Pen & Inc.

Comic-book artists are drawn to St. Louis.

Comics continue to evolve. "I feel uncomfortable using the word 'comics' to describe a group of things," says Kevin Huizenga. "It's a category that includes lots of different sorts of things. I think 'comics' is a word along the lines of 'music' or 'writing.' You wouldn't describe a bar band that plays Kansas covers and another guy that plays polka music as if they were all one thing."

So in St. Louis, you get comics about Civil War battles, philosophical inquiries into the nature of time travel and stories about gangsters and demons and spies. Then, of course, there's tales of wizards, bad dates and Truman Capote. Sometimes, you even get the odd superhero.

In high school, I discovered non-superhero comics," says Matt Kindt, now 34 and a writer and artist in Webster Groves. "Eightball by Daniel Clowes — it was a revelation. Up till then I thought all comic books were about superheroes. But here was someone doing something weird and strange and interesting. I started looking forward to it more than I looked forward to the X-Men."

A Dan Zettwoch self-portrait. For another example of Zettwoch's work, turn the page to Night & Day.
A Dan Zettwoch self-portrait. For another example of Zettwoch's work, turn the page to Night & Day.

Kindt has the luxury of working with Top Shelf Productions, an independent press in Marietta, Georgia, that has published all his work and, most recently, his graphic novel Super Spy. "They let me do what I want," he says. "I get to write my stories without interference."

Super Spy contains elements of pulpiness from old-time comics — there's plenty of stalking and double-crossing and a spy who encodes messages in a belly dance — but the novel is really about how the characters respond to the pressures of spying during World War II. "The spy stuff is a gimmick," Kindt says, "a hook to get people to read about things that happened to these characters." Kindt based the structure of Super Spy on Catch-22: a series of short vignettes in non-chronological order. It's left to the reader to keep track of the spies and their missions and who knows what and when. Kindt estimates that about 75 percent of the events in the book really happened.

"Matt is definitely trying to accomplish things with comics," says Valley Park's Cullen Bunn, 37, a friend and sometime-collaborator of Kindt's. He also wrote The Damned, a graphic novel about gangsters and demons; DreamWorks bought the movie rights last summer. "The stuff I do is more pulp. There are very powerful comics and then there are entertaining comics. I like to write entertaining comics. But in comics, there's room for all different kinds of stories."

Among St. Louis cartoonists, 32-year-old Sacha Mardou is that rare woman plying her craft. "Now is a good time to be a woman cartoonist," she notes. "We're still much more of a minority in superhero comics, but we're good at autobiographical stories." The autobiographical books, says May, are those that are reviewed in mainstream publications and sold at Borders and Barnes & Noble.

In Mardou's case, autobiographical is not the same as autobiography. "The real-life event is a starting point. But you go through so many drafts of a story and the character becomes her own person. It doesn't feel like it's me. I can disguise myself. It's a way to reveal things I feel uncomfortable writing about." Sometimes this leads to confusion. Mardou once wrote an erotic comic about a woman who seduces a blind man. "My mum was worried that it was autobiography. When I told her I had made all that stuff up, she thought it was genius. She was also very relieved."

Mardou's stories, which she publishes in her book Manhole and the three-woman anthology Whores of Mensa, concern relationships, belly-dancing and boredom. ("I spend a lot of my life avoiding dreary people," confides one character.) "A lot of this has been done in prose," Mardou admits, "but in comics it's uncharted territory." Unlike many comic artists, Mardou prefers stories with ambiguous endings. "It's real. It challenges readers." Currently, she is at work on a graphic novel based on her experiences growing up in northern England and spending time in a psychiatric hospital. "It's not something you usually see in comics."

One of the cool things about comics," says Ted May, "is how challenging it is to make them. You need all these skills. You need to be able to write, to pare down things into dialogue with minimal text. You need to be able to draw – not well, but enough to communicate your ideas. Then there's the rest of the art, the inking and the lettering. It's like being in Boy Scouts and earning merit badges."

Some comic creators, particularly those who make self-published mini-comics, perform all these tasks themselves. But for a creator who lacks one of comics' merit badges, collaboration is not necessarily a bad thing.

Despite his best efforts, Cullen Bunn cannot draw, but that does not deter him from making comics. "It's so difficult, so humiliating and so embarrassing to find an artist. Writers are always looking for artists. There are a lot of writers with bad ideas. It was tough to break in and find someone willing to work with me." Fortunately, he found a collaborator for The Damned in his friend and former Fantasy Comics co-worker Brian Hurtt.

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