From 1990 to 2000, a four-block stretch of Capitol Hill was changing the world of cartooning. Jason Lutes, Tom Hart, and James Sturm, among others, formed a cartoonist's commu-nity (many of them lived between 10th and 12th and Thomas and Denny) that pushed the bounds of what comics could do. Jar of Fools, Hutch Owen's Working Hard, Monkey Food: The Complete "I Was Seven in '75" Collection, and many other works came out of Seattle, and the comics industry—which was in the middle of a particularly brainless stretch—had never seen anything quite like it. It was a golden age, and, like most golden ages, it ended with a whimper; rents went up, people left town, and one day the propulsive energy that was so abundant a few months before was just sapped. For all intents and purposes, the community became a ghost town.
Which is not to say that Seattle lacks for cartooning talent, of course. Ellen Forney and David Lasky never left us, and both are hard at work on upcoming works for major publishers. In fact, Seattle is currently experiencing a cartooning renaissance; just this spring, three local cartoonists have put out some of the best work of their careers.
The simultaneous release of the three books—Peter Bagge's Other Lives, Megan Kelso's Artichoke Tales, and Jim Woodring's Weathercraft—marks the most aggressive show of Seattle cartooning brilliance in over a decade. None of these books are seemingly set in Seattle (Other Lives takes place in an unnamed location resembling the same kind of hermetically sealed New Jersey of Bagge's other work), but none of them could have existed without Seattle, either. Other Lives speaks to our obsession with remaking ourselves in technology, Artichoke Tales is a tribute to the green that permeates and surrounds the city like a threat or an embrace, and Weathercraft is a direct feed from the inherent weirdness of the region that seems to spawn more geniuses and serial killers than anywhere else in the world. Seattle might not have the same tight-knit community of artists that it used to, but it still functions as a muse, inspiring great cartoonists to do great work.
Peter Bagge's loose-limbed, pumpkin-headed characters have been drinking, fucking, and gossiping for three decades. His life's work, the story of narcissistic slacker Buddy Bradley published under the title Hate, has spanned the length of this career—Buddy has gone from a pissed-off suburban kid to a disaffected grunge-generation layabout to a married suburban dad. But Hate has been sporadically published of late, and some of Bagge's other work, including a strip for the Weekly World News and libertarian-themed strips for Reason magazine, has varied in quality; at times, you can swear you could almost feel Bagge's attention flagging.
Other Lives addresses similar themes to Hate, and it's his sharpest, funniest work in years. It's about four loosely connected people who live petty, small lives—a misanthrope named Otis, for example, lives in his mother's basement and fantasizes about life as a super-cool CIA operative, allowing that fantasy to interfere with reality—and interact with each other in petty, small ways.
All four of these characters spend altogether too much time in Second World, a virtual reality where their avatars can live out their fantasies in excruciatingly dumb detail. Otis starts selling high-quality virtual M16s ("It's much more accurate than other guns you see in Second World... you have to load it for one thing... and it'll jam if it isn't properly maintained"), and another character's fairy avatar gets "cyber-raped" by a giant squirrel wearing a top hat and monocle.
Bagge's work has always been about the tension between fantasy and reality—his characters dream up elaborate schemes that never amount to much of anything—and Other Lives is his most coherent exploration of that theme.
Megan Kelso's minicomic Girlhero was a highlight of the DIY movement back in the '90s, but until now, none of her more mainstream work has demonstrated the same ambition. Artichoke Tales fulfills the youthful promise on display in Girlhero. Artichoke is about a young woman named Brigitte who works in her grandmother's naturopathic apothecary in a land torn apart by civil war.
It's not very often that local press Fantagraphics publishes what is basically a fantasy novel—Linda Medley's Castle Waiting is the only recent example—but that's just what Artichoke is: a sweeping epic with all the necessary fantasy ingredients. The book is threaded with romance (Brigitte, a Southerner, falls in love with a soldier from the North), a quest through treacherous territory, tension between generations of families, and an intricately imagined world with its own laws, traditions, and beliefs.
And there are echoes of our own world, too. It's obvious that Artichoke Tales wouldn't exist if Kelso didn't love the Pacific Northwest: The interiors of the book—linework and shading alike—are completely printed in shades of green, and from afar, individual pages look like a vegetal tangle of weeds across a field of moss. It takes several minutes to relax into the color palette, but once you do, the sensation is not unlike a walk through an Olympic Peninsula rainforest: The varying shades of green provide a semblance of depth that you can't get from black ink, and they perfectly evoke Brigitte's work as a healer. (The book is thick with plants: In just the first few pages, characters make reference to dried nettles, cohosh, birch oil, thuja bark, senna, betula, phlox, lupine, and slippery elm.) Rather than a narrative arc, with ascensions and declines, Artichoke feels like a series of expansions. The characters and their world grow to envelop the reader in a singular, charming way.
Jim Woodring has been drawing comics for so long—for outlets as varied as the Kenyon Review and, well, The Stranger—that it feels like a mistake to report that Weathercraft is his first full-length graphic novel. But it's true. Woodring's stories tend toward the short, wordless, and dreamlike; his Frank stories play out like brain-damaged morality tales from an alien world. Because of Woodring's dense, obsessive line work—the man can't even draw a sky without adding 37 meticulous squiggles dancing from the top of the panel to give the impression of a distant haze—his stories feel longer, and maybe more involved, than they really are.
If his short stories are every other cartoonist's full-length masterwork, then Weathercraft is Woodring's War and Peace. It focuses on Manhog, Woodring's covetous, fleshy villain. After a particularly cruel round of torment—Manhog is imprisoned by a moon-headed Satan figure who ties his tail to a slavering, two-trunked elephant-beast, and then he is beaten, forced to crawl through a field of thorns, tossed into a pit of shit, and chased by a plague of flies—Manhog suddenly experiences a moment of clarity and begins living life as a good man. He sings, takes joy in life's simple pleasures, and tries to help his fellows. Without a single word, Woodring tells an enormous tale of redemption and heartbreak.
Weathercraft crackles with the power of myth, and it extends far beyond its pages with a life of its own; one could imagine a postapocalyptic culture forming an entire religion based on this one thin book. You've never read anything quite like Weathercraft, but at the same time it feels eerily familiar, like a dream you had last night. There is nothing in reality like what you'll find in Woodring's work, but sometimes if you look out a window at a particular part of Seattle—the Arboretum, say, or Georgetown—you'll catch a glimpse of his world for a second or two. And then it will be gone.