Apologists and promoters alike often make the point that comics are a form of artistic expression as viable as movies or literature. It's just too bad, these faithful say, that the medium has been hijacked by Wolverines, Punishers, and She-Hulks when high-water marks like George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Art Spiegelman's Maus are relegated to the sidelines. But are comics best left marginalized?
Artist Ted Dave, one of several local creators with work in the recently published third issue of Drippytown Comics and Stories, would say yes. "Underground comics still seem to get sold a little bit short, and I wouldn't have it any other way," Dave says. Meeting the Straight at a Commercial Drive juice joint along with Drippytown publisher Julian Lawrence, the graphic artist wears a "Warbucks" T-shirt parodying the logo of a popular coffee chain.
Dave recounts a trip to Seattle in 1991 for a show entitled Misfit Lit that gathered such stars of the alternative-comics scene as Robert Crumb, the Hernandez Brothers, Peter Bagge, and Jim Woodring. "At some point someone asked about movies and animation, and Crumb was saying, 'Can't we just do this? We like doing this. This is why you like us in the first place. Stop telling me to draw it a hundred times. I just want to draw one little panel. I like the staples.'"
Drippytown carries on a long-standing tradition, and not just by its construction. Because so few people are able to earn a living at the medium, and given the amount of labour involved, comics are often produced in spurts, usually of a few pages or even less. This makes the book's anthology form ideal for both artists and readers in search of a quick sequential art fix. In the latest Drippytown, Dave's Nihilbert--an existential parody of the comic strip Dilbert--appears along with the first installment of Lawrence's whimsical Drippy's Mama. And a hilarious two-pager by James Lloyd about all the things he hates (including "Whoever Taught the English the Word 'Cunt'") follows a lengthy visual feast from Shaun Hayes-Holgate about a trip to India.
The issue also carries an extensive history of the Vancouver comics scene by Robin Fisher. The essay touches on such milestones as the publication--by the Georgia Straight, no less--of a collection of Rand Holmes's Harold Hedd strips in 1969 and the first-ever local comics anthology, All Canadian Beaver Comix, in 1973. George Metzger, a refugee from San Francisco credited with inventing the term graphic novel with his 1976 book Beyond Space and Time, is also mentioned, as are Vancouver political agitator Carel Moiseiwitsch; Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman creator David Boswell; and the '90s' comics-heavy 'zine scene.
What is apparent is that Vancouver's cartoonist talent pool is as healthy as it's ever been. Some, like Lloyd (Simpsons Comics) and Pia Guerra (Vertigo's Y: the Last Man) have entered the mainstream, while others have been feted by the high-art crowd. The work of Jason McLean, who contributes the back cover, is currently the subject of a gallery show in Los Angeles. And last March, New York's Adam Baumgold Gallery exhibited pieces by Marc Bell, whose one-page Cosmic Dancer graces the new issue.
The acceptance of comics in the wine-and-cheese milieu has its good and bad points, Bell says. "Comics are getting more acknowledged, but then the art gets more elitist. The audience becomes more savvy and the work less mainstream, and less appealing to a wide audience. But that opens it up to a book crowd, people who take literature seriously."
The comic-book form itself--the easily carried, stapled item--is under threat from the more visceral pleasures of video games and, to some extent, graphic novels. Which makes Drippytown one of the last of a dying breed: the anthology in its traditional form. Bell also notes the book's "community feel", a quality that reflects Lawrence's efforts. The cartoonist first brought his comics-loving friends together in 1990 in an anthology titled Cartoon Party, and in 1999 and 2000 he showcased their work again in The Drippy Gazette. That broadsheet also introduced teardrop-shaped Drippy the Newsboy, who would become the mascot of Lawrence's latest venture.
The Drippytown community will be out in force for tonight's (June 17) opening of Drippytown: A Show of Cartoon Art and Illustration, an exhibit that runs at the Whip Gallery Café until July 20. It coincides with another cartoon-oriented exhibit, Just Press Their Button: A History of Photography in the Comics, running at Presentation House Gallery until August 1. And then there's the six-week course on contemporary comics that Lawrence is teaching for the first time at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design this summer. With all this attention focused on an oft-neglected art form, fans and creators can be thankful--and a little worried.