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From an outsider’s perspective, the monthly gathering of cartoonists at a Hamtramck coffeehouse could be seen as a very small-press convention. The words “Hamtramck Expo” have been used to describe this assembly of Detroit-area creators, except that there isn’t a display of books for sale or a line of autograph seekers. Rather, everyone casually sits at a table with their sketchbooks and drinks, while conversations range from upcoming projects to books they’re looking forward to reading to each other’s illustrations.
Three mainstays of this “expo” are Suzanne Baumann, Sean Bieri and Matt Feazell — all Hamtramck residents, all contributors to the comic section of the local weekly, the Hamtramck Citizen.
“We all gravitated here eventually,” Baumann says. “It’s an urban town, but it’s small enough that three cartoonists who are neighbors can be in the paper every week.”
“We like Hamtramck because it’s a street-level city,” Feazell adds. “Where else can a cartoonist afford a house?”
“I’ve been trying to explain to people that it’s a cross between Detroit and Mayberry,” says Bieri in reference to the town in the old Andy Griffith TV show He laughs: “Everyone knows you, but they might try to rob you.”
This urban Mayberry has been a backdrop for the collective for more than 10 years. And even though each creator has found an artistic niche and success, the coffeehouse meetings are a reminder to Baumann, Bieri and Feazell of why they got involved in comics to begin with.
Stories with sticks
Matt Feazell’s Cynical Man could be the antithesis of a typical comic book. Instead of overly detailing his pages with colors, lines and a muscle-bound cast of characters, Feazell chose the stripped-down route of stick-figure storytelling.
“I started doing Cynical Man,” says Feazell, “back when comic books were continued stories where you had to buy 12 issues in a row, all the miniseries, and invest a whole lot of time and money. Then I thought, ‘Why can’t you do it in two pages?’ So I decided to see if I could tell a brief story in an eight-page mini-comic that you could fold up and put in your pocket. And I found out that I could, especially with stick-figure art. So I thought if you could tell a story with stick-figure art, what does that say about the relative merit of story versus art?”
Feazell, a full-time ad designer, has been exploring this terrain since he created Cynical Man in 1980. Since then, “America’s Laid-Off Super Hero” has been featured in countless national anthologies, a handful of self-released mini-comics, two book collections, in the weekly online comic site serializer.net and in Metro Times. Along the way, he has built up enough recognition to contribute a monthly color feature to Disney Adventures magazine.
Bieri says that just because Feazell’s work is minimally illustrated, that doesn’t deter his artistic talent, which he describes as “deceptively simple. Matt’s a really great draftsman. I think that gets by a lot of people when they look at his stuff. The thought behind the way those stick figures work is pretty ingenious.”
“There wasn’t a big zine scene in Waterford,” Sean Bieri jokes about his hometown. “The nearest thing I saw to an underground comic when I was a kid was Wicked Wanda in the back of Penthouse magazine that I would swipe out of my dad’s underwear drawer.”
Growing up, Bieri was also an avid reader of Mad magazine, Tumbleweeds and the Wizard of Id. It wasn’t until college that he learned of alternative comics through a roommate during the black-and-white boom of the mid-1980s. His eventual discovery of Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Los Hernandez Bros. (Love and Rockets) and other renowned underground creators inspired him to start his own comic.
Since 1990, Bieri has produced a number of anthology contributions and his own mini-comics, most notably Cool Guy and Homo Gal and the Ignatz Award-winning Jape. He’s also been a frequent Metro Times contributor.
“I don’t have a theory about my stuff,” Bieri shrugs. “I just kind of hack it out.”
Describing his work as “DIY comical high jinks,” Bieri thinks of Jape as an amalgamation of gag strips (possibly inspired by the aforementioned Mad and Wizard of Id), personal observations of his surroundings and parody tributes of classics from Frank Miller’s Sin City to Popeye to Peanuts.
“He’s got a very impressive range,” Baumann says about Bieri’s illustrations. “Every time you see him draw, he’s doing something different from a wide variety of influences and experimenting with materials.”
Because of this range, Bieri (who, like Feazell, is an ad designer) will soon contribute to two adult comic anthologies — aptly called Smut Peddler and True Porn — and complete an illustrated adaptation of the classic Greek comedy Lysistrata that he’s been working on for a number of years.
“It’s about the women of Athens ganging up and withholding sex from men in order to get them to stop going to war,” Bieri says. “It seems like something to translate to comics. It’s got lots of slapstick, naked people and broad humor.”
When asked about the ironic timing of Lysistrata after the war with Iraq, Bieri shrugs again.
“Hopefully, it’ll be out on time for the invasion of Syria,” he jokes. “I’m not worried about running out of wars.”
“What I do is doodling more than anything else,” Suzanne Baumann says when asked to describe her comic. Her own small-press line of Fridge Magnet Concoctions has been an on-again, off-again project since 1996, releasing a new issue whenever she can spare the time from her day job as a graphic designer.
“I’ve been in the habit of doing things whenever a comic convention comes up,” she continues. “I’ll rush and get something done the month before that. So it’s very easy to do a mini-comic, because I can scan everything on a disk and print it out at the Kinko’s wherever the convention is and staple them at my table.”
The result is a series of photocopied slices of life that range from grade school memories to illustrated accompaniment of cheesy love songs to a comic with dialogue based on overheard conversations.
“It’s an ongoing process of artists or creative people in general,” Baumann says in regard to her inspirations. “I’m constantly in love with somebody art-wise and there’s always something new to inspire you.”
One early inspiration was Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead.
“I was in college one day and finally the light bulb went off in my head and I totally got it. It’s one of those comics that you look at for a while … and then all of a sudden, I had to go back to my college library and read them all.
“I can do a comic strip that doesn’t have to make sense to everybody, but would resonate with a few people, and that would be fine.”
For as much time and effort as these three have put into their art, being able to live off their creativity has never been an issue — as long as they can still find the time to put out their next projects.
“Breaking into the industry is something that I don’t think any of us really thinks about,” Baumann says. “I know I’m happy just having this creative outlet as a constant part of my life. My goal is to always have time for comics or other creative outlets like that.”
“What you got here are three cartoonists doing it on our own,” Feazell says. “There’s been this big revolution in cultural awareness and people have seized the power to draw comics themselves. People like Sean and Suzanne are not waiting for some editor or publisher to let them draw comics — they’re just drawing comics and letting the industry break into them.”
In the meantime, Baumann, Bieri and Feazell will continue their “Hamtramck Expo” meetings over coffee, ink pens and conversations. Along with the rest of their collective of friends and creators, they’re here to relax, draw and be part of a community that distributes small press comics without the pressures of trying to make it go “boom!”
See Suzanne Baumann, Sean Bieri and Matt Feazell at the Motor City Comic Con, May 16-18 at the Novi Expo Center, 43700 Expo Center Drive. For more information, check out www.motorcityconventions.com.
Mike DaRonco is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.