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Unencumbered Energy, Rapier Wit Powers Debut Issues Of Underground Magazine Catatac

michael northrup
READ NO EVIL: (from left) Mark Brown, Kate Levitt, and Kevin Sherry put their best faces forward.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/13/2007

Catatac

For more information e-mail catatacmag(at)gmail.com

Kevin Sherry is not getting a neck tattoo.

Repeat: Kevin Sherry is not getting a neck tattoo. The wiry, 24-year-old fountain of perpetual energy immediately requests that his joke about "going to get a big neck tattoo" not be included in this article. "Don't write that because the Urbanite wrote that and then my mom read it and said, `Do you have a neck tattoo?'" Sherry explains. "She was almost in tears."

It's easy to understand why his mother might have been concerned. Sherry does what he sets out to do. Co-found the independent clothing design company Squidfire back in 2004 and turn it into a thriving local business? Done. Write and illustrate the children's book I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean and publish it through Penguin Books' Dial Books for Young Readers? Just came out in May. And when Sherry and two friends, Mark Brown and Kate Levitt, decided to start a magazine last December, they did just that. What they've pinched out nicely gels with the wild-hair creativity bubbling out of young Baltimore right now.

Catatac is not your garden-variety zine. Perfect bound and printed at an actual printer, the magazine has the fast and loose feel of an underground DIY zine, but the triumvirate of editor-publishers think of it as burgeoning publication with something to say. Catatac isn't just trying to document a moment for posterity. Its mission is to harness in print the creative juice pumping through the young minds currently responsible for some of the more exciting music and art happenings in town right now.

"We all knew it had to happen and it had to happen soon and there was all this creative energy going on with all these new bands happening and all this art happening and everything like that and this was the only form that was not happening yet," Sherry says while sitting at a Mount Vernon coffee shop with Brown and Levitt. And, no, he has not just had 39 espressos. Sherry's run-on speech is just a continuation of his restless verve. "And all of our friends were getting together and making bands and I don't know how to make a band."

Levitt, 21, laughs when recalling their practically overnight decision to enter publishing during Christmas break from her classes at Goucher College. "We were like, `We need to start this magazine--we have Christmas break,'" she says. "`Let's start a magazine over Christmas break.'"

"We finally had a little lull in our lives," Sherry recalls.

"So let's make it as stressful as we possible can," jokes Levitt, a petite Brooklyn, N.Y., native.

Over three weeks in December into January, Brown, Levitt, and Sherry stirred the collective creative pot of their friends in bands, theater, art, whatever. Sherry co-designed and laid out the debut issue with Brown, a soon-to-be Maryland Institute College of Art graduate in interactive media and one of the co-founders of the Are We Not Men? nights at the Depot. They both solicited illustrators and comics, and all three pulled in contributors, some of whom are either members or satellites of the Wham City entourage of creative mischief. They had 1,000 copies of the issued printed in North Dakota, and it debuted at the Wham City night at the Walters Art Museum in February.

Catatac is by this young community, but it's not for it only. "The point of it, I think for us, is not to bring it to a Double Dagger show and lay them out," Sherry says. "Because people are going to put their beers down on it, they're going to roll it in their pocket."

Brown, 22, smiles knowingly. Incorrigibly affable, he is as mild-mannered and even-keeled as Sherry is excitable, and you suspect their almost polar opposite outward personalities make them simpatico collaborators. "We took some [copies] to a show in New York and saw people ripping out pages and writing their phone number on it," Brown says.

Ah, that first blush with the reading public. Every writer remembers coming across their cover story or article littering a vestibule or being used to mop up a spilled beverage on the bus. Sherry, though, isn't talking merely about such hazards. All three envision a magazine that has something to offer general readers, not only the audience flocking to underground art and music shows.

"That's who wrote it," Sherry explains. "And that's where sort of the aesthetic and the energy and the ideas comes from, from [Jimmy Roche's video] Ultimate Reality and shows and events like that, where kids our age would go. But I think the point of this magazine is to take that energy and show it to other people, show it to the next class up. So that's why we released it at the Walters because we knew there'd be older, not like responsible but established people, people who maybe own a house. And that's why we released [the second issue] at the Maryland Film Fest. It's a different crowd. It lets an older, higher class of people see what we're doing down here living in a warehouse with nine people or you're living in some decrepit rowhouse around the corner, and they're living up in Mount Washington and they're reading this on the toilet. That was our goal--"

Brown finishes the sentiment for him: "To go from the toilets of warehouses to the toilets of Mount Washington."

Even in this abbreviated exchange, you can get a sense of the engagingly brash sense of humor that permeates the three and their publication. Above all, reading Catatac it is going to be fun and entertaining, and might even surprise you with something serious to say. And pretty much any idea can fly if they can make it work in their 81/2-by-11 pages. They're printing American presidents, in order, on the back of the magazine and include a little bio of the man inside the magazine. Comics come from Brian Ralph, Robert Rackleff, and Levitt and Sherry--whose "Bones B" is a giddily silly lesson in narrative non sequitur. Each issue features an artist--Space Mountain in the second, and Lester Gonzales in the upcoming third issue--devoting a series of pages to their works and input.

The publishers aren't pushing any hard editorial mission right now, and any themes percolating through the issues are purely coincidental. "This one I'd say gnomes," Brown says, of the second issue.

"Three of the contributors wrote stories about gnomes," Levitt clarifies.

"Without any discussion beforehand," Sherry adds.

Those gnome pieces--Fanny Louvvin's fantasy qua Victorian erotica of "The Sexy Adventures of Princess Areola," Mason William Ross' short story "The Crazy Gnome," Allen Mozek's poem "The Dwarf at Gibraltar"--appear alongside such incisive commentary as Derek Ford's police-state observation "Baltimore Occupied" and Brown's cheeky, poker-faced guide "How to Be a Post-Modem DJ."

"We have a couple of articles that are particularly serious, that are actually about something that's super-interesting," Levitt says. "Hermonie Williams wrote an interesting article about Jimmy Roche's film Ultimate Reality that is super-good. And Derek Ford wrote a pretty political article that was pretty awesome. I think we want to try to steer more in that direction to get more quality reading material."

They won't have to look far. Charlotte Benedetto's "Boyfriend Season Is Here" in issue two is reason enough to grab a copy. Ostensibly a piece about trolling for boys in these lazy, hazy days of summer, Benedetto perfectly captures the condescension of mainstream women's magazine's dating advice articles and pushes it to comedic extremity:

Simply sit nearly nude in the sun, coat yourself in oil, have a slightly fatter female friend laugh at jokes, sit, and light your Marlboro 100's. Wait . . . when they lean down to effect a non-threatening but promising touch to the shoulder or knee: boom. Cap that bachelor-ass motherfucker. Turn his skull into red mist; we feast on long pig.

In such pitch-perfect moments Catatac approaches the wily sarcasm of long gone Motorbooty and closes in on the gimlet-eyed satire of the now defunct Suck.com. The publication's sense of humor is one of its biggest strengths, and Brown, Levitt, and Sherry hope the quality of the writing continues to improve in the third issue, due out for Artscape.

"People are taking it a little more seriously, which is exciting," Brown says. "And the content is getting a little more substantial, so I'm definitely getting really excited about it."

"And it's still going to have the feeling of spontaneity and being `thrown together' quote-end-quote," Sherry says, taking umbrage at his interviewer's off-the-cuff remark about Catatac's page layouts. "That is always going to be there because we're always trying to do 25,000 things at once. So it's going to keep that fresh nature, so if the articles can get better and better, that would be our hope."

And they also hope that just maybe the magazine will start paying for itself. They went mostly out of pocket putting the first issue out, and the second contained more ads that help subsidize the printing costs. But they would like to see the magazine's overall quality improve, and ideally turn it into a self-sustaining enterprise.

"I'd like the quality to be a little higher," Sherry says. "We definitely want to get away from newsprint. I'd like more copies, and be able to give something back to the contributors--not us. Financially, I don't know where the magazine is going."

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