Wizard #41 was the magazine’s second year-end themed issue. The first—Wizard #29—came together at the last minute, so there was no time to ask all of the regular columnists to look back at the previous year. For the issue that would cap off 1994, I was required to play ball and structure my column to fit in with the rest of the magazine, the first time editorial was able to influence the content of “Palmer’s Picks.”
As far as this type of thing goes, it didn’t turn out too bad. I started off with a summary of the year in alternative comics in four paragraphs. Not the best idea in the world, but I did manage to bring up a few good points that generally describe what was going on at the time. As I mention in the original column below, there were a lot of unique opportunities for indy cartoonists in the “real” world at the time—the OK Soda cans designed by Dan Clowes and Charles Burns and a wide-range of magazine illustration gigs—but it did little to raise the profile of alternative comics. It might help to recall that by the mid-’90s a lot of fringe culture had been absorbed (or co-opted) by the mainstream. Grunge had already hit its peak and, after the death of Kurt Cobain in early 1994, was beginning its steady decline. But comic books in general had yet to break through and remained on the outside of pop culture. There was still a steep hill to climb before we reach today where superhero comics have taken over Hollywood and literary graphic novels are accepted in libraries and bookstores.
Even though I was saddled with the topic for this month’s column, I did my best to make it my own. Instead of summarizing all of the artists I had written about in the previous eleven issues of Wizard, I decided to throw a little light on some comics that I didn’t get around to covering in depth. The list included some artists I had featured before in full-length “Picks,” like Chester Brown, Rick Veitch, and Martin Wagner, as well as a few that would get the spotlight in later columns: Chris Ware, Jon Lewis, and Dave Cooper. The one outlier was Jason Lutes, who I really regret not profiling during the initial run of “Palmer’s Picks.” So, stay tuned to the blog for the reprinting of my interviews with Ware, Lewis and Cooper. But if you’re looking for any insights from around the time Lutes started his magnum opus Berlin, you’re shit outta luck.
The Picks of ’94
By Tom Palmer Jr.
In the world of alternative comics, 1994 was a particularly odd year. An inordinate number of self-publishers popped up virtually out of nowhere, and previously obscure artists were thrust into the spotlight of mainstream culture. In short, comics that usually thrive on being obscure and keeping a safe distance from the mainstream, began popping up all over the place.
Established creators like Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch, as well as relative newcomers such as Terry Moore, made a splash by diving into self-publishing. Artwork from Dan Clowes—the twisted mind behind Eightball—and Big Baby creator Charles Burns appeared on cans of OK Cola™, a new soft drink from Coca-Cola™ that panders to the feelings of isolation and despair of “Generation X.” Burns, and other alternative stalwarts like Peter Kuper, Richard Sala, and Adrian Tomine (to name a few), had their illustrations and cartoons published in such mainstream magazines as Time, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Pulse. Even Nickelodeon Magazine, the magazine for the children’s cable network, had a regular comics section with work from Sala, Jason Stephens, and underground pioneer Kim Deitch.
What does all of this exposure mean? Not much. Despite all of this attention, sales for small press/alternative/obscure comics are still pretty dismal. Most comic shop retailers are still afraid to take a chance on a comic that isn’t in color or doesn’t feature superheroes. Also, it seems like most readers won’t seek out comics that offer a challenging reading experience. Thankfully, however, although we’re a long way from a comic book utopia, the world out there appears to be a little more open to the idea of comics as a legitimate art form and means of expression.
For about three years now, I’ve tried to do my part by covering what I feel to be the best of what the alternative scene has to offer. I’ve tried to sample everything from the grass roots mini-comics and self-publishing movement, to creator-driven comics that have the advantage of a larger company behind them. Unfortunately, in the small space I’m provided every month, I cannot cover everything out there. To make up for this, I’ve gathered together a group of comics that I haven’t had enough room to cover in the past year’s worth of “Palmer’s Picks” (if you want to read more about any of these books, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do). So, now I’ll stop rambling and present a sampling of the best alternative comics of the past year (in no particular order):
Underwater—After staying with his previous comic, Yummy Fur, for ten years, Chester Brown decided to drop everything and start over with a new comic, Underwater. The first issue of Underwater appeared at the end of the summer, and Brown seemed to be back in full form. With this new story, the surreal tone of Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown series seems to be mixed with his quiet, meticulous autobiographical work. At this point, it is unclear where the story is going (all of the dialogue in the first issue was written in the gibberish that newborn children hear), but it is clear that Brown has created one of the most fascinating comics to come out in the past year.
Acme Novelty Library—If you think that alternative comics are only shoddily produced black-and-white rags, then you obviously haven’t seen Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library. In the first three issues of this series, Ware has gone from a luscious full-color comic, to an oversized tabloid black-and-white, to a pocket-size comic—each featuring a different character. The two aspects that all of these disparate comics have in common are Ware’s precise artwork and dry, black sense of humor.
True Swamp—Probably one of the most difficult comics to find this past year was Jon Lewis’ True Swamp. Even though Lewis received a grant from the Xeric Foundation and heaps of praise from the likes of Scott McCloud and Jim Woodring, his delicate story of the trials of Lenny the Leaf Frog is still struggling to gain a firm hold in the market.
Jar of Fools—One of the most impressive debuts of the past year has got to be Jason Lutes’ Jar of Fools. Another Xeric grant winner, Lutes has created a depressingly beautiful story. His efficient artwork and simple storytelling are marvelous. Where other artists use twenty lines to tell a story, Lutes does the job with one. The only bad thing about this comic is that the second part hasn’t been published yet!
Hepcats—After extensive touring and promotion last year, creator Martin Wagner proved that fans were willing to wait for his comic, Hepcats. The black cover to Hepcats #11 only hinted at the disturbing suburban horror inside. To tell you any more would ruin the story, so get out there and hunt down anything with Martin Wagner’s name on it.
Pressed Tongue—If you can imagine a combination of Basil Wolverton, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Dave Cooper. His cartoonish characters and artwork bristle with an indescribable energy that pulls you in. Pressed Tongue is full of disgusting stuff like perverted landlords, pus, and dirty diapers, but Cooper somehow makes the whole thing fascinating and hard to put down.
Rare Bit Fiends—Personally, I was a little disappointed at first to hear that Rick Veitch put his “King Hell Heroica” multi-book epic on hold in order to tackle Rare Bit Fiends. But once I saw the first issue, I changed my mind. Veitch has taken comics to a new level by transcribing his dreams in the form of a comic book. With Rare Bit Fiends, you can follow the subtle threads that Veitch’s mind creates between each dream, or you can just be puzzled by each dream individually.
As you can probably tell by the above comics, 1994 had a lot to offer for anyone interested in titles that veer away from the mainstream. Hopefully, the new year will be full of more worthwhile alternative comics, and I’ll be here at “Palmer’s Picks” to humbly offer you a sampling of the best of them.
Tom Palmer Jr. is a freelance writer who just taught himself how to juggle. Once he gets good enough, he plans to abandon all of his material possessions and join the circus.
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Underwater: Two issues of Chester Brown’s new comic should be available now for $2.95 each, and four-issue subscriptions are $8.95. Two collections of Brown’s Yummy Fur comics, The Playboy, and I Never Liked You are also available. Write to Drawn & Quarterly Publications,
5550 Jeanne Mance St. #16, Montreal, Quebec, H2V 4K6, Canada.
Acme Novelly Library: Chris Ware’s format-changing comic series is available from Fantagraphics Books. The first three issues feature Jimmy Corrigan in a full-color comic, Quimby the Mouse in a black-and-white tabloid format, and Ware’s infamous “potato guy” in a pocket-size book. The first issue is $3.50, and issues #2 and #3 are $3.95 each. Write to Fantagraphics at 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115.
True Swamp: Four issues of Jon Lewis’s self-published book are available. If you can’t find this comic locally, write directly to Jon at Peristaltic Press,
PO Box 95973, Seattle, WA 98145 for ordering information.
Jar of Fools: Jason Lutes has published the first 70-page part of his two-part graphic novel in a spiffy black-and-white book that nobody should be without. Write to him at Penny Dreadful Press,
104 14th Avenue East, Suite F, Seattle, WA 98112.
Hepcats: Martin Wagner self-publishes Hepcats through Double Diamond Press. You can order copies of The Collegiate Hepcats and Snowblind, two paperback collections, for $14.95 and $17, respectively. Six-issue subscriptions are available for $13.50. Write to
Double Diamond Press, PO Box 27157, Austin, TX 78755-2157.
Pressed Tongue: Dave Cooper’s three-issue series is available from Fantagraphics (see above for the address). Each black-and-white issue is definitely not for kids, and is available for $2.95.
Rare Bit Fiends: If you can’t find copies locally, write to King Hell Press at
PO Box 1371, West Townshend, VT 05359-1371. Five black-and-white issues are available for $2.95 each. Copies of Bratpack and The Maximortal, installments in Veitch’s “King Hell Heroica,” are available from Kitchen Sink Press. Write to the company at 320 Riverside Drive, Northampton, MA 01060 for ordering information.