The Lost World Of Small Press, Part IV: The Storytellers

Small press comics! Where no story is too small to tell, hence the name! Here’s part four of my ongoing occasional look at The Lost World Of Small Press and obscure and famous zines, comics and mimeographed gems from the 1990s. 

One of the most popular forms of small press comics is the autobiographical comic – stories, big or small, about ordinary lives. The late great Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor was the godfather to this genre, and it’s in some ways one of the easiest ways to get going on a comic – just tell your story. Sure, there’s a hundred mediocre autobio comics for every good one, but there’s a lot of greatness in this genre. Here’s random samples from my collection of five creators who excelled at it!

King-Cat Comics and Stories #70, 2009, John Porcellino – Porcellino is another legend in small press and autobio comics – he’s been running his series King-Cat Comics since 1989 and still going strong. He has a simple, spare yet amiable style, slowly polished to perfection over the years. Like the best autobio comics, he doesn’t do sprawling epics, but instead picks up on the little beauties of life.

This sample issue from a few years back tells about getting his wisdom teeth out and the hunt for a local folk artist in brief comic stories, but it also includes some of Porcellino’s gentle abstract “tone poems” which are barely stories at all – just moments, glimpsed in memory, turned into a few vivid words and drawings and yet somehow, encapsulating a little bit of everything. (Porcellino’s early zines have also been collected in some hefty books which are worth seeking out.) 

Dishwasher #12, 1994, Pete Jordan – I’ve written about Dishwasher Pete before, and his quixotic quest to wash dishes in all 50 states and publishing zines about it along the way. There’s something so totally ‘90s about Pete’s semi-slacker lifestyle, and becoming a bit of a cult hero along the way with his erratic zine with dishwashing stories, cartoons and more. This is the only issue of the zine I ever picked up and one of the final ones, but packed with fun stuff. It’s a great mix of Pete’s journal style entries of gigs in Mississippi and Arkansas, an excerpt from a 1930s dishwasher’s account, tips for proper dishwashing and amusing cartoon anecdotes and letters from other dishwashers. These days, shudder to think, Pete would probably have to be some kind of TikTok dish influencer to get noticed, but back then, a handmade zine felt, well, just more real, man. Fortunately for Dishwasher Pete fans, after hanging up his scrubs he later wrote a very entertaining memoir of his “dish dog” days that’s worth seeking out. 

Southern Fried #3, 1998, Jerry Smith – Jerry drew a series of chilled-out autobio comics about life and growing up in the South that had a lot of heart and debunked a lot of the lazier broad stereotypes about the South, even as he’s writing about hunting turtles or the local good ol’ boys. In this sample issue, he also drew some quietly devastating work about his relationship with his dad or the memories of his grandmother. Jerry’s work always felt to me the epitome of the “everyone’s got a story inside them” mantra – and everyone’s life is just as interesting as your own, examined the right way. I always liked Jerry’s art in these comics, a kind of rubbery realism which kind of skirts right at the line of being “ugly art” – that’s not a putdown, but there’s a kind of intense texture which makes his characters feel very lived-in. He’s still out there doing comics and art which is worth hunting for. 

Destined #3, 1997, Jeff Zenick – Back before you followed people on social media, you might follow their lives through zines. Jeff Zenick put out a lot of whimsical, candid “travel journal” type zines of his bicycle wanderings around the U.S. back in the day and I’ve always enjoyed their insightful, gentle charms. This issue of Destined tells of Jeff’s adventures in Oregon in a series of diary entries, illustrated with these finely detailed little landscape pen and ink drawings. There’s no real “plot” here, only a guy wandering around, visiting diners and coffee joints, taking on odd jobs and simply enjoying the pleasure of being, in a way that feels utterly present now – perhaps that’s just the nostalgia talking. (The only down side I find about some of these old zines when I re-read them now is that the sometimes tiny handwritten text is way harder to read for these ageing eyes.) These days Zenick does a lot of great portraits and art which can be sought out online too.

Tales From The Petro-Canada Man #4, 1994, Jason Marcy – Jay and I became pals back in the 1990s and we’re still pals today, so I’m biased as heck about him, but he is one of the great unsung autobiographical cartoonists around, doing brutally honest work for more than 30 (!) years now. He started out with his superhero parody “Powerwus,” but really found his calling with a series of tales about his life and work. The six-part Tales From The Petro-Canada Man comic, loosely organised around his late-night job at a petrol station and meeting the woman he’d go on to marry, are still fantastic work, scrappy and raw but sincere. Jay’s one, two or three-page strips were heavily influenced by the cartoonist Joe Matt (who was big in the 1990s, but Jay has actually gone on to be far more productive than Joe ever was). He’s unafraid to reveal all, from his mental health struggles to his, um, bodily functions (I still have nightmares about a few of his toilet strips) but there’s always a real humility and openness to his work that keeps it from ever feeling too exhibitionistic. A lot of autobio comics also tend to get whiny and maudlin but Jay’s work is often side-splittingly funny. Jay has gone on to do graphic novels and web toons and is still doing great autobio comics today, check out his Patreon!

Also in this series:

The Lost World Of Small Press, Part III: Mysterious minicomics

The Lost World of Small Press Part II: Minicomics maestros

The Lost World of Small Press, Part I: Bruce Chrislip makes history

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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