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

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

Minicomics! We love them, and there’s millions of them! I’m back for part three of my ongoing look at The Lost World Of Small Press and the random gems and curiosities from my small press comics collection of the 1990s.

Last time we talked about folks like Matt Feazell and Steve Willis, small press legends who have even achieved a fair bit of ‘fame’ in this little subculture. But there’s a thousand other small press comics out there that maybe only a few people remember or even ever actually read. Let’s take a turn to more mysterious and forgotten comics of the era: 

The thing about all of these ones is that they’re either obscure, or unfinished, or both. They’re comics that caught my attention but the creators just sort of faded from the scene entirely and I have no idea where they are today – you can’t even Google most of these comics. But I still have ‘em and remember them, and well, decades on their creativity is worth remembering, even if only in a blog post. 

Human Unit 12 #1 and #8

What if a clone designed by the government escaped and became well, a kind of hippie? Human Unit 12 was one of the first minicomics I ever “collected,” before it and creator Erik Kaye vanished from the scene, or at least my reckoning of it. These tidy little minis were well produced on slick paper and Kaye’s impressionistic art reminds me some of Bill Sienkiewicz. The design of “Human Unit 12” is particularly innovative – he looks a bit like a Picasso cubist drawing in amongst realistic backgrounds. I really dug HU12 for a while there, which was beautifully drawn yet rambled sort of amiably along without really developing the story too much, as Human Unit wrote poems, worked for Greenpeace and went to parties. The last issue I saw, #8, was a startlingly pornographic sex issue that felt like a mad fever dream, and then, that was it. Like a lot of comics I picked up early in my small press days circa 1990-1993, it just kind of disappeared, unresolved. But while it lasted I dug Human Unit 12’s freedom, and idiosyncratic world. Just starting out to really make my own comics, a book like this reminded me that really, you could create anything

The Adventures of Boiled Man #5

On page one it states this “is a completely silly mini-comic, not intended to be taken even a little seriously.” The great thing about the compact minicomic format is that you can do a single gag and make a comic out of it. This issue of Boiled Man by Bryan K. Ward – the only one I ever saw – is nothing but seven pages of a pot and a wok growling and gurgling at each other as a spider crawls down a web in the background. “Amazing Team-Up! Introducing Wok-Man!” the cover blares. It’s daft and goofy, but darn if it the commitment to the “joke” – dadaist as it is – makes me laugh. I don’t know how many adventures of Boiled Man there were, but this one is a true clash of the titans. 

Creature of the Night #1

Unlike some of the more obscure comics here, Creature of the Night was HOT in the small press scene of 1992, by gosh. Publisher and writer Chris Terry burst onto the scene with a captivating little horror tale that made people realise how good small press could look. It boasted extremely high production values for a minicomic of the time – glossy paper, gorgeous Barry Windsor-Smith-esque art by Bob Hobbs, and a catchy dark and violent yarn about Satan worshippers, monsters and evil curses. At the end of #1, our lead character is transformed into a demonic creature and hurtles off into the night swearing revenge.  Yet while Creature made a very big splash in the minicomics scene of the time, Chris Terry never really equalled it. There was another issue or two of Creature after lengthy delays, equally well produced, but the story spun its wheels I thought and never quite got past first gear. Terry soon exited small press entirely a bit abruptly. (Sure, today’s social media is bad, but the squabbling and ‘feuds’ that regularly went through small press in the 1990s in old-fashioned letters and such was as bad as any Facebook group today.) I got an email from Chris Terry once a few years later asking me to promote a band in the newspaper I worked at. And that’s the last I heard of him. I don’t think the Creature of the Night ever showed its face again. 

Mr. Unique #1

This fellow from Florida, Mark Bratton, put out a handful of minicomics which were noteworthy to me because they were so darned weird, like strange backwoods outsider art filtered through Steve Ditko. The story is kind of incomprehensible and the art is, to be charitable, rough, but there’s still this very odd energy to the handful of Bratton comics I own today, with his rough, thick linework almost hacked out of the page and characters alternately sobbing and screaming through the panels. Although it’s littered with misspellings, the story of a clairvoyant’s adventures has this coiled insistence to it that made me keep the battered copy of Mr. Unique #1 for all these years. It feels a bit like a comic that just came out of the void. It’s amateur and raw and sloppy, but you kind of feel like Bratton, whatever happened to him, meant it. And really, that’s kind of what small press comics are all about. 

The Lost World of Small Press Part II: Minicomics maestros

I’ve been publishing small press comics on and off (mostly off) since the 1990s, but I have to admit I’ve only published a handful of minicomics, preferring the slightly larger digest size. But the minicomic itself is a work of genius – a single sheet of A4 or 8×11 paper folded in half, and folded again, trimmed and stapled, and voila! Highly portable art.

As promised back in Part I of the Lost World of Small Press, here’s a dip into my boxes of small press comics from back in the day, with a look at three of my favourite old minicomics – this time, focusing on small press legends, next time, focusing on small press unknowns

“Legends” is a relative term in a niche field like small press, of course, but there are some names anyone who’s been around for a while gets to know – Matt Feazell, Colin Upton and John MacLeod are right up there among them, each great talents. 

The Death of Antisocialman #1

Anyone can draw a stick figure, but nobody can draw ‘em as well as Matt Feazell, who’s been doing minicomics starring Cynicalman and other stick folk for decades, even appearing in Eclipse Comics’ Zot! back in the 1980s. Matt has put out uncounted mountains of minis, but some of my favourite star the cantankerous, rude Antisocialman, who “died” (not really) in a series of great energy-filled minis circa 1991. Matt’s stick art has ranged from the extremely sketchy to the highly polished, his gags from silly to complex, but he’s always worth reading. 

Famous Bus Rides #3 

There’s a zillion “autobiographical” comix out there, ranging from the sublime to the infantile. Canadian Colin Upton has been around for a long time and done all kinds of interesting work, but something about Famous Bus Rides sums up the tidy, compact pleasures of an autobio minicomic for me, where a single weird encounter on a bus ride can turn into a lightning-quick short story. Like the late great Harvey Pekar, Upton takes a random moment or two from life and makes it into humble comics art. 

The Night I Almost Met Shonen Knife 

John MacLeod is another well known small presser for his amazingly cool low-fi series Dishman. His crisp, clean art always appeals to me, and the 1994 minicomic The Night I Almost Met Shonen Knife is a brisk, funny little anecdote about learning a cool band is a fan of your work and almost – but not quite – meeting them. It’s the kind of yarn that would seem a bit flimsy for a full on comic story, but in a tidy little 16-page mini, it’s just right.

All three of these folks are still in the game producing comics in some form or another – Matt Feazell has his own website with lots of great stuff for sale, while both John MacLeod and Colin Upton’s recent work can be found by seeking out their Facebook pages. 

Next time: From legends to mysterious minicomics outsiders! 

Previously: The Lost World of Small Press Part I: Bruce Chrislip’s history of minicomics

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

Most of us learn it when we’re kids – all you really need to make a comic is a pencil and a piece of blank paper. That’s the beauty and the charm of small press comics, wonderfully explained in a brilliant, extremely niche book of comics history I read recently that I highly recommend, The Minicomix Revolution 1969-1989

Bruce Chrislip is one of the foundational members of the small press “scene” of the 1970s and ‘80s and his book is a hefty old tome that captures the beginnings of an essentially ephemeral, ever-changing world. Improved printing technology and the spirit of underground comics led to a world where basically anyone could publish their own comic, even if nobody bought a copy for the 7 cents they were asking.

The Minicomix Revolution is a sweeping, if by its very nature incomplete, history of a creative movement that still animates culture today – after all, what is internet “content” from influencers but yet another way of doing it all yourself, and taking your work directly to the people? 

There’s dozens of names in here, from the notable to the obscure, and Chrislip keeps his narrative from turning into a dry list by bringing them to life with tales of late-night jam sessions, friendships made and always, madcap invention. Chrislip also notes those who started in small press who went on to much bigger things, like Simpsons guru Matt Groening and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creators Eastman and Laird. 

Chrislip’s book ends just at the time I came into the small press scene circa 1991 or so, but many of the names he covers were familiar to me as press icons such as Matt Feazell and Steve Willis, or the late great artist and “reviewzine” editor Tim Corrigan, who gave me some of my first “real” reviews of my own comic Amoeba Adventures when I started it in 1990.

Chrislip includes dozens of comics covers that capture the beautiful anarchy of small press, where a comic can be everything from a goofy superhero riff (cough cough) to highly personal autobiography or a series of self-portraits or just sheer dadaist gags. (The book is available directly from him directly, and you can look him up on Facebook, contact him via email or mail him a check or money order at 2113 Endovalley Dr. Cincinnati, OH 45244 – it’s $45 postpaid, beautifully produced and well worth the cash if you’re into rare comics history.) 

There are brilliant artists working in small press that few comics fans will ever hear about. That’s kind of sad to me, but it’s an artist’s life, too. A few very noble efforts to collect some classic minicomics have been published but it’s a bit like attempting to collect snow – for every mini “superstar” like a Matt Feazell there’s a dozen others who may have only sold 10 copies of their comic, but it’s still grand fun.

I wish there was a way to completely capture the vast breadth of small press – efforts like Ricko Bradford’s Poopsheet Foundation or official archives held by academic institutions help. 

The “zine” scene is still alive and well bubbling beneath our TikTok and Twittified world, and dogged folks like me are still producing unique pieces of comic art that maybe only a few dozen people will read, but hey, it’s the creating that really counts, in my mind. You feel the call to make things, and you’ll never quite stop hearing it. 

In the end, it’s just about the comics, really. My collection has whittled down a bit over the years what with moving around the world and such but I’ve still kept a hardcore pile of the minicomics that mean the most to me over the years. They’re literally irreplaceable, as some creators have vanished from the scene or even died and their comics are totally unavailable today. 

All this lengthy preamble leads up to me starting an occasional blog series here on the “Lost World of Small Press” looking at a handful of these groovy handmade gems hidden in my boxes o’ comix! Look for more rare 1990s small press comics showcased here mighty soon. 

More in this series:

The Lost World of Small Press Part II: Minicomics Maestros

The Lost World of Small Press Part III: Mysterious Minicomics