A heavy-metal-obsessed Puerto Rican 12-year-old. A Dartmouth professor of biology and science-fiction writer. A party girl and print designer from Birmingham, Alabama. What do these people have in common? They are all obscure cartoonists I have known.
How many unknown cartoonists can America possibly harbor? It depends on how you define “unknown” and “cartoonist.” After 20 years of making and trading zines of all sorts, I estimated at least 100 per state, but the uneven nature of the states (small-press hubs like Michigan make Kalamazoo’s cartoonists outnumber perhaps all of Montana’s) made me switch to congressional districts. Mini-comics godfather Steve Willis is even more generous: “I’d guess 1 in 100 people is an accomplished enough artist to qualify. There are three other cartoonists I’m aware of named Steve Willis!” That would make for over 3 million of these ink-stained sasquatches hiding in our midst—far too many to be groomed in the salon of celebrity, and most of them short-lived. Still, from the advent of the photocopier to the current age of instant blog publishing, there has been a tribe of “career obscuros” whose longevity has only increased their brilliance. These are the strange Americans I celebrate here.
While obscurity is harder to measure than fame, Steve Willis is, by my estimate, one of the most enduringly, endearingly obscure cartoonists in America. For 30+ years he has created comics by the hundreds, many of which appeared in editions of 20, 50, or one. In thousands of Morty Comix (mostly portraits drawn on the backs of retired filing cards or random paper), in years of his small-press newsletter City Limits Gazette, and in many titles like Cranium Frenzy, Willis did much to establish a small-press art network which has squirmed and fractured into uncounted factions.
Willis’s deceptively simple artwork—quick ink lines, hatching, tidbits of shadow and gobs of cartoonish squish-and-flex— conveys all the energy and emotion of more “complex” draftsmanship, while delivering maximum doses of those unique properties of cartoonland: mutations, transformations, juxtapositions and dimensional flippity-floppery. Willis moves characters with the sleight-of-hand deftness of a magician’s card trick, in worlds that operate like Chinese shadow puppet theaters, or Vaudeville stages, or Newton’s nightmares. Willisland’s (meta)physics are pure audacity.
Willis emerged from the Pacific Northwest among the Baby Boomers, spawning from Evergreen State College among the same generation as Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Charles Burns. He learned, in the chaos of college, that he “didn’t want to be an attorney, a social worker, a land use planner, or cartoonist.” For a living, that is. “By the time I graduated, I liked drawing what I damn well pleased and by 1981 had become active in the obscure and wild world of postunderground comix.” He became a taxi driver, then a librarian, then “a normal guy.” But the drawing continued, despite numerous attempts to “kill off Morty the Dog” and kick the habit.
Why such incorrigible obscurity? Many comics and interviews display Steve’s ambivalence toward all institutions, including art itself. Just when you expect sardonicism, he’ll explain zine-making as “passing the baton of the same universal desire for promoting a place for free expression, creativity and originality in comic art.” He admits to declining offers “in the 1980s from several Big Boys such as Esquire, The Atlantic, and others. But they always had MSM conditions and ulcer-driven worries. Screw that.” Like his unkillable doppleganger Morty, Willis prefers the option to bite whatever hand he likes.
For a flood of comics and other riches, search mortythedog.com. Your trip to Willisland will not be complete without reading Steve’s painfully honest testimonial to his alma mater: http://www.mortythedog.com/2010/10/steve-willis-at-evergreen.html
I see Steve Willis as a mad philosopher—disguised as a librarian—who knows that every worthwhile conundrum has more than one answer. Maybe living in Sasquatch country does that to you.