Denver cartoonists are inking big

It's Tuesday night, and Lonnie Allen is sweating.

The unshaven, young-looking thirty-something is bopping from table to table around Leela European Cafe, downtown Denver's bohemian-bar-meets-coffee-shop. Accordingly, there are equal measures of Pabst and java seeping into the two dozen or so patrons crowded together toward the back of the steamy cafe.

Allen, his forehead pouring, checks in with a group of friends clustered around each other, heads bent low. Propped on knees and strewn across the tabletop are drawing pads filled with black-and-white artwork: superheroes, futuristic machinery, a few shy lines that have yet to coalesce into their intended subject. Satisfied, Allen moves on to the next crowded table to see what those artists — and their busy pens — are cooking up.

He keeps sweating. The ink keeps flowing.

"It's a pretty good turnout tonight," says Allen, one of the de facto leaders of Denver's Drink and Draw, a weekly session that brings together local cartoonists to draw, brainstorm, commiserate and, of course, drink. "But it is way too hot in here."

The heat is just getting cranked up. Around the room, many artists are feverishly preparing for a couple of big upcoming projects. Leila Del Duca is pulling double duty: Not only is she finishing the first issue of Hellburg, a sharply drawn autobiographical comic about her childhood in small-town Montana, for Denver's ComicFest convention April 16-17 — an event that almost every local cartoonist of note plans on attending — but she's also the art director of The Cellar Door, a comics-and-literature anthology that's being self-published by the Drink and Draw group. The anthology grew out of Tales to Oddify, a two-issue collection of words and images edited by Michael Prince, another regular. Prince is part of a cabal of writers who began meeting at Leela around the same time as the Drink and Draw crew, and the two groups soon found common ground in the alcohol-and-caffeine-fueled creative hotbed of the cafe.

"We just kind of absorbed each other," says artist Hamza Pecenkovic. While some of the Drink and Draw folk, like Del Duca, work strictly on their own creations, Pecenkovic has aspirations to work for the Big Two — Marvel and DC — rendering their iconic characters. Flush with excitement, he's sitting at a table and recounting his brush with fame at a get-together of famous superhero artists at February's Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle.

Pecenkovic and fellow Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design student Joe Oliver established Denver's Drink and Draw in 2008, patterning their weekly Tuesday-night meetings after the original Drink and Draw, a grassroots movement that's been spontaneously propagating itself around the globe over the past few years. "It got started by a couple of artists and animators in Santa Monica," says Oliver. "They'd just drink and draw on cocktail napkins and scrap paper. When I heard of it, I thought, 'We need that kind of community here in Denver.' So Hamza and I decided to start one."

"It actually got off to a really slow start," says Pecenkovic. "It was literally Joe and I for a really long time. It almost fizzled out a couple times. Then Lonnie and some of the other Squidworks guys came out, and it started to take off."

Squidworks, which holds its own meeting every second Sunday of the month at Enchanted Grounds in Highlands Ranch, is a collective of comics creators that Allen has been a part of since 1995; Squidworks itself is an outgrowth of a previous collective called Acme. Both were founded by Tom Motley, an underground cartoonist who has since moved to New York to work on his career. A more recent Denver breakout — Amy Reeder Hadley, an artist whose work on DC/Vertigo's Madame Xanadu earned her a prestigious Eisner Award nomination last year — also recently moved to New York, the center of the comic-book publishing world.

But for every expatriate, there are dozens of Colorado cartoonists who keep their roots in the local scene and hammer away at their craft — whether alone at their drawing tables or communally at Squidworks, Drink and Draw, or the newer Boulder Comics Club, which convenes every other Wednesday at Borders in Boulder. Some, like Drink and Draw regular Scorpio Steele, have been at it for years. "I draw all my own comics now," says Steele as he shows off his portfolio of stunning, richly detailed comic-book pages. "I tried to break into the big publishers for years, drawing their characters, but now I'd rather do my own."

While Steele and his Drink and Draw comrades are drawing the old-fashioned way, on paper, almost all of them have embraced webcomics — most of them self-published on personal blogs or websites — as the new model of independent comics. Corey Bogans is one: Crouched on a couch by himself amid the heat and noise and bustle of Leela, he shyly hands over a drawing pad full of gorgeous sketches of characters from his current webcomic. Titled "Nommo," it's based on the Dogon mythology of Mali rather than the typical Norse and Greco-Roman mythology that inspires much of the mainstream superhero pantheon.