Sammy Harkham & Martin Cendreda In the LA Times

“Cover Story; Cartoonists' network; L.A., the alternative city on the alt-comics scene, is drawing new talent in a big way.” / Los Angeles Times / Susan Carpenter / September 16, 2004

Meltdown COMICS is a cartoon jungle. Take a right, and an endless supply of caped crusaders jumps at you from the shelves. Take a left, and it's manga, the ambiguously gendered protagonists giving big-eyed stares from the covers of "Psychic Academy" and "Cyborg 009." But if you dodge the bin of Ugly Dolls inside the door, head straight, then take a hard left at the car-sized bins labeled "DC" and "Marvel," you'll find a goldmine of "alternatives" taking comic books to places they've never been before.

That's where you'll find Johnny Ryan's "Angry Youth Comix," an over-the-top, off-color series populated with insidious men and dopey women. It's where you'll find Dame Darcy's "Meat Cake" gothic fairy tales. And, of course, "Love and Rockets," the long-running series of barrio tales penned by local legends the Hernandez Brothers.

Meltdown's back 40 is also home to the hip-hop street smarts of "MadTwiinz" Mike and Mark Davis, the tear-jerker tales of Jordan Crane, the innocent gag panels of Martin Cendreda, the sketchbook stylings of Souther Salazar, the minimalist storytelling of Sammy Harkham and fine art cartoons from Ron Rege Jr.

What do these artists have in common? Virtually nothing. But they're all pushing the medium in style, story and content. And they're all in L.A., which has become one of the most vibrant, varied and thriving alternative comic scenes in the country -- albeit very quietly.

"It's always Art Spiegelman -- New York. Or Fantagraphics -- Seattle. L.A.'s just overlooked," says Gaston Dominguez-Letelier, co-owner of Meltdown on Sunset Boulevard. "Maybe it's because everybody thinks of Melrose or Rodeo Drive or beach bunnies in Venice. Maybe it's because the film industry is so flashy.

"Unless you're a savvy and knowledgeable comic book buyer, you would not know all these artists are in L.A.," he says. "You'd think they were in Rhode Island somewhere or a forest or Chicago in some old building, but they're out here throughout Los Angeles in different areas trying to make ends meet."

L.A. isn't a cartoonist hub, like Seattle in the early '90s or Boston a few years later. It isn't a scene in the sense that all of the artists go to the same parties or live in a shared house. More than anything, it's a coincidence that so many talented underground cartoonists have landed here at the same time.

Some have followed wives or girlfriends. Others were born and raised in L.A. or went to school here. Some have Hollywood aspirations. Regardless of their motives, one thing is certain: The confluence of talent in L.A. has yielded remarkable results: story lines that range from autobiographical explorations of the mundane to out-of-this-world adventures, with drawing styles that can be minimalist or outrageously jampacked, in books that can be slick, inches-thick anthologies or hand-assembled miniatures that fit in the palm of a hand.

The variety of L.A.-based works reflects a larger renaissance nationwide. "It's definitely a golden age right now," says Eric Reynolds, an editor with alt-comic publisher Fantagraphics. "There was the underground in the late '60s, which was largely about taboo busting, then the independent comics movement in the early '80s that was kick-started by 'Love and Rockets' and R. Crumb's 'Weirdo' and Art Spiegelman's 'Raw.' Now we're in this third wave where you have a generation brought up on that stuff, and they're aiming higher.

"In alternative comics, you have all different types of subject matter in terms of fiction and nonfiction and comedy and drama and satire and more abstract experimentation," Reynolds says. "There's enough out there now that I could ask anyone what kind of books you like and probably have something decent to recommend with comics."

Anyone in alternative comics will tell you: If you want to make money, cartooning isn't the way to do it. The amount of time it takes to draw and write the dozens of panels that tell the story doesn't even translate into minimum wage for most artists. Which makes it all the more surprising that so many choose to pursue to it.

"That's what's cool about the people who do it. You know they're in it because they believe in it as an art form," says Salazar, 26, an artist who's a bit of a vanguard for an emerging movement in comics that's less driven by panels (or stories) and more sketchbook-based. "I think of it like the Wild West."

The Eagle Rock studio where Salazar works with his girlfriend and sometime collaborator, Saelee Oh, is a hodgepodge of fine and folk arts. An enormous self-portrait of Oh hangs next to a framed thrift-shop painting. Dozens of collaborative, homemade comics -- some with hand-painted covers, others with bindings done on a sewing machine -- clutter a desk; unassembled pieces of another are stacked on the floor. The Rapid 100 Electronic stapler Salazar introduces as his "pride and joy" takes up a corner, penned in by other tricks of the trade: a pencil sharpener, cutting board, sketch paper.

"Our comics are more spontaneous and fun," says Salazar, a pencil tucked behind his ear. "We try to make it where the accidents are part of it."

Salazar and Oh's collaborations could be considered art objects as much as they're cartoons. Their "Peanut Butter & Jelly" mini comic series is simply a photocopied version of the sketchbook Salazar carries in his back pocket for co-doodling whenever he and Oh feel inspired. Between the drawing and assembly, the 2-by-4-inch "PBJ" books take countless hours to make, but Salazar and Oh, like so many other alt-comic artists on the rise, sell them for next to nothing at shops such as Meltdown in Hollywood, Hi De Ho in Santa Monica and Giant Robot on Sawtelle Boulevard in L.A., and trade them for free with other cartoonists at comic book conventions.

That's how up-and-comer Martin Cendreda found a publisher for "Dang!," a series of stories involving an endlessly harassed pup named Herbert Hound and a pair of mischievous street urchins known as the Lil' Orphans. During last year's Comic-Con convention in San Diego, Cendreda handed out black-and-white, photocopied-and-stapled booklets to various publishers and was picked up by Georgia-based Top Shelf, which put out a four-color pamphlet version of his comic earlier this year. That, in turn, has won him a spot in an upcoming volume of "Drawn & Quarterly Showcase," a well-respected, Montreal-based anthology featuring promising new talent.

For years, that talent seemed to be coming from everywhere but L.A. New York, Montreal, Toronto, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco have regularly spawned top artists. For years, the Hernandez Brothers were the lone alt-comic outpost in L.A., but that is finally changing.

"It's bizarrely huge right now. Through odd circumstances, there's been a profusion of cartoonists in this city, and that fact is feeding on itself and it's kind of making it a pretty great place to be right now," says Jordan Crane, a cartoonist who's helped to make silk-screened covers a sort of standard in modern-day mini comics.

In the late '90s, Crane was part of a thriving Boston scene that put a fine-art spin on comics. A Southern California native, he followed his wife to Boston for school, then trailed her back to Central L.A. because of her new job.

Driven by a love of print, the tactile appeal of laying pigment on paper and a do-it-yourself attitude that rejected mainstream publishing approval and the impersonality of mass-produced glossies, Crane also provided a ramp for unsung talent in a series of comics anthologies called "NON."

He published his first in 1997. His latest, "NON No. 5," came out in 2001 with a silk-screened, die-cut cover and square, perfect binding -- a radical contrast to the glossy pamphlets most people think of as comics.

"That was my intention: To make this thing that presented itself in a way that a lot of people would want to pick it up and accept it and thereby engage with the work, which is work that doesn't necessarily look like anything they had liked before," Crane says. His happy-go-lucky speaking manner stands in stark contrast to the heart-wrenching content of his cartoons -- stories like "Keeping Two," about a couple who lose their child, or "Col-Dee," about a single mother struggling to make ends meet.

When Crane started publishing "NON," he says, "There was a ridiculous excess of amazing comics. I was looking at 10 different artists who'd never had their work printed on an offset press."

These days there seem to be more outlets. For the last few years, local CalArts grad and cartoonist Sammy Harkham has been publishing a critically acclaimed, "NON"-like anthology called "Kramer's Ergot." Local counterculture magazines Arthur and Giant have regularly published strips and illustrations from local cartoonists. And Dave Eggers' McSweeney's magazine recently published a comics anthology curated by alt-comics bigwig Chris Ware; among its offerings was a mini comic about a Palestinian suicide bomber from Ron Rege Jr., who recently moved from Rhode Island to L.A. to be with his girlfriend, who works in the entertainment industry. More and more alternative comics are showing up as graphic novels on the shelves of mainstream bookstores. And, increasingly, they're being separated from books and produced as free-standing prints that are shown in art galleries. A few, like "Ghost World," released in 2000, and the Dan Clowes' follow-up "Art School Confidential," filmed this year, are squeaking through the Hollywood machine into movie theaters.

All the while, Meltdown and other comic stores' alternative sections are being cruised by development scouts for Nickelodeon, Sony, Miramax, New Line and Warner Bros. Some cartoonists' comics and characters are picked up and turned into animated TV shows, such as Johnen Vasquez's "Invader Zim"; others are recruited to work on existing shows such as "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Even ad agencies are bringing them to the masses. Rege is working on a campaign for Tylenol. Salazar did a print ad for Moviefone; it was based on a character in a mini comic that an advertising exec happened upon in a small Portland, Ore., bookstore.

"Most people think, 'Oh, he has a comic book. He must be raking in the dough,' " says Johnny Ryan, the creator of "Angry Youth Comix."

"It's not like that at all. As far as alternative comics go, it's almost like the comic is sort of just a business card to get you other gigs."

Like most cartoonists, Ryan would prefer to make his living off comics alone, but in the unlikely event of that happening, he'll settle for paying the bills with his freelance work for Nickelodeon and other magazines, such as Vice.

"There's a number of really great cartoonists in L.A. right on that verge of having a much larger audience," says Reynolds of Fantagraphics, which publishes titles by a number of local artists, including the Hernandez Brothers, Steven Weissman, Tony Millionaire, Dame Darcy and Ryan. "They just need to get more work under their belt."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

L.A.'s hottest names in comics

It's not a bird! It's not a plane! It's alternative comics. Following are some of the top contributors to the L.A. scene:

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Martin Cendreda

Age: 32

Why in L.A.? City native.

Calling card: "Dang!" -- whimsical mini comics and comic books following Herbert Hound and a pair of mischievous street urchins.

Next: A sketchbook published by Giant Robot; a strip for the upcoming comics anthology "Strip America;" more "Dang!" minis; a contribution to the upcoming "Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, Vol. 3."

*

Jordan Crane

Age: 31

Why in L.A.? City native.

Calling card: "Keeping Two," a heartbreaking series about the trials and tribulations of coupled life.

Next: "The Clouds Above," the continuing adventures of a little boy named Simon and his pet cat Jack; "Imperial," a compilation featuring a 16-page story, eight pages of serialized material for "Keeping Two."

*

Dame Darcy

Age: 33

Why in L.A.? To pursue film, music, animation.

Calling card: "Meat Cake," the neo-Victorian horror/humor/romance fairy tale series involving Effluvia the Mermaid, Igpay the Pig-Latin pig and other assorted characters.

Next: "Gasoline," a post-apocalyptic graphic novel (and screenplay) about an alternate present -- if nuclear war had happened in the '80s; illustrations for Putnam Penguin's graphic novel version of the Charlotte Bronte classic "Jane Eyre."

*

Sammy Harkham

Age: 24

Why in L.A.? City native.

Calling card: "Poor Sailor," an epic tale of love and loss; "Kramer's Ergot" anthologies of up-and-coming talent -- some local, some not.

Next: "Kramer's Ergot No. 5"; the new comic book series "Crickets;" "Somersaulting" in "Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, Vol. 3"; a contribution to the upcoming Fantagraphics comics anthology "Mome."

*

Jaime Hernandez

Age: 44

Why in L.A.? City native.

Calling card: "Love and Rockets," the long-running series of SoCal barrio tales that helped kick-start alt comics in the early '80s.

Next: More "Love and Rockets"; "Locas," a 725-page compilation of Hernandez's stories.

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MadTwiinz, a.k.a. Mark and Mike Davis

Age: 28

Why in L.A.? Animation.

Calling card: Blokhedz, a hip-hop series following 17-year-old rapper Blak.

Next: Blokhedz sequels and prequels

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Tony Millionaire

Age: 48

Why in L.A.? His wife is an actress.

Calling card: "Maakies," a weekly strip that runs in the LA Weekly, Village Voice and 10 other papers.

Next: "That Darn Yarn," a children's book about a sock monkey who tumbles down the stairs and comes unraveled; "Struwwel Maakies," a third collection of his weekly strip.

*

John Pham

Age: 29

Why in L.A.? City native.

Calling card: "Sublife Sketchbook" compilation, a mix of sketches and panel comics.

Next: Debut of his "Substitute Life"; a contribution to the upcoming Fantagraphics anthology "Mome"; a collection of his early work, "Epoxy."

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Ron Rege Jr.

Age: 34

Why in L.A.? His girlfriend works in the entertainment industry.

Calling card: Suicide bomber mini comic ("She Sometimes ... ") included in the recent McSweeney's No. 13 comics anthology; "Yeast Hoist" comic compilation.

Next: A second "Yeast Hoist" book; various collections of cartoons he's drawn for magazines; Tylenol ad campaign.

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Johnny Ryan

Age: 33

Why in L.A.? Animation aspirations, the weather.

Calling card: "Angry Youth Comix," an off-color, over-the-top series.

Next: "What Are You Lookin' At?" a collection of the first five "Angry Youth Comix"; "Blecky Yuckerella," a collection of his weekly strip of the same name; "Shouldn't You be Working," a collection of sketchbook work.

*

Souther Salazar / Saelee Oh

Age: 26 / 22

Why in L.A.? Art Center College of Design graduates.

Calling card: "The Monster That Ate Stars" mini comic; "Winks & Whispers," a Valentine's Day mini comic.

Next: Gallery show at Giant Robot on Nov. 20; "Dragonfly," his first non-handmade book.

*

Steven Weissman

Age: 36

Why in L.A.? "Intense media exposure."

Calling card: The trilogy of books compiling his darkly humorous child adventure series, "Yikes."

Next: The book "Poopy," about a remarkable skunk who changes the life of everyone he meets.

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'Toon time

Graphic novels and comic book compilations have found their way to most major bookstores, but if you're looking for alternative comics and lesser-known, on-the-rise cartoonists, these specialty shops can point you in the right direction:

Giant Robot, 2015 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 478-1819

Golden Apple Comics, 7711 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 658-6047

Hi De Ho Comics and Books, 525 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-2820

Meltdown Comics and Collectibles, 7522 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 851-7283

PHOTO: "Sublife Sketchbook" by John Pham;PHOTO: RIGHT AT HOME: L.A. native Jordan Crane has provided a platform for unsung talent in a series of comics anthologies called "NON" and has helped make silk-screen covers more prevalent in mini comics.;PHOTO: BUZZ: Sammy Harkham's "Kramer's Ergot" has won acclaim.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Photographs by Annie Wells Los Angeles Times;PHOTO: "When We Were Very Maakies" by Tony Millionaire;PHOTO: "The Monster That Ate Stars" by Souther Salazar;PHOTO: "Blockhedz" by Madtwiinz;PHOTOGRAPHER: Photographs by Annie Wells Los Angeles Times;PHOTO: EXPANSION: Comics by Ron Rege Jr. hint of fine art drawings. Rege is branching his comics out into advertising.;PHOTO: TRANSPLANT: Ron Rege Jr. came to L.A. with his girlfriend.;PHOTO: AT HOME: "Epoxy" artist John Pham is an L.A. native.;PHOTO: Martin Cendreda created "Dang!";PHOTOGRAPHER: Annie Wells Los Angeles Times;PHOTO: TWICE: Twins Mark, left, and Mike Davis created MadTwiinz.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Annie Wells Los Angeles Times;PHOTO: "There's been a profusion of cartoonists in this city," says L.A..'s Jordan Crane, who captured the alt-comic scene in ink.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Jordan Crane
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