The Comic Edge

Comics? Art?, original comic strips by Hector.

When Hector first formed nearly ten years ago, lots of names were tossed in the hat: Cowsville. Gary. Wilhelmina. But when someone suggested Hector, the lightbulb flashed in Tom Motley's brain. Motley, a lone local cartoonist seeking to evolve into a many-headed graphic monster by establishing a collective comic strip, liked the fact that "hector" is also a verb, meaning to intimidate or harass. "We've been trying to hector our readers ever since," he notes, and depending on what field you're coming from as a reader, that just might be true.

And here's your chance to decide. Works by the Hectors, an amoebic group that produces strips both individually and communally under the Hector masthead, go on display beginning Friday during a two-week show at the ILK Gallery. The works exhibited will include jam strips loaded with weird surrealist, artistic and literary references, a mixture of high and low technique, stream-of-consciousness gibberish, mangled allusions, deconstructionist wordplay and a fair share of old-fashioned, warped Robert Crumb-style raunch, but, hey -- it's the thought that counts. And there's obviously plenty of thought involved in being a Hector.

Hectors, by nature, are a disparate group: There's Tim Winkelman, a shy computer programmer and the perfect caricature of himself, whose unexpectedly off-the-wall humor is as odd as it is refreshing. M. Stander came to Hector as a guerrilla cartoonist who pasted her work up on phone poles and brick walls, and Brian Comber, a fine artist who disdains comics in general, became a reluctant Hector only at the urging of his friend Motley. LoRe Ross "secretizes" in an office for a living to bankroll the dreamlike visual narratives she produces as an artist, and elementary-school art teacher Craig Gassen might be the most formal cartoonist of the lot, creating long-plotted horror storylines with ongoing characters when he isn't being a Hector. Motley's the Hector who sends out the strips -- copiously -- to editors and publications worldwide. And he isn't simply a Hector -- he's also the hectorer, the taskmaster of the group, who prods and wheedles other members to produce new work.

"Doing this has strained so many relationships," Motley says. Some Hectors have left in disgust; others have refused to join in the first place. When the six current members meet to review works-in-progress and submissions by guest artists, they argue. "Often, the debate is over aesthetics," Motley explains: One member doesn't think the work under examination is up to standard; another might question whether such a standard even exists. Comic art is, after all, the art world's forgotten stepchild -- few people take it seriously, still fewer even pay attention to it.

It's hard to know, really, whether the Hectors are prideful or simply tortured by their obscurity -- they all seem to carry a sardonic, communal chip on their shoulders about it, but they try, too, to look at the bright side. "Comics are almost a generic term here -- like classical music," Comber says. "It doesn't happen often, but when my work is published in a literary publication, it's usually in another country. But I'm still excited by the exposure." Gassen concurs: "I went to Europe and saw people on the Metro reading comics. They weren't trying to hide the fact at all. In the U.S., it's considered a juvenile art form. People are embarrassed by it." Ross says the minute she tells people she's a comic artist, she's overcome by the need to qualify the concept. Ross has shown her work to her parents -- "My mother just kind of purses her lips," she laments. And Motley constantly apologizes for what he sees as Hector's built-in, surefire recipe for failure. "We're too hell-bent on never producing anything the public wants to read," he says wearily.

But the Hectors persevere, and Motley has a cardboard box full of publications in which the Hector name has appeared -- from unrenowned Brazilian and Belgian 'zines to Steve Rasnic Tem's High Fantastic Colorado sci-fi/fantasy/horror anthology -- to show for it. Locally, they've been seen in indy publications of varying stature, from The Hooligan to The New Censorship. "Some of the publications are slick, and some are cheap," he says. "But you never know which contacts are going to be the best ones." And anyway, quitting would require too much energy. Why fight inertia, Motley asks?

The Hectors do seem interested in fighting anonymity. Gassen, the group's most gung-ho comics guy, would like to see Hector appear somewhere on a regular weekly or monthly basis. Motley says he's taking baby steps toward creating a Hector Web site, and he also envisions a formal self-publication -- but that costs money, more than they have at the moment. "It's hard to imagine Hector ever being big," he concedes. "The market gets more and more unfriendly all the time. Maybe comic art is a dying medium."

It ain't easy. Technology has little patience for pen-and-ink meanderings, and the freewheeling atmosphere that spawned underground comics in the Sixties has buttoned up considerably. But even that doesn't seem to matter all that much to Motley, who's in it to the bitter end. Whatever that means. "Maybe it's not comics, maybe it's just Hector," Motley says, hopefully -- willfully. And that, it seems, is reason enough to be one.

 
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