The Internet can be a clumsy tool for digging up people. It beats the old days, of course, when you actually had to leave the office. But the online quest can be a messy one, strewn with false starts and vague intrusions into the lives of innocent people.
Take my hunt for Frank Ponikvar, publisher, editor and contributing artist of Missoula Comix, an annual collection of comics, poetry, short stories and kitchen-sink graphic clutter published here from 1978 until 1980. Who’d have thought there would be more than one of him? I finally managed to locate the right one (and, as it happens, only indirectly thanks to the ’Net), but not before explaining myself to a bemused Boy Scout leader with the same name in suburban San Jose, Calif., and left tentative “call me back if...” messages for a number of Frank Ponikvars, one on a Colorado answering machine that sounded like it was marinating in olive oil, and another at a business called Cats and Gravel, somewhere in the wild sticks of Pennsylvania.
Why bother all these Boy Scout leaders and other blameless citizens over such an obscure slice of Garden City ephemera as Missoula Comix? Because the three issues that Ponikvar and his loose pack of freelancers put out are windows to a past that longtime Missoulians talk about when they talk about how Missoula used to be before other people came along and changed everything. Before the worrisome intrusions of Outside and Forbes Top Ten lists trumpeting Missoula as the Best Place to bike, live, ski, or do whatever. Before Missoula became the name to drop for city-slick, rusticating writers scrambling to stake out their allotment on the myth of the changing West. Before the Californians, if you insist. Probably before most of you.
I always take the Golden Age hand-wringing with a grain of salt. What intrigues me most about Missoula Comix as a relic of this misty past is the odd (at least in retrospect) cross-section of Missoulians past and present whose art and writing fill each issue. The third and final installment, 1980’s Mondo Montana issue, boasts contributions from the aforementioned Ponikvar, plus Monte Dolack, Dirk Lee, the late Jay Rummel, poet Dave Thomas and Steve Albini, who was then a student at Hellgate High School.
A lot of these Missoula Comix alumni are still around. Monte Dolack is getting ready for a big spring show. Dirk Lee is still painting away in his North Side studio. Dave Thomas gives frequent readings around town and can be seen walking almost everywhere.
But not everyone is still around. Sue Gueston Bridges, who took the photo of the actual Lone Ranger actor Clayton Moore on the cover of the 1980 Mondo Montana issue, is married to actor Jeff Bridges, has four kids with him and now lives in Los Angeles. Steve Albini, the scrawny Hellgate Mime Club member who drew “The Masked Ape” for that issue, moved to Chicago and played in a bunch of famous bands before becoming the rock producer of choice for everyone from Nirvana to Led Zeppelin. Jon Jackson is a novelist. Rick Bean died in a soccer accident, and there’s a playing field out at Fort Missoula named after him. Jay Rummel, about whom another studio owner once confided in me her fears that he would burn down the building with his hot plate, died on New Year’s Eve, 1997. Reading Missoula Comix is like looking at old snapshots of an artistic family unraveled by time, geography, divergent career paths—and the grave.
“Back then, there was really a sense of art community in Missoula,” says Ponikvar, finally emerging from the fog of Friday Harbor, Wash., where he lives on a boat and does graphic design for the Journal of the San Juan Islands. “There were a lot of people who participated in all kinds of arts events. We would meet in groups at parties, on weekends, so there was a really good sense of community.”
It all started, both Franks recall, at a converted warehouse building between Alder Street and Toole Avenue. Nowadays it’s a mini-mall with a screen shop and a design firm and some other businesses, but back when Missoula Comix was gestating, the converted red brick building used to be what the flatiron Brunswick Building on Railroad Street is now: artist studios. Recycled Reality Studios, to be precise.
“Back in 1971, it really was just a warehouse until a few people got together and made artist studios in it,” says Ponikvar. “A lot of those spaces have been with different people and businesses over time, but yeah, most of the stuff that’s in there now was done by people improving on the old warehouse.”
“We all had studios there,” remembers Washington State University mycologist Frank Dugan, who in his former life as a graphic designer peopled the pages of Missoula Comix annuals with apelike Pentagon generals in Nazi uniforms and menacing Gahan Wilson-esque creatures waving around fistfuls of missiles. “Frank, Dirk Lee, Monte Dolack, Jay Rummel and myself. A lot of us hung out there at the time, some of us professional artists, others quasi-professionals and still others, like myself, basically people with day jobs who did art just for the fun of it. And because there were so many people doing graphic arts in one place, there was a lot of synergistic energy. Roy Malcolm owned the place, and he was fairly benevolent in terms of understanding that artists’ incomes are sometimes, uh, sporadic.”
“Roy was a pretty good dude,” Ponikvar agrees. “Back then, not too many warehouses had been taken over, except in New York, and made into artist-type studio spaces. It was something that Roy just went along with, and I think he kind of liked it. Besides that, I don’t think it was moving very well, as far as a warehouse goes. When we got into the place, there was nothing going on at all.”
As the ball got rolling, the artists opened a small exhibition space, appropriately called the Warehouse Gallery, that attracted the merely curious as well as other like-minded artists. It was, as Frank Ponikvar recalls, a pretty informal operation.
“People would show up on the weekend for our art shows,” he laughs, “and we wouldn’t even be out of bed yet.”
Eventually this aggregate of similar interests reached a critical mass and the idea for Missoula Comix was conceived. For Ponikvar, who holds a degree in fine arts from UM and drew editorial cartoons for the Missoulian for seven years, it just seemed like the thing to do.
“I was always putting together my own comics,” Ponikvar says. “At a certain point, I had so many artist friends around, though not all of them necessarily doing comics, that it was just a good time for it. I got people who were in the design business or who had similar ideas. For a lot of the artists it was their first comic, and some of them are just excellent. Some of them, I don’t even know if they’ve done any cartooning since.”
To get what outside financing they could, the artists designed and sold advertisements for local businesses. They also offered subscriptions. An ad in the first issue also offers a two-year subscription for $4, life for $1,000, and “life and a day” for $1000.50. “Make the investment that starts paying off on Missoula Comix’ 500th birthday!” reads the copy.
“For the most part, we hardly broke even,” Ponikvar admits. “In fact, I put a lot of money in. Everybody got paid in comics.”
As for the community response, then as now there was no shortage of people to get huffy about the usual transgressions of taste and decency. All three issues of Missoula Comix feature bawdy art and red-raw writing, and sex, often graphically depicted. Those folks who think they’ve got Monte Dolack pegged as a genteel pusher of bathtub ducks and penguins rooting around in iceboxes might be taken aback by his prurient fishing tale in the first issue, to say nothing of his three-panel anti-nuke strip tucked away in the back. There’s no delicate way to put this: It’s an enormous space-penis thrusting away inside an Earth-vagina.
“Well, for the late ’70s, they were pretty far out,” says Ponikvar, who also ran a rubber stamp company with Dolack at the time. “I couldn’t get the very first issue printed in Missoula, it was a little too heavy. But there was television coverage and radio coverage, too. It was way out there and crazy, yet the commercial end of Missoula picked it up. Feminists would write in to the local paper and say they were going to go out and burn all the copies they could find. Ron Hauge even did a comic of them sitting around a campfire burning comics. I guess it was kind of a mixed bag.”
Hauge, incidentally, went on to ink for National Lampoon. Sarah Vogan, another contributor to the first issue, would graduate to more lucrative writing gigs for magazines like Playboy.
“I will say that opinions varied,” ventures Dugan. “Not only was the content a little bit racy, but people also have different preferences in art. There’s just so much variability in personal taste. Some people still can’t stand Abstract Expressionism, and other people just don’t like comic books. Others may absolutely love Disney and detest Missoula Comix, and then you’ve got people like myself who like both.”
Both Dugan and Ponikvar remember the period fondly. Their subsequent careers couldn’t be more different—Dugan makes spore prints and Ponikvar still putters with linoleum prints—but they’ll always have Missoula Comix.
“People change,” says Ponikvar. “That was a time of freer thought and less commercialism. Those kinds of times don’t exist all the time. They’re kind of special that way.”
Carving out a niche in graphic novels
If you had to boil Chuck Bordell down to a cheap stereotype, perhaps the most fitting would be “geek.” He was the guy in high school who kept a stack of comic books in his locker, the guy who anxiously anticipated the annual science fiction convention in Missoula, though he now laments that convention’s recent decline. He was—and maybe still is—the guy who endured insults because of his lack of interest in conventional “guy” things like sports.
But the 33-year-old Bordell really doesn’t care what most people think about him, at least not anymore. With the publication of last year’s Witness to War, a hard-hitting, history-drenched account of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, the Missoula-based writer and artist has taken another of the incremental steps on the road to becoming an established author in the niche world of graphic novels. More importantly, he’s done it by staying true to his twin passions of history and education.
When Bordell came to Missoula to study wildlife biology at the University of Montana, like many accidental Missoulians he had no idea of the strange path this town held for him. After switching his degree to anthropology and finishing school, Bordell picked up odd jobs here and there to supplement his income as a freelance graphic artist. The first time he was paid for his artwork was in 1990, when a small comic book publisher in Maine hired him to ink comics drawn in pencil by other artists.
That work was hardly a career pinnacle in terms of quality, but it was that ever-important first step in an artist’s career, when work is exchanged for money.
“It was a science fiction comic, kind of a world-invaded-by-aliens sort of thing,” says Bordell. “It was pretty crappy, you know, but at the time it was fun, and I got a couple hundred bucks for it.”
Inspired by his modest success, Bordell continued to seek freelancing jobs in the industry wherever he could find them. But the appeal of completing other artists’ work soon grew thin, due in large part to the pervading subject matter of popular graphic novels.
“The industry is pretty much dominated by superheroes and male power fantasies,” says Bordell, whose strip, “Land of Confusion,” appears each week in the Independent. “When I was 15, I got into the power trip just like everybody else. But I grew out of it.”
Bordell started work on his own graphic novel in the mid-’90s, a story set in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
“I was bored with the same old shlocky superhero stuff,” he says. “I wanted to do something that had a more literary quality to it.”
Bordell self-published the book, War Babies, paying for the printing costs out of his own pocket. Although sales of the book didn’t quite cover the cost of producing it, Bordell counts the experience as a valuable learning experience. And, he says, the book proved he could honor his own values in his work.
“I had run into information that people were putting out, about the Holocaust being a hoax, and I got so irritated about it,” he says. “That was my motivation for the first one. I just felt that I wanted to do something that was entertaining and that people might learn something from, too.”
Bordell’s next book, Witness to War, continued his desire to blend history and entertainment, but this time he added a twist: When telling the story of what happened during the final major offensive by the Nazis late in 1944, he decided to make the narrator a female war correspondent. “I wanted to do another history-based book, but I wanted a female perspective on it, because most war stories are done from the male point of view,” he says.
After extensive research on both the battle itself and on women war correspondents, Bordell set to work on the project that would eventually run 72 illustrated pages. He says that most of the feedback he’s received from women readers has been favorable, though he notes that both men and women have found some of the more graphic elements a bit much to handle.
“It really bothers me when Hollywood takes the realism out of war stories, so that was one thing I decided I wasn’t going to hold back on,” he says. “I’m more concerned with, and fascinated by, the soldiers themselves and how they lived through it. I don’t know if I could’ve done that.”
One thing Bordell can do is continue his efforts to package history lessons in colorful, revealing formats. Witness was picked up by a major book distributor, and he hopes that impetus will lead to continued success with his next book, a murder mystery set during the Civil War.
The big gay cartoon boat ride
The DIY spark of Missoula Comix glows on in Dave Shughart’s Grosse Schwule Kartoon Bootfahrt, a charming collection of strips and single-panel gags the cartoon artist has been drawing for the past 16 years. Everything about the 60-page digest, from its awkward calligraphy title and stapled binding to the rough shading and let-it-be lines of drawings themselves, bespeaks a high school daydreamer content to doodle his way through an endless Social Studies class, occasionally photocopying what he’s done, mostly for his own enjoyment. It’s unabashedly amateur stuff—and that’s just how Shughart, or “d8” as he goes by in his comics, likes it.
“Everybody doodled in their high school notebook,” Shughart says. “And I might have gone a little farther than the next guy. But that was about it until a guy at the mill where I work started drawing a little daily cartoon on his calendar. I kind of picked that up from him in about 1987, just drawing one cartoon a day in a one-inch-by-one-inch square, and that led me to a kind of minimalism. I still have all those calendars from years gone by, too, although they’re definitely not for publication.”
The title of the collection, which means “the big gay cartoon boat ride” in German, is a scrap of bratty South Park humor hit upon by Shughart while he and his son were visiting the Austrian town where Richard the Lion-Hearted was held captive while returning from the Crusades. It’s one of the many inside jokes he enjoys weaving into his work, and he’s glad enough to explain their significance if you ask, but not particularly worried should they pass unnoticed beneath your comedic radar. Even his cartooning handle, “d8,” has a hidden meaning. It resembles his hastily scrawled initials, but it’s also the home square of the black queen in chess and a nod to one of his favorite players, Boris Spassky, who confessed his childhood love of the queen in an early interview.
So you can probably surmise that Shughart covers some pretty cerebral turf in his Kartoon Bootfahrt, too. Artistically speaking, he’s indebted only to the inner doodler in us all. But readers can also make out traces of a whole raftload of influences on his style. The biological humor of Gary Larson’s The Far Side is an obvious (and admitted) inspiration, although Shughart himself says he’s even more inspired by the science humor of fellow cartoonist Dave Cooney. A couple of panels recall the so-called “psycho art” of the Vietnam era (if you can remember Snoopy blasting away with an M-16 or any of a million Xerox reprints of Charlie Brown and Lucy sharing an intimacy in a hot tub). And the numerous talking birds and hedgehogs cracking wise underfoot will remind many of the “double punch” style of editorial cartooning developed by Patrick Oliphant and his diminutive conscience, Punk the Penguin.
But it’s not hackery, despite what Shughart will tell you. If anything, it’s the work of a guy trying to channel more ideas than he’s got technique for drawing.
“I’m my own best audience and my own best critic,” Shughart says. “I never had any formal training, you know,” he says. “I am kind of a hack cartoonist. But the quality of the artwork doesn’t bug me at all. I just love good, humorous writing, and that’s the key to good cartooning, I think.”
Grosse Schwule Kartoon Bootfahrt is available for $6 at Fact & Fiction, Garden City News, Rockin Rudy’s, Big Sky Brewery and Montana Craft Connection. You can also check out Shughart’s work at www.cretincomix.freeservers.com. The site also has links to some of Dave’s faves, among them Dave Cooney, Dan Reynolds, Andy White, and Stan Waling. Dave can also give you information about Ted Goff’s “Wisenheimer” web bulletin board, an online forum for comic chat haunted by many of these artists as well as Wiley (Nonsequitur) Miller.