ON A WEDNESDAY NIGHT at the Spyhouse coffee shop in south Minneapolis, a dozen men and women sit elbow to elbow. Except for the occasional chuckle or proffering of Pez, the group is silent. These are the members of the International Cartoonist Conspiracy, and everyone here is drawing.
Tonight, they are creating a collaborative 20-page comic book. Someone draws a panel, then hands it to someone else; as the hours pass, pages fill with elaborate line art based on tonight’s themes: “Heroes of the Old West,” “Plastic Surgery,” and “The Contents of My Pockets Display My True Emotions.” The story occasionally hangs together—the character Tex Feingold (a “punk rock Jew of the Old West”) arranges for his horse to receive plastic surgery; later, inspired by a filly-hood flashback, the horse attacks a cowboy’s face. But in other places the plot devolves into tangents. Characters come and go, moving through a surreal, loosely organized adventure. Not unlike the Conspiracy itself.
The organization (or disorganization, as founder Steve Stwalley calls it) was formed in December 2002. Stwalley is a soft-spoken Web developer by day, cartoonist by night, whose Clark Kent-like demeanor belies the quirkiness of his work. (His daily Internet-based comic is called “Soapy the Chicken,” and he’s self-publishing a comics anthology called Weird Illustrated.) Tired of drawing alone, he posted flyers around town inviting anyone who was interested to meet up—and draw. Eight people came to the first meeting. But three years later, more than 200 people from throughout the Twin Cities have attended one or more of the monthly jams. And there are now Conspiracy branches (or “cells,” as Stwalley calls them) across the United States and Canada, in such cities as San Francisco, Chicago, Montreal, and Calgary.
The International Cartoonist Conspiracy membership has grown with the profile of comics in general. In recent decades, the medium has been given new life by the rise of underground comics and, more recently, Japanese manga, the print counterpart to such animated television shows as Yu-Gi-Oh, in which skillfully drawn characters invariably possess cute big eyes, wild hair, and realistic emotions. And earlier this year, international protests followed the publication of cartoons perceived to be disrespectful of the Prophet Muhammad.
Comics are now being recognized as serious art; “Masters of American Comics,” the first large-scale exhibition devoted to comics, is making the rounds at major museums. Locally, the Rogue Buddha and Ox-Op galleries in Minneapolis showcase cartoonists’ work. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) is one of only two colleges in the country that offer a major in comics. And on April 30, cartoonists will converge at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds for the Minnesota Comics Association’s annual convention.
Still, opportunities for cartoonists to create and show work are few and far between. “The major hurdle with comics is that it’s virtually impossible to make a living at it,” says Stwalley. “People do comics because they love them.” And so, through a variety of shows and programs, the Conspiracy encourages cartoonists to be more productive and explore new perspectives. The group organizes “Lutefisk Sushi,” an exhibition of original art and miniature comics at Creative Electric Studios in northeast Minneapolis. The Year-Long Graphic Novel Project, another Conspiracy scheme, offers monthly blocks of studio time at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.
The Conspiracy’s most hare-brained, anti-procrastination, pro-productivity extravaganza is its annual 24 Hour Comics Day, in which each participant creates a 24-page comic book in a single day. Considering that it might normally take a cartoonist weeks or months to create something like this, the effort put forth at this event is truly (super)heroic—“insane,” according to some. At last year’s event, 24 cartoonists participated and 17 made it to the finish line, producing 408 pages.
As with any marathon, however, some participants sustained injuries. At the 2004 event, Sam Hiti, an award-winning cartoonist whose Tiempos Finales has been optioned for a film, had to drop out after his hand cramped so badly he could no longer draw. Last year, Zander Cannon, a Conspiracy veteran and partner in the local comics and animation studio Big Time Attic, managed to stay focused for the duration of the event (“I didn’t even look up for seven hours,” he says) but occasionally had to dunk his hand in a bucket of ice to ease the pain. By the end, most of the cartoonists were loopy. But whether they were singing along to the radio or waxing incoherent (actual comment: “Listen, abacus boy, why don’t you draw on a cave wall?”), it hardly mattered—by the next day, each of the survivors had completed an entire book.
THE AMERICAN COMIC BOOK SCENE has changed dramatically since Superman first flew off newsstands in 1938. Throughout the 1940s, widely considered the “Golden Age” of comics, stories of leotard-clad men with superhuman powers sold by the millions to children and adults alike. But trouble arose in the ’50s as television competed for people’s attention. Additionally, content became restricted under the Comics Code, a set of self-imposed regulations established to appease parental complaints about violent and explicit material. (A Code highlight: “In every instance, good shall triumph over evil.”)
The genre sprang back to life in the 1960s with the arrival of underground comics, self-published work that didn’t conform to the Code and was marked by political, sexual, or drug-inspired themes. In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus introduced the concept of a book-length comic to a mass audience. The medium’s current popularity has led to film adaptations of Dan Clowes’s Ghost World and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor.
Cartooning continues to evolve, and the Conspiracy is something of a crucible for that development. The monthly jams serve as an informal art school, with cartoonists exchanging advice on both the business and technique of creating comics, often learning just by watching. It’s impossible to stay in a rut, they note, when one is surrounded by so many different styles. The collaborative nature of the event necessitates flexibility, which hones storytelling skills. Dan “Danno” Oschendorf, a scruffy, bearded cartoonist known among his peers as “Staplegenius,” says he developed a looser style of drawing after being exposed to the work of other artists.
At any given Conspiracy event, some drawings look ready for publication and others resemble doodles drawn with a non-dominant hand. Ken Avidor, a Conspiracy regular and creator of a comic strip called Roadkill Bill, says drawing ability doesn’t necessarily matter in comics. “What I look for in a comic is expression, not skill,” he says. “There are a lot of cartoonists I like who know nothing about anatomy. They can’t draw, but they’re still really good.”
Not all area cartoonists, however, are interested in tag-team drawing. Artist Zak Sally, a former bassist for Low, the popular Duluth-based rock band, is publisher of La Mano books, whose first title, Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, won an award for Outstanding Comics Collection. Sally is incredulous at the idea of group draws. “It’s cool,” he says, “but I can’t even draw in my sketchbook if people are around. There’s something really private about it…. The psychological profile of a cartoonist is someone who spends a lot of time alone.” Sam Hiti, too, doesn’t participate in the jams. Then again, he says, “I never leave my house that often.”
For most jam fans, of course, getting out is exactly the point. “Socializing and cartooning are normally at the opposite ends of the spectrum—this is a chance to be social while cartooning,” says Jesse Haller, an MCAD student. The history of comics is one of collaboration, adds Big Time Attic artist Shad Petovsky, citing the multi-person studio model by which many of the classic superhero comics were created. “People think of comics as inherently antisocial, but we’re trying to change that,” Petovsky says.
Collaboration is also a way to quickly complete a lot of work, as any fan of Batman and Robin or the Wonder Twins could tell you. “Cartooning is inherently slow,” says Petovsky. “Many cartoonists have a thousand stories and not enough time to do them.” Seven collections, two group shows, and thousands of pages of comics later, the Conspiracy is ensuring the universe has no shortage of comics, one panel at a time.