Up From Underground

Comic book artists to watch out for

| January-February 2005

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  • UpFromUnderground-sm.jpg

The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on serious comics last summer (July 11, 2004) that made cartooning look like Mafia business. In a full-page photo, godfather Art Spiegelman sat a table, surrounded by lieutenants Joe Sacco, Seth, Chester Brown, and Adrian Tomine. It was clear: Just as mafiosi are dark-haired guys who mumble, cartoonists are men who wear glasses. 

But it’s not necessarily so. For one thing, some of the most trenchant cartoonists wielding brush and pen today are women. The article mentioned Iranian graphic memoirist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), but nary a word about Phoebe Gloeckner, Alison Bechdel, Jennifer Camper, or a host of other diversely talented women artists. If you’re a careful reader of Utne, you’ve seen their work in our pages, just as you’ve read elsewhere about Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, two others profiled in the Times article. Now we’d like to recognize some artists whose names and work should be widely known. 


Welcome to the world of Lauren Weinstein. Imagine strap-on home dentistry technology, picture Jesus Christ as pro wrestler, and consider the possible origins of equine sexual fetishes. The winner of a 2002 Xeric Foundation Grant (providing financial aid to budding comics artists), Brooklyn-based Weinstein depicts such wonderfully weird places and situations in her Inside Vineyland (distributed by Alternative Comics). The book features a longer story about a robot who goes for a walk and befriends a teenage boy, as well as drawings of bipolar dogs and a seer who really can tell the future (“One day you will die”). Weinstein calls herself a “schoolmarm by day, rocker by night”—she teaches at Parsons School of Design and sings in the band Flaming Fire, a collective devoted to making music that comments on the human quest for philosophical and religious meaning. For more of Weinstein’s work

Montrealer Leanne Franson took a five-year break not long ago from drawing her minicomic Liliane, Bi-Dyke, a series based on her own life. Two compilations, Assume Nothing and Teaching Through Trauma, were published by British small press Slab-O-Concrete in the late ‘90s before the publisher abruptly folded, leaving Franson in the lurch. The creator of these edgy comics investigating bisexuality and gender flux turned her energy to successful children’s book illustration. Among other jobs, she worked on 13 editions of Ripley’s Believe It or Not books, where she did her own fact checking. Fellow cartoonist David Kelly got her started writing comics again, first by soliciting work for his publication Boy Trouble. This led to a new Liliane book, Don’t Be a Crotte (Dansereau Editeur, 2004)—roughly, “don’t be a shit” in Quebecois French—in which “bourgeois capitalist Liliane” hires a friend to wash dog drool off her walls and parses a befuddling conversation about identity politics. Lately Franson has been writing 20-page stories on such topics as female-to-male transgender issues and “passing,” drawing six panels a day and publishing them on the Web site liliane.keenspace.com

Anders Nilsen has been drawing birds for a long time. Little birds, often in flocks. Social birds, sparrows probably. Sparrows that talk. But these aren’t the sort of happy animals that made Walt Disney rich. Nilsen’s visionary Big Questions comic book series has grown increasingly dark since its inception as a self-published minicomic in the late ‘90s. Its birds encounter crashed airplanes, bombs, and skeletons. One is eaten by an owl. The bomb explodes. What does it all mean? After a Xeric grant in 2000, Nilsen’s comics started sporting color covers. Now he has a new book—Dogs and Water—published by Drawn & Quarterly, the Montreal-based publisher of Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine, Julie Doucet, and others. Here there are no birds at all. Instead, the grim, existential, and nearly wordless tale follows a backpacker, accompanied by a teddy bear, through the tundra on a road to nowhere. Nilsen himself lives in Chicago in a house overlooking a park that is home to black squirrels and “worm-eating seagulls,” where he ponders big questions.

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