(revised April 22, 2011)
I have been meaning to put up a page of cartoonist sketches on this website for some time. In October 2006 I got to attend the Small Press Expo ("SPX"), an independent comix conference in Bethesda, Maryland, and in June 2007 I attended the MoCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartooning Art) Art Festival in NYC; at each event I had a chance to sketch a few of my favorite cartoonists, so now I have enough material to make this page worthwhile.
The first four drawings were done at the October 2006 Small Press Expo:
Rick Veitch works comfortably in both the mainstream and independent comics worlds. His indy comics hearken back to the underground esthetic, I would say. I was especially taken by his "Rare Bit Fiends" series of comics based on dreams, which features an astonishing drawing of the author passing through a brick wall, not effortlessly as in the movies but very deliberately finding his way through the weak spots in the mortar. I saw Rick again at the MoCCAfest and bought his new collection, Shiny Beasts. This is a mostly full color book of science fiction stories from Marvel's late lamented EPIC Magazine, and it concludes with several pages of fascinating anecdotes about what it was like to work with those guys.
Megan Kelso looks to me like one of the best cartoonists of her generation. I first encountered her work at the "Letters from a Small Room" show of female cartoonists that was mounted in Northampton, Massachusetts in 2005, which she co-curated with Ellen Linder, and which featured her amazing story "The Pickle Fork." She was at the SPX flogging her new collection from Fantagraphics, The Squirrel Mother. Since then she has become the first female comics artist to appear in the New York Times Magazine, with "Watergate Sue," a story about growing up during the Watergate hearings.
Ted Rall is the crusading humorist who draws the hilarious angry comic strips. Illustrating the axiom that "money doesn't talk, it swears," Rall told an interesting story about his recently terminated gig as a radio talk show host: when his program was cancelled even though the ratings were phenomenal, the station owners explained that "Everybody knows talk radio is supposed to be right wing."
Jules Feiffer was interviewed by Tim Kreider in a special event held in an auditorium that had stadium seating and all the neat ballpoint pens and water bottles and candies and so on that you see here, at the Bethesda Convention Center where the Small Press Expo was held. (When Jules got thirsty after talking for about an hour, I was able to provide him with a glass of water.)
A couple of things I remember from this talk: (1) Feiffer got his start in comics as an assistant to Will Eisner during WWII, when he noticed that the writing on "The Spirit" was going downhill, went to Eisner to complain, and Eisner said "So why don't you write for me if you think you're so hot?" (2) But Feiffer found his real voice as an artist while serving in the Korean War, where his rage over the tyranny of army life awakened in him the realization that he wasn't a nice Jewish boy after all.
If you think Tim Kreider's hair is parted on the wrong side, you may have a point. The drawing I did of him during the Feiffer event was not good, so I took a sketch of him from another workshop and flopped it, and pasted it in here. Tim was easily the least geeky person in evidence at this conference. I had never seen his satiric political comic, "The Pain -- Where Will It End?," before I attended the SPX, but if you check it out I think you will agree it is very fine.
Leonard Rifas is the tall guy on the left in this picture, which I drew before I met him (we had corresponded for years and I once drew a story for a nonfiction comic book he edited, but we had never met face to face). We were both attending a workshop in Seattle organized by the Beehive Collective, which produces spectacular anti-imperialist cartoon/murals. The three young people on the right are Beehivers but I didn't get their names.
Leonard Rifas is the creator of many thoughtful and thought-provoking pedagogical titles including All-Atomic Comics and An Army of Principles, which can be ordered from him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After I first posted this drawing I got the following info from my friend Mike Prokosch: "The Beehiver on the far right is probably Kehben, the guiding spirit behind the collective and one of the most committed people in the world/movement. Next time you're in Machias [Maine] you should visit the Hive, which is in an old Grange hall that they fixed up and then rededicated by inviting the whole town for a dance. People in their seventies who used to come there for socials and meetings were dancing with 20-something guys in dresses. Afterward townspeople kept asking: when's next year's dance going to be?"
Ben Katchor is the creator of the weekly strip "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," a surrealistic comic about lonely Jewish entrepreneurs in New York City which never ceases to amaze. I sketched him when he spoke to Paul Buhle's American Studies class at Brown University in the fall of 2005. After his talk I had lunch with Ben and Paul, and Ben told me he liked my work. Hallelujah! I tried to pay him a more complicated compliment, something about how I liked the characters in Julius Knipl because they reminded me of my grandfather, to which he replied, "That's what everybody says."
2010 update: While promoting a collection of his latest strip "The Cardboard Valise" on the A.V. Club website, Ben elaborated on this thought:
"[With Julius Knipl,] there was this long period of writing about an imaginary Northeast, East Coast city in the early 20th century, and I sort of needed a vacation from that. I thought everyone was getting too attached to this character. It became like everybody's surrogate uncle, I thought in a really unhealthy way. It was becoming a little too entertaining, I think, for people to follow this man. So I said, 'Well, let's end that and go on a vacation to these other places. Can I even invent other cultures? How tied am I to that urban identity or that city identity?' I don't think I had anything more in mind. I just said, 'Do a strip about a vacation.' I can pretend I'm going somewhere."
The rest of the drawings were done at the June 2007 MoCCA Art Festival in New York City.
Keith Knight, in his syndicated features "The K Chronicles" and "(Th)Ink," is one of the funniest and most provocative political cartoonists around. He is also co-author of a very useful and inspiring volume, the Beginner's Guide to Community-based Arts. In his talk he mentioned that his strips have never been censored in Salt Lake City but are often dropped by the San Francisco Chronicle, on the grounds that "We have a large white liberal readership and we don't want to offend them."
Alison Bechdel, creator of the biweekly strip Dykes to Watch Out For, had a breakthrough with her 2006 book-length comics memoir Fun Home. Like Jules Feiffer she found her voice when she discovered "I'm not a very nice person." Nevertheless, she says, "I don't recommend writing an intimate memoir about your family." Actually she seemed very nice.
These sketches show members of Artists With Problems, along with Bill Kartopolous who moderated their panel. "A.W.P." is not a collective, not an anthology, not a movement, just a group of cartoonists who get together once a week to keep each other company while they draw. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? They go to comics shows together too.
Kim Deitch, connoisseur of old-time showbiz squalor and a revered founding father of the underground comix movement, brought along his wife to join him in a dramatic reading of scenes from his new Pantheon book, Alias the Cat. As you might expect from reading his comically dread-full stories, Deitch comes across as a totally intuitive guy whose curiosity and sympathy extend far beyond where most of us shut the door. He often uses himself as a character in his stories, but he doesn't look at all the way he draws himself.