It all started, like many great adventures, with a simple question.
I was at GeekGirlCon, Seattle's spectacular convention devoted to encouraging and fostering a spirit of community among diverse cartoonists, when I was asked the question. I had wandered to the booth hosted by our friends at Fantagraphics, publishers of the some of the greatest cartoonists in the world, and was talking with the inestimable Jacqueline Cohen, one of the smartest and most empathetic people that Comics Bulletin works with at any company.
Jacq asked me, "How would you like to meet the next great generation of underground cartoonists?"
Now think about what a statement like that means. Here's Jacqueline Cohen, who has worked with the likes of Robert Crumb, Gary Panter, Los Bros… she knows what she's talking about. I knew this wasn't just mindless hype; no, when Jacq says that something is the shit, she knows that something is the shit.
So what could I say? What would you say? Of course I said yes.
Jacq went on to explain to me that this group of cartoonists was responsible for a brilliant new artcomics newspaper called Intruder that collected some of the most innovative and unique comics coming out today, work that was as quirky and idiosyncratic and improvised and fascinating as anything that's ever been produced for comics.
To quote the old line, Jacq practically had me at hello.
So we made plans for me to head out to Jacq's house in the working class Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle one Wednesday night to "meet the boys," as Jacq loves to refer to them.
Two weeks later, on one of those incredibly rare beautiful evenings that makes it worth putting up with the horrible weather in Seattle, I wandered out to a charming old Victorian home and found a group of very happy cartoonists hanging out in the back yard of Jacq's pleasant home.
What I noticed first about the cartoonists was that they were all being incredibly diligent. There were a dozen or so guys (and one woman) in their 20s and 30s gathered happily around a long rectangular table under an oak tree lit with Christmas lights. Each of the folks sitting at the table had a piece of paper in front of them with pens and other random art supplies filling their hands. These were working men and women, people devoted to their craft and incredibly happy to be able to share their passion with each other.
I was immediately struck by the feeling that this was a collective of artists, a group of people who fed off of each others' enthusiasm to create great work. It was inspiring just to be in their presence and feel the energy of the space.
I ambled up to the table with a bottle of delicious Washington State Apple Vodka, Comics Bulletin's official secret weapon for socializing with cartoonists, and popped the top on the booze as Jacq Cohen handed me a stack of Intruder comics to look through.
The work in those comics is fun and exciting in a very abstract, artcomics sort of way. The material in those wonderful comics newspapers feels improvised and unique and very particular to these very men and women sitting around the table with me. More than that, the work feels fresh, unjaded, unique to the creative minds of the creators with whom I was spending time.
What's most striking about Intruder is that each cartoonist has their own unique approach to their comics; everyone complements each others' styles rather than copying each other or following similar ideas. It turned out that these cartoonists had been gathering together, in different permutations, for quite some time. Seattle has long been a breeding ground for cartoonists gathering together in a collective.
Marc Palm, a charming storyteller with the absolute best moustache in the group – perfectly tended with moustache wax in a symmetrical faux '20s throwback – mentioned that he basically joined the group because he was lonely shortly after moving to Seattle and started drawing one night in a bar: "When I moved to Seattle and I ended up with at the Café Racer, just randomly sitting in the back. I was just drawing and Kurt Geissel, who runs the Racer, he goes like, 'Oh, are you coming to Wednesday night drawing group, hosted by Jim Woodring?' I’m like, 'No but I will be because I just heard Jim Woodring's name and if he shows up here, he’s like an idol of mine. I’m going to show up, of course.' Had I not ever walked into the Racer and if I hadn’t heard about it, I wouldn’t be here. It’s just these random series of events."
Max Clofelter, a gregarious guy with a great Seattle beard, added to the conversation with his own origin story for the Intruder collective. It turns out that the group was mainly intended to be a group of friends who trusted each other: "Marc, Tim Miller, and I were kind of hanging out every couple of days. We got Billis [Helg] in. We all knew each other from an earlier group that sort of disbanded, and then it was like two of us one week, three of us the next week, four the next. Billis brought in Tom Van Duesen. Tom had a place we could all kind of hang out. When we were first hanging out at Tom’s, before that we were just hanging out at a Japanese tea shop on The Ave [the main commercial street near the University of Washington], just wherever we could find a place to hang out, or Café Racer still.”
"And we started making mini comics. We didn’t even want it to really be a group. We just wanted it to be people who got along well together, because the other groups didn’t get along well together. We just wanted to have like-minded people who know how to control their egos. So, if you fit in and you’re down with jamming on some comics and just being sort of productive, then that’s what it took and it just grew from there. We kept meeting people at shows; I met Ben Horak, Aidan Fitzgerald, James Stanton. Some people worked with Fantagraphics; they got Alexa Keonings in."
Some of the cartoonists had been hanging out with the master surrealist Jim Woodring, others with the terrific Ellen Forney, but really what everyone wanted was a group of peers who could gather together and put out a cool zine that would be true to some of the great comic-oriented newspapers that had been a proud aspect of past generations of cartoonists in Seattle.
Palm felt it was important to be true to the scene that people like Michael Dowers helped to create in the 1980s: Dowers and his friends were about making books and creating this thing that sort of had this vibe and it looks like friendship. There are photos of these guys hanging out and it’s like, they’re in back yards, barbecuing and making comics; it’s like…
“That’s exactly what we do and it wasn’t even an attempted thing; it just showed up. I started seeing
that after we started hanging out so much and doing a paper, like, 'Wow.' When we put the paper together and I started looking around I was like, 'Well, there hasn’t been an alternative newspaper like this with all cartoon comic things in a long time.'
"Then I got schooled. Michael Dowers sent me The Seattle Star. That was a newspaper that came out in the mid to late '80s, and it was just amazing. I was like, 'Oh, crap, I had no idea.' And then I looked this up on the internet, you know, that’s what you do nowadays, but there was no word of it. There’s a Michael Dowers interview out there somewhere but that’s about it; there’s no Wikipedia about it, you get the old school Seattle Star from like the '20s, an old newspaper that had comics in it. So it’s like this forgotten thing and then now we’re bringing it back."
Most importantly, working together in a sort of collective allows the cartoonists to continually inspire each other. The biggest feeling I got from hanging out with these guys for an evening was the pleasure of spending time with a group of like-minded friends gathered together to create work that they love to create together. These happy, hard-working cartoonists just plain enjoyed each others' company and found that it's just really fun to create comics together. Screw the image of the lonely, tortured artist. Good cartoonists can have friends, too.
As Max Clotfelter related to me, "What’s more important to me really, is I’m more inspired by seeing everybody every week and just seeing what they’re working on. Like Billis showed up a couple of months ago and he had what seemed like a garbage bag full of drawings he had made and in a month he was like, 'Well here’s this month’s drawings' and I love that. I like to see what everybody’s into and I like being pushed by everybody, sort of like, not keeping up, there’s not really a competitive thing going on but…
Clearly sharing Max's enthusiasm, James "the" Stanton added, "It’s like you come in every week and everybody’s working their asses off in between the six days before and after and it’s such a fire starter; it’s like, I can’t slack off this week because I don’t want come to Intruder and be empty handed."
Palm jumped in, declaring "Yeah, not only that but just being around people that are just making comics all the time, it is much easier to be productive. When I moved back here, I didn't have anybody else I could draw with and I was really missing that. But I slowly started to get into this group and then I started drawing comics a lot more, and now it's a lot easier to just we around likeminded people.
Ask any team their origin story and you'll get an entertaining set of comments on that origin. Tom Van Duesen adds that it's important "to have people that you can draw with, because it's drawing comics. Cartoon making is such a solitary process, and I find myself at least three nights a week just hanging out with friends in the group just on our own, drawing, just so it's not just so god damn lonely. Ha!"
Palm brought sympathy for Van Duesen: "Here, here. There's the nights I'm sitting behind Tom while he's at his desk; I'm working on a comic, he's working on a comic and we just have Hawkwind playing on the computer and we're zoning out, not even talking to each other and it's nice to have that. And then we'll be like, 'Hey, do you want to see what I just did? Do you want to see that new page?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' So we bounce ideas off of each other."
And yeah, whenever you hang out with cartoonists, you'll get a silly bit of semi-sexual dialogue:
Horak: Well yeah, that's another thing. I would show people comics I've been working on and they don't read comics so they're like, "Oh, that's cool that you drew that penis," and I'm like…
Aiden: Nice penis.
Horak: Yeah, then I can actually get feedback off of people and be like, "Actually, I think the scrotum would be going this way."
Aidan: Get feedback on my penis.
Sacks: Cause there's nothing worse than a wrongly anatomical scrotum.
Horak: I know. I was putting the scrotum on top.
Sacks: You've got problems, I'm sorry.
Aiden Fitzgerald, a roguish figure with a great sense of humor, added: "Like Max, he pumps out a zine every other month or something like that; the amount of work that he puts into this stuff is like, 'That’s ungodly,' but what he’s producing, that’s even more… 'Ok, man all right. What are you working? What am I working on? Ok, I’ve got to come out with something; let’s work on something together now. That’s clever. Let’s play with something.'"
Clotfelter couldn't wait to jump in with a wonderful summary – and a nice bit of regional rivalry. "Like being collaborative, the zines that I work on, there's power in numbers. We put out like ten mini-comics and newspapers in the last year, in the past twelve months, just by all working together. I mean that’s something that we can hand out at these shows we go to and we’re competing with Portland who’s like a complete powerhouse, you know? And it’s just like trying to have a collective here who’s into producing and making mini-comics."
The comics scene in Portland looms large in Seattle, as our smaller and more bohemian city from the south gets much more attention for its bustling scene than Seattle. Portland has a large and really active cartoonists' scene that occasionally seems to overwhelm the scene in Seattle. But Stanton, at least, chose Seattle over Portland "basically for these Wednesday nights really. I was looking at moving to Portland and I wanted to move to Portland just because I wanted to find something like this and then I was like, 'Why the hell would I move to Portland when I already know dudes in Seattle that are already doing things?' Then I was hanging out with Jacq and she was like, 'Hey, we've got a room open in our house' and I was like, 'That's too easy, I'm doing that.' So here I am."
But just because these creators are real friends, it doesn't mean they aren't constantly benchmarking themselves against each other. "It's more about benchmarking the entire thing and making sure that we're all achieving as well as we can feel that we can do," Clofelter related, "at least be on the level of self-reproach, so that if you see your stuff with everyone else's you're like, 'Well, I really don't feel too bad about that.' And that's success."
That shared creativity does maybe the best thing possible for really creative people: it spurs them to try new ideas and approaches. "A great example of that is Max started this zine called Hole Show, which was a comic that he did which was twelve pages." Stanton related. "And then Marc followed that one up with his own 12 pager and I'm doing the third one and I'm looking back at Max's drawings and Marc's drawings and trying to get my stuff to look coherent with theirs without completely mimicking their styles but still getting Max's cross-hatching in the title of the cover. I was setting Marc's characters that he introduced into it. I drew it in my style that's still like basically M
"That's what I did with Max's; I saw it and I was like, 'Wow man, I've got to keep over this level,'” Palm added, expressing deep appreciation for Kazimir Strzepek, another member of the group whom everybody respects."Kaz, who just came in on our third issue, did this astoundingly original thing of doing a chose your own adventure comic on one page. So each panel is numbered and you jump around from each panel from wherever that started and it's in my head. It's jiggling around like a seed. I think that's a brilliant idea. So l I'm trying to work that into something. I love how people are doing stuff. There's also this amorphous sort of thing that's just happening. That third issue came together so well and no one talked about what they were doing or really showed anything to each other and it still has a theme, it has tonality that flows through the whole thing, and it's just out there. We just knew each other and were around each other so much that it kind of has its own vibe."
There's just something special about having zines produced on paper rather than on the internet really, a tactile overwhelming factor of having something in your hands and in your face rather than on a computer screen. And this group does everything by hand, creates all their art in the most analog way possible: drawn on paper and printed on paper, including some great minicomics:
Miller: They're loud,
Clotfelter: They've got attitude. Every page is a different artist; we've got enough of us to go around so we just kind of jam it outwards. Either it starts with a title and a cover or it just has one single page and then we finish that, hand it to the next person who wants to take after it. We try to keep to a theme or go along with the titles which are, we've got Mailbox Mushrooms, we've got Asstray, there's Swamp Darlings.
Helg: It's usually something disgusting that comes up in conversations.
Clotfelter: We're certainly pretty wedded to the whole traditional underground comics vibe. That's what we want to see perpetually.
Just because the cartoonists embraced underground comics doesn't mean they felt they had to create material in unconventional ways. Palm talked in a very interesting way about how sometimes the most traditional approach was the most effective: "That's got to be an individual thing. For the third issue, that was the first time I actually did a comic other than the cover of the second and an inside spread. But then the first thing I went to was a grid.
"I think it's just efficient. I tried to do it differently for years because based on Image Comics and my history, when I was interested in Bill Watterson. At that time, it was like blowing out the grid and changing all the format and trying to make it look free. I realized that it was screwing me up because I really wasn't figuring out the creativity first and how to tell a story; I was just aesthetically designing the pages, and it just didn't work. So now I go to the grid. I even came up with a template for myself that was based on Kirby's, six-four-two like this, you just chop them up and get those pages that work in whatever way he had. But he had a specific grid and I love that. I love that constraint. So then I'm like, "Now I have to fit it in to these things." I think it goes back to David Lapham and what he did with Stray Bullets.
"He had six panels or eight panels in it but it was sort of like a letterbox style like a movie screen and I was very influenced by seeing movies in cinemas like, 'I want to make a comic that looks like movies.' and that's what he did and I was like, 'He stuck to the grid as hard as possible and forced it to his images into that spot.'"
The team thinks in terms of the page rather than in terms of a full longform graphic novel. In fact, Max and Marc have strong opinions on the matter. They choose to create shortform comics rather than longform. Clofelter reflects, "I think [Intruder member] Kaz is a great graphic novelist. I love Morning Star and I always finish those volumes and waiting for the next edition to come out. But that doesn't mean that everybody can make a graphic novel.
"Mine would be a fucking horrible disaster. I think if you're capable of making one, you should go and do it. But, I don't think that you're a successful cartoonist when you've got your graphic novel finished. That's a big misconception in comics that everybody fells that they've got to come with a fucking graphic novel. It makes it look worse than if there were fewer graphic novels out there. Do what feels natural; don't force yourself to make some embarrassing fucking book so you can tell your parents that you've accomplished something."
Palm concurred. "Max is passionate about it but he speaks the truth. To do a graphic novel, what's the equivalent in writing? It's a novel. Ok, but then there's the short story. The short story is an under-represented, unappreciated thing. One of the things I learned in high school, it's like you make a fucking short story, it's harder to do that. How many times do you hear huge authors make short stories that are fucking perfect, that are on top of it? If you can actually do eight pages and tell an entire story or you can do twenty four pages and make a little tiny world and get everything in there, that's way better than doing two hundred pages or whatever. It could be way better."
You can tell that this is something that Palm and Clofelter really feel passionately about as Clofelter adds, "Graphic novels, they have their place. They're a necessity and so are the short things and I think for everyone to be pushed to, 'Oh, you do comics, a graphic novel where's that?' I spoke with Eric Reynolds about a year ago about comics, I'm like, 'Dude, I feel pressured. I feel like I've got to do a graphic novel. I've got to do a long form thing,' He's like, 'Fuck that, you're good at doing these shorter things; just stick with that.' If you feel that you've got to do something larger then go ahead and do it but don't feel like that's the pressure, that you should have to do that. Because you basically going to force yourself down this choke hole."
So, dear reader, as you see the art accompanying this article and read all about these incredibly creative folks who live and hang out in Seattle, you're probably wondering: how in the world can I pick up this amazing sounding material? Where does most of the cool stuff on the web get found these days? Try tumblr. Intrudercomics.tumblr.com is the place to find daily updates from the cartoonists. They also have a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/IntruderComics) so like them on there and you get the Tumblr feed through that. You also get the updates from all the cartoonists.
Intruder is also available in all the best comic stores.
Quimby's in Chicago, Floating World in Portland, the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Seattle of course, among many others. And there are subscriptions available at an affordable price. All you get in the mail lately are bills and Lands End catalogs, so why not give yourself a treat and get some good mail for a change?
I wrapped up my interview with these guys with one last question: who is their favourite cartoonist? The range of responses was amazing.
Horak: Ernie Bushmiller.
Van Deusen: Dan Clowes.
Palm: Bill Watterson.
Helg: Carl Barks.
Aidan: Basil Wolverton.
Are these guys the next generation of great cartoonists or just a really interesting and creative collective of like-minded creators? In the end, does it matter? The dozen or so talented men and women who are part of the Intruder group are doing some really unique, personal, idiosyncratic and compelling comics that are completely different from what anyone else is creating these days.
Of course I'm not the only one who says this. The people at Fantagraphics love the book and Dan Clowes has even been known to give out copies of the zine to his fans. How can you ask for a better endorsement? It won't cost you much to try them out, and you'll likely become a fan of theirs.