Comic Art Around and About Somerville
by Lorie Reilly
If the word “comic” conjures up naught but memories of Bazooka Joe on bubble gum wrappers and Sunday newspaper inserts with the likes of Dagwood and Dick Tracy, it’s time to take a closer look at this genre of storytelling.
If you are fortunate enough to live in Somerville, you are well situated for an intimate view into this rich and varied realm.
The Evolution of a Medium
The comic book is a 20th century art form invented in the United States. Many of the first books were reprints of strips already published in newspapers. But it wasn’t long before folks realized that originals would enjoy a wider readership than recycled material.
The introduction of Superman in the 1930s inaugurated what is often referred to as the Golden Age of comics and the subsequent proliferation of superheroes. Underground and alternative comics appeared in the latter half of the century.
The status of comics has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years. We can now enjoy the fact that comics have broken out of the domain of dingy backroom shops and pimply male teenage angst into the mainstream. Comics reach into all genres of literary and artistic expression. Though the superhero archetype continues to be a major component of the industry, comics now comprise much more than curvaceous bodies in capes and tights.
Christopher Robichaud, 36, Adjunct Faculty at Tufts University and Instructor in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, uses comics to explicate philosophical principles to his students. He explains how those who grew up on comics are now looking back to find that “the source material they grew up on is relevant to their professional pursuits.” Robichaud has found that “all of the work he does professionally as a philosopher can be complemented by examples from the superhero narratives.”
By definition, comics are merely the presentation of a story with words and pictures. Any story can be told with words and pictures. And indeed, all manner of stories are told this way. The term “graphic novel” applies to a full range of fiction and non-fiction employing comic-style art and text. The lines of distinction between comics, graphic novels, or even picture books for children are not clearly drawn. They all share the sequential presentation of content using images and words.
Tim Finn, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Art Institute of Boston (AIB), teaches courses about the history of comics. He explains that comics can do things that other art forms cannot. Compositionally, there’s a visual dynamic between the various panels on a page. The references between and among panels as the story moves forward or back in time cannot be replicated in other art forms. Page layout, pacing, visual motifs, flashbacks, sound effects – these elements combine to create a special experience.
James Welborn, 37, owner of Hub Comics, has noticed an association between comics and musicians. Jef Czekaj, himself a Somerville comic artist and musician, describes this overlap as the art of “timing and rhythm.” The graphic presentation so integral to comics creates a visual music based on patterns and spacing.
Where To Find Comics in Somerville
The array and depth of comic art in Somerville is illustrated by the output of artists living here and by the businesses and libraries supporting comic art in our community.
Comicazi (407 Highland Ave). Co-owner Michael Burke, 40, has more than 200 customers with in-store subscriptions to serialized comics. Burke orders issues of each serial for the subscriber, who then comes in to pick it up when it’s available. Through this regular interaction, Burke learns about new trends. The information he gleans guides his inventory selection.
The members of this tight-knit and loyal customer base often continue ordering from him, even after they’ve moved away. It’s not uncommon for Comicazi customers to attend each other’s weddings, barbecues, or other social gatherings.
Burke is proud of the community that has formed – and keeps forming – around his store. He supports local artists and displays local titles on the new release wall in order to give them maximum exposure. He sees more families wandering in on Saturday afternoons to buy comics for the kids.
Burke believes that the spate of Hollywood blockbusters based on comic heroes has had a popularizing impact, as has the increasing practice of publishers serializing stories as graphic novels – and selling them in mainstream bookstores. Comicazi completed a major renovation four months ago to make room for graphic novel shelving and a graphic novel book club.
Hub Comics (19 Bow St). Welborn understood the wider opportunity for comics when he opened his shop in 2008 with the tagline “the comics shop for NPR listeners.” He is proud of the non-fiction section nestled among the racks of Marvel and DC comics. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Kafka all find a home at Hub as well as books like Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq; The Cartoon Introduction to Economics; and a comic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.
Welborn organizes his shelves like a bookstore rather than a comic shop. Comic shops are typically arranged by publisher and/or by characters. Welborn wanted to group his books by genres such as non-fiction, literature, anthologies, and slice-of-life.
He believes this makes the titles more accessible to a broader audience. Hub also has a special corner of titles suitable for children in a part of the store with seating. Children can sit and read while parents browse, or vice versa.
Like Burke, Welborn provides exposure to Somerville comic artists. He has a prominent rack on which he sells works created by locals. These include self-published as well as commercially published titles. Hub offers book signings, art exhibits, and serves as an informal gathering place for local comic artists.
Papercut Zine Library (226 Pearl St). As of April, there’s a new library in town. The Papercut Zine Library is one of the largest zine libraries in the world. It is staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. Anyone can become a member and check out one or more of their 13,000 zines for two weeks at a time.
A zine is an independently published item with a low print run that is usually photocopied and distributed without the intention of monetary profit. Papercut’s collection includes newsletters from now-defunct activist groups in the 1980s, travel pamphlets, Beatles fanzines from the 1970s, reflections of prison inmates, and more.
One of the largest sections at the Papercut Zine Library is the collection of self-published comics known as minicomics. These are small, usually photocopied, and sometimes hand-made books that artists use to gain grassroots exposure for their work.
The library has more than 1,200 members and is open to the public for reading, writing, drawing, and zine-making. There’s a pink box near the entrance where anyone can donate issues of their own zine or minicomic for general circulation. Zines and minicomics by local artists appear on a specially designated rack and are marked with blue dots for easy identification.
Somerville Public Library, Central Branch (79 Highland Ave). The Central Branch has mounted a display of graphic novels in the main reading room called “A Different Way of Reading.” This display illustrates the range of serious topics that have benefited from the comic or graphic format: everything from the immigrant experience to the Old Testament, homosexuality, sexual abuse, World War I, Rwanda, Hurricane Katrina, and autism.
Moreover, the library maintains a robust collection of graphic novels (19 shelves) and comics (22 shelves including manga). The graphic novel collection was started in the early 2000s and continues to grow in scope and readership. Barbara Nowak manages the acquisition of graphic novels by sifting through reviews, patron requests, known authors, and publisher catalogs. Somerville patrons are a “well-educated population that wants the best,” she says.
Ron Castile manages the acquisition of comics, which he describes as one of the most popular collections in the library. Patrons can easily make requests for the purchase of new comics or graphic novels via the library web site or in person. Castile notices local teenagers sitting for long hours and drawing comics in the main reading room. “This is their portal to becoming cartoonists,” he says.
Who is making Comics in Somerville?
The Somerville Arts Council does not track the number of comic artists living in Somerville, but conversations with artists and shop owners reveal a sizable, loosely-connected community of creators. This sampling of local artists will expose you to the many flavors of contemporary comics and comic-inspired art in our midst:
Jef Czekaj, 41 (czekaj.com). Czekaj describes moving to Somerville from Ithaca 12 years ago and being excited to find other people drawing comics. “There are so many artists here,” he says, “that it didn’t feel like a weird thing to do. Nobody thinks twice that I’m sitting in Diesel Café drawing funny pictures all day. In fact, I may not still be drawing if it hadn’t been for that.” Living in this “very creative city” has helped to position him where he is today: namely, doing work for the likes of Disney Hyperion, Charlesbridge, and HarperCollins.
Czekaj does a lot of his work at Diesel Café (257 Elm St) and even thanks Diesel in the acknowledgements of his first book. He was closely involved with Highwater Books, Somerville’s own comics publisher, from 1997-2004. Czekaj attended comics conventions with Highwater and put some of his own minicomics out on the table. That’s how his work was spotted by an editor from Nickelodeon magazine, who then proceeded to publish his monthly comic strip, Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters, for the next 10 years.
Since the early days of zines and minicomics, Czekaj has ventured into children’s book illustration. When he first started illustrating children’s books, no comic elements were allowed, but this has changed. His illustrations are heavily influenced by his comic style and now include word balloons, multiple panels per page, and sound effects. His latest book, Hip & Hop Don’t Stop!, was published by Disney Hyperion earlier this year, and he has two other comic-style children’s books in the pipeline.
Pat Davidson, 45 (patdavidson.ca). Davidson moved to Somerville earlier this year and is an inker for the X-Factor series at Marvel Comics. Serialized comics from DC and Marvel are produced in assembly line fashion where each artist has a very specific and highly developed expertise. A penciller lays down the first visual representation of the writer’s script on paper, and the inker develops the depth, texture, and shading of the original sketches with black ink. A colorist then adds the coloration as the final step. Davidson compares the penciller to the director of a movie and the inker to the cinematographer.
A comic book signing by Davidson at Hub Comics on August 25 celebrated the advent of a new penciller to the X-Factor series, which will give the comic “a whole new look.” Davidson continues to create his own comics on the side, preferring detective stories and 1950s crime drama in the film noir style. He is active in the Boston Comics Roundtable and can be found sketching in local cafés or pubs with other local artists.
Tim Finn, 32 (inanimate.com). Finn’s interest in comics and animation has paved a path that includes creating independent autobiographical comics, teaching at the AIB, and writing a coffee table book about the comic book hero, G.I. Joe. “I’m interested in informing and entertaining the reader with innocuous bits of my life,” he says. Indeed, he has spent two and a half years drawing a strip that documents the daily progress on his G.I. Joe book.
In September, Finn began teaching the course “Alternative Comix and the Graphic Novel.” He attributes the existence of this new course to the fact that what used to be a nerdy, fringe, throwaway medium has gone mainstream and is now earning the respect of the academy.
Raúl González, 33 (raulthethird.blogspot.com). González remembers not wanting to move to Somerville from San Francisco 10 years ago until he learned about Highwater Books. This fact reassured him that “at least one cool thing was happening here.” Now González attributes much of the successful trajectory of his career to Somerville and its arts community. Though he started out making zines and minicomics, he is now creating art exclusively for fine art galleries and museums.
González credits Somerville cafés with his transition from comic books to wall art. When he was invited to display his art in the Diesel Café and the now-defunct Someday Café, he realized that his comic drawings were designed for intimate, one-panel-at-a-time perusal in the viewer’s hands. Seeing them on the café walls challenged him to create compositions that would be more compelling on a larger scale. He is now represented by Carroll & Sons Art Gallery in Boston’s South End and is the lead artist on a Community Arts Initiative Project to be exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in April 2011.
larger scale. He is now represented by Carroll & Sons Art Gallery in Boston’s South End and is the lead artist on a Community Arts Initiative Project to be exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in April 2011.
David Marshall, 48 (illdave.com). Marshall teaches Art of the Comic Book at Mass College of Art and is a proponent of old-fashioned pen, ink, and paper. He eschews digital art tools for the feel of the brush in hand and the inimitable quality of ink on paper. His comic, Lucky Seven: The Dee Brown Incident, was included in the Boston Comic Roundtable’s anthology Inbound 4: A Comic Book History of Boston.
Marshall has organized many a local Sketch Crawl which he describes as “a local pub crawl with art supplies.” Somerville’s restaurants and cafés are heavily represented in his portfolio as pen-and-ink drawings. He has participated in 24-hour comic drawing sessions at Hub Comics (the creation of a 24-page comic in 24 consecutive hours). He has also demonstrated the use of drawing materials and techniques at Hub on free comic book day (the first Saturday in May each year). His art has been published by Fantagraphic Books, SpiderBaby Graphix, and FantaCo Enterprises.
Dave Ortega, 33 (vivaortegacy.com). Ortega has recently completed a self-published comic book set on the streets of Somerville: Winter Was Hard. He wanted to convey how quiet an urban New England neighborhood could be on a winter night and explore winter as a mental state.
Ortega is one of the founding members of theMiracle5, an art collective that has collaborated on various art projects and exhibits in Somerville during the past five years. One of Ortega’s comics will appear in Boston Comics Roundtable’s Inbound 5 anthology. His elegant, futuristic designs also grace a line of t-shirts available from his web site.
George Pfromm II, 42 (honoluludogfightcomics.blogspot.com). Pfromm originally came to Somerville to visit a friend for three months. Eight years later, he’s still here, married with three children. He has created several self-published comics, such as The Phantom Skull, that are available as print-on-demand. He likes to create comics that are crime or mystery stories with a touch of humor. He teaches animation full-time at the New England Art Institute and has drawn illustrations for the Phoenix. His rendition of Fluff Boy adorns the cover of a comic book published by Union Square Main Streets in conjunction with the 2008 “What the Fluff?” festival.
Liz Prince, 28 (lizprincepower.com). Prince creates comics that are “about myself exploring my own life.” She has created eight minicomics, one of which – Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? – was hand-stitched and sold in the back hallways of bars and clubs while she was on tour with her former boyfriend’s band. Eventually she had so many orders for the book that she couldn’t keep up. She submitted it to Top Shelf Productions. Not only was it published by Top Shelf, but it was also translated into French and Spanish, and garnered the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Debut at the Small Press Expo in 2005.
Prince is currently working on a longer self-published work, I Swallowed the Key to My Heart. She often draws at Diesel Café or Bloc 11 (11 Bow St.), and some of her comics are situated in her favorite Somerville cafés and restaurants.
Joe Quinones, 29 (joequinones.blogspot.com). Quinones creates conventional superhero comics for DC Comics in an unconventional way. He often completes all the penciling, inking, and coloring himself, defying the typical assembly-line process that assigns each task to a different artist.
Since breaking into mainstream production, he has created comics of Spider Man and Green Lantern. In 2009 he was a contributor to a weekly DC Comics series entitled Wednesday Comics. Quinones describes his style as “slightly cartoony, in between indie and mainstream, yet somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s.” Quinones staves off the monotony of working alone in his apartment with visits to Somerville cafés accompanied by artist friends and their sketchbooks.
Maris Wicks, 29 (dotsforeyes.blogspot.com). Since graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2003, Wicks has combined a love of science, comics, and working with children to carve out a niche for herself. She often sketches animals at the Harvard Museum of Natural History or the New England Aquarium, where she is currently employed as an educator.
Her passion is using comics to explicate science. She has created a minicomic no bigger than a matchbook that provides an end-to-end view of human digestion. Her work in progress is the illustration of a science comic by Jim Ottaviani for First Second Books. This book portrays three female primatologists (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birutè Galdikas) and should be available in early 2012.
Wicks loves food and spends long hours drawing comics in many Somerville cafés and restaurants. Since many of her comics are drawn at Bloc 11, she is planning to create a comic tribute to all of the food that she has eaten at their tables.