Wordz + Pix = Comix

The Riverwest Currents comics page was first published in September of 2003. Since then it has evolved into its present incarnation that includes work from five Milwaukee area artists. “Other newspapers have maybe one or two comics by local cartoonists. We’re the only one that has five,” said Tea Krulos, the founder and original editor of the page. The page got its start through a fundraiser with Thai Joe’s. Two of the first strips that Riverwest Currents published were Krulos’s own E. Kookamunga St. and Dug Belan’s Welcome to Wheresville, which are still featured regularly. To help fill the page, Krulos resurrected some underground comix by Jim Mitchell and Denis Kitchen that had been published in Milwaukee’s Bugle during the 1970s. Krulos recalled the community’s response when the page first started up. “It took off. People were emailing us and sending stuff in the mail.” One respondent was Coth, who offered up his strip Chinchillas Bathe in Dust. Coth took over Krulos’s duties of coordinating the Currents comics page in 2004, when it got to be too much action with Krulos’ other projects. Krulos edits and publishes Riverwurst, another local compilation of cartoon artists (“for mature audiences only” — get it at the Riverwest Co-op and other local shops). Coth is co-editing Riverwurst’s upcoming sixth issue, Riverwurst Explains the Meaning of the Universe. This collaborative spirit drives any art scene. “When I started the page, I thought there were maybe five or ten artists in the city who did comics,” said Krulos. “There are actually a few dozen comic artists in Milwaukee,” Coth pointed out. So what makes this art form so hot in Brew City? “I attribute it to a lot of geeks sitting around drawing and writing,” said Coth. Beyond that, it’s kind of a mystery. There are art schools here, as in any city; yet oftentimes cartoonists are not necessarily artists. More often than not, they’re writers. Coth quoted Pearls Before Swine cartoonist Stephan Pastis: “There’s an old adage in cartooning, which is that good writing can carry bad art, but good art cannot carry bad writing.” Despite the line often drawn between fine art and comic strips (said Dug Belan, “I’m not part of the art scene, thank goodness. I draw cartoons.”), the attitude is changing. UWM has offered a history of comics class; now Riverwest Co-op Cafe is hanging cartoons in an art show. Next year (April 29-August 20, 2006), the Milwaukee Art Museum will host “Masters of 20th Century American Comics.””People are realizing that it’s not just kid stuff,” said Krulos. Krulos and Coth go to conventions and comic book shops to find new inspiration. “There’s a lot online, too,” said Coth. The daily newspaper, though, remains the foremost source of comic strips for America’s reading public. These Riverwest cartoonists emphasized the badly needed updates in today’s funnies. “I can’t stand that fat-ass cat Garfield. He is indicative of a larger problem in the United States,” said Krulos. “Jim Davis doesn’t even create those strips anymore. It’s a factory-made cartoon, created on an assembly line by a team of artists and a very bad writer,” adds Coth. “Syndicated comic strips stay the same for years. I would like to see Beetle Bailey get shot.” Riverwest Comics page brings cartoons to an organic level. Each artist comes up with fresh material each month, “…usually at the last minute,” said Krulos. The humor is ironic, absurd, and even self-deprecating. More than anything, the cartoons reflect whatever is on the minds of the artists, and they often hit home within the community. E. Kookamunga St. had been a constant on the comics page until recently, when Krulos started publishing a variety of strips featuring new casts of characters. Krulos’s style is a dramatic, stark black and white contrast of actual and imagined people, hinging on humor that reflects the news of the day as well as the seasons. His versatile, “try anything once” approach keeps the strip spanking new each month, as well as jammed with new flavor in illustrations elsewhere in the Currents. Krulos’s influences are diverse. “I like 3D comics. I also like early underground stuff. Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith is bizarre and surreal, and Dan Piraro who does Bizarro is non-sequitur, which I like.” His modus operandi involves thinking of an idea, loosely sketching it, adding detail in pencil, then adding ink slowly. The star of Welcome to Wheresville is certainly a smartypants, wreaking havoc and spreading witticisms along with his other pals. This cartoon gets totally weird sometimes, as we all should aspire to do. When asked about his style, Belan wrote in an email, “I try to make people laugh at my comics and enjoy it when they do. I often laugh at them as I draw them, which really hinders my speed but boosts my enthusiasm. I also enjoy making fun of things I despise.” His cartoonist heroes include Windsor McKay, Al Capp, Crockett Johnson, Chic Young, Patrick McDonnell, Charles Addams, Dave Sim, George Herriman, and a bunch of others. Belan has contributed to Riverwurst, too. Chinchillas Bathe in Dust presents artfully rendered rodents personified. Coth draws the characters and then adds the dialogue. Things that make him angry can spark a strip. “The chinchilla is an archetypal deadbeat,” he said. Joe Sacco’s artistic portrayals of war zones in his signature cartoon journalism are among Coth’s favorite works, in addition to R. Crumb, Tony Millionaire, Vittorio Giardino, and Bill Watterson. “Calvin & Hobbes is probably the greatest comic strip of all time,” he said. Dan Hernandez does Dreadful Days, a bleakly funny “journal comic.” His artwork is consistently slick, and the stories are fully rendered — if you think about it, it’s quite a trick to tell a whole story in three scenes. The humor ranges from allegorical vignettes to internal dialogues to beautiful human moments. With a touch of neurosis, Dreadful Days’ reluctanct hero fumbles thru life and love with quirky steps. At pennydreadfull.net you can see the strips in full color, along with Hernandez’s other projects. A newer addition to the page is Bud Ralphy by Breena Wiederhoeft. Her finely honed characters are easy on the eyes, with postmodern personalities: they understand that they are cartoon characters. These unlikely supeheroes look like regular dudes … and have a hard time finding crime to fight. Wiederhoeft recently moved to California, so plans for her future work in the Currents remain up in the air as of this writing. Future plans? Krulos admitted that he’s been looking for a Spanish comic strip since he started the page, and he still hasn’t found one. “A lot of Riverwest Currents readers are Spanish-speaking.” Spread the word a todos, por favor. That would be cool!