Loser's Paradise

The comic-book world of Vincent Stall, master of misery in miniature

By that time, Stall had come across a quote by cartoonist Alex Toth, who said that he didn't feel proficient until he finished his 10,000th page of illustration. The Attitude Lad artist decided that he needed to take some time off and teach himself how to draw. He was dissatisfied with his work: Creating visual narratives by instinct, he found himself unconsciously cribbing techniques and styles from other artists. At the same time, Stall came across the work of Brian Briggs, a cartoonist who was producing his own miniature comic books, self-publishing them at Kinkos. Inspired by this business model, Stall decided to do the same. He set up an office with Zander Cannon, another local comic artist, and began designing his King Mini series.

In looking for new visual inspiration, Stall seems to have settled on the mirror: The characters in the new cartoons all vaguely resemble their creator. "How big are characters in most strips?" Stall asks. "About six heads high? Mine are about three heads high."

Stall himself seems to be about four and a half heads high. It is not that he is short, but instead that his head and his frame seem square and compact. He smiles frequently, unlike his cartoon characters, but often his eyes take on the same pinched, grim quality. Also like the King Mini crew, Stall is thoughtful and almost pathologically introspective.

There is a prankishness to him that is only hinted at in one of his mini comics, Dimwit, in which a boozy, cigar-chewing crow outwits a grotesque, infantile hunter (shades of Elmer Fudd, perhaps?) by offering him nonexistent wishes. Stall relates that at an office job years ago he told his co-workers that he was studying to be a minister. He kept up the pretense for several weeks, his fib growing more elaborate, until finally he told everybody that all his studying had succeeded in doing was convincing him that there was no God. He says that when opportunities for this sort of cerebral kidding come up, he can't resist them. Stall works in advertising, and he once convinced a potential employer that he explains advertising concepts to clients by using finger puppets.

In a moment of supreme understatement, Matthew J. Pustz writes about the limited profitability of the independent comic-book market in his book Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. "Deciding to do alternative comics is rarely a lucrative career move," Pustz suggests, having researched his topic across the nation. One of the stores he writes about in some detail is Daydreams in Iowa City, the exact geographic location that inspired Stall to begin cartooning. And true to Pustz's caution, Stall's comics have proven to be anything but lucrative.

Each mini comic book takes the illustrator about three months to complete, and he prints up only 300 or 400 issues of each, which sell for between one and two dollars apiece--hardly an impressive financial take. But Stall seems perfectly comfortable in his small office, bent over his drafting table, illustrating the pitiful lives of beaten men in quavering, crabbed lines, or sketching odder stories. His current project tells of a character he calls "the Robot Investigator," who befriends several doglike creatures before he is kidnapped by cavemen. While Stall describes his decision to work on this idea as an attempt to fashion something different from his previous mini comics, these sorts of peculiar, fantastical elements have lurked in the frames of his previous work. Weird mechanical contraptions lie unused in the backgrounds, while complicated, vacuum-tube delivery systems linger elsewhere. These devices add to the claustrophobia of his stories: Like Terry Gilliam's dystopia in Brazil, it is a world of homely buildings and puzzling machines, where characters can barely control their frustration and exhaustion.

Stall says that he has had co-workers come up to him holding copies of his comics and say, You really got it in this one. "I have to wonder what is going on in their lives when they say that," Stall exclaims, grinning. "People don't understand that my cartoons are fiction. Sometimes even my wife will read something I wrote and say, 'Is there something you need to tell me?'

"I have a job that pays my bills," Stall continues. "Then I come here and draw. I have a friend who says that if you can find work that makes you happy half of the time, and you absolutely hate the other half, you should consider yourself lucky."

He looks around his office, which is filled with sketches and posters. A series of shelves holds small piles of his creations, while a model of the aliens from Mars Attacks! poses menacingly near his drafting table. "I draw the stories that I want to. I don't really do them to have the sales. I enjoy doing it.

"In fact, there's a name for this type of publishing: They call it 'vanity press.' But I don't know if I am doing it for vanity. I enjoy doing it. If people read it, it's fine. If it rots and disappears, that's fine, too. Once I've done a mini comic, I don't even feel like it is mine anymore. I want to tell people, 'This King Mini guy is responsible, I just do the circulation.'"

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