Making a Mountain – Lighthouse Writers Workshop – Feb 24, 2017

I was honored to be asked to do a presentation about my life and artwork at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop’s quarterly event ‘Making a Mountain’ on Feb 24, 2017. In addition to showing slides of my comics and artwork, I also gave a short speech.

Here is the full text:

LIGHTHO– USE – Making a Mountain.

There was always art in my house. My uncle was a painter. So, as a child, I was always surrounded by art. We would visit his house and I would see these pieces painted on plywood as well as scattered around his studio and think “I want to do this.” Now I could have followed his lead and been a painter and create static scenes filled with color, but I also wanted to tell stories. So, I could have been a writer, but I also still wanted to create images. I chose to be a cartoonist.

There is a quote I once saw, I think it was from the cartoonist Robert Williams, that said “If you ever fail at being a cartoonist, you can still always be an artist.”

How did I find comics? Like almost everyone else as a young child, it started with newspaper strips: Garfield, Far Side, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes. But then you want more. Soon after, it became Mad Magazine, where I discovered the artwork of Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Wally Wood, and Harvey Kurtzman. Of course, I didn’t know their names. Just their art. The names came years later.

As I hit awkward adolescence, it was superheroes that I found among the racks at 7-11: Batman, Daredevil, and the X-Men. White long boxes filled with comics and backing boards started appearing in my room. I grew older, got into college, and discovered the other side: indy comics like Milk & Cheese, Cerebus, Love and Rockets, Hate, Eightball, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, Palookaville, Billy Coorigan, Black Hole, etc. With all of those books came the idea that you can do stories without capes, smaller stories that says something about your life and surroundings.

Eventually, I worked at a comic book store for a couple years where I learned more about the history of the field and discovered older artists that opened my mind up on what the craft could be: Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and the names of all those Mad Magazine artists that I knew so well.

It was around this time that I started to get my own ideas of what I wanted to do and started to create my own comics and zines. My original pages were pretty raw stuff about my life and relationships. After a few years, I started moving away from that and into my own fictional stories. Felt that people would not be interested in me talking about how depressing I thought my life was.

Why did comics appeal to me? Well, it’s an open field. You can do anything. Everyone has a different styles, points of view, and approaches on an art as well as story level. You want to do a small story about being raised in a fundamentalist household? You can do that through comics. A teen’s search for meaning and sexuality? Comics. A story about a giant space squid’s bloody invasion of Earth? Comics.

I was doing self-published and distributed zines for about ten years before a publisher picked up my book. That was called ‘Byron’ and it was published by SLG Publishing in 2009. A second series started appearing online, but I found it not to be very fun. Looking back, I was simply doing the exact same thing that hundreds of other cartoonists were churning out. It wasn’t my own voice and I grew bored.

So then, what is my voice? What was it that I have to say that is different from everyone one else. This seems to be something all artists have to come to terms with. When I started thinking about it, the one thing that has always fascinated me, which also seems to put others to sleep is history. The idea of what has happened before and how did we get to this moment. What are the stories that make up a place? I think about this constantly and can easily see another reality where I would have wound up being some sort of teacher in this if I had any sort of patience with instructing students.

Now, these sorts of history stories are usually in two forms: The grand and the small. The grand stories being: This building was built over 100 years ago, several people died in the construction, and Teddy Roosevelt once slept here. The small stories being the streetwise tale of a kid living on the street just trying to make it through her day. Both these sorts of stories are interwoven and make up a community, city, and culture.

The other thing that I find myself drawn to are the rebels, the outsiders, oddballs, artists, musicians, and drunks: The Beats, Howlin Wolf, Joe Strummer, Hemingway, Thelonious Monk, Hunter S, Bukowski, Tom Waits, and the Pogues. How could I bring all this together?

Now, it didn’t come at me overnight. Inspiration originally came from smallest of places: drinking in a bar.

What would make up my current comic career started as a drunken conversation, likely at the Lion’s Lair around the corner. The conversation started randomly, as drunken conversations always do, looking around and asking each other: Who is the King of the City? Since Colfax is pretty much the main artery and right outside the door, it was thought that any such person would likely some sort of hobo king.

This idea about the city being personified moved onto stories about Colfax itself and what makes up a city. As you could likely guess, my friends and I spend a lot of time in the bars. One of the things that seems to seep into you, almost unconsciously, are the stories that surround you in these places. They could be weird, odd, brilliant things that happen while you are there: Some drunk homeless guy wanders in, pukes, and slips in his own vomit. Or things that happened while you were away: did you hear about that one time that the bar back was sleeping above in the crawl space and fell through the ceiling into the bar? or even things with deeper pathos: someone alone at the far end of the place wondering aloud where they are going to stay that night.

All of these are small stories make up the history of a place. So, I started collecting, telling them, and slowly developing my own voice. 30 MILES OF CRAZY! started weekly back in June 2013. The name itself comes from Colfax itself, which is approximately 30 miles long. Though it started out as stories about Colfax and Denver, it’s it quickly moved to stories from other cities as well. Boston, Philly, San Francisco, anywhere. If you have a good story, I wanted to hear it.

I’ve always called my comic “True-ish Tales of the City”, True-ish since there is almost always a slight adjustment for artistic integrity. However, all the stories are true, either witnessed by myself, my friends, or even related to me. I’ve been doing the comic long enough that people seek me out, hoping to get their stories illustrated. In this sense, the comic takes on an almost oral history of life on the streets. And these are not just stories about drinking and bars, though they can have that aspect to it. These are all stories about the city, the events, happenings, characters and strange people that you meet … and yes, in the bars as well. I like to view my slice of life comics as something akin to a Tom Waits’ song or a Bukowski short stories. Things that happen late at night, around last call when people are despairing or lonely. I want to tell stories that may make you laugh, but may also rip your heart out as well.

I’m also using this comic as a stage that I set up to explore some of my own issues, like my relationship with my father, which is all tied up to my introduction to alcohol and bars. Again with comics, you can do anything.

I grew up on the East Coast, spending most of my life in Philadelphia and in Boston. Both cities have a strong historical vein running through them, which could be another reason this subject has always fascinated me. Looking back though, one of the reasons I originally moved to Denver was that I had spent my entire life along the East Coast. Sure Boston and Philly are about a 6 hour drive apart, but culturally they are pretty much the same with slightly odder accents. I wanted to experience a different culture in the West. I’ve been here ten years now. Sure there are superficially differences and points of view, but the people are still the same. The small stories that I hear in Denver are pretty much the exact same ones that I hear back in Boston. I know that it’s only about 2000 miles apart (I know that cause I looked it up), but this still makes me happy. That a Chowdahed on the Bay and some rhinestone cowboy-wannabe at Union Station can somehow relate. That even in slightly different cultures, we still experience the same things, same troubles, and tell the same stories.

This has become my love. Finding and telling these stories. Stories about people, their views, their struggles, and the city.

Now there is also the other kind of stories that I mentioned. The GRAND stories. Yes, I have been here for a decade, but in some ways Denver still confuses me. I still encounter some things that makes me baffled like a dog shown a card trick. One of the ways I found to deal with this confusion is to figure out the grand stories of the city around me. Again, this started out as something that I would do on my own. I’d be out with friends walking through a park and someone would casually mention: Hey, have you heard about all the bodies buried here under Cheesman Park? … sudden stunned amazement. Tell me more… This how it starts to lure you in.

I got my chance to start telling my own versions of these grand stories in 2015 when the Westword hired me to be their new cartoonist. This was the start of The DENVER BOOTLEG. Again, this was something I had to work on and develop. I was originally hired to tell the stories of the various venues in the city: Larimer Lounge, Lion’s Lair, Bluebird, etc. This is why it was named The DENVER BOOTLEG (Denver Boot… Bootleg music… I thought it was clever.) It was only when I pointed out to my editor about a year or so in that there is only a finite amount of venues in the city that I was finally able to move the comic into a more historical direction: The Rainbow Music Hall, Denver’s Great White Way, The Bonfires Memorial Theatre, and Cheesman Park.

Now, it is all great to be able to create and show these comics, hopefully to be read, entertain, and maybe teach someone. In the end, these are still comics. There is a great Jack Kirby’s quote that every cartoonist worth his salt seems to know: “Comics will break your heart.”

So, what are the difficulties on being a cartoonist, aside from ink stained fingers? Well, there are a few.

To start off, there is the basic view of comics that it’s a childish, a thing of superheroes, and adolescent power fantasies. That it’s a low art, something cheap to be found in newspapers. That it’s something cute and free to be found on the internet. That with the decline in publishing, it’s a dying art form. All of this is to say… there is little respect or money in it.

It’s a lot of work as well. You can spend hours working on a single page, only to have a reader zip through that same story in moments.

Also, as much as people like think that you are only drawing funny little pictures all day, there is also the hours you have to spend plugging away your work on websites, various social media sites, and traveling to conventions. There is always the problem with getting your work in front of someone. Either through finding a publisher, or a distributor, or online, or in their hand at shows. I’ve always called this “banging your head on the wall of indifference.” Like most things, you need a degree of luck, a lot of persistence, and wade through many rejection letters. Things are not impossible, but can be difficult.

The great thing about being a cartoonist or any art really, is that anyone can do it. The bad thing about it is that anyone can do it. There is so much out there that it can be hard to be heard over all of the noise.

Then why do I or anyone do it? Cause I love art. I love telling stories. I love comics. And I cannot see myself doing anything else.

Thank you.