Next to the counter at Big Brain Comics in downtown Minneapolis are two little cardboard display racks printed with the words King Mini. They hold six self-published, oddly sized comic books. One, titled Franz Kafka, features a squat man printed in brown ink. His rotund body is draped in baggy, ill-fitting clothes and he clutches at his tie. The man's face and most of his head are hidden behind an enormous mask--the most detailed element of the drawing. It is the mask of some sort of rodent, possibly a mouse, with a pointed nose and sharp, batlike ears. The man stares out nervously from the cover, one tiny eye visible through the massive black eye holes in the mask.
The King Mini comics sport bizarre titles such as cut away all the meat and what you got? Gristleand Ishkabibble. One, titled Passenger Side, features a little note on the inside cover that reads "King Mini International. Publishing a fine line of funny little pamphlets for well over twelve hundred and seventy five days now."
The back cover of Passenger Side lists the name of the author, Vincent Stall, as well the address of the studio: Located on Tenth Street in downtown Minneapolis, it is just a few buildings east of Big Brain. Noticing the address, I decided to buy a few copies. I asked Michael Drivas, the owner of Big Brain, about the comics: "This is a done by a local guy?"
"Yeah," Drivas answered. "Him."
He gestured to a smiling young man near the counter. I had seen him in Big Brain almost every time I'd stopped in, always standing near the counter, often chatting with Drivas. Vincent Stall looks very much like the sort of adult you would find hanging out in a comic-book store--not the heavyset, ponytailed poindexter so relentlessly mocked on The Simpsons, but instead the hipster who gravitates toward arty, sophisticated comic books like Daniel Clowes's Eight Ball or Joe Matt's Peep Show, which feature angstful, bitingly funny stories about unpleasant, self-obsessed young men who scrape by on the margins of society. Stall wears black, and has a neatly clipped soul patch. At first glance, he could be one of the characters from Clowes's or Matt's cartoons.
Saturday, June 10, was the fourth-anniversary party for the opening of Big Brain, and Drivas had an invitation printed up on cardboard that featured a large illustration by Stall. The invitation was designed to look like a promotional poster for a wrestling match and was dominated by Stall's conception of a masked wrestler. He has a small, almost square body and an enormous head. Almost all of Stall's characters look like this: They are oddly proportioned, slumped over, staring at the ground with expressions of profound defeat. In fact, two of his cartoons (Ishkabibble and Passenger Side) are brief, melancholy narratives of broken men wandering through ugly, anonymous offices. In one, a pasty fellow with a thin mustache lies in bed, gazing blankly at a television. "I'm not sure when," the narration reads, "but at some point in my life I must have done something bad to make God hate me so much. I've been paying for it ever since."
Stall is more cheerful than his comics would suggest. He greets me garrulously at the Big Brain party, introducing me to his wife and explaining his decision six years earlier to move to the Twin Cities from Iowa City, where his wife had been a student in the Writers' Workshop. They had thought about relocating to Chicago, but found it an ugly, dirty city. They were determined to move, though, and had always liked Minneapolis in previous visits.
Stall, who is 34, explains that he began illustrating comics when he was in Iowa. He had been friends with Paul Tobin the manager of a comic-book store in Iowa City, and together they had written and illustrated a work called Attitude Lad. This first venture began as a series of comical stories about a nervy young punk who indulges his nihilism by attending churches and then burning them down. Stall seems vaguely embarrassed when he discusses the comic book, smirking when he mentions the stories. While he was illustrating Attitude Lad he became interested in the writing of American noir authors such as Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, as well as alternative cartoonists such as those printed in Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's cartoon magazine Raw. Calling itself "the Comics Magazine for Damned Intellectuals" and carrying bleak cartoonists such as Frenchman Jacques Tardi, the Argentinean writing team of Munoz and Sampayo, and Americans such as Gary Panter and Mark Beyer, Raw had no fear of alienating its audience. Back in the mid-1980s, its nightmarish images seemed destined to influence a future generation of cartoonists, who would draw inspiration from the magazine's obsessive, often nihilistic narratives.
In fact, the magazine's legacy to contemporary cartoonists has proven to be surprisingly slight, but Stall was influenced by Raw and reprints of similar European works, and he began to steer Attitude Lad in that direction. "The later issues had little to do with the Attitude Lad character, and were mostly crime stories," he says. Eventually Stall and Tobin decided to do a noir-inspired graphic novel called Clemmet Straight. A poster for the project hangs behind the counter at Big Brain, showing a grim-faced man in a trench coat half hidden in the shadows of a street lamp. The poster is arresting, and its debt to Raw is apparent. The characters look much like those drawn by Jacques Tardi in stories such as "Manhattan," which tells of a gaunt man's suicide in a filthy bathroom. Stall illustrated most of Clemmet Straight, but the process was painstaking and frustrating. He and his collaborator had different ideas about the graphic novel, and Stall moved to Minneapolis before the project was completed. He did not enjoy arguing over the telephone, and eventually the partners mutually decided to abandon the project.