Harvey Pekar, Jessica Abel, Peter Bagge, and Gilbert Hernandez Sun Sept 5, Bagley Wright Theatre, 8-9 pm.

Alternative comic book creators have spent decades fighting for respectability, struggling to set themselves apart from adolescent superhero fantasies. Then Art Spiegelman's Nazi allegory Maus received serious consideration from highbrow book reviewers, and movies made from Dan Clowes' Ghost World and Harvey Pekar's American Splendor brought both money and mainstream atten- tion into their scrappy, insular world. Now even the New York Times Magazine runs articles suggesting that graphic novels are the wave of the future.

But mainstream status isn't all it's cracked up to be. Some art forms thrive when no one's paying attention. Today's challenge is to keep comics risky and vital despite ego-gratifying platitudes from on high. Bumbershoot has brought in four artists who, consciously or not, resist the co-option of respectability.

The movie of American Splendor achieved its slice of indie success without sacrificing any of Harvey Pekar's irascibility and stubborn earthiness. Pekar doesn't draw his own comics; he writes scripts, then collaborates with a variety of artists (including Robert Crumb) to tell straightforward autobiographical stories about his life as a civil servant and record collector in Cleveland. Pekar's language is blunt and unpretentious, but he's a sharp observer of human behavior and fearlessly catalogs the minutiae of his life, be they dull, embarrassing, or deeply resonant (for example, his struggle with cancer). Pekar's best work documents everyday life with as little polish as possible, depicting the awkward aspects of life that most novels and films edit out.

Jessica Abel's Artbabe mostly captured the social lives of urban hipsters, telling familiar stories about slackers drudging through office jobs and hanging out at bars. She's gone in a far more striking direction with La Perdida, a five-part comic about a young Mexican-American woman who moves to Mexico City to explore her heritage. La Perdida undoubtedly draws on Abel's own experiences living in Mexico; her vivid portraits--of the city, the culture, and the relationships with expatriate Americans--smack of first-hand knowledge. Abel's work is feminine in the least frilly of ways, her narratives always conscious (but rarely strident or didactic) of how sex affects the social, political, and economic lives of her characters.

Peter Bagge's Hate chronicled a Seattle slacker named Buddy Bradley as he drank, sat around the apartment, lusted after women, bitched about his life and life in general, and ultimately moved to New Jersey. During the 1990s, Hate rose to the commercial peak of the alternative comics world, buoyed by a combination of good timing (Seattle was riding high on grunge, which shared Hate's surly sensibility) and Bagge's engagingly broad and frenzied drawing style, which he himself labels "cartoony." Then Bagge pulled the plug. In recent years his output has been erratic. His new monthly comic, Sweatshop, satirizes the comic book industry and is published, bizarrely enough, by DC Comics, which publishes Superman and Batman; perhaps Bagge will explain at Bumbershoot how he gets away with gnawing at length on the hand that feeds him.

Gilbert Hernandez seems destined to avoid respectability because of his increasing preoccupation with enormous breasts. Respectability has knocked at his door more than once--along with his brother Jaime, Hernandez created one of the seminal comic books of the contemporary alternative scene: Love and Rockets. Each brother wrote and illustrated his own stories; Gilbert's focused on a small Mexican town called Palomar, where a widely varied cast of characters traipsed through a multi-decade storyline, thick with magic realism and complex psychology. The emotional power that accumulates over the course of Hernandez's Palomar stories is truly wrenching--he's one of the most gifted storytellers in comics, able to follow the paths of multiple characters through intricate plots--and those stories have recently been collected in a fat hardbound book. But Hernandez's current comics mix characters from Palomar (who have since immigrated to the U.S.) and characters from a pornographic comic called Birdland, in particular two gigantically-breasted sisters. Though Hernandez has expanded on the sisters' backstories, they have yet to spring to rambunctious life the way his earlier characters did. Nonetheless, his storytelling skill continues to be compelling and his lengthy career is far from over.