomes self-selecting by default. That's democratic and great, but there's also something really stirring about an editor or an art director standing behind a contentious comic strip running in a paper that's engaged in a dialogue with a local community. These papers had physical presence: in newspaper boxes, at coffee shops, etc. In retrospect, that physical dimension seems valuable. As culture moves increasingly online, it seems that only advertisers have retained the power to broadcast messages into our physical environments. And of course that move online has also disrupted the advertising-based economic model that allowed the alt-weeklies to play host to such a rich pool of talent. Unfortunately for artists, while online publication brings with it a potentially large audience, the economic model has not been as reliably functional.

WARD SUTTON: As you were curating, did you come across artwork out there that surprised you? Or did you know what you were looking for at the beginning?

WARREN BERNARD: In terms of original art, Carol Lay's precise pen and inks, as well as the detailed work of Mark Alan Stamaty were amazing to see. Bill brought in Marc Bell and Karl Stevens; I had not seen their alt-weekly work and they were a revelation to me. Both Bill and I were surprised to find out that when Jules Feiffer strip, Sick, Sick, Sick premiered, it was given the front page of The Village Voice, along with a short bio and photograph of the young Feiffer.

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: I was grateful that Mark Newgarden prompted us to take a close look at Doug Allen's Steven, and I was happy to include that work in the show. I had never seen Steven in a weekly paper, though I was aware of the work because some of it had been published in comic book formats. Doug was very early to the alt-weekly scene and drew his strip for a long time. His artwork is really beautiful, and his comics are hilarious. Speaking of Mark Newgarden, I was not prepared for how sumptuous his originals are. His work is so conceptual that I thought there might be a heavy cut-and-paste process behind it, but other than typesetting that's not the case at all. These are beautiful originals that can sit comfortably besides original artwork by the historical cartoonists who are so important to Mark. Many artists at the opening couldn't believe how small and exquisite Mark Alan Stamaty's originals are.

We included some printed newspaper covers in the exhibit, but I also really enjoyed lingering over the interiors of some of these alt-weekly newspapers. We have four amazing Matt Groening Life in Hell originals in the exhibit, and we present them quite augustly. But on an adjacent wall you can also see an interior page from a weekly newspaper running Life in Hell, showing visitors that all of this work might have first appeared alongside the personal ads, next to the crossword puzzle solution.

Groening 8:85 The Rocket.jpgWARD SUTTON: How important were the venues of alt-weeklies to the artists within them? In your view, does a change in venue (say, when an artist makes it into the bigger, more mainstream press) change the artist?

WARREN BERNARD: To many comics creators the alt-weeklies were a training ground to develop their styles as well as being a career long platform. Groening and Barry worked in the genre for about 30 years each; Derf did 25 years in the genre as did Doug Allen. Once these artists  left the alt-weekly world or tried new venues for their art, they did not change their artistic styles or attitudes.

WARD SUTTON: So many artists who began in the alt-weeklies went on to some grand adventures. Do you see patterns--paths that a majority of artists followed? Or did they just disperse all over the map?

WARREN BERNARD: Well, animated cartoons have proven to be an opportunit. Kaz is working on Spongebob Squarepants for Nickelodeon and we all know about Matt Groening's The Simpsons. Derf turned to the long form graphic novel, resulting in his critically acclaimed My Friend Dahmer, as did  Ellen Forney with Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me. Both Tom Tomorrow and Ruben Bolling have tried their hand at children's books, and other alt-weekly cartoonists replaced their lost incomes with illustration work.

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: I think that sums it up. Television/animation, children's books, and other comics formats (including the graphic novel) tend to be the major outlets that these artists have gravitated towards. Some continue to draw their weekly strips for print and (increasingly) online venues. Tony Millionaire is a great example of someone who's done all of the above.

WARD SUTTON: From the vantage point of 2015, do you see a future for the alt-weekly?

WARREN BERNARD:  The industry as a whole has unfortunately turned away from comics, seeing them as nothing more than a cost center, as opposed to a form of entertainment that brings readers to their pages. But there are still a number of small town alt-weeklies that still run comics, though the ability for that alone to provide a reasonable income is no longer the case.

BILL KARTALOPOULOS: We published a takeaway for the exhibit in a format mimicking the alt-weekly: approximately 11x14 inches, printed on newsprint. [Editor's note: It's pictured at the top of this story]. It's four pages, with a cover by Kaz, an essay about the exhibit, and recent comic strips by Tony Millionaire and Jen Sorensen. It was really fun to make and made me think that there's still room to make something fresh and vital in this form if anyone's so inclined. But it's challenging to sustain something like that for the long haul, especially when competing with the economics of the internet. But even if many of the component elements of an alt-weekly can be read for free online, there's always something more potent about a well-edited, structured publication that brings everything coherently together. I think there's been a bit of a resurgence in small press magazine publishing as a reaction to the intangibility of the internet. But these tend to be somewhat lush objects; there's a sense that a printed object needs to justify its physical existence as such, which doesn't necessarily extend to the more disposable format of the alt-weekly newspaper.

WARD SUTTON: What future venues do you see as home to tomorrow's alt cartoonists?

WARREN BERNARD: Online there are web-sites like the Matt Bors-curated The Nib and Jen Sorensen's Graphic Culture, both of which are sort of equivalent venues to the alt-weekly newspaper. Indie comics shows such as Small Press Expo and MoCCA provide an excellent forum for new alt cartoonists talent to be discovered by the public and publishers alike.

Alt-Weekly Comics Show at the Society of Illustrators
Small Press Expo

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From Ward Sutton's Vault: Start Your Own Publication
An Interview with Mad Magazine Art Director Sam Viviano
When Cartoonists Illustrate! Part 3: Jen Sorensen
When Cartoonists Illustrate! Part 2: Derf
An Interview with Seattle Art Director Art Chantry
When Cartoonists Illustrate! Part 1: Kate Beaton
Alt Week: Guest Editor Cartoonist-Illustrator Ward Sutton

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