The Harper College Comics Gallery Show, Oct. 13-Nov. 14, 2014

Gallery Show program cover copy

The cover of the program for our gallery show this month at Harper.

I’m writing this at 9 am on a Monday morning, October 13, and I’ve just walked back from our gallery space here at Harper College, where I’m an Associate Professor of English. Late last year I started talking with Jason Peot, one of my Studio Art colleagues, about putting together a show featuring a small group of Chicago cartoonists. Jason liked the idea, and asked what I had in mind. I gave him a list of names and a few books. After a year of planning and preparation, we opened the show this morning. It’s called “‘Like Comics Without Panels’: The Visionary Cartooning of John Porcellino, Marnie Galloway, and Edie Fake.” I got to play the role of co-curator with Jason. Playing this part forced me to come to terms with my undergrad experiences in my Studio Art classes, which I took for a year and a half in the early 1990s during my first and second years of college.

When I got to college, I wanted to do three things: draw pictures, write stories, and play guitar. I arrived in Hanover, New Hampshire in late September of 1991 with an acoustic guitar, my box of drawing supplies, a drawing table, and a bag of cassettes. I was obsessed with Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, their final album released in 1987. I had an acoustic guitar my mom had bought me at T.C.’s Pawn and Gun in Waterbury in December of 1990. It was an Applause (my buddies all called it the Applesauce guitar), Ovation’s less-expensive student model, with a curved, plastic back and nice low action. Before I got the Applause, I learned to play a few chords on a red-sparkle toy guitar covered in Mickey Mouse stickers. In the fall of my senior year of high school, I drilled a hole in that guitar for a microphone and used my stereo as an amplifier. I discovered feedback about the same time I discovered Hüsker Dü. “Are they in a garage or are they just spending a lot of money to sound like they’re in a garage?” a friend asked me (when I mentioned I was listening to the band again to work on this post, she said, “When will this obsession end?”). I liked them mostly for their stories, the ones promised by the subtitle of that final album.

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Hüsker Dü’s 1987 album Warehouse: Songs and Stories

I mention Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton because every time I read something new by John Porcellino, an issue of King-Cat Comics and Stories or even his masterful new book The Hospital Suite, I’m reminded of a scene in Perfect Example, his coming-of age story (its title comes from a Bob Mould song on Hüsker Dü’s 1985 album New Day Rising), where the young John P. imagines what college might be like:

John P

From John Porcellino’s Perfect Example (Drawn & Quarterly edition, 2005)

That was pretty much me at 17 when I started college, only I didn’t have a skateboard (my mom was afraid I’d fall off and bust my head). Just as I was sure when I got to Chicago that everyone would be listening to The Sea and Cake (we don’t), I was certain that most of the kids would have copies of Warehouse or Zen Arcade. They didn’t. I wrote term papers about the band and quoted their lyrics in my papers—essays about Franz Kafka and Guy de Maupassant and Thomas Mann. I liked other bands, too. I once compared the linework on a Greek vase to Tom Verlaine’s guitar work, and my art history professor gently warned me, “Don’t use an obscure reference to explain an even more obscure reference, Brian.”

In Dan Stafford’s revealing new documentary Root Hog or Die, Porcellino explains his affection for the Minneapolis band. He first read about their 1984 double-album in a Chicago Reader article. I had another moment of recognition when as I watched this part of the film. Porcellino explains,

R.E.M. was great, but for me when I heard Zen Arcade, that was the thing that was like—not only is it this weird music that’s really appealing, but honestly, as an adolescent or whatever, I was just like, this music is about me. These songs are about my own life. (Get a copy of Root Hog or Die and fast forward about 18 minutes for more about the band.)

I’d listen to my Hüsker Dü tapes in my dorm room while working on projects for my basic design and drawing classes. Each of the songs on Warehouse tells a short story, from the high-school nostalgia of Mould’s “These Important Years” to Hart’s “You Can Live at Home,” which ends the record with waves of feedback and static. As Jason and I finished framing the pieces for the show, I guess I should have expected I’d listen to Warehouse again as I tried to pick up where I’d left off in 1993. But now I’m getting ahead of where I should be in this story.

By my second year of college, my art classes weren’t going too well. I was still obsessed with comics, so all of my projects looked like poor imitations of my favorite cartoonists: one week Frank Miller, the next week Moebius (or Frank Miller trying to draw like Moebius). Finally, one of my professors took me aside and said, “I’m going to be honest. I don’t see any potential in what you’re doing. Maybe you should transfer to a state school and study illustration.” For my last few projects, I tried my best to imitate some of the new artists I’d been exposed to: I liked Robert Rauschenberg a lot, so I went to dumpster in the parking lot of the one grocery store in town and brought a stack of cardboard boxes back to my dorm room. I drew an ink portrait of a friend (the same one who liked The Smiths better than she liked Hüsker Dü) and then covered it in layers of paint. When the paint had dried, I stapled the pieces of wood and cardboard together. I thought it looked like a Rauschenberg. It didn’t. But I sold it at an art show for $5. I learned later that another friend had bought it for her apartment. In my junior year, I surrendered. No more art classes for me. I decided on an English major instead. I also rented a cassette 4-track and decided I’d learn to write songs. I missed my art classes, but I wasn’t the most rebellious kid, so I believed what my professor had told me. Anyway, I’d started playing bass in a couple of campus bands and made a few more friends. I wondered what it’d be like to put my own band together. Playing music was fun, and, since it wasn’t my major, there was no one to tell me what to do. My 4-track compositions weren’t that good either, but I had more fun trying to imitate the songs on Warehouse than I’d had trying to imitate Moebius, or Frank Miller, or Robert Rauschenberg.

I’ve always been a little haunted by my decision to give up drawing in favor of music and writing. It was an abrupt end to a very long relationship. My box of art supplies, which still sits on a bookshelf not far from my desk, is like a box of old photographs of friends I haven’t seen in a long time. I could take a few art classes to get back to what I loved twenty years ago, but last year I decided instead to put together a show. I think that’s the musician side of me at work. Let’s call a couple of other bands and book a gig somewhere. Who’s free? Do we know a third band for the bill? Last fall, over twenty years since I dropped the painting class that would have qualified me for a minor in Studio Art, I started talking with Jason about my idea for the show. No superheroes. A few Chicago cartoonists. I’ll teach their books in one of my courses. We’ll invite them to campus.

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Two pages from In the Sounds and Seas, printed on large sheets of fabric (please note: hammer not included in final version of the show.)

Jason has an MFA in sculpture from Northern Illinois and recently has done installation work at the University of Illinois at Urbana and for the Chicago Public Library. He works a lot with light. Take a look at the samples on his website and you’ll see that a lot of his work is implied—phantoms of shape and color suggested by the play of light across a surface. I thought he’d like the subtlety of King-Cat Comics and Stories, Edie Fake’s humor, Marnie Galloway’s atmospheric, complex designs. As Jason and I worked on the show, I started to feel like I was putting a band together, my own comics supergroup: Edie, John, and Marnie.

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The second volume of In the Sounds and Seas

I often joke that I like comics, but I love music—listening to it, playing it, writing it. I love being in a band. Since I couldn’t read until I was well into first grade, sounds and pictures are my first language. Although my parents don’t play any instruments—except maybe my mom, who knows a little piano—they remain passionate about their music. My mom loves Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Donna Summer, Smokey Robinson. As a kid, we’d listen to the Woodstock soundtrack album, Tapestry, Crosby, Stills & Nash. She’d hear “When Doves Cry” and say, “That sounds like ‘Purple Haze.’ I like that one.” My dad listened to country music, especially Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and gravelly-voiced singer songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. Later, he introduced me to Bob Dylan so, as thanks, I told him about Lou Reed’s New York and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs (which I think he likes a lot more than I do).

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On one wall of our show, you’ll see Edie’s original illustrations for Wallace Stevens’s poem “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” from the “Illustrated Wallace Stevens” roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian website, July 26, 2011. This series of drawings was also published as a zine in 2011.

In a Los Angeles Times review of Warehouse, writer Chris Willman describes the band’s final album as “a letter from an old friend in your hometown, full of experiences and insights you thought only you went through or felt anymore, spoken in a way that only those who grew up with similar sets of friends (or similar sets of hard-rock record collections) can share.” Later Willman argues that “this letter from home is almost in a sort of secret code,” but Warehouse, like Porcellino’s The Hospital Suite, is direct, intimate, and often devastating. When I finished The Hospital Suite a few weeks ago, I remembered the liner notes that accompany Warehouse, a short prose piece about what it looked and felt like to tour the United States in the 1980s. The final lines of those notes, unsigned but presumably written by one of the band members (I’m guessing Bob Mould, given some of the phrasing, but maybe Grant Hart, whose recent album The Argument is a captivating rock and roll version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost), might be the narration for a John Porcellino story about Hoffman Estates, or Denver, or South Beloit. “When you travel frequently, you find a lot of images,” read the notes for Warehouse. The essay concludes with one of those pictures from the road:

Example? Winter always comes too soon. This year was the worst I can remember, except when I was five years old. Pushed open the front door, got lost in the snow.

I hope people get lost when they come to see the show, as they wander into the gallery and discover one of Marnie’s whales staring down at them from large fabric banners, or as they study the intricate black-ball-point-on-paper of Edie’s drawing “Stay Dead,” a prelude for what would become the Memory Palaces series.

If you come to the show, you’ll see several original pages from Marnie’s In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I, which she published under her Monkey-Rope Press imprint in 2012. Just a few weeks ago, she released In the Sounds and Seas, Volume II, which continues what she promises will be a three-issue series. You’ll also see original pages from King-Cat Comics and Stories No. 73, Edie’s original drawings for the Wallace Stevens roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian a few years ago, and all sorts of other process sketches, zines, and other lovely works of art. My students are reading In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I, and just finished taking notes on the Sarah Boxer interview with John at The Comics Journal. And we’ll have John, Marnie, and Edie on campus for a visit and an informal Q&A on October 30.

If you can’t make it out to Palatine, write to me and I’ll send you the program for the show, which features selections from each artist and a short essay. And don’t worry about postage. If you have a zine or minicomic, let’s do a trade. A four-track tape would be even better.

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Another photo from the gallery: selections from In the Sounds and Seas, Volume I and Edie Fake’s “Stay Dead” (2007)

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