Character building 

How Josh Quick fills his comic universe

Josh Quick is being sawn in half by the woman he loves.

The mouth of a giant hippie is about to engulf him.

He's being followed by the devil, who's about to destroy the world.

He carelessly leaves his stove on and sets Missoula ablaze.

Those are all ways in which Quick, an illustrator and comic artist, has depicted himself. But if he were to draw himself realistically, you'd see a lanky, russet-haired, 33-year-old Montanan with a big grin, sitting at his desk with a 5 a.m.-strong cup of coffee, populating worlds with his red Col-Erase pencil.

You've seen Quick's work around town. You've probably spotted his concert fliers. He also designed the Open Road bicycle shop sign and the Big Dipper Ice Cream's yeti mascot. He's devised T-shirts, posters and stickers for KBGA. Perhaps you saw his recent posters for Hempfest and Sunday Streets Missoula, and you probably have one of his bookmarks from Shakespeare & Co. His work is on the label of Black Coffee Roasting Company beans, he designed T-shirts for the Poverello Center and he does illustrations for the Missoula Art Museum's monthly Artini and the Missoula Art Museum's Teen Open Studio Night.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Quick works at a metal desk that he extracted from a dumpster at the Missoulian, where he works as a layout designer. He stationed it in his home studio, in a hip, green-built apartment complex on the Northside, where he lives with his partner, Tricia Opstad. The desk was a serendipitous find. It was the daily's comic station for years, and on the front drawer it says "comics" in small raised letters. Commissioned illustrations are Quick's bread and butter, along with his graphic work at the newspaper, but his biggest passion is his weekly comic strip "Camp Sleep Over," a sometimes humorous, sometimes philosophical take on life in Missoula that he posts online (quickjosh.blogspot.com). His oddball "Sleep Over" characters navigate issues of temptation, honesty and miscommunication in ironic and playful ways. And, often enough, the story behind the story is personal.

One recent episode is about a guy talking to himself.

"It was exactly what I was doing all last week and I don't know why," he says, laughing. "I was talking to myself so much in public, and I rarely ever do that. So the character is basically me, and he says, 'Do you talk to yourself?' And he answers, 'Yeah, I talk to myself all the time.' And in the third panel, he goes, 'You're crazy.' And in the fourth panel, he says, 'I'm not crazy, you're crazy.' So it's the concept of having that dialog external as opposed to internal."

On paper, Quick lives in a mad, mad world.



From blood and guts

The Quick family spent summers in Ninemile, at a cabin that parents Kathi and Ed Quick built together. Kathi is a ceramacist and carpenter and Ed is a physician who also takes photographs and translates German poetry. The couple tried to encourage their children's creativity.

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When they weren't at the cabin, they'd take Josh and his older brother, Troy, backpacking in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. For Troy, Montana summers in the outdoors offered free-roaming opportunities to burn off energy. But Josh would sit still for long stretches, sketching blood-soaked scenes inspired by X-Men and other comics.

"He had a little coffee can full of crayons and pencils and some of his toys, and he spent hours drawing half-pipes and skateboard parks and G.I. Joe guys, and then some scary things that a mother worries about," Kathi recalls. So she asked a psychologist friend to take a look at Josh's drawings. The psychologist assured her that it was normal for a little boy to draw blood and gore like that; he'd grow out of it. That psychologist was half right.

Kathi laughs talking about this, in part because she grew up doing scary things, too—she liked to melt wax to watch the wax drip, and there was always the potential of burning down the house. "But my mother was always really good about it," she says. "She would say, 'Well, if you're going to do that, dear, you need some foil underneath."

During the school year, Josh frequented Missoula shops Garden City News, The Joint Effort and Freddy's Feed & Read, where comic books could be found among the candy, tobacco and newspapers. "My folks were really open-minded," he says. "They let me read whatever I wanted—not pornography, but anything else...that was awesome for me growing up."

Troy, who is seven years older, recalls that he and Josh shared an interest in alternative culture, including magazines such as Thrasher, with art inspired by punk rock and skateboarding, particularly cartoons that he thinks sparked Josh's interest in art. Troy, now a carpenter who calls himself the jock of the family, says he spent most of his young adult life skating and snowboarding. He drew sometimes, but mostly he just copied what he'd seen in the magazines. Josh was different, Troy says—he was more serious about it, more dedicated. And he worked to perfect his own creations. "He was always drawing," Troy says, laughing—"and drawing really late at night, at really odd hours, past our bedtime...He's always drawn some kind of comic."

Superhero comics were king until Josh discovered Robert Crumb, whose "Keep On Truckin'" strip was an underground commix fixture in the 1970s, and the satirical art in MAD magazine. "It was the introduction of those comics that totally set the stage for me," he says. "Not just superhero comics, but alternative comics, adult comics...They had alternative ways of looking at the world, and so I would...try and draw like those guys."

Peter Bagge, who managed Crumb's mag Weirdo, was part of that underground scene and an influence on Josh. His 1980s "Comical Funnies," about a dysfunctional family, inspired a 1990s offshoot, "Hate," about a twenty-nothing slacker. Quick devoured them. At the same time, he also liked that epitome of mainstream comics, "Peanuts."

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"I think it's really easy for people to forget about what an intelligent guy Charles Schultz was, because he's been in the popular culture for so long," Josh says. "But he was phenomenal."

Josh graduated from Sentinel High School in 1996 and enrolled in the fine arts program at the University of Montana. Almost immediately he knew it wasn't for him. He wanted to see his work out in the world in a commercial way—on bookmarks, across coffee mugs—or as art in service to community events and non-profits. "I'm not a megalomaniac, but I love the idea of a particular piece of mine being given a bunch of different homes," he says.

When Josh changed his focus from fine art to graphic design, says Ed, "I realized this was what he was going to do." His parents helped fund his transfer to the Seattle Art Institute, where Josh got a degree in illustration and design. Then he went to work at Cranium Games, which hired him to create and revise game boards tested on kids. He was floating along in the job just fine, he says, still unclear about what he ultimately wanted to do, when Gary Baseman, the artistic designer for Cranium, showed up at the office one day. A renowned illustrator, Baseman had coined the term "pervasive art" as a way to blur the line between fine art and the sometimes-pejorative term "commercial art." His passion for cheeky pop surrealism made an impression on Josh. "That day," Josh says, "I knew: 'I'm going to be an illustrator.'"



Satan's Big Gulp

Quick uses an Ellen Forney comic book as a mousepad so he can absorb her spirit. The I Love Led Zeppelin book, by the Seattle artist, features some of Forney's work from The Stranger, the L.A. Weekly and Bust. She's one of Quick's current comic idols, along with the Hernandez Brothers and French illustrator David B., who wrote a comic about his epileptic brother. On Quick's bookshelf is the "Russian Criminal Tattoo" series, featuring striking imagery rife with sex and whimsy, religion and violence. On the top shelf are his deities: the 1980s pro-wrestler action figures Junkyard Dog and Boris, which he got at a flea market, and a religious statue of the Virgin Mary from his 1992 trip to Mexico. None of these things feature prominently in Quick's work but they're all part of aexploration of symbology and style. And, as is the case with pro wrestling, they might help in figuring out how to establish a narrative. "I love professional wrestling from the '80s because those were the ultimate narratives: good versus evil, creating a storyline," he explains. "Sometimes I'll listen to the old professional wrestling commentary to give me ideas."

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Quick's first professionally silk-screened rock poster was done at Garage Tees for local new wave rockers the Volumen. He was thinking about adolescence at the time and he'd bought old high-school yearbooks from thrift stores to get a sense of how to draw a variety of hairstyles and facial images. It also helped him develop a narrative for the Volumen poster. "I just drew a bunch of kids that looked like they were having a tough time, that were dealing with hormones and growing up," he explains. "Some of them have acne, one of the kids has a KISS shirt on, one of the kids has a high forehead, and one has a weight issue...it looked like a page out of a yearbook, and then it says, 'Volumen.'"

Quick says he avoids narratives about alcohol or drug abuse or sexualized people, despite the fact that some of his comic-artist heroes have made much use of those themes. "There's already so much bullshit in our culture that I don't need to put that in my art," he says.

That doesn't mean his style is bland or teetotaler-esque, although some of his illustrations seem more benign than others, like the purple spray painted poster for the KBGA End-of-thon with two raccoons on bicycles who've stolen a bunch of loot and are having a night on the town. Or they're a little devious, like the one he did for The Lazerwolfs' Judas Priest tribute show, in which Priest singer Rob Halford rides a motorbike, flanked by Satan (as a goat) sipping a Big Gulp soda. And some of his ideas seem to come from nowhere, with a narrative that showcases Quick's hilariously weird viewpoint. For his Vampire Weekend poster, he decided to show someone listening to sad music and lost in a sad thought. When he tried to think of the saddest idea in the world, he thought of a burial at sea.

"For me, burial at sea is a totally sad thing," he says. "So I drew a woman sitting in her living room listening to a bunch of records, and you can kind of see in [her thought bubble] a burial at sea...It's just a little simple image and then boom! 'Vampire Weekend' in big letters. And that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to get anybody's goat. I'm really trying to create an aesthetic for people and a small narrative for them to think about."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Quick's ideas have led to other funny images, such as the Secret Powers poster where all the band members are passed out, not from alcohol, but from being poisoned, and an apartment full of monsters that represent Quick's vision of the sounds he hears from his neighbors.

His attempts at a narrative that will engage his clients don't always work out. The poster he did for one of Wilco's shows at the Adams Center had all the elements for an interesting narrative—a deadman's curve in the Bitterroot where a ghost is haunting a driver whose passenger is a camel—but at the last minute, the band's manager cancelled the deal. A friend of the band had offered to make the poster instead, and Quick was pushed out. And then there was the band Clutch, which commissioned Quick for a poster and let him come up with a theme. Quick listened to their music. The word "rebellious" came to mind, so he tried to think of a rebellious scene. But this is Josh Quick. He wasn't into the stereotypes. Not motorcycles or James Dean or tattoos. He needed something off-the-wall. And then he had it: whalers.

"So I drew these guys harpooning a whale and taking the blubber...And I get contacted from [their manager]. He goes, 'Josh. Can you do something else?' And I had put all this time in, so I said, 'What's wrong with it?' And he's like, 'To be honest with you, I love it. But the band is insulted right now. They really love whales.'"



Eaten by a zombie

Shepard Fairey used a Russian constructivist propaganda style for his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" sticker, which went viral in the early 1990s, but his work became mainstream when he created the Obama "Hope" poster that ended up on cars and walls and everywhere else during the 2008 elections. It then became controversial when it was revealed that Fairey, without permission, had relied on an Obama photograph taken by an Associated Press freelancer.

Borrowing styles is part of the deal (T.S. Eliot wrote it as "Immature poets imitate and mature poets steal"—which goes for comic artists, too), and if it's done in the right way, Quick says, there's nothing cynical about it. When he was first illustrating in Missoula, he tried different styles including inserting a female luchador à la Jaime Hernandez into a band poster. He also gave his characters noodle-y, no-elbow arms—something he got from Peter Bagge, and which he carries on today.

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Still, there's borrowing styles and then there's the question of rights to an artwork, which might be where the line blurs for Quick. Commercial artists often find themselves in a mess, and, though Quick doesn't like to shed negative light on anyone, least of all local businesses, he's had his issues.

He designed the first set of cans for the Kettlehouse Brewery, which he proudly displays on his office shelf. That relationship soured when, after signing a contract with the local brewery, Quick started seeing his art on items he says he didn't agree to. The Kettlehouse, he says, claims that they bought the image from Quick. But Quick says the image is his, and that they didn't have an executive agreement to use it liberally. So he took legal action and the brewery ended up hiring another artist for the job.

"My theory is that these guys are going to go national in the next year or so," says Quick. "And that's part of the reason I got on this right away. I'm not going to be like the guy that designed the Budweiser logo and got $150 for it. And that happens to artists all the time."

Quick tells this tale because it's a good lesson, but he hates this story, too, because he still loves the Kettlehouse for the very fact that they do employ local artists. Both Kettlehouse owner Tim O'Leary and Quick say there are no hard feelings at this point. "And I was to blame, too," Quick says. "I was young and inexperienced back then. I was so bummed that our relationship had to turn into that. But I've learned from this to be upfront. I don't want to be a dick, but I don't want to be ripped off either, and it's really hard sometimes to explain that to other people, because they really believe they bought the image from you, when they didn't. I've talked to a lot of other artists about this: protect yourself, protect your copyright and be honest and fair with the clients."

This is Quick's optimistic spin, but he does have a dark side. And sometimes, between the light jokes and his surreal banter, he occasionally draws a dark comic that he squirrels away for safekeeping. "They're really dark," he says. "It's typically because I'm having a bad week or maybe I'm just feeling really emotional and the only catharsis I have is to draw it."

During the recent winter, the one that seemed to go on and on, nothing but dark illustrations were coming out, and Quick had to change them before he sent them out into the world. "I would take the stuff out of the speech bubbles," he admits. "I was kind of self-censoring." One example: An artist is selling his stuff for next to nothing to help out a charity, and in the last panel he's abruptly eaten by a zombie.

"Maybe one day—and I will get published one day, I'm sure of it—I'll put out a book of my dark comics."



Clothesline and cake

Quick had a friend named Gary with whom he often disagreed. "Tricia loved him, but he drove me crazy when we hung out with him. He was so confident it was annoying and I think he triggered my insecurities."

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But even after Gary moved away from Missoula, Quick found himself drawn to Gary as a muse. He started drawing a comic strip he called "Gary Blast-Off," and he put his Gary character into all kinds of predicaments. He didn't really think about the consequences until he and Opstad visited Gary in Minneapolis. "I must have done 20 comics of this," Quick says. "And I realized I hadn't told him about it. So we're hanging out and I was like, 'You know, I gotta tell you, I've been doing this thing.' And Gary said, 'What is it?' So we went online to my blogspot and I showed him. According to Quick, Gary put his hands to his face in shock and said, "Oh my gosh!" over and over again. He was overwhelmed, and then, as Quick tells it, he warmed to the idea of being the star of his own comic strip.

Quick uses people he knows and conversations he has for inspiration, so if you live in Missoula, you might be his muse, too.

"Sometimes people will be like, 'You squished my head.' And I'm like, 'Get over it; it's a cartoon!' A lot of people will be like, 'Is that me? Are you putting me in there?' But it's usually not them, it's usually an amalgam of people."

There are a few real Missoula people whom Quick draws more than others including Charlie Beaton, the owner of The Big Dipper, and John Fleming, owner of Ear Candy Music. He draws Fleming over and over, he says, "and I don't know why...I don't know how he feels about it; I've never asked him. And I'll duplicate Charlie. Charlie means a lot to me, too. I don't think he feels either way about it."

Beaton says he commissioned Quick to design Big Dipper items because his style is unexpected. "I've been in Missoula for a long time, since '88, and I've been friends with his brother Troy for a long time. I remember Josh as a little kid and then discovered him later as an artist. For us it's just a little departure from some of the branding we've done, in that we can just do some playful things that seem to fit well with ice cream...I like pieces that are quirky and odd, and Josh has a crazy creative mind."

But did he realize he was one of the frequent subjects of Quick's comics?

"Well, I didn't really know that," Beaton says, laughing. "I know I've been in maybe one or two things, but I'll have to keep my eye out for more."

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If there's one person who understands how much Quick uses his interactions with people in his work, it's Opstad, his partner. A few months back, they went through a rough patch in their relationship. Opstad had just graduated from UM's speech therapy program and they were about to move into a new house together. "Our relationship was growing a lot then," laughs Opstad, putting it diplomatically.

When it came time to draw a poster for local band Sick Kids XOXO, Quick created a series of scenes with a guy and a girl hashing out their frustrations. The girl's getting shot out of a cannon and blasted through a hoop of fire by the guy. The guy is being put in a box full of spikes and sawn in half magician-style by the girl. "I'm trying to show the tension of a relationship," Quick says. "It's the best kind of catharsis because I don't even have to think about it, it just comes out."

"I'm totally willing to be shot out of a canon," adds Opstad.

Sometimes the little mistakes make for great fodder. On Opstad's birthday, Quick got her an expensive German chocolate cake from Bernice's Bakery. The thing is, she doesn't like German chocolate cake—Quick does.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm an idiot!'" he says.

The incident showed up in a "Camp Sleep Over" episode, with the conversation about German chocolate cake played out by two men hanging from a clothesline over New York City, for no other reason than that Quick relishes the absurd.

Opstad teases Quick about his love of pro wrestling and the way he gets lost when he's working on comics. When he says they moved into their new Northside apartment a few weeks ago, Opstad laughs, saying, "It was three months ago." But it's easy to tell she enjoys his creative nature. "The other night I asked him what he were thinking about," she says, "But I don't even need to ask, I know. He's always working through a shape or idea, always occupying his mind, creating something."



Pebble-sized people

Two years ago, Disney bought Marvel Comics. This summer, Spider-Man died. The comic world seems to be in upheaval. "It breaks my heart that Stan Lee doesn't own Marvel anymore," says Quick, "but these things are always evolving. As for Spider-Man, they did the same thing with Superman. And they broke Batman's back. In the comic universe, they want to keep us in suspense. That's why the do it. They'll bring Spider-Man back. They have to."

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The world of Josh Quick is evolving, too. A few weeks ago he got word that one of his comics was chosen to run along with the work of 43 other graphic artists in Minneapolis' alt-weekly City Pages, for its annual commix edition—a contest in which the paper asked artists to predict the future.

"I freaked out," Quick says of being picked. "I jumped around. It was awesome. It's only happened a couple times before where I actually jumped up and ran around the house."

His prediction for the future is a goofy but somehow poignant four-panel showing a time-traveler who arrives in 2525 A.D. and finds people are the size of pebbles, in order to mitigate overcrowding. It's typical Quick: a commentary on the seriousness of overpopulation coupled with a funny and optimistic solution.

He has a couple of new ideas brewing in his head. One takes place in Custer, Mont., where a cosmonaut plummets from space, causing radiation that keeps all the townsfolk from growing old. He's also thinking about doing one about a fishing village where the water dries up due to an environmental disaster.

"It's meant to be humorous and funny, but it's also kind of heavy, too," he says. "I love the idea of the after-effects—how people have to change their perspective and re-see everything. It's sad, but at the same time human beings have to move on and survive. I love the idea of that. That's a story just waiting to happen."

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