Although I have been reading comics since a very early age, my interest in regularly creating comics was jump started by Scott Donaldson when I was a sophomore at Carleton College. He and I jointly founded the Carleton Comics Journal (now the Carleton Graphic), Carleton’s first and only student publication devoted solely to publishing student comics. Despite some setbacks, we managed to create a healthy and energetic publication, publishing roughly once every two weeks. (I’ve previously written at length about this process.)
During my three years as the editor of the Graphic, we published 34 issues and several minicomics. Thanks to the unceasing work of Kailyn Kent, we attended MoCCA 2011, and met many other young comics artists, most notably the then-editors of Static Fish, whose beautiful work I’d looked up to for some time.
As the Graphic grew, I became increasingly interested in similar publications at other schools. My impression was that nobody published as frequently as we did, but I had no idea if we were doing anything groundbreaking or unusual. I wanted to get in touch with other student comics magazines, trade some issues, and learn from their methods. The first step, though, was finding other college comics organizations, and that was harder than it seemed. It took me quite a while to amass a record of various other student-run comics publications, and even when I found them, they were often unresponsive to email or offers to trade comics or experience.
Something that likely contributed to the difficulty of finding other college comics magazines is the comics press’ widespread disinterest in such publications. At MoCCA we gave free copies of all of our books to every comic journalist who came by, and I personally emailed several comics interest sites multiple times, with no results. The Graphic has a complete online archive and a well-designed website, so I thought it was a natural candidate for a short write-up, but nobody ever seemed to show any interest. They were probably too busy reporting on hard-hitting topics like “Look at this mind-blowing fan-art of Batman wearing Ninja Turtles pajamas,” or whatever. One of the only people who would actually draw attention to us was Jessica Abel, whose kind attention was always greatly appreciated.
I feel that it would be interesting to review these other publications, defunct or not, in the hopes that more people learn about them and think seriously about student-published comic magazines. The more legitimately these publications are treated, the more encouragement such publications will have to make high quality work. That’s my theory, anyway. I’ve created a zip file with all the comics that were released for free, which you can download HERE. Some of the publications I review are no longer online or are difficult to find, so I figure this should make it easier if you want to check out some of the things I’m reviewing.
[Note: I am not going to review the Carleton Graphic. There is such an obvious conflict of interest that for me to review it would be to undermine my reviews of these other publications. I would like to encourage you to check out the Graphic’s archives, and keep an eye on them in the future. They publish often, and do interesting work. http://www.carletongraphic.com/ And if you’re interested, here are a couple links to work I did for the Graphic.]
The Gargoyle at the University of Michigan
Representative article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gargoyle_Humor_Magazine
Established in 1909, the Gargoyle Humor Magazine is unique on this list in that it is far from being a comics-only publication. I include it because it has long been known for its New Yorker -style cartoons and, more recently, comics as well.
Obviously, 104 years of nearly continuous publication presents a problem to a reviewer hoping to succinctly summarize a publication’s successes and failures. Thankfully, I was able to get my hands on a weathered copy of The Gargoyle Laughs at the 20th Century, a choicely-picked “best of” volume that provides a sketch, at least, of the publication’s first century or so. It’s a great read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in a short history of a fascinating publishing venture.
At its best, The Gargoyle read a lot like the New Yorker. University of Michigan alums such as Arthur Miller submitted to The Gargoyle, and the cartoons, while quite standard, would hold their own against pretty much anything out of Punch.
In 1967, The Gargoyle published “Kill a Commie for Christ,” a cartoon by Phil Zaret, which became a popular symbol in the anti-Vietnam war movement. It also re-solidified The Gargoyle’s position as a cultural force, which had waned since its heyday in the 20’s and 30’s.
Now that I live in Ann Arbor I have access to contemporary issues of the Gargoyle (they also have a small online archive that collects recent issues.) Suffice it to say that the days of Arthur Miller and Punch-grade cartoons are long over – the current iteration of the magazine is tediously unfunny, and despite their supposed focus on comics and cartoons, only includes a comic or two an issue. It’s bad to the point that their recent “Gargoyle Comics #1” issue included only a single comic (and zero articles about comics,) indicating pretty clearly their current bent towards viewing comics as an aesthetic more than anything else.
Berkeley Bezerk (Defunct)
The Berkeley Bezerk is a funny publication. It ran eight issues in the early/mid-2000’s, each one exactly 16 pages in length (except for the first one, which ran only eight). Its pages are incredibly dense, and packed full of advertisements. The margins are often crowded with translations of comics into Chinese and sometimes Spanish.
The editorial direction of the publication is, in a word, troubling. The magazine started with incredibly lofty ambitions, its first editor’s note announcing, “we are ready to bring entertainment to all of Berkeley and begin a golden age in the Bay Area comics scene.” The editorial choices of the Bezerk consistently worked in a way that severely overestimated the strengths of its contributors. This mismatch is perhaps most apparent in Issue 3 (Special Issue on the Middle East) which includes some incredible naivete, a completely straightforward depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in proto-manga style, and some casual racism. I’m assuming the Bezerk had an incredibly limited audience, because no retractions or changes in editorial style are evident in the subsequent issues. One student in particular submitted consistently offensive comics that would have caused a scandal if printed in any publication with an actual reader-base.
Of all the comics published in the Bezerk, the serialized Robot Girl is likely my favorite, but like many of the Bezerk’s comics, it’s rendered difficult to read due to the cramped page layouts. I admire the concept of translating some of the comics into Spanish and Chinese, but it’s a bizarre editorial decision given the lack of space page-to-page. (To be fair, the translations only seem to have existed for the first year or so.)
Pulse at UVA (Defunct)
Pulse at UVA is the opposite of the Berkeley Bezerk in almost every way. It ran for six issues from 2006-2008, with an average of 40 pages per issue. Its first issue contained an original interview with Art Spiegelman, and its third issue contained an original interview with Scott McCloud. It featured a print run of over a thousand copies per issue, had a casual and unassuming opening editor’s note, and left its pages uncluttered.
The comics themselves tend to be fairly mediocre, issue to issue. Pulse almost gives its contributors too much space, allowing rambling, insanely overambitious stories to run for six to eight pages, only to be ended by a (dishonest) TO BE CONTINUED… (On this note, what is it about fledgling comic artists that consistently leads to stories based around gritty, Bible-inspired myths, full of GOD and DEMONS and CHOSEN ONES, etc? It’s almost more ubiquitous than the “zany roommate” type storyline…)
Issue 5 represents the high point for Pulse, not only because it contains the best looking comic they published, “Emby” by Ellisha Marongelli, but also because it ended with a fifteen page, well-researched article about “controversial comics,” written by Matthew Marcus. I know it’s funny to praise a comics publication for a lengthy prose essay, but I admire it because it displays exactly the kind of critical thinking I find so sorely lacking in the Berkeley Bezerk. Marcus identifies several comics published by college newspapers that inspired controversies, and thoughtfully examines the intent, actual content, and controversies surrounding each one. Pulse even published several cartoons poking fun at the controversies surrounding publishing an image of the Prophet Muhammad, which actually managed to be (relatively) tasteful.
UC Comics at Berkeley
A friend recently drew my attention to UC Comics, a website that collects comics by UC Berkeley students. Overall, the comics seem to be highly unpolished, and, as a person might expect from an online imageboard, completely unedited. The site design renders the comics largely unreadable, since there doesn’t seem to be a way to quickly preview the comics beyond clicking through the archives a month at a time, and seeing a tiny thumbnail of the first page of each comic (some of which are quite long.) A re-vamped site design would definitely help in making the comics more accessible, and a minimum standard of quality (all comics must be inked or darkened in photoshop to a point that makes them readable) would go a long way in making me want to explore. There are some gems hidden in the site (I find “Blue” very pretty) but a complete lack of attribution and bizarre page controls make it highly unattractive as a whole.
Shoujo Phonebook at SCAD
Founded in 2003, Shoujo Phonebook is an annual anthology released by the Savannah College of Art and Design. Their books can be bought in paperback or PDF form, and the cheapest book they offer is $3. Samples of representative work can be viewed at this page.
I bought the 2010-2011 PDF for three dollars. It’s 148 pages long, although much of the space is taken up by full page illustrations of elves standing around and looking wistful, cyborg girls looking over their shoulder at the viewer, and title pages with the artist’s name and major. The work is highly inconsistent, most of it falling into a very standard, well, shoujo format. Many of the artists seem constrained by the mandatory “comics for girls” mission statement of the publication. Many stories are highly incomplete, overambitious, or drag on way, way too long.
The editors of Shoujo Phonebook would do well to mandate a “complete stories” rule, because it’s infuriating to read the first four pages of what seems like it could be an interesting story, only to have it abruptly end. It’s equally infuriating to read what seems like a million pages of a sad elf explaining to a girl shocked by his exotic beauty that his mother didn’t want him.
The best thing in the collection is Jennifer Stewart’s “Pasmo,” a series of single page anecdotes about the Japanese subway system. It’s a good use of the space allotted, and ignores the “girl comics” mandate entirely.
Wesleyan University Comics Anthology
Wesleyan’s University Comics Anthology was founded in 2006 and, as implied by this site, ran for only three issues. Two of those issues are for sale on Comixpress, as linked above, and I have not bought them. The thought of spending 13 dollars (including shipping) for 56 pages of an untested, college anthology went against my nature (also, Comixpress’ site is ugly to the point that I didn’t want to encourage them), but I was able to find a few previews from Issue One at this page.
From what I can see, UCA was a mixed bag. None of the comics in the preview leap out to me, although I do admire Teddy O’Connor’s pointillism and use of color. As with Shoujo Phonebook, I fail to understand why ambitious, undergraduate comics artists would try to force potential readers to pay for their work. I’m fine with the concept of buying a physical copy, but put your work out for free online, too. It seems totally counterproductive to ensure that the only people who see your work are close friends and (maybe) family members who are willing to pay 10 dollars for a small booklet hidden in the depths of a site like Comixpress.
Comic Anthology at RISD
RISD’s aptly named Comic Anthology (2008-2009) is like Shoujo Phonebook taken to a whole new level. Their book is available as a $25.90 paperback, but the PDF is totally free. At 102 pages, about half in full color, Comic Anthology’s stories are self-contained and relatively consistent. My biggest gripe would be that many of the stories feel like homework assignments more than inspired storytelling – the anthology opens with an almost completely straightforward retelling of The Tortoise and the Hare, and several stories contain the seemingly requisite hackneyed fantasy elements.
That said, a couple stories stand out to me. Alison Dubois’ “Life After Art” uses halftone really effectively, and exploits Lichtenstein-esque pop-comic style to excellent effect. Inna Komarovsky’s “Porridge” uses collage in an incredibly inventive way. Both stories are concise and leave me feeling quite satisfied.
Xerox Candy Bar is another publication with almost no online presence. I became aware of them a little over a year ago, and tried getting in touch with their editors to buy some of their work or arrange a trade, but it never went anywhere. I ended up buying a couple of their books very cheaply from Quimby’s, who, in a stroke of excellent fortune, sent me several extra free XCB issues that they had lying around.
XCB is a highly versatile publication. They easily have some of the most inventive and interesting presentation I’ve ever seen – two issues came in screen-printed, sealed envelopes. Inside of each envelope was the comic, a stapled pamphlet whose cover is a manilla folder with a screen printed design. Two of the issues also came with lengthy CD’s, whose contents can be listened to and downloaded here.
XCB reads less like a comics magazine and more like a found art collection, featuring occasional poems, lots of sketchbook pages, and trippy, non-narrative comics. The more recent issues, Children’s Bedtime Stories and #19: Newspaper Edition are much more straightforwardly comics anthologies, in the vein of Smoke Signal. The Children’s Bedtime Stories issue is infinitely more linear than any other issue I have read, and is full of competent storytelling and interesting art. As a whole, it’s certainly a publication that I would read enthusiastically, but it might benefit from some stricter submission standards.
Inkstains at SVA (Defunct):
According to this page, Inkstains was founded around 2000. It’s very difficult to find record of it online, but thankfully traces do exist. This Geocities site has some Inkstain comics from 2005, and this site has an entire issue from Fall 2010 (called “The Missing Issue,” which I assume means it was never published other than online.)
It’s difficult to judge, but just from the snippets available I’d say Inkstains had a lot of visual polish but some trouble with pacing. Some of the stories end before any action is explained, and many seem to drag on and on. That’s a fairly generic criticism, I know, that could apply to pretty much any anthology, but there’s really not much to work with. Inkstains may have run for 10 years, but it’s virtually invisible online.
INK at SVA
Representative article: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/11/18/ink-sva-digital-comics-magazine/
The successor to Inkstains, INK’s visibility is through the roof. Launched as an online-only publication (constantly and proudly described as “the world’s first 100% student-run comics magazine app”), INK was launched in 2011 and releases issues twice a year.
When it first published, INK was met with unparallelled reporting from comics news outlets. No other college comics publication has come even close to garnering the attention that INK managed to, heavily assisted, I suspect, by the perceived novelty of the “app” and by SVA’s reputation of being a school that creates comics artists.
The first and second issues of INK contain perhaps the most bombastic editor’s notes I’ve ever read. They read, in their entireties:
(For the record, the editors’ note in the most recent issue turned down the rhetoric almost 100%.)
So, how does INK hold up? I think INK, more than any other publication I’ve reviewed on this list, has problems with pacing and clarity. I say “more than any other publication” not because I think that any of the stories are worse than the worst of the Berkeley Bezerk, but because I feel that INK, more than any other publication, has consistently wasted potential. The featured artists are given three pages in which to tell a short story, and, almost without exception, deliver an astonishingly good looking story that goes absolutely nowhere. Almost every story feels like it should be part of a longer work that explains the characters and sets up the action, but as it is, every issue is frustrating to read. The Fall 2011 issue also contains a story that comes across as surprisingly racist, in which a young, white man is walking down the street with his white dog, and is stopped by a black man who shouts, “Yo, you got a dalla?” He then threatens the white man with a switchblade knife, but the white man’s white dog transforms into some sort of Chinese demon, and bloodily kills the black man. THE END.
A serious oversight on the part of the editors in the first issue was failing to attribute any of the comics to their creators. The inner cover had a list of all the artists, but gave absolutely no indication who created what, which is an unforgivable sin when the explicit purpose of your publication is to give exposure to talented young artists. Future issues corrected this error by having a grid on the inside cover that showed a thumbnail of each artist’s submission with their name superimposed over it, but it’s still a confusing decision. I personally would put the artist’s name somewhere on the pages that contained their submission, but since the pages aren’t even numbered, I guess there’s an aesthetic being adhered to that I don’t understand.
One of INK’s staples are its interviews with successful SVA faculty and alumni working in the comics industry. The interviews are given an incredibly glossy, multiple page treatment with glamor photographs and, in one instance, the worst headline I’ve ever read (“The Doctor is INinja”) I like the interviews, but they feel a little out of place, especially considering that most of the stories feel cut short. The benefit of publishing digitally is that adding extra pages doesn’t cost anything, but it does feel oddly weighted when an interview goes on significantly longer than the stories seem to, and there are three interviews per issue.
I feel like INK could be an incredibly good publication if contributors were forced to work harder on fleshing out their stories (or getting more effective at short form storytelling.) I’ll keep reading every issue that comes out, and am hopeful that it keeps improving.
Static Fish at Pratt
Representative article: http://www.comicsbulletin.com/interviews/3506/sequential-arts-future-static-fish-comic-anthology/
Static Fish is the oldest comics-focused college organization/publication I’m aware of, having started in 1985. I’m obviously not able to review all 27 years of its history (especially since they have no online archive whatsoever) but I was able to get my hands on Issue 2 (1985), two issues from 2001, and three recent issues (spring and fall 2010, and spring 2011).
The 1985, second issue of Static Fish is fascinating to me. More than any of the publications I’ve reviewed so far, this must have taken a ton of time and technical effort to print (this is, of course, from before the days when you could lay out a publication in InDesign the night before.) It’s printed on oversized, glossy paper and is 36 pages long. The stories inside follow the opposite trend of many of the publications I’ve reviewed so far – they are nearly entirely complete, multi-page short stories. The art is incredibly crisp, and the comics can only be referred to as a product of their time. Take a look at this spread from my favorite comic in the issue, “Poppies” by Rich Rice and Ken Wilson:
I don’t think the content of the 1985 issue is particularly good – there’s a lot of regurgitated Bloom County or Mother Goose and Grimm influences, and failed attempts at Heavy Metal storytelling, but it’s an impressive first effort. None of the other comics publications were able to pull off this kind of quality by their second issue, and I’d say that it holds up relatively well art-wise.
The couple issues I have from the early 2000’s read a lot more like Pulse or Ink. The stories are much more inconsistent, and the art much less crisp (although I would attribute that to the students obviously using poorly calibrated scanners.) The covers are full color and glossy, and some of the stories are competent, although not nearly as interesting as the 1985 stories or the contemporary ones. These couple issues also do what I complained about INK doing: they don’t name their contributors except on the first page.
Jump forward a couple decades, and Static Fish’s budget has increased exponentially. Each issue is laid out differently, two are hardcover (one full color), and one has a foil cover and gilded pages. Seriously. These are college comics taken to a higher plane, and it is honestly harder for me to find a story that I don’t like than for me to find one I think is excellent. It’s hardly surprising that recent graduates of Static Fish seem to be wildly successful. Illustrator Kris Mukai, painter Anthony Cudahy, and Koyama Press favorite Jane Mai are all fresh graduates who made their mark on the recent output of Static Fish. Seriously, if you’re able to get your hands on some of these books, I highly recommend them. They make me mad, they’re so good.
Oxy Graphic at Occidental
Modeled on the Carleton Graphic, the Oxy Graphic is a fledgling publication at Occidental college. With four issues under their belt, they are steadily becoming a regular and interesting publication. Unfortunately, they do not yet have online archives, and since I’ve been directly involved in their formation, it would feel wrong for me to review them. Keep your eyes out, though.
I hope this way-too-long review of these student-run comics publications kindled your interest in at least one or two of them. I think that there’s a lot of really great work and a lot of really talented artists working in these undergrad magazines, and that it can be a lot of fun to follow their progress, especially since this kind of publication goes largely ignored by the world outside of its campus. IF YOU KNOW OF ANY OTHER PUBLICATIONS THAT I’VE LEFT OUT, PLEASE LET ME KNOW! Defunct or not, these are fascinating experiments in self-publishing that should not be forgotten.