Amazing Adventures in Pen and Ink

Two hundred drawings. Twenty-four hours. A dozen artists. One international cartoonist conspiracy.

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."

Big Time Attic in small time quarters: (L-R) Kevin Cannon, Zander Cannon, and Shad Petosky
Allen Beaulieu
Big Time Attic in small time quarters: (L-R) Kevin Cannon, Zander Cannon, and Shad Petosky

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.

Kevin, who grew up in St. Louis Park, remembers that fleeting yet empowering moment when he was the cool kid in school. "I have this distinct memory of being in preschool, of being the only kid in school who drew, and kids would gather around me [and say], 'Draw me!'" he says. "And then it changed."

Perhaps that sense of isolation has something to do with why the cartoonist scene in Minnesota is flourishing. Whether it's cobras, mean kids, or subzero temperatures, there's always something that makes comic artists sit indoors by themselves and create. "The local scene is blossoming now," Shad says. "You have graduating MCAD comic students. People [are] indoors all winter long, with nothing to do but draw and write stories."

The guys at Big Time Attic also cite the Cartoonist Conspiracy and the national success of graphic novels as the reason why the local industry continues to compete with cities outside of New York, like Portland and Chicago. "We all have this love of comic storytelling," Shad says. "King Mini [Vincent Stall] is out there showing people that they can go to Kinko's and be a little bit creative and make something in their house and sell it for $2."

Despite the fact that the number of local comics continues to grow, no one thinks it will reach a saturation point. Even with15 to 20 people showing up to the Cartoonist Conspiracy meetings to create the jam comics, Shad suspects that's only a fraction of the number of local comic creators. "Cartoonists spend a lot of time at home," he says. "They're indoor cats. So if you can get a fifth of them to come out on any given day, that's a big deal."

 

Episode Two: Vincent "King Mini" Stall

The first two things you notice when walking into Vincent "King Mini" Stall's house are his black-and-white-spotted cat and dog. They almost match, but on closer inspection, they become film negatives of each other--like salt and pepper shakers that match the many knickknacks in Stall's house. On a table in the entryway, he has a collection of mismatched figurines from around the world: a sparkle-flecked Chinese cat, a doll with electroshock hair, wood-carved figures that look like they could be housed in a gallery. Stall could probably list off the tiny differences between them. He's good at picking out the details that differentiate two things.

"I'm at a different place than my parents were at this age," he says, as his eight-month-old daughter sits on top of his shoulders and uses chunks of his curly hair as reins. "Wait...what am I saying?" he says, laughing. "I'm married, I have a house, a daughter, two cars." And then he catches himself. "But they had three kids at my age."

That same self-reflection, as well as Stall's sense of uniqueness and universality, reveals itself in his work, a collection of mini-comics that infuses humanism into an art form that hasn't been known for its literary convictions. "I've always been interested in the kind of people who sort of fall through the cracks," he says. "Instead of it being just This is a sad person and something bad happened to them, I want to try and get at what those emotions are and get some sort of physicality into it."

His most recent mini-comic, Mansions of Need, features a single moment re-created in nine pages. One story, "Just Like That," is about a man whose wife passes away. He's dogged by shadows and sadness, and then he stumbles into the bedroom, takes his wife's dress from the closet, and lays it next to him. He whispers, "Good night, my dear," and falls asleep next to the dress, still wearing his shirt and tie. "I'm sure he gets up, has coffee, goes on later," Stall says, shrugging his shoulders. "But it's a singular thought."

A few years ago, Stall's wife was rushed into emergency surgery. She had a tubal pregnancy, though neither of them knew she was pregnant at the time. He sat in the hospital waiting room at 2:00 a.m. as an old baseball game replayed on TV. He was focused on the inevitable. "I was thinking, I have no family here, I'm all alone. We're from Florida. You start wondering, Man, what would ever happen if she dies?" The surgery went well and the two later had a child, but Stall still thought about exploring these thoughts as a story. "I started thinking about what that would feel like," he says. "You leave the house and it's one thing, and you come back and it's another. Or the answering machine still has a message from us on it or something."

Although his most recent stories are beautifully sad, Stall maintains he's not drowning in a pool full of tears and ink as he etches his latest drama. "There's this other part of me that likes those silly Little Red Riding Hood being chased by monsters sort of stories, too." That said, the mini-comic Stall is drawing for the show is about the storm clouds that have rolled through the Cities all summer long. "I keep thinking about how you illustrate an eight- or sixteen-page comic of the trees moving back and forth in the wind, and everything getting dark and then light again. Is that like a comic-book poem?" he asks. "I don't know. But I'm going to try to do it."

 

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.

End Times was created in Hiti's studio in downtown Minneapolis, above the devil-themed breakfast spot, Hell's Kitchen. This is not only serendipitous because Hiti is intrigued by the forces of evil, but also because he idolizes the work of Captain America creator Jack Kirby, an illustrator who was raised in New York's infamous Hell's Kitchen area. Inside Hiti's above-hell abode--call it purgatory--a bull skull is perched on top of an unusable fireplace, and a collection of soldiers sits on top of the mantle, pointing their miniature guns at his head. Hiti's using them as models for his next book, Death Day: A Story of Remembrance, a ghost story where memory-hunting soldiers eradicate thoughts from the past.

Like Death Day, End Times is littered with unearthly phantoms. The main character battles demons in San Pablo, a Japanese-comic-inspired otherworld of monsters and ghosts. The story also is layered with rich imagery and spiritual and biblical themes. The main character, demon-hunter Mario Roman, battles the don of evil, who is tricked by Lucifer to come to earth from heaven with the promise that he can become a god. Instead, he gives up perfection for a power struggle with other demons. "I didn't realize this until afterwards," Hiti says, "but it's about me competing with myself, trying to get better as an artist. I thought I was competing with other people, but I was in competition with myself all along."

 

Episode Five: Cartoonist Conspiracy

What eventually becomes of our comic-book superheroes? Hiti continues to wage a battle against his inner demons. Avidor still strives to combat the evils of highway expansion. The guys at Big Time Attic finally venture outdoors. And Stall seeks to unveil the universal emotions that connect us all. Later, they get up, have coffee, and go on.

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