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All Together Now

Two comics artists coax creativity from contributors near and far.

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Bert Stabler calls Johnny Monomyth, a comic he created with Noah Berlatsky in 1999, a "poetic collage." The 32 pages tell the loose story of a superhero, a villain, and a girl through text cribbed from Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, Fortune magazine, Diamonds Are Forever, and Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces. When the panels are unbound and arranged into a two-and-a-half-by-six-foot grid, however, they form a single intricate work rich with detail.

David Heatley first met Stabler in a painting class at Oberlin College in 1993, but they "forgot about each other," he says, until December 2000, when both participated in a group show at the west-Loop NFA Space. Stabler exhibited the Johnny Monomyth montage; Heatley, a comics artist who'd been working in film at the time, brought a piece called Work Week, which consisted of long strips of slide film documenting five days of his life every hour and a half. Heatley had moved to Chicago six months earlier from San Francisco, and he and his wife, Rebecca Gopoian, had been tossing around the idea of hooking up with other artists to produce a comics anthology. "Blown away" by Stabler's work at the show, Heatley says he instantly knew he'd found a coconspirator.

"I was really struck by how different it was from anything I would do," he says. "I knew he would take the magazine somewhere that I couldn't." Stabler, who's currently working on a full-length animated film and a master's in arts education, wasn't so sure. But by their second meeting he was won over to Heatley's vision of an anthology of work created by a range of contributors--friends, coworkers, kids, random acquaintances--who were all starting with the same raw materials.

Heatley and Stabler both peg their discovery of Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's first Raw anthology, which came out in the mid-80s, as "a watershed event" in their artistic development. "There was a certain literary quality to the storytelling," says Stabler, an aficionado of 70s superhero comics and Japanese manga. "But Spiegelman was also doing some neat stuff with collage and the four-color process." Heatley--who says his influences are "more highbrow," citing artists like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware--found Raw's ecumenical spirit inspiring: "There was such a wide range of styles, and it became this home for these graphically adventurous--but heavy contentwise too--images that weren't being seen anywhere else."

Heatley and Stabler see their project as an extension of Raw's mission. "There are a lot of anthologies out there filled with people who are just reading comics all day long and trying their best to absorb the language and styles and iconography that's already been canonized," says Heatley. "The exciting thing about amateurs and nonartists is that they all have this very novel approach." Says Stabler, who's taught art for five years (most recently for the Cook County public guardian's office), "You can talk about comic strips being marginalized and geeky, but comics is a medium that matters. It's something that has history and that kids can immediately connect to, and it's pretty simple to do."

They sent out 400 invitations explaining the project and asked the recipients to pass them on. With the help of a sympathetic manager at Pearl they scored a discounted cache of art supplies--bristol board, ink, brushes, rulers, markers, erasers, non-repro-blue pencils--to send to the 170 who replied. Stabler, Heatley, and Gopoian assembled the materials into meticulously hot-glued and Mylar-wrapped packages. A booklet containing a deadpan warning about the potential hazards of Wite-Out and detailed directions for the supplies' proper use--"Combining thick and thin lines, known as line variation, often makes line drawings more attractive"--completed the kits.

"It was half practical usage," says Heatley, "because Bert is a teacher and knows what a hard time people can have with these very simple tools. But it's also tongue-in-cheek. I kind of wanted people to feel like it was a movement or something; it has that look to it. I think that kind of inspires awe, and makes you think like, 'My page has to live up to something.'"

Over the next six months, 115 finished comics made their way to Heatley and Stabler's PO box from as far away as Japan and as close to home as North Lawndale. One hundred and ten of them ended up in The New Graphics Revival: The Kit Issue, a perfect-bound anthology that flips in the middle to accommodate its two color covers--one by Heatley, one by Stabler. Inside, crude line drawings, zombies, and robots share spreads with impressionistic ink-and-brush images and carefully lettered narratives. Some people bypassed the kit and used computers or clip art; Heatley's father submitted a comic about triangles created entirely in PowerPoint.

"I'm really happy with the work we got," says Heatley. "I think that people really did their best." They're tentatively planning to produce another anthology, perhaps singling out contributors to this one and pushing them to do something more ambitious. In the meantime, they're launching the first book with a release party at Quimby's (1854 W. North, 773-342-0910) on Saturday, May 25, at seven. Attendees will be given supplies and invited to create a comic panel; the results will be assembled on the spot into a photocopied magazine. On June 8 the original artwork for the anthology goes on display at the Butcher Shop (1319 W. Lake, 312-666-4566), with an opening reception that night at eight.

"For me," says Heatley, "part of doing comics and making art is this pathological need to give gifts to people. So making the kit was like this gift to all these people. And when they started coming back in the mail, it was like Christmas for two months."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.

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