Episode Three: Ken Avidor
Ken Avidor asks a series of questions that most people don't spend much time thinking about. "What happens when a devil gets drunk?" he wonders with genuine curiosity. "Does it vomit locusts? Or plagues?" As a neo-Luddite, Avidor also contemplates what Mozart would be able to create today if he had to contend with modern-day distractions. "First of all, he'd have to answer his e-mail. And then he'd have to deal with his car, just to keep it going. And then he'd have to sit in traffic for a while. I mean, what would he do?" he says, his voice rapid with excitement.
It's a question Avidor often asks. He's wearing a T-shirt that asks, "WWSD?" with a picture of the leather-wearing Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley drawn above it.
Avidor moves anxiously around the attic studio he shares with his wife, grabbing papers, books, and comics from files and shelves. He pulls out a book with early 20th-century industrial drawings, a street sign he created opposing highway construction, and his comic anthology Roadkill Bill,a collection of mini activism pieces that explore the problems of technology through the eyes of a cuddly creature. One of the pieces in his iconoclastic collection is about a character named Gizmo Geek who clones Mozart from a fingernail clipping. The composer drops into a big-box, traffic-filled world, still in his 18th-century garb, and winds up watching TV and playing Nintendo because he's too overwhelmed by everyday life to compose. "That really sums up my overall theme of technology. It's invented to make life easier but only makes it more complicated," he says.
Avidor's carsick stories and comics also explore the disconnect between the world around us and the world represented by art. "Look at the paintings you see in galleries, particularly the kind you see hanging over sofas. Does that represent the world people live in?" he asks. "What if Michelangelo were painting the 21st-century human, in the clothes with logos that people wear? It'd be ludicrous," he says, laughing and shaking his head.
To create these super-sized images of suburban sprawl and asphalt landscapes, Avidor utilizes imaginative transportation and time travel to look back on what the contemporary cityscape might become. He's currently working on a drawing of a future Mall of America, using the Roman ruins as a model for what a collapsed world might resemble. Cars are crushed and signs are dangling; something catastrophic has clearly happened. "There's a sense of optimism, though," Avidor says. "I think comics in particular are a way artists can make a difference and inspire people to keep these sorts of things from happening. It asks the question, Okay, how to we get there from here?"
Another one of Avidor's mini-comics, "A Twin Cities Xmas Carol," poses another question: WWTLD? "TL" is Tom Lowry, the man behind the Twin City Rapid Transit streetcar line of the 1890s, which went up in flames at the hands of Fred Ossanna in 1954. Lowry also spearheaded onetime landmarks like the West Hotel and Guaranty Loan Building, which were both destroyed by wrecking balls. Most likely, Lowry is haunting the suburban real estate developers of the future. Avidor takes a sip of his Earl Grey tea and laughs. "That's my weird world," he says. "Someone has to think about those things."
Episode Four: Sam Hiti
Graphic novelist Sam Hiti owes part of his newfound success to vacuums. The company he briefly worked for taught him many of the psychological tricks one can use to convince people that they must possess a $2,000 vacuum cleaner. "It was so sleazy," he says. "My mom bought one out of guilt because she wanted me to do well." But Hiti, an optimist who sees an opportunity even in a pyramid scheme, still spins a totally earnest sales pitch. "It was a really good vacuum cleaner. And she has small dogs, so it really helped with cleanup."
The job may have felt dirty, but it taught Hiti that if he wanted to be a successful artist, he'd have to learn how to navigate comic-book conventions as a businessman. "If I wouldn't have done that vacuum-cleaner job, if I wouldn't have painted houses, if I wouldn't have worked at a printer, I don't know what I'd be doing," he says.
Luckily, Hiti's own three-part trilogy of happy accidents unfolded to find the protagonist plopped in the world of comics. Still, he looks more like a jock than stereotypical comic-book nerd. He has a tiny tuft of hair under his chin that extends into five o'clock shadow, and his sideburns branch out from his faded Minnesota Vikings cap. But his image is fitting for someone who wields his aggressively competitive nature as his biggest weapon.
Only four years ago, Hiti was painting houses, telling skeptical friends he'd like to be a comic-book artist someday. "I was sort of like, 'I'll show you!'" he says, waving his fist in the air. "I played a lot of sports as a kid, and I'm really competitive. I just pushed myself to get better."
Hiti released his first graphic novel, End Times: Tiempos Finales, a 116-page three-color book of devils and demons that promises to be part of a trilogy, at the end of June, and now he's suddenly getting phone calls from the New York Times, Nickelodeon, and Hollywood studios. Even Mel Gibson wants to get his hands on Hiti's work.