Longform

Denver cartoonists are inking big

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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."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller