I had a pretty sweet childhood. You? Atari 2600. Star Wars (the real Star Wars, the Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford one). Legos. Matchbox cars. And comic books, musty, yellow-paged comic books. The faded, muted-color comic books. A whole new visual and written world of "Richie Rich" escapades and "Archie" adventures. Fast forward to 21st-century San Francisco, and I'm itchin' to rediscover my comic book roots. I head down the hill to the Cartoon Art Museum, maneuver past the pre-teens in the lobby, and duck into the galleries.
Oh wow. Rich drawings of Disney's Sleeping Beauty hang in one room. Drool-worthy animation from Little Mermaid and Roger Rabbit in another. I, however, while away my time in the room devoted to Monsters of Webcomics. The exhibit, which winds around the entire room, features ten artists who've taken their comic drawing skillz to the world wide web. Each artist is given about 5 feet of wall space to hang their framed strips. While the lights are a bit too dim for a gallery displaying such detailed work, I am still able to geek out. The featured comics are an eclectic mix ranging from short strips to full-length graphic novels, including comedy, drama, history, science fiction, and socio-political commentary. Any webcomic not represented on the walls is given its due in a virtual gallery. And, yes, I realize the irony of going to a museum to see art created for the web. However, some things cannot be found online. An interview with the artist begins each exhibit. Also on display are drawings detailing the step-by-step process from thumbnail to coloring and rendering to the final page.
These days the world wide web spells doomsday for print media (so sad), but for comic book writers, it means something else. These artists can reach a wider audience and tackle subject matter most comic book publishers wouldn't touch. It's the "path of least resistance...and it's easier to merchandise," says Chris Onstad of Achewood, a popular, character-driven webcomic that follows the tragi-comic lives of woodland creatures. Spike writes Templar, AZ, which follows fictional people in a fictional town in black and white. He says that his comic, being long and plot driven, was destined to be thousands of pages and wanted it to be 100% available at all times to readers so that they could start at the beginning.
The sound of two young women giggling just a few feat away interrupts my reading. I saunter over. It's a black and white pencil-figured comic strip called Hark! A Vagrant! by Kate Beaton, which cartoons historical figures: George Washington celebrating the 4th of July with a young 21st century girl by "crossing the shit over the Delaware" and "eating some barbeques." Santa Claus demanding: "Woman, where are my cookies?" A depressed Mary Shelley distraught that she must constantly refuse the sexual advances of one Lord Byron. In her interview Kate mentions, "If it weren't for the internet, I'm sure no one would have seen my comics aside from my friends."
Another favorite comic from the exhibit is The Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch, who draws dark and twisted gags in lush color or black and white. One comic depicts a soldier's marriage proposal to a young woman by spelling out "Will You Marry Me" using the dead bodies strewn on a Normandy-like beach. Gurewitch says he's chosen to publish online because, "I should not excuse myself from the downfall of the rest of civilization."
The comics I read when I was a kid had glossy covers and carpaccio thin pages with somewhat smudged illustrations, not that I ever minded. I revered them and still have a collection of dozens. Now I'm all grown up -- and so is Archie. He has even proposed to Veronica. Thanks to the web, comic writers can reach a much larger audience, create work in their own time, and bypass any creative constraints of a publisher or editor. The "Monsters" are out and on display at the Cartoon Art Museum. I still miss the musty smell of comic books though.
Very cool heads up: Nicholas Gurewitch of The Perry Bible Fellowship fame will be at the Cartoon Art Museum Friday, August 28, 2009 from 7-9pm to discuss his creative process. Q & A to follow! Call 415-227-8666, ext 313 for reservations.
Monsters of Webcomics is up through December 9, 2009.