Closed Caption Comics Creators Gaining Local Notice Just as Some Are Leaving Town
Half-naked art students with access to a photocopier usually isn't a sign of great things to come, but one shirtless all-nighter in 2004 was the starting point for a big change in homegrown comics publishing in Baltimore. "None of us were majoring in illustration," Lane Milburn remembers about the handful of Maryland Institute College of Art first-year students who got together in the cafeteria one night and decided to give drawing comics a try. "But for fun we got together and drew this first issue hanging out in the cafeteria, and published it the same night. And we weren't wearing any shirts." Why? "I don't know," he shrugs. "It was like a camaraderie thing," compatriot Noel Freibert suggests. Milburn agrees. "A bromance," he laughs.
That crew of MICA freshmen are now members of the class of 2008, and so five of the core group (Mollie Goldstrom, Andrew Neyer, Ryan Cecil Smith, Conor Stechschulte, and Eric Stiner) are scattered around the globe enjoying some postgraduate vagabonding. But the six still in town--Chris Day, Freibert, Milburn, Pete Razon, Molly Colleen O'Connell, and, Erin Womack (the sole member from the class of '07)--have plenty to say about their brainchild, Closed Caption Comics, during an August afternoon interview in Mount Vernon. They describe how what started as photocopy hijinks (named randomly after the Fugazi song "Closed Captioned") is now, in its seventh issue, a handsome 48 pages of full-color newsprint bound in a hand-screened cover. But no matter how polished the end result has become, the product is basically the same.
Freibert describes it succinctly: "We're a group of artists that make and self-publish books together."
Closed Caption Comics No. 7 isn't an intuitive read for most comics fans. Its perversely right-brainy sketchbook aesthetic makes Gary Panter look like John Byrne. With no titles at the beginning of "stories" and no signatures to signal the end, the reader is left to guess why all these drawings are gathered in one book. But once you let go of preconceptions, each chunk of "narrative" starts to yield results--not the kind that's measured in tidy conclusions, but in the subcutaneous dread, disorientation, serenity, or wonder slowly seeping through the paper into your fingertips.
Smith's cheeky and prescient comic about kicking around a futuristic "H-town" that's part Hampden and part Mos Eisley; O'Connell's drawings of thick-waisted women whispering Klingon phrases as they tussle and sprawl in moss beds of vermicelli squiggles of ink; Freibert's Rory Hayes-esque grotesquerie of trolls in tight muscle shirts doing sloppy, gloppy battle; and Womack's needle-thin line art following an alien clan in a vast, soundless desert: All of them slither in and out of categories like "illustration," "comics," "storytelling," and just plain "art." As O'Connell explains, "It's meant to be understood, but it's not translated. [The reader] can experience and read it in any form they want."
That fearless aesthetic is similar to comics like Brian Chippendale's Ninja or Matt Brinkman's Teratoid Heights, free-form graphic experiments that came out of Providence, R.I.'s now-defunct arts collective/living space Fort Thunder. It's no surprise, then, that many members of the group started hatching the idea for their own book while taking a class from MICA adjunct illustration professor, comics artist, and Fort Thunder alumnus Brian Ralph. "Brian opened up a lot of things for me," Womack says.
O'Connell agrees. "His class was very traditional, actually," she says. "He's a very comics guy--he loves the art of it and talking about panels--but when he met each of us, [seeing how] some of us were interested in other ways of telling stories through comics, he really encouraged us and pulled us aside and said, `You really need to look at this.' He was tickled pink by us."
For Ralph, the admiration is mutual, but he disavows any responsibility for the group's success. "It takes a certain type of person and a certain crew to take printmaking equipment and use it for this low-art, do-it-yourself kind of thing," he says in a phone call from his Charles Village home. "That was what happened at Fort Thunder, but they're not just mimicking what's in the past. They've made it their own thing. . . . Everyone in the comics community, there's a buzz about these Closed Caption Comics kids."
With so much attention coming their way, is there temptation to throw down the gauntlet--to declare that Closed Caption Comics' free-flowing aesthetic is the same kind of rebuttal to the status quo of art comics (think the super-cerebral and crisp style of current heavy-hitters like Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware) that Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's RAW magazine was to the superhero genre in the early '80s. The group shoots quizzical glances at each other for a few moments before Day speaks. "I don't know. I mean, those [artists published in RAW] were invited by Spiegelman. He wanted to show these artists to people. I don't know that we care that much."
"I don't think any of us are concerned with the literary leanings of comics," Milburn clarifies. "The way I've always thought of it anyway, as far as Closed Caption Comics is, I've thought of it as just the publication that we do. I've never thought of it as an artists' collective. For me, one of the most interesting things about the group is how diverse the work is. It's just very different work, very different concerns from person to person."
That all-inclusive spirit includes those who aren't as serious about comics as others in the group. "I'm a sculpture major, so this is the work I do on the side," Razon says. "I do a lot of metalwork. With the structure that I have in sculpture, it's a lot about craft and precision. This, on the other hand, is not about those things. When I'm stuck on that, I get to free myself by doing comics [that are] really fractured and a big mess, and I don't try to make sense of it usually. But my comics are getting better."
That sense of freedom found in making comics is shared by others in the group. "Early on at MICA, during my classes, I would be so bored I would draw in my sketchbook and doodle," Womack remembers. "And after a while [those doodles] were more interesting than what I had tacked up on the wall."
Day, who was a huge fan of the X-Men as a kid, had a similar experience of rediscovering that childlike passion after years of having to be "serious and legitimate" in art school. "It all comes back around," he says. "By the end [of college] I was embracing stupid jokes in my work, and understanding that that fantasy, bright, colored world was something that had such an impact on my life and was such a great part of my life."
Are comics a safe place because its position as "low art" makes it a fallout shelter from the crushing weight of fine art? O'Connell refutes that justification. "I think it's more for me about the book, the structure of a book, and that's really inviting, more so than a flat printed image. My personal work outside of [Closed Caption Comics] is trying to make comics where craft comes into it. I don't think it's a low art form. And I'm trying to prove that."
Judging from the response from others, Closed Caption Comics is succeeding. There are only about 400 copies of No. 7 left for sale, after an initial print run of 1,700. (Every issue is assembled by hand, at "staple parties," where, as Womack describes, "You all get together and ka-chunk, ka-chunk.") But if you can't get your copy in time, No. 8 is on the way--not in any concrete form yet, but in the certainty of every contributor wanting to keep it going.
"Mollie's in New York, Ryan's in Japan, Conor's biking across the U.S.," Day says, ticking off the list of the postgraduation plans that have scattered the crew. "Everyone's slowly spreading out. When we started out, everyone was within a block of each other. As we spread out, it's harder and harder to keep everyone in touch." The one place everyone can reunite, besides the in-jokey blog (closedcaptioncomics.blogspot.c.. that's more bulletin board than promotional site, is in the pages of the comic they put together, which makes each issue a fun read on the surface, and a family reunion on a second, more profound level.
"I feel like we're trying to do something, and none of us knows exactly what it is, but it's good. We just want to do good stuff for people," Razon says. "And now that we're getting a response back from people, it's starting to become more of a reflective thing that we do. So we're still in the middle of it and trying to figure it out. . . . I think that's OK. It means that it's growing."
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