“The Rocket was never sold on a newsstand, but instead simply left for free in piles and heaps on the floor.” -- Art Chantry, former art director, The Rocket
It was the Wild West. Unlike comic books, or even traditional newspapers, for the most part you didn't buy an alt-weekly newspaper, much less hold on to it. You picked them up from a pile somewhere, read them or didn't, and then threw them out. And just how many were there? In the years before the Internet how was it even possible to have any idea who was publishing where, especially with papers starting and folding, merging with others, changing names and moving? The industry’s own national trade association kept poor membership records and was (and still is) very selective about who it admits into its ranks. And what counts as an alt-weekly anyway? Some of these papers ran comic strips, but many didn't. Some of these papers just ran comic strips without letting the artists know and didn't pay them.
“It’s unwritten history,” says Mark Newgarden, one the many artists in the current Alt-Weekly Comics show at the Society of Illustrators (SOI) in New York whose work appeared in the ground-breaking New York Press paper published and edited by Russ Smith and art directed by Michael Gentile. “Nobody has really corralled this stuff.”
The Alt-Weekly Comics show, a collaboration between SOI and Small Press Expo (SPX), takes on the ambitious challenge of bringing together representative examples of the work of alternative and underground cartoonists that appeared in small regional newspapers across the country. At the alt-weekly peak in the 1990s, one strip alone, Matt Groening’s Life in Hell, was reportedly printed in 379 of these mostly free publications where people got their information about upcoming local arts and music events. The papers were distributed in bars, clubs, coffee shops, news bins and other places around town. Today, few truly "independent" alt-weeklies still exist and the number continues to dwindle.
While collected works of many of the artists in the SOI show are readily available in print, very little has been written about the impact that these wide-ranging artists had collectively on the comics field and well beyond. For example, if, at age 23, Matt Groening hadn’t gotten a job at the Los Angeles Reader answering phones and delivering papers, there likely would never have been a Life in Hell, which means no The Simpsons, which means… well, “entertainment” would be different.
By appearing in the alt-weeklies, several generations of talented cartoonists gained access to audiences well beyond the world of fans of college papers, mini comics and zines. Their work was brought to the attention of alternative music and other fringe culture fans, especially in Seattle, where it’s two weeklies, The Rocket and The Stranger, thrived during the rise and fall of that city’s grunge era. And like the underground cartoonists of the 1960s and '70s (but to a lesser degree) some of the alt-weekly cartoonists literally became as big as the rock stars whose albums and concert posters their work appeared on.
“There’s a way in which the animation culture of the '90s and 2000s and what goes on now with Adult Swim and all that [has its roots in] the strips in the alternative-weeklies the same way National Lampoon was to early Saturday Night Live,” said Michael Grossman, former art director for The National Lampoon, The Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. “It was sort of this thing that was going on and the exploded into something else that left the original behind.”
More than 100 examples of work of that initial burst of energy are on display at the SOI show, ranging from little seen examples of the original artwork for the strips to pages literally torn from the old newspapers. It is also significant to note that the show takes place at the venerable Society of Illustrators, not somewhere like the CBGB Gallery or Max Fish, places where such exhibits took place during the alt-weekly heyday. Additionally, the show received an enthusiastic endorsement from no less that The New Yorker.
And it’s a great start. As Newgarden has said: "We had to wait a couple of decades for the first large-scale institutional autopsy of the alt-weekly strip, but it’s a good one. Yet it’s only the tip of a yellowing newsprint iceberg. The mainstream commercial success of the packaged 'graphic novel' has insured that model as the dominant narrative thread for comics histories since the ‘90s, further marginalizing so much lively, innovative short-form work that was produced for these ephemeral toss-aways."
Coming on the heels of a panel discussion featuring alt-weekly artists Jules Feiffer, Lynda Barry, Tom Tomorrow, Charles Burns, Ben Katchor, and James Sturm at the 2014 Small Press Expo in Maryland, the SOI show is curated by SPX Executive Director Warren Bernard and Bill Kartalopoulos, series editor of the Best American Comics annual series. On April 12th, the annual Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) festival in New York will feature an Alt-Weekly panel featuring artists Newgarden, Katchor and Michael Kupperman, and Robert Newman, former art director at The Village Voice and editor of Seattle's The Rocket.
In a way, the alt-weeklies of the '80s and '90s can draw a direct line to the early work of a handful of college students at two campuses located, fittingly enough, in Washington State and New York City. In the 1970s, at Evergreen College in Olympia Washington, Barry and Groening (along with another future Alt-Weekly cartoonist Charles Burns) were classmates; Barry’s professional work first appeared in Bob Newman’ Seattle Sun before her college comic, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, began its 30 year run in the Chicago Reader.
“My comic strips were being printed in the local paper for — I think it was $5 a week,” she said in TCJ #132 (November 1989). “Bob Roth called me from the Chicago Reader as the result of an article Matt [Groening] wrote about hip West Coast artists — he threw me in just because he was a buddy, right? And then Bob Roth who runs the Chicago Reader called and wanted to see my comic strips, and I didn’t have any originals. I didn’t know anything about originals, that you don’t give them to newspapers because newspapers lose them. So I had to draw a whole set that night and Federal Express them. So I did, and he started printing them, and he paid $80 a week, and I could live off of that. And because he’s with this newspaper association, the other papers started picking it up. So it was luck. Sheer luck.”
Then Groening’s strips began running in the Los Angeles Reader. “ For a long time the Los Angeles Reader wouldn’t print me, and the Chicago Reader wouldn’t print Matt even though they’re sister publications,” Barry said. “So we both worked on the publishers and the editors to get each other in. It was really funny: when we got into each others’ papers, everything sort of took off for both of us.”
In the late 1970s, in New York at The School of Visual Arts, underground cartoonist Art Spiegelman was teaching classes attended by Newgarden, Kaz (whose early work was already appearing in New York Rocker), and Drew Friedman, whose early work was appeared in a different type of Alt-Weekly, the notorious Screw. Their work then appeared in Spiegelman’s avant-garde comix magazine Raw, along with other future alt-weekly artists Ben Katchor and Burns. When New York Press launched in 1988—initially as an editorially conservative alternative to the ultra-liberal Village Voice, which was then running strips by long-time contributors Feiffer, Mark Alan Stamaty, and Stan Mack—it published strips by Newgarden, Katchor and Burns in its very first issue. Raw alumni members Kaz and Beyer joined soon afterwards, as did a whole slew of alt artists like Tony Millionaire, Gary Panter, Carol Lay, Doug Allen, and many others.
Competition from the New York Press was one of the reasons Grossman brought Barry and Groening to the pages of the Voice. “New York Press was starting at the time and there was a whole group of more contemporary cartoonists who were not being represented,” at the Voice, he said. “Certainly Lynda and Matt were at the head [of this younger group], and I was lobbying hard to make it work and get them into the paper, so that we were more multi-generational and not just the Old Guard, as represented by Feiffer in particular. I would have liked to have gone further, particularly when the New York Press broke the ground where you could have strips all through the paper—you could have strips in the classifieds—and we were driven economically by our classifieds so I was really pushing hard for us to start running comics in our classified section to drive non-classified readers back there. I didn’t manage to pull that off, but I did manage to get Lynda and Matt into the paper.“
Across the country, in Seattle, Newman’s The Rocket and James Sturm’s The Stranger were publishing strips, covers and illustration by cartoonists like Jim Woodring, Peter Bagge, Gary Panter, and Roberta Gregory, and in Los Angeles and elsewhere, there were publications like the LA Reader, the paper that first published Life in Hell and film director David Lynch’s The Angriest Dog in the World. For years, Doug Allen’s Steven ran in just one paper, The New Paper, in Rhode Island. Chris Ware’s strips started in a student newspaper, The Daily Texan, before making it in the Chicago papers, New City, and later Chicago Reader. Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World appeared in more than 140 publications in the U.S. and Canada, while Derf’s The City began in the Cleveland Edition before eventually reaching 140 papers nationally.
Those papers were part of a long-tradition of non-mainstream comic strips appearing in non-mainstream news outlets, which is represented in the Alt-Weekly show via original examples of Feiffer’s Village Voice strip and tear sheets and covers from Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Denis Kitchen, Spain Rodriguez, Ron Cobb, Vaughn Bode and Gilbert Shelton from the East Village Other and the LA Free Press. The show also features work by Ware, Kupperman, Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Derf, Alison Bechdel, Marc Bell, Ellen Forney, Keith Knight, Ward Sutton, Jen Sorensen, R. Sikoryak, Karl Stevens and Shannon Wheeler.
To the visitor, the show has much to offer to technique geeks seeking to view original work by these artists. For those looking at originals by Burns, Newgarden, Lay, Allen, and Groening for the first time, the freshness of the originals, now decades old, may be surprising. For the most part, these pieces appear "as is," with little signs of penciling or Wite-Out. By contrast, the one Ware original displays the numerous revisions and break downs he conducted before completion. Other surprises are the relative "smallness" of Mark Beyer's original strips, as well as the minute intricacy of Mark Alan Stamaty's pieces. The tear sheets reveal the pieces in their original context, floating along side personal ads and other editorial content as they ran in the paper and serve as a reminder that, unlike comic books or even magazines, in their original form, these strips were quickly read, or not read, and then thrown away.
There are no good records of just how many alt-weeklies there were at their peak, which its trade association, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, says was the 1990s in terms of revenues and circulation. Corporate mergers and the internet both contributed to what the Pew Research Center recently called a time of “challenge and turmoil in the ‘alt weekly’ world… the industry has been beset by the disruption affecting the broader newspaper business—including declining circulation, ownership changes and the closing of some notable publications…One of the largest and best-known alternative weeklies, the Boston Phoenix closed in 2013 after 47 years. The Honolulu Weekly and Urban Tulsa (OK)—both more than 20 years old—also went out of business in 2013. In addition, two rival weeklies Detroit Metro Times and Real Detroit, merged into one publication in May 2014.” Even at their strongest, there were an awful lot of those newspapers being printed and thrown away, something that makes capturing the entire breadth of cartoonists contributing to them challenging.
Bill Kartalopoulos: “I think one thing that's tricky about discussing the alt-weeklies is that it's very easy to feel that you have a comprehensive point of view on this subject, when you might actually only have a partial point of view based on the region that you were reading papers in, particularly if you were living on the East or West Coast where many of the most widely syndicated artists were from. I think there are probably still some interesting cartoonists who were more regional who we haven't caught up with yet.“
Another challenge at the time was collecting money from some of the smaller publications the cartoonists’ work appeared in. “It was insane,” said Newgarden. “You'd have to spend $37 on multiple phone calls to some far flung papers to try and get paid your $15. And others just stole them and never paid anything.”
While some of the higher syndicated artists did better than others financially, paydays could also come through exposure and artistic freedom. Because of the political bent of most of the alternative weeklies, Grossman said the artists were allowed to some “wilder things than they would have been able to later, when working in the constrains of network television or [traditional media]. The fact of the financial constraints of many of the alternative weeklies was that we didn’t have money but at least you could have freedom.”
Newgarden says his time doing his strip was “one of the most productive and satisfying periods in my own career. These newspapers provided me with a context for comics that could be personal, experimental, shape-shifting and spontaneous, offering a true dialogue with a sizable and ever engaged audience… There was nothing like walking the streets of the city and finding what had been tacked to my drawing board only hours before, now lining it’s gutters, block after block. What more confirmation could any artist want that they were of their time?”
Thanks in no small part to their freshly printed and ever-growing alt-weekly portfolios, many of these artists began to make their way into more traditional media outlets. The weeklies gave the artists deadlines, let them build an audience, and gave them fan and hate mail. “It’s kind of like what was happening in the early days of comics, except you weren’t making money,” said The Stranger’s James Sturm. “But being in an Alternative-Weekly, you got gigs.”
When Anne D. Bernstein, an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine during the mid-'90s, became the first editor of its comic section she approached many of the artists who were then working regularly in the Alt-Weeklies and somehow figured out a way to get them to produce worth that was appropriate for her children’s magazine. “Nickelodeon [the TV network] had established this creator-driven animation department where it had John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy and Klasky Csupo's Rugrats, where every show had a different style, so I think that was why they let me go for this approach, which was inspired by the amazing cartoonists from the underground and weeklies and National Lampoon, which is really the first publication I saw that had a comics section where every strip had a unique personal voice and style,” said Bernstein, who brought in artists like Kaz, Newgarden, Sam Henderson, Kim and Simon Deitch, David Mazzuchelli, Jason Lutes, Mark Martin, Richard Sala and many others. “I was aware of this whole group of people whose work was really incredible, but a lot of them weren’t making a good living, so it was like I could get some of them regular income and help them pay their rent. I made a list of all the cartoonists whose work I loved--from the underground era through the ‘younger generation’ (people like Kaz and Newgarden, who are now established mature masters themselves) and asked them to contribute to the magazine.”
“I’m a big comics fan from way back and I’ve had three particular gigs that have let me exercise to the best of my ability to kind of shoehorn comics in places where they sometime weren’t wanted,” said Grossman, who regularly gave Alt-Weekly types work when he moved to Entertainment Weekly. Grossman says the weeklies gave many artists who had been typecast as strictly cartoonists the chance to do covers and other interior work. “It gave them the beginnings of having illustration careers or split careers, where they were still doing strip stuff but also other work. I’m just a fan of ‘comic style’ [art], whether it is a strip or whether it’s a cover or another illustration.”
In the mid-90s, Kaz once told me that he thought another reason why alternative-type cartoonists were beginning to get more regular work in mainstream publications at that time was because many of the art director were influenced and were fans of the same materials the artists themselves were. “The art directors are now our age and they like the same stuff that we do,” he said. But as he told me in an interview that ran in issue 186 of The Comics Journal in 1996, “The extremes are still hard to put over on the general public…There are examples of success stories of great weird stuff, Tim Burton, The Simpsons. So it’s part of the evolutionary art process. Someone takes a chance with something really weird or you have a visionary artist with a small audience and somebody else takes a piece of it with a much broader appeal and that becomes successful…Life in Hell has the attitude of an underground comic. But it’s written more professionally and it’s easier to look at.”
The lines have continued to blur. Around the time of that interview in the '90s, Kaz was beginning to take the initial steps toward getting into mainstream animation, which later saw him launch as successful career working as a writer and storyboard artist on SpongeBob, Phineas and Ferb, and Camp Lazlo. Alt-weekly cartoonist Tony Millionaire’s Drinky Crow character’s first appearance in animation was on Saturday Night Live before later running for several seasons on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program. Charles Burns’ characters were adapted for MTV’s Liquid Television. Newgarden and Panter both produced original interactive web cartoon series for Cartoon Network. Alison Bechdel won a MacArthur “Genius” Award. Chris Ware’s art was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial. Ben Katchor won MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships.
“There is a history here that is begging to be told before these cheap weeklies crumble (I can testify that 1909 Little Nemo Sunday pages are generally holding up better than 1990 issues of the New York Press) and our post-newsprint memories succumb to data rot,” said Newgarden.
Finally, another piece of this history belongs to the artists whose early work appeared in New York’s Screw, Al Goldstein’s pornographic weekly tabloid that included work by several artists in the SOI show, including Crumb, Spain, Kim Deitch, Millionaire, Kaz and Kupperman, and even Wally Wood and Will Eisner. Indeed, Screw’s logo was designed by the legendary Milton Glaser and it’s first art director was an under-aged Steven Heller, later the senior art director of The New York Times. It, too, gave many a struggling young artist a check to help pay the rent over the span of the 35 years it was published.
Is it only a matter of time before an X-rated show featuring that work is mounted at some actual gallery somewhere? We can only hope.