Lone Star Comix Online

Austin, Texas — It’s a factoid I never seem to tire of: Austin was one of the major seats of the Sixties underground comix movement, a historic ground for unfettered self-determination among comics creators. The scene germinated in and around the University of Texas campus, as an outgrowth of late Fifties-era humor mags, fanzines, and mimeographed comic books. The artistic impulse behind the undergrounds was going around like a virus at the time; if you had to choose between the Austin and San Francisco/Berkeley factions as to who actually christened the movement, the Texans would probably win on a technicality. The character and content of art is often regionally influenced; there’s no mistaking the free-wheeling, fermented handicraft behind Wonder Warthog or The Adventures of Jesus. A certain shamanistic hyper-reality encircles the personalities and events in this state.

Cartoonist Jack Jackson was at the university in the Sixties, drifted over to San Francisco, and then settled in Austin. He recalled the early Sixties in Mark Estrin’s A History of Underground Comics. “Those were the days of homemade peyote, before “hippies” were created by the mass media and being stoned was like being drunk.” Since that time, alternative comics’ Southwestern alumnae have been too numerous to list. And with all the artists who’ve passed through, dropped out of sight, or burrowed in for the last forty years, Jackson’s still there, and still doing it. He’s recently completed two historical epics, Lost Cause and Indian Lover, which dealt respectively with John Wesley Hardin and Sam Houston.

In 1977 — well after the national underground scene had bottomed out — Jackson bemoaned the rapacious effects of progress on his fair city in the strip The Rise and Rapid Decline of Austin Tacious. In it, a “pesky redskin” remarks, after seeing an 1837 tent city evolve into a settlement, “Oh,God-white people!! The neighborhood’s going to hell!” Another says, “I knew it was too good to last…” A century and a half later, insidious economic and political forces were tightening the screws, effectively putting the squeeze to the loose, egalitarian land of the cozmic cowboy.

“About this time began the invasion…(of) speculation by outsiders in the Sun Belt zone, and other obnoxious happenings which (mercifully) culminated in the S&L scandals and Land Bust of the Eighties,” Jackson wrote in the collection God’s Bosom (Fantagraphics). “Hell, even my old radical friends were cashing in on the land bonanza and the rising real estate prices!”

I swear, there’s nothing worse than a fake Texan! But God must love ’em, cause He made so many. I’m sure Austin’s socio-economic changes have been galling to the natives. When I’ve visited in recent years, I’ve occupied the role of dilettante newbie, so it takes an imaginative leap for me to identify with the POV of the crusty locals. It’s become formal, in a way, and seriously congested. The more outside industry and people who come in, the more the unique character in blanched, or marginalized, and the more its institutions become oddly archival versions of themselves. I imagine it’s been sort of like going from a funky college keg-party house with tchotchkes scattered around at will, in contrast to some swank, moderne place decorated in a Southwestern motif, with a few sequestered shelves reserved for the clutter.

Jackson’s jaundiced view represents an extreme, if locally characteristic libertarianism. Austin’s a looong way yet from homogenization. It would take a culturally catastrophic shock-wave to really and truly abrogate the city’s fierce traditionalism and flavor. While developers build their sprawling edge-city, the downtown university housing blocks, and South Austin strips — lined with Tex-Mex places, biker bars, psychics and tattoo parlors — have been forgotten by time, preserving the feel of a frontier outpost. And no matter how many slum condos and Home Depots eventually spring up during the boom, there’ll still remain the hoards of resilient boho undergrounders — notably musicians and artists — who’ll most definitely come out at night.

A weird growth spurt is taking place. What’s happening now is that the tech and Internet industry has hit town with a vengeance. There’s money flying around, and the population is swelling with people who drive BMWs instead of pickups, tuned into that odious country/pop. Housing prices have been jacked up in earnest. Even with a reasonable stable core-economy, owing to the state capitol and university population, Austin’s lower-rung artistic sub-cultures and service industry workers are being priced into oblivion, confronted with the sort of resource crunch which could theoretically ruin the whole enchilada for everyone.

The music community — the pride of Austin tourism — has suffered some defections. In his letter to The Austin Chronicle, musician Darin Murphy wrote, “I appreciate music people coming together to support their cause,as they did at the recent Threadgill’s town meeting. (But) artists complaining about rising rents may as well bitch about the sun rising every day. If you want low rent, try Houston, but you won’t find a scene there with any degree of professionalism or soul.” Or, as the great philosopher Andy Capp said to his wife, Flo, who worried about the high cost of living, “I can’t think of anyone who wants to stop living on account of the cost.”

(Incidentally, Threadgill’s is an eatery so renown for its contribution to the popular music, Texas style, that there’s one of those “…but they don’t take American Express…” TV spots about it.)

All this is not to say that artists haven’t been making inroads into the tech market. Web design and graphics skills have prepped some for the current labor scenario. As Austin comix savant Mack White says, “Inability to adapt to changing times has always lead to extinction. That’s what will happen to the cartoonist who refuses to go online; he’ll go the way of the dinosaur.”

Being already accustomed to continual recession, artists are nothing if not adaptable. The decline of showcases within the print comics industry has already precipitated an exodus to web publishing; a generation of artists have become autodidact programmers. Cartoonist and poster artist Jasun Huerta, a dot-com worker (toast of the town as cover artist for hillbilly metal band Honky’s CD Attacked By Lesbians), declares that since computers are utterly inescapable, “it’s only a natural progression that many artists have moved into the computer workforce to use their talents. Also, companies have sought out traditional 2-D cartoonists to train and become computer experienced because not many people have the fine drawing skills required.”

Comics’ pervasive web-presence actually veils a central irony about the cartoonists of Austin; something that helps make this city an exception to the rule. As opposed to the diffuse, virtually-defined comics culture I associate with the web, or the social near-isolation most artists experience, there’s still a vital confederation here who will come out of their garrets to circulate, when taken with the spirit. Like anything else, it ain’t like it was in the old days, but the memory of alliances past have imprinted local custom. Even more atypically, the glue for this community is in large part provided by the big paper in town, The Austin American-Statesman. Its weekly entertainment supplement, XLent., prominently features a revolving retinue of local talent, both in black and white and in color. The Statesman‘s been serializing former Austinite Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan strips lately, along with a group of artists I’ve come to think of as The Usual Suspects; Jackson, Mack White, with his mutant Wild West horror novelettes, Sam Hurt with the long running Eyebeam, Penny Van Horn’s expressionistic slices of life, and recent émigré Cayetano Garza’s Magic Inkwell Comic Strip Theatre, to name a few.

A number of these strips run concurrently on the web, of course. Mack White’s site (mackwhite.com) is intended to engage the viewer with an experience unto itself, tweaked with animated enhancements and dense with content. His conceptual Villa of the Mysteries is a thematic package of his many personal obsessions. “While my first love will always be the printed page, the truth is that the print medium is — if not dead — a mere shadow of what it used to be. The kind of newsstand diversity that delighted me years ago can now only be found on the web,” he says. But while you can’t carry “a webzine to the bathroom or the bus stop,” there are compensations. With archives, “a webzine has a longer shelf-life than a magazine. The web also has the advantage of being more interactive than print, and can bring about a more personal connection between the creator and reader.”

Also, because of links to and from other special interest sites, a random sampling of non-comics fans has seen his work. Viola! Audience development! This is a partial remedy for the insularity of American comicdom, which suffers from a depleted gene-pool and commercial impotence.

Though the web offers the visual essence of comics — graphic narrative in imaginative space — the dichotomy between the tangibility of paper, and cyberspace’s insubstantiality, are grounds for ambivalence. While some artists see web comics only as promotion or support for their “real” work, others view them as a discrete form unto themselves. Cayetano Garza (magicinkwell.com) is a passionate advocate for the web, as both a means of distribution, and for its still widely unexplored capabilities in animation and formal picture-plane experimentation. Alternative comics, challenging by definition, are derived from an intense personal vision and stand a better chance of reaching their designated audience via computers.

On the other hand, Ethan Persoff, the creator of Teddy, has done work on both sides of the techno-divide; he’s seen the future, and it kinda sucks. “Most online comics I see…are pretty fatuous and without a point. Meanwhile, paper-based comics are enjoying a depth of storytelling of which I don’t think people have ever seen. The glib forecasts I’ve read about comics’ enhanced future through the Internet don’t speak to any part of its ability to tell a story better.” Also, as for the benefits of exposure, “the best things I’ve ever learned about making a comic book came from printing them and it being ignored or harshly criticized. That kind of learning can’t be bought on the web, cause you control where and when the work is seen.”

Persoff doesn’t want to be thought of as a Luddite, exactly. His multilayered narratives and visual puzzles have undeniable impact online. He’d just prefer to have you hold his stuff in your hands. “Well, I hope the Internet is not the future-of-choice for comics. I just don’t think they make much sense together. If you try and read a comic online, you’re immediately aware of how tactile reading a book on paper is, and how crucial flipping the pages back and forth are to reading and retaining a story. Gag strips and other one-note amusements might work online, but I really think — for a story that might require more time and give more reward — the experience of reading on a screen is just too uncomfortable to really catch on beyond novelty’s sake.”

Jasun Huerta also draws the line, refusing to be out-and-out corrupted. Beyond narrative or formalism, the nature of graphics software gives him pause. “The new medium…has more bells and whistles than traditional (methods). However, the more we move away (from them), the more soulless we become in generating art. Though cyber art looks great on computer monitors and/or film, a copy of it will look exactly as good as the original, or for that matter, the 300th, and so on. In my mind, there is just no original like an ink on paper, or painting on canvas, and can never be. I must admit that computers have enhanced the work I do, but only in part.”

The artistic process is a major issue unto itself; the techniques that go into creating an image are key to the artist. Web publishing alters the equation-and all phases of production and delivery-significantly. It’s just the nature of technological innovation; we’re running with it, doing something new because we can. Pretty obviously, nevertheless, artists tend to be print loyalists. I get the sense that most cartoonists, even though fascinated by techno-toys, would rather live in a world with a thriving, diverse comic book industry. Hell, as long as I’m dreaming, let’s bring back the golden age of magazine illustration!

“I think it’s silly that a lot of cartoonists I know grieve about print, as if it were a sickly neglected midget, dying in the desert. It’s not — if anything, paper is more ubiquitous than ever,” says Ethan Persoff, referring to the burgeoning magazine racks in every drug store rack and mega bookstore on the planet. “It’s content that’s leaving us.”

“Many cry that print is dead,” says Jasun Huerta. “If that’s true, then why does Yahoo have a magazine?”

“If there is any future for the print medium, it will be in symbiosis with the web,” Mack White says, summing up. “That’s where the printed work will be promoted and purchased. Already, there are novelists who are in print only because they made their presence known online. In time, this will apply to cartoonists as well. Even the artists who see the web primarily as a means to an end (the end being the paper product) must first embrace the web as a valid medium in its own right. If (it’s) used ineffectively, it might as well not be used at all.”