Reclaiming the Road

Meet the Midwest's cartooning bike activists

| July / August 2005

In the 1890s, bicyclists led the charge to lay smooth concrete over America's byways, unwittingly -- and literally -- paving the way for cars to take over. Now suburban sprawl is gobbling up the countryside, gas prices are at record highs, and analysts are predicting we'll hit 'peak oil' production -- the point at which demand outstrips supply and prices begin to spiral upward -- by this Thanksgiving. Despite the damage car culture is wreaking on the health of people and the planet, though, questioning our addiction to oil is still a media taboo.

Minnesota's Twin Cities, however, are home to three cartoonists (and bike evangelists) who aim to take the roads back: Ken Avidor, Andy Singer, and Roger Lootine. In February, the trio mounted a joint show at Minneapolis' One on One Bicycle Studio, a combination bike shop, espresso bar, and art gallery that serves as a Midwestern hub of underground bike culture.

More a philosopher and a storyteller than a cartoonist, Ken Avidor is given to quoting from social critic Ivan Illich's 1973 book Energy and Equity. Avidor's postapocalyptic drawings of the landscape of American suburbia are filled with the rusting hulks of dead SUVs and broken golden arches; on the brighter side, he routinely imagines what a car-free society might look like. For several months in 2003, for example, Avidor's cartoon alter ego Roadkill Bill, a talking squirrel with a tire track across his belly, visited the imaginary utopia of Illichville, exploring how it differs from our society: narrow, pedestrian-friendly streets; organic gardens in every park; rooftop windmills and solar cells; community kitchens where neighbors cook together; and bikes -- lots of bikes.

Avidor's latest work, a graphic novel called Bicyclopolis, is set in 2066, six decades after peak oil has caused the collapse of North American civilization. The first chapter, published this spring in the Prague-based magazine Car Busters (#23), follows a European explorer who travels to North America and discovers a city rebuilt by the survivors of the great collapse, primarily bike messengers and Civil War reenactors.



Andy Singer dates his obsession with car culture to an evening in 1989. Stranded in the parking lot outside a Grateful Dead concert on Long Island, he realized with horror that he was surrounded by concrete: 'Not even a single blade of grass,' he recalls, as far as the eye could see. His strip No Exit appears regularly in numerous alternative weekly papers and indie magazines. According to political cartoonist Ted Rall, Singer succeeds 'where dozens of Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonists fail every day: [He] makes strong statements in a single panel.' One classic panel from Singer's 2001 collection CARtoons (Car Busters) depicts Earth, crisscrossed with roads, floating in space over the caption 'The road to hell is paved.'

Like the others, Singer praises bicycles with a religious fervor. One strip titled 'Da Vinci Revisited' shows the Renaissance artist's famous anatomical study 'The Vitruvian Man' riding a bicycle. The caption lauds the bike's beauty and ends with 'Fossil fuels come from death. Choose life, so that we may keep living.'