Pen & Inc.

Comic-book artists are drawn to St. Louis.

The life of a comic-book artist is quite glamorous, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise. If you're Chris Samnee, you spend most of your time in an extra bedroom of your Fenton home. You've got a drawing table, a file cabinet full of reference material, bookshelves crammed with comic books and a TV, which used to keep you company until a couple months ago, when you adopted a kitten.

You've stockpiled the necessary supplies: Bristol board, pencils, brushes, India ink and a full pot of coffee. Some days you draw. Some days you go over your pencil drawings in ink, and some days you have to go over the whole thing with Wite-Out because your cat smacked the brush while you were working.

You work on two comics now, Checkmate for DC and Queen & Country for Oni, and your life is governed by deadlines. Sometimes you have two and a half weeks to pencil a 60-page comic book and sometimes you're working on three things at once. When your schedule gets that tight, you forget about going to bed. When your arm muscles cramp from holding a brush, you soak your elbow in ice water.

Clockwise from top left: Chris Samnee, Matt Kindt, Ted May and Sacha Mardou,  David Zimmermann.
Clockwise from top left: Chris Samnee, Matt Kindt, Ted May and Sacha Mardou, David Zimmermann.
An inked David Zimmerman panel from Big Bang Comics Issue 33.
Jennifer Silverberg
An inked David Zimmerman panel from Big Bang Comics Issue 33.

Chris Samnee is part of an expanding comic art network that over the past decade has gravitated to St. Louis, thanks in part to Xplane Graphics in Soulard and the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University, where many of the city's cartoonists met and worked together. "What's better than working with your friends?" Samnee asks. They help each other get jobs, model for each other, critique each other's work. Two of them – Sacha Mardou and Ted May – are married. Cartoonists from other cities, whom they meet at conventions, comment, somewhat wistfully, about what a close-knit circle they are. Observes Mardou of the Chicago cartoonists: "A lot of them seem to hate each other."

"The thing about St. Louis," explains May, "is that it's not huge. You hear about another person, and then you e-mail them, and you get together. In New York it would be like, 'Hey, look, another New York cartoonist.' Here, there's potential camaraderie."

Several years ago, May, Kevin Huizenga and a few of their Xplane co-workers began going to Star Clipper on Wednesday afternoons to check out the week's new comics. Then they would get dinner and hang out in a coffee shop and draw. The gatherings migrated to Thursdays, and the group became known, rather portentously, as the St. Louis Drawing Club. The membership hovers at around ten members, largely due to the force of Huizenga's personality. "People call Kevin taciturn or terse," explains Dan Zettwoch, who joined the group later. "Everyone thinks he hates them."

"When I first came to St. Louis," Mardou remembers, "I went to comics night. I'd read about it in The Comics Journal. It's really a boys' support group. They talk about their troubles with women."

"Dan tried to make us more productive," Huizenga says. "He actually brings comics to draw."

The history of comics dates back some 5,000 years when ancient Egyptians began telling stories through sequences of pictures. The medieval French creators of the Bayeux Tapestry, which chronicled the 1066 Norman Invasion of England, added words to the equation in the form of captions that explained which helmeted knight was which.

By the mid-eighteenth century, political cartoons had become a fixture in British and American newspapers. English artists Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray helped the form take a gigantic leap forward by inventing the now-ubiquitous speech balloon.

In the 1890s short cartoon stories with recurring characters began to appear in American newspapers. Because they were supposed to be humorous, a now-forgotten editor dubbed them "comics." In 1934, Famous Funnies, a pulp magazine containing reprints of the newspaper strips, appeared on the newsstands, becoming the first American comic book. Action Comics #1, starring Superman, unleashed the modern superhero upon an unsuspecting world four years later. Thereafter, the mainstream American comic book would be dominated by men in tights.

Comic strips became so popular that the migration of a strip from one newspaper to another resulted in circulation wars. When New York City papers went on strike in 1945, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics on the radio so New Yorkers could keep up with the adventures of Barney Google, Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie.

In the so-called "underground" comics of the 1960s, cartoonists like R. Crumb began to see the possibilities of using comics to entertain adults, with stories about sex and various neuroses. (What adolescent hadn't already tried to imagine what went on in Superman and Lois Lane's bedroom?) And some went further.

In 1978 Will Eisner published A Contract With God, a series of interconnected stories about life in a New York tenement in the 1930s. "It was," Eisner wrote, "in format and style, as great a departure of the comic-book conventions as I could master. It was the story of one man's perception of his relationship with God." It was, in a word, literary. To distinguish it from the lowly comic book, a new term was coined: graphic novel. Fourteen years later, Art Spiegelman won a special Pulitzer Prize for Maus, his memoir of his Holocaust-survivor father and their difficult relationship, and in the process, made libraries and classrooms safe for comics.

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