A community of comics

By Amanda Murphy

They’re everywhere. Creeping in the corners of darkness, stalking through dimly lit alleys. But then they’re taking the train during rush hour, sitting next to you on the el, listening to an iPod and checking email. They seem like everyone else. But the world they live in is far beyond what any normal human could imagine.

Comic book artists have been walking the streets of Chicago for decades. Cluttering bookstores and newspapers with their work, they have made a successful career pleasing their audience intellectually and visually. Some of them, like Nicole Hollander—the brains and artistic hand behind the long-running Tribune comic “Sylvia”—have been creating comics for more than 30 years. Others, like graphic artist Sarah Becan, are newer to the scene but continue to make their mark. No matter how long they have been part of it, all the comic book artists agree on one important aspect: Chicago offers a community like no other city.

“The thing I’ve found about Chicago, that maybe reflects the city itself, is that there’s a sense of community and closeness,” said Jeffrey Brown, a graphic artist. “[I think] this comes from being in the Midwest, where for the most part people are down-to-earth, friendly and easy-going. There [aren’t] a lot of pretentious [people]. Everyone is very easy to get to know and meet.”

As the years have gone on, more comic book artists have jumped into the city bringing varying styles of work. The growing scene of graphic artists has opened doors for newcomers, and comic book stores like Quimby’s have helped them succeed. Quimby’s, located in the heart of Wicker Park at 1854 W. North Ave., has been selling Chicago-based comics, zines, books and hybrids for more than 20 years.

According to Edie Fake, a clerk at the store and a graphic artist, Quimby’s has made a name for itself by selling the self-published work of graphic artists around the city. The store also allows artists to sell their work on consignment, commission-free. Fake said he started going to Quimby’s a number of years ago when he was in high school. He found the fact that the store published self-work inspirational and influential in his own decision to pursue graphic art.

Becan agreed that the comic book stores in the city, like Quimby’s and Chicago Comics, 3244 N. Clark St., have played a major role in her success as a graphic artist. She said it hasn’t only been the ability to publish her own work that has helped her career but the community a comic book store creates between the people producing the work and the people reading it.

“Working here now and seeing exciting stuff roll in all the time [is amazing],” Fake said. “The store is heavy on work coming out of Chicago, but we get content from elsewhere too, so it’s kind of a Christmas-every-day situation.”

The artists also don’t feel threatened by the digital age and feel like it isn’t affecting the interest in their comics. Web comics have become a popular method for readers to get their fill without leaving their home to venture to a comic book store. However, Hollander thinks that the overwhelming nature of the Internet comic world may hurt it more than help it.

“A lot of the action is online,” Hollander said. “The problem is there is so much out there that it’s very difficult to keep looking, keep watching and keep being a fan.”

However, since Hollander’s comic was discontinued in the Chicago Tribune, she has been publishing “Sylvia” strips, as well as other work she does, on her blog, “Bad Girl Chats.” She said the ability for readers to share things with her and comment on her work gives her a communal feeling as well.

“It’s a real community where people see something they like, tell someone else about it, they send them the link and that’s how it works,” Hollander said. “It’s both exciting and mysterious.”

Fake brought up another issue he feels is imperative with online comics—that it’s erasing the human-to-human interaction comic book stores give. The environment of a comic book store is much like what’s seen in films—fellow nerds joining together to gush and argue about the comic books they’ve read.

Fake said there’s a lot of support in trading comics with other people and getting feedback about one you might purchase from a clerk or just a fellow comic junkie in the store. He said he does read some comics online, like the series “Forming,” but usually when he finds one he enjoys, he waits until a print version is released and then continues to read it.

The student population is also turning a new page for the comic book industry of Chicago. Jeffrey Brown, a former student of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, began his education as a painter but found himself drawn to graphic art later on. Brown now teaches at SAIC and said much of the new talent is coming out of the arts colleges of Chicago. He also said the institutions are a great way for the students to make connections and get guidance and support for the work they do.

Like Brown, many comic artists in the city also teach, so well-known, established writers like Brown and Ivan Brunetti, an instructor at Columbia, are able to pass on their knowledge about the business.

And the inspiration goes both ways.

Hollander, a teacher at SAIC, said her students show her new comics and graphic artists all the time. Fake said he’s noticed not only a large portion of the new talent coming out of the art schools, but that they’re also creating new and exciting forms of graphic art that help push the genre beyond the stereotype.

“Being a teacher at SAIC, I have noticed the number of students [who] are interested in comics and making comics is much [more common] than when I went to school a little over 10 years ago,” Brown said. “And you can tell that there are more people making them and being interested in them by the number of comic-related events, signings and conferences.”

Hollander attributes the closeness of the Chicago comic scene to the number of small conventions, readings and events that revolve around graphic art. She said the artists use these, not as a way to feel out competition, but to connect with one another. Fake said he has found the same working as a comic artist in the city.

Fake participates in The Trouble Club, which is a group of young graphic artists who meet and create comic jams, a combined effort of their art and writing styles. He said graphic artists form a small, tight-knit group of people and when they approach one another for advice and help, that is exactly what they are given. Fake likened it to a “support group.”

In turn, the ultimate support group for a comic artist in Chicago is the city itself, and the people. Becan said she wouldn’t be the artist she is today if it weren’t for the people who read her comics and the comic book stores that support her art. Brown said the most important thing a graphic artist can do is show his or her work and get feedback from the audience.

But he also said although Chicago is a big city, it has the attitude of a small town. He said there are more options for connection and artists are able to work at a pace that works best for them; there’s much less pressure. Becan said the reception of the eager audience of Chicago is an incredible encouragement to her to make good work and to take her art in different directions.

“Chicago isn’t very glossy,” Fake said. “It’s super scrappy and unpretentious, and I think that gets slipped in to the comics that get made here.”