A cartoonist is having an anxiety attack. He announces this to no one in particular in a voice that's small and fragile. "I'm going to have to get out of here soon," he says breathlessly. "I'm just not used to being around this many people."
There are only about ten local comic-book artists milling around the earth-toned, wood-floored dining room where the local collective International Cartoonist Conspiracy has gathered for a meeting. But that's nine too many for the nervous cartoonist. He slinks out the door before I can ask his name. In his wake, a young woman sprawls out on an oriental rug in the adjoining room. She's folding the pages of her palm-sized mini-comic, which is about big-eyed creatures called Veeblings who take over people's brains. Piles of mini-comics and Einstein Bros bagels litter the top of a hefty dining-room table not far away.
This is Steven Stwalley's house, and there's a reason why at least one of the comic-book artists gathered here isn't used to these surroundings. Normally, Cartoonist Conspiracy meets at Spyhouse Espresso Bar, where they convene on the first Thursday of every month to create "jam comics," strips in which each artist draws a single panel or a section of a story and passes it on to the next artist. Once a year they complete a collection of individual comics created in a single day. They meet at a hotel at midnight and guzzle Mountain Dew, then retire to Grumpy's by noon for alcohol-induced inspiration. In April of this year, 10 comics created nearly 200 pages of copy that was printed, bound, and ready for sale the next day. "I'm pretty sure we're the only people in the world who have published and sold an almost 200-page book of 24-hour comics less than 24 hours after the comics were completed," Stwalley says. "It's pretty much extreme sports for cartoonists."
Stwalley's own single-panel mini-comic features ugly people and their ugly sentiments. "I like drawing the warts and the stray hairs," he says. The images in "Your New Best Friends" are scathing and funny. One panel features a wart-faced, anti-Semitic character named Sally who, with her heavy-lidded gaze, seems to ask everyone, Are you Jewish? Another is of a wild-eyed man named Jimmy "Christ" who demands that "you gots to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior." The characters are beyond stereotypes; they're caricatures of an unattractive reality.
Stwalley's ugly-people mini-comic, along with mini-comics from 26 local comic book artists, will be featured in 100 sampler sets and sold at Creative Electric Studios September 10 through October 2. From a story about polio pioneer Sister Kinney to illustrations of the ghosts of transportation's past to a tale of a guy who may have cheated on his wife, the stories are as diverse as their creators. So in the spirit of the worlds they create in pen and ink, here are five illustrations of some of the Cartoon Conspiracy's main characters.
Episode One: Big Time Attic (Shad Petosky, Zander Cannon,
and Kevin Cannon)
"I had this theory in college that there was always something with kids who turned to comics," says Zander Cannon. "They either had asthma or polio or they were scared of the kids down the block." He remembers a comic fan he knew in high school who lived in India as a kid and was terrified to go outside because snakes sprouted like weeds outside. "I was like, Yeah, I'd draw comics too if I had cobras in my front yard," he says.
Today, Zander and his co-conspirators in the cartoonist studio Big Time Attic--Shad Petosky and Kevin Cannon (no relation to Zander)--are holed up in the attic above Shad's home in north Minneapolis, but this time they're inside by choice. Wearing dress pants and ties, and looking more nine-to-five office temp than comic-book artist cool, they're preparing to get their pictures taken for a Big Time Attic press release, and they want to look like serious business folk. Shad has done subversive political animation for Arianna Huffington and cartoons for Target and Microsoft; Kevin was voted one of the top 10 college cartoonists by Charles Schulz two years in a row; and Zander has received two Eisner Awards for the work he's done with DC Comics. Today, the group is working on an unannounced project for DC and illustrating a comic book about two dueling paleontologists. "It's going to be huge with all the kids," jokes Zander.
Though there are only three artists at Big Time, there are enough toys for far more than that. A collection of robot figures is lined up alongside Shad's computer, and Zander has his own handmade Transformer. The wooden doors on the carefully handcrafted car open up into arms, and feet pop out from the trunk. Zander's father made it for him. "I think I was appreciative of it when I was a kid," he says. "But now it's my favorite thing ever."
As kids, the three artists found that playing indoors offered solace. Shad was an Air Force brat who moved around a lot and saw himself as a little bit geeky. "I remember being in first grade and drawing, and everybody loved me. One point you're drawing and have really cool toys, and then in fourth grade it was like, We don't bring toys to school anymore," he says, imitating a prissy, pursed-lip kid.