Loser's Paradise

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

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.

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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