More proof that I’m getting older: Another milestone to celebrate that can be measured in a fraction of a century! This anniversary may not seem to be such a big deal to some, but for me it was a game changer. If not for this event, the life I now know probably wouldn’t have happened.
May 1996. I was a few months shy of turning 21. The three years since high school graduation were not great ones for me. Rather than leave Connecticut to head to art school as I had planned, a lack of resources kept me grounded in The Nutmeg State. Not only that, I was stuck in the town where I graduated high school, Southbury. Sticking around was stifling, especially since my high school years were not pleasurable. Stranded in a town with no real public transit and lacking a car (at first), nor any idea of how to escape, I took a job at the place that would accept anyone: Kmart. Three years later I had moved up the ranks to Home Improvement/Automotive Manager, a person who knew nothing about fixing homes or cars. The job was pretty unsatisfying, yet since I didn’t know what else to do I was pondering becoming a salaried manager. I had tried out community college for a semester, but it was also unsatisfying, feeling like high school again, though I could leave class whenever I felt.
There were moments of pleasure, sure. I had made friends, something that eluded me in high school. I started to get more adventurous in my musical tastes. But it wasn’t enough, and I was feeling fatalistic, especially after a brush with what was surmised as “a weird allergic reaction to something” a month prior. I didn’t want to die just yet, and I really didn’t want to die without doing something. Some of my friends were in a band that just put out their first record, so if they tragically died, they at least had something to show for their life. Me? Nothing. At best I hoped people at my funeral would say that I was “a nice guy”. This did nothing to stave off an early-life crisis.
I wanted to do something. I was already managing people three times my age at work. I didn’t want to let life slip away, then turn around and realize I was a Kmart lifer. Being adrift in a sea of malcontents and people not reaching their potential, I needed a lighthouse to guide me through the choppy waters. But what?
Back when I graduated high school I had dreams of being some sort of graphic/commercial artist. And I wanted to draw comics. I had loved comics since I could remember and went through the typical male progression of tastes, ending up with getting into Marvel in my early high-school years, then DC and some of the other assorted players towards the end. But by graduation mainstream comics wasn’t doing anything for me anymore. I still liked the “idea” of graphic storytelling, even if the current crop wasn’t cutting it.
I was not a punk in high school, as my tastes aligned with typical classic/butt rock in the beginning, getting more “alternative” by the end, so I wasn’t wise to zines. Short for fanzines, these self-published publications were a way for people to communicate before the internet came about. (As someone succinctly put it a few years back: “They were blogs on paper!”) Since everything “alternative” got attention in the 90s, I remember reading about zines in an article in Details magazine around 1994.* Curious, I sent some money to a couple zines mentioned. I only remember getting one back, an inscrutable and sarcastic music zine filled with bands I didn’t know. Plus, while not as slick as Details, it lacked that “I scammed the copies from work” edge that other zines were purported to contain. So aside from the “14 year old who made a comic, printed 10 copies, then dropped them off at the comic shop” that I would dutifully buy when I came across them, I basically forgot about zines and self-published stuff for another couple years.
I slowly got back into comics. DC had it’s more mature Vertigo line, where Sandman, Hellblazer, and Preacher were offered, so that was a start. A few of my friends were into manga, so I started seeking out what was available in the US from the likes of Dark Horse and Viz. It was fun for a bit, but the manga imported in 1995 wasn’t that different from the typical Marvel/DC fare, and my interest in Vertigo fizzled. So I started to dig into the “alternative comics” rack, the place where they put comics that didn’t fit elsewhere. These comics struck a chord with me, so I dug deeper.
I came across an anthology comics publication edited by Sarah Dyer called Action Girl. Women-created comics are still underrepresented these days, but it was even scarcer in 1996, so seeing a collection that was dedicated to female creators was a big deal. I liked a lot of the comics and cartoonists in the publication. Sarah would publish the contact info of these creators in the back, encouraging readers to directly get in touch with them in order to get more comics. This idea was revolutionary to me. I can actually write the cartoonist, stuff a buck or two in the envelope, and get comics back? Sign me up! So around May of 1996 I wrote to a few artists listed in Action Girl, and a week or two later I got comics back!
And this new world of comics was such a breath of fresh air. The artistic ability ranged from barely there to pretty professional, but it was the spirit that mattered. And a lot of it was people sharing about their lives. I can relate to that more than superhero melodrama or giant robots and scantily clad ladies.
But the bigger thing was the big thing: These folks weren’t working in a vacuum. There was an interconnected world of self-publishing cartoonists, heading down to Kinko’s after work to print their comics and then share. Most artists would mention other comics and zines they liked in their publications, So I would go and write those people, putting a dollar or two in envelopes and sending them off. And I’d get back more comics and zines with more recommendations for more comics/zines…It all multiplied.
This all led me to zines about zines. I had read about Factsheet Five in that Details article, but didn’t order one. I should have. Factsheet Five (or FF5) was a compendium of the zines and other alt-publications around. People would submit their zine to FF5 and it would get listed with a short blurb/review describing the zine. It was the Bible and the Phonebook wrapped into one. I started buying FF5, circling the listings that sounded interesting, then sending off more money in envelopes to places around the world. I was hooked.
By the end of 1996 the do-it-yourself spirit of zines and alt-comix had permeated through me. If other people are doing this, why can’t I? This was liberating. Before, I was planning on going to four years of art school (and going into debt) with the hopes that by the time I came out I’d have the chops to work for a big publisher. Now, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission for what I wanted to do. I simply had to do it, put it out there, and hope it connects.
The first issue of my mini-comic Ten Foot Rule came out in July of 1997. I sent my comic to FF5 and other review zines and started to get orders. I connected to even more people, a network of enthusiasts. Now that I published a comic, no matter how humble it was, I decided to hit the road and attend my first alternative comics convention, Small Press Expo (SPX) in the DC suburbs. Now I got to meet a lot of these people, face to face! I was intoxicated, I wanted more.
But in 1997 there wasn’t many other conventions out there. The next one that I knew of was Alternative Press Expo (APE) all the way out in San Jose, California in February of 1998. Yet I was so excited, so driven, that I got myself and three other cartoonists in a car, drove across the country (the first time I had been west of the Appalachians) and attended that. California and the rest of the continent captivated me, so heading home to Connecticut was anticlimactic. I knew I needed out, more than ever.
Yet there were a couple things that kept me in the Constitution State for a couple more years: First, I had started working as a screenprinter. I hoped to build useful skills in that department, as silkscreening is useful for commercial art. And I was working as the “merch guy” for my friend’s band, a band going somewhere in a scene going somewhere. I hoped that the upward momentum would mean I’d be able to go out on a cross-country tour with the band. I had talked with other “pro” merch guys in the scene and the on-the-road lifestyle they lived seemed like it could make life still at home palatable. Alas, screenprinting proved frustrating, so I quit that by the end of 1998. And the band, along with the associated scene, imploded by the beginning of the century, but I was burnt out by both before that. That, along with my car finally dying became the catalyst for me to get the heck out of Connecticut.
Importantly, the connections and friendships that I had made with fellow cartoonists and zinesters helped me through. As someone who didn’t have a lot of money, this network gave me floors and couches to crash on when I traveled or when I moved to a new city. Some of these bonds have faded over the years as they tend to do. And I’m not as embedded in the scene as I used to. But I still have memories.
And because the do-it-yourself ethos of the zine and alt-comix world empowered me, I had a roadmap to a better life.
*My uncle worked at a newsstand distributor, so I ended up getting lots of remaindered magazines.