Denver cartoonists are inking big

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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."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller