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.

Allen, on the other hand, hasn't drawn a line yet tonight. Still on the move and with little more than a half-empty beer bottle to show for his expenditure of energy, he seems to relish his role as elder statesman — and perhaps cheerleader — of the group.

"To be honest, I don't get a lot of work done at Drink and Draw," he says with a laugh. "I get more work done when I'm by myself. It's all about getting exposed to different ideas and different approaches, different influences. And having a good time."

Across the continent from this Denver gathering, John Porcellino is having a good time of his own. Currently touring for his latest graphic novel, Map of My Heart, he's in Gainesville giving a keynote lecture to the literature department at the University of Florida.

A world-renowned cartoonist — and a sporadic resident of Denver since 1992 — Porcellino is enjoying the kind of success that most up-and-comers back home only dream of. But it hasn't come easily. After years of battling illness, anxiety and the fluctuating fortune of the full-time cartoonist, he's turned his humble, self-published King-Cat Comics into a phenomenon. The series started in 1989, and since then it's been collected into both trade paperback and hardcover — including Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, released by Zak Sally, former bassist of the legendary indie-rock band Low, which won Porcellino a coveted Ignatz Award for excellence in small-press comics. Map of My Heart is his third book for the high-profile alternative publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Still, Porcellino continues to release his regular issues of King-Cat the way he always has: in small booklets mailed to his hundreds of subscribers.

Now that Porcellino's star has risen, he's become an icon in the Denver comics scene. And while he passionately loves the sense of community that's emerged locally, he feels almost as alone as he ever did, back when comics weren't cool and he was relatively unknown.

"When I moved to Denver in 1992, there were the Acme guys, Tom Motley and his group. But I was the new guy in town," recalls Porcellino. "I was always off on my own. Personally, I never was a guy who could do the group thing. I like having other cartoonists around, but when it turns into a thing with schedules and meetings and stuff, I'm too much of a loner."

That didn't keep Porcellino from helping put together the Cowtown Comix Festival, a one-day celebration of the local scene last June at the LoDo Tattered Cover. Organized with Allen and fellow artists Felix Tannenbaum, Patty Leidy and Westword contributor Noah Van Sciver, Cowtown grew out of the Denver Zine Fest, an annual convention hosted by the Denver Zine Library that spotlighted self-publishers of all formats and genres. By focusing on comics, Cowtown brought an added measure of solidarity to the scene.

"It seemed there was a void, so we tried to fill it," explains Porcellino. "I was there with my reflective little comics about everyday life, and we had people doing zombie comics. It really ran the gamut. A lot of people who came seemed very surprised at how many local cartoonists there are, not to mention the diversity."

One person surprised by the success of Cowtown was Dan Stafford, who, along with business partner Luke Janes, owns and staffs Kilgore Used Books and Comics in Capitol Hill. "I'll be honest," confesses Stafford. "When John put on the Cowtown Comix Fest last year, I thought, 'They're doing it at Tattered Cover? That's a pretty big room.' I was worried there wouldn't be anyone there. I figured I'd better go, just so they knew there was at least one person in Denver who supported what they're doing. So I had this totally condescending attitude toward it. But when I showed up, the room was packed. They didn't need me. They were fine."

Stafford's and Janes's patronage of the local comics scene runs deep. After Kilgore opened in 2008, its shelves were soon stocked with locally produced comics from a broad range of cartoonists, who historically have a hard time getting traditional comic-book shops to carry their modest, handmade pamphlets.

"There's this kid named Sam Spina, a really fantastic cartoonist, who just moved here from South Carolina," says Stafford. "When Sam came into Kilgore the first time, he looked really tired and unhappy. He said, 'I see you guys sell comics. Do you carry local stuff?' I was like, 'Yeah, definitely.' And he said, 'Really?' As it turns out, he'd gone to all the bookstores and comic shops in town to try to sell his mini-comics, but no one would take them. Sam was saying exasperatedly, 'But John Porcellino lives here! How can it not be the greatest comics town on earth?' The fact that John lived out here was one of the reasons Denver seemed like a cool place to him."

Porcellino has become such a focal point of the alternative comics scene that Stafford, a former film student, is accompanying him on his current tour, camera in hand. He plans on turning the footage — which includes interviews with nationally lauded cartoonists such as Jeffrey Brown and Ivan Brunetti, both of whom are ardent King-Cat fans — into a documentary. Stafford and Janes have also thrown release parties for local cartoonists and commissioned artwork from Porcellino for the store, which employs Van Sciver. The sixth issue of Van Sciver's scathingly hilarious Blammo will be released later this year by Kilgore.

Blammo #6 will be Kilgore's first venture into publishing — not that Van Sciver has a lack of people lining up to release his work. Baltimore-based Atomic Books is collecting the first five issues of Blammo into a trade paperback, and Van Sciver's work appears regularly on the auspicious pages of periodicals like The Comics Journal and Mome, both published by Fantagraphics, the world's leading purveyor of alternative comics. The cartoonist is also working on his first graphic novel, The Hypo.

"It's the story of Abraham Lincoln's life from 1838 to 1842," says Van Sciver of his ambitious new project. "I'd just like to be able to make a living doing exactly what I want to do with comics. I don't want to draw Archie comics or whatever just to survive. Comics based on real life have more appeal to me than Wolverine or whatever."

Tannenbaum, on the other hand, still has warm feelings for the X-Men comics of his youth. "I grew up obsessed with the Marvel stuff of the '80s," he admits. But while attending the Art Institute of Chicago in the '90s — at the same time cartoonist Chris Ware, creator of the highly acclaimed Acme Novelty Library, was taking classes — he started making comics that were crisp, highly stylized and informed by the eye-popping iconography of pop art. Not that comics were in any way part of the school's curriculum. "The Art Institute was a super-progressive school, but when I was there, comics were totally verboten," Tannenbaum recalls. "They were shunned. There were two or three of us there who drew comics, but we just pushed up our glasses and kept to ourselves."

After returning to Denver and finding little traction in architecture school, he went back to making art — first through paintings, then comics. "I did some painting and had a little success with that," he says. "I even had some stuff at Rule Gallery. But my love of art really is in comics." He found a small bit of success being published online by Georgia's Top Shelf Comix, then applied for a Xeric Foundation grant — from a fund set up by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird to support self-published comics projects — and won an award in 2008.

"That gave me a little recognition, a foot in the door," says Tannenbaum. "And it gave me the money to self-publish my book, The Chronicles of Some Made. I got all kinds of good reviews, but I made so little money. I don't know how many thousands of hours I put into that thing, and I ended up making $300 for the whole effort. I made, I don't know, 25 cents an hour doing that comic. I really loved doing it, and I'm really proud of it. But I realized doing comics is a lifestyle. You have to spend all this time alone, working really hard for really small returns." Tannenbaum still draws comics, but he's returned to architecture school and is focusing his attention on a vocation with far more liquidity and stability.

Karl Christian Krumpholz has no such fall-back plan; a full-time illustrator and comics artist, he moved to Denver in 2005 after living in Boston and Philadelphia. And according to him, Denver's comics scene beats them both. "There are cartoonists in Philadelphia and Boston, but, like most cartoonists, they're locked up in their studio and doing things on their own," says Krumpholz. "In Denver, there is an actual community of people who get together and talk with each other. It's very supportive. I talk to so many cartoonists all over the country, and they're all sitting at their drawing boards, wondering if anyone's paying attention."

Krumpholz is far from a household name, but attention has been coming his way with greater frequency lately. He's finishing the sequel to his 2007 gothic-horror graphic novel, Byron: Mad, Bad and Dangerous, for California publisher SLG, in addition to working on a true-life comic book about a group of American convicts who fought in World War I. And like many of his peers, he's latched onto the once second-class form of webcomics.

"I'm going to start serializing my World War I book on the web from the get-go," says Krumpholz. "Years ago, the model of the comic-book industry was Marvel and DC; then, in the '90s, everything changed with the rise of the independent publishers. But in the last five years, it's changed with webcomics. It's brilliant. You can have your own publishing company from your desk. It actually frees you up a lot more as an artist. Rather than working and working and hoping one day you're good enough for Marvel or DC, you just do it yourself."

Melanie Gillman, a 22-year-old cartoonist and University of Colorado student, is of the same mind. "I definitely want to self-publish," she says. "It gives me a lot of freedom. I can publish whatever I want, like comics about queer subjects or LGBT characters. I don't have to answer to any editors with agendas or things that they don't want. It allows me to make my work what I want it to be."

Gillman began drawing her candid, emotionally acute comics two years ago, but it wasn't out of any professional aspiration. "I've always been a writer, but I got frustrated by the difficulty of creating broad visual images with prose," she says. "I was really attracted to the idea of being able to incorporate imagery along with words, to add an extra dimension to them. You can expand on things in a way you're not able to when you only have language available to you."

Besides publishing comics on her blog, Gillman also photocopies her own mini-comics — but for the most part, she doesn't sell them. "I'll just carry a stack around with me wherever I go and leave them on public bulletin boards or places where people leave pamphlets," she explains. "I'll sneak a pile of mini-comics in there for people to pick up. And they do. I've actually had some success with leaving comics in random public places."

That same method of guerrilla distribution is being used by Gillman's Boulder Comics Club, a group of cartoonists that meets every other Wednesday. The club recently released a mini-anthology titled simply Boulder Comics Volume One, copies of which might unexpectedly be found under a band flier or takeout menu somewhere in town. Unfortunately, the group will be losing Gillman soon: She's been accepted into Vermont's Center for Cartoon Studies, a school that promotes comics as true art and literature and offers a Masters of Fine Art program in cartooning.

"Once I started, the act of drawing comics became extremely addictive," says Gillman. "It worked itself into almost every aspect of my life. I'd always be popping open my notebook in class and doodling things, and they'd turn into comics. Then I'd go home and finish them instead of doing homework. At some point I just realized I should try to go to school for this."

While attending CU, Gillman was able to get a small but significant taste of what her Center for Cartoon Studies classes might look like. Her former teacher, William Kuskin, is an associate professor of English at CU who has been holding courses on comics as literature for the past two years, including one that studies graphic novels like Maus and Watchmen alongside such works of postmodern literature as Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

"I started it on a lark," says Kuskin. "I applied for a grant to fund a summer course. I put together a comic of my own and sent it in as part of the application, and it worked."

Like many comics fans working in the academic world, Kuskin believes in the aesthetic and cultural importance of the form. At the same time, he teaches the unabridged history of the comic book in all its pulpy glory, from the golden age of superheroes in the early twentieth century on up. He's even brought Maus's Art Speigelman to campus to speak about his groundbreaking Holocaust graphic novel. "All the terminology used to examine literature fits comics perfectly," Kuskin says. "Queer theory, post-colonial studies — it's all in there. English departments can be very insular. We're into our own thing, and we think we know better than you. Teaching comics has allowed me to at least begin to break that down a bit. Right now, literature departments need comics a lot more than comics need literature departments. Literature needs to claim comics as part of its world."

When not drawing strips of his own, Squidworks' Stan Yan also teaches comics — but he comes at it from the opposite direction. Yan's classes at the Community College of Aurora — where students can earn an associate's degree in graphic storytelling — take a more vocational, nuts-and-bolts approach.

That pragmatism suits Yan, a battle-hardened veteran of the comics scene. His graceful, humorous artwork and sly sense of absurdity have been a staple of Denver's cartooning landscape for over a decade, and his steadfast leadership of Squidworks — both its bi-weekly meetings and its extensive online shop — has led to a stable yet vibrant collective that seeks to advance the professional agendas of all involved.

If Squidworks seems more businesslike than Drink and Draw, that's because it is: Yan, a husband and father, worked as a stockbroker. "I did that for about thirteen years," he notes. "I always made time to come home and work on my graphic novel three or four hours a night. But after getting laid off twice in three years, I decided I'd make a go at being a comic-book artist. I was able to hit the ground running, since I already had a portfolio to show. My own measurement of success is being able to continue doing this without being a financial burden on my household."

Still, Yan's awareness of the bottom line hasn't affected his integrity one bit. "Lots of cartoonists work on projects that they don't enjoy and that they don't really care for," he says. "They're just doing it for the money. If I was going to do that, I might as well go back to being a stockbroker. My goal is basically to just continue enjoying what I do. I've seen too many people print 5,000 copies of their first comic book, thinking they're going to make a big splash in the industry. Then it never goes anywhere, and they run out of money and enthusiasm. I'm basically just trying to cultivate interest in the medium. And maybe stay alive."

For most artists, staying alive by drawing comics is a funny-book fairy tale. The comics world — a shrinking pool like every other facet of the publishing industry — is fighting to keep up with changing tastes, new technologies and an economy that's far from hospitable to a medium that's long been considered pop culture's most disposable.

Add to that the fact that drawing comics is one of the most hermetic, self-absorbed activities known to man, and you've got a recipe for isolation — if not full-on depression. More than any other reason, that's why groups like Squidworks, the Boulder Comics Club and Drink and Draw are thriving.

"I think there's kind of a stereotype of cartoonists as cave-dwellers," says Gillman. "They have their tiny, dark, poorly ventilated studios, and they sit there drawing all day. You never hear a word from them. One of the good things about having a group like ours is it reminds you that drawing comics is a sane and logical practice. This isn't some crazy obsession that you have to do in the darkness of your own room. It's a social activity. It's something you need to share with other people."

Krumpholz, who has more experience networking and attending national comic-book conventions than most local artists, still knows the existential sting of being a comics creator. "Cartoonists, all artists, are a neurotic lot," he says. "When you get out and talk to other cartoonists, it brings you back to reality. It makes you say, 'Okay, I'm not going insane. People are paying attention.' You're sharing what you're going through, so you don't have to cry in the corner by yourself."

Not all cartoonists, though, draw well with others. "I appreciate and enjoy getting together with other cartoonists and talking about comics," says Tannenbaum, "but to me, the work itself will always be solitary."

Van Sciver agrees, though he has a unique perspective: His older brother, Ethan Van Sciver, is a successful artist who works on mainstream comics like Green Lantern, and the two grew up drawing together. "Ethan had his bedroom up in the attic," he recalls, "and I'd go up there and draw with him. His little comic at the time was called Cyber Frog. I just thought he could teach me some stuff. But when I became a teenager, I started drawing by myself. It was just more comfortable. I don't even think I could draw with somebody around.

"I don't draw comics to be social," he adds. "People who draw comics are quiet, introverted social rejects. I understand hanging out with other people who draw comics, but I would never go draw with them. I come from the opposite side of things, I guess."

Porcellino, too, admits he has a hard time drawing comics in front of others — an ironic kind of reservation for someone who has no qualms about putting the most intimate details of his life into his work. But with his recent upsurge of notoriety, he's been forced to place himself in the public eye on a regular basis via bookstore tours and appearances at schools, libraries and universities. He's come to embrace it, despite his reticence.

"It's really rewarding to get out there," says Porcellino. "As I get older, it becomes clear to me that the main reason I do comics is to try to have that connection with people. I had such a hard time feeling connected when I was younger, because I felt so shy and weird and self-conscious. So I found this way of communicating that felt good to me. And now that I'm more comfortable with who I am, it's awesome to go out and talk to a room full of people and meet them and shake their hands. Now I have this connection with people on a personal level, as human beings. That's the great thing about being a cartoonist nowadays. I just love it."

After a quick break in the cool night air, Allen comes back into Leela looking refreshed. It's after nine, and tonight's Drink and Draw has hit its stride. The tables are piled two deep in sketchpads and portfolios, while a swirl of human chatter and motion whirls around the cafe, as colorful and kinetic as the artwork itself. His cheerleading duties mostly done for the night, Allen sits down with a notebook, his pen poised over one of his many ongoing projects — the latest being an ambitious graphic novel titled Fighters and Lovers.

"The earliest comic I remember making is an emulation of Captain Klutz out of Mad magazine," he remembers with a laugh. "When I was a young kid, I was very secluded. My mother's from Korea, and English wasn't her first language, so I taught myself how to read using her how-to-learn-English books, which had lots of words and pictures together. From there I got into superhero comics. Superheroes are to comics what rock and roll is to music. It always catches your attention, and they made me realize the power of the medium. I think it was in third grade that I brought one of my own comics to Show and Tell. All the other kids brought these cool toys and gadgets, and I brought this comic that I drew on notebook paper. It was hilarious."

Allen never lost that exhibitionist streak. And while almost every artist at Drink and Draw — even the quiet ones, like Corey Bogans — is happy to show off his latest pages, there's doesn't seem to be a hint of ego in the air.

"The approach I've learned at Squidworks and Drink and Draw is not to be judgmental," says Allen. "I can still absolutely respect and admire stuff that I would never make. Whether we're doing autobiographical comics or superhero comics, all of us are here to look at each other's work and offer critiques and suggestions. You get exposed to different ideas and different approaches, different influences. You've got all these comics geeks talking about comics, and they speak each other's language.

"Sometimes you make comics, sending them out to publishers, and you get rejection letters or no response at all," he adds. "It feels really friggin' lonely, and you start to question what the hell it is you're doing. You start to question the comics medium itself. These groups inspire me. These people have been through the same sort of struggles I have. They're really excited about comics, and that's contagious. It really reinvigorates me."

Not that Allen seems to need much invigorating. "I made up my mind long ago that, even if I had to work a crappy job for the rest of my life, I was going to do this," he says. "I love comics. I just want to make the best art I can, and hopefully people will read it. If a publisher came along and offered me a wider audience, that would be great. But it's more important that I make something I'm happy with. I just want to make comics, and I hope I always do."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller