Drawn in the Midwest

‘Off-Kilter’ cartoonists at MCAD

WHITTIER — It’s been said of Midwestern musicians that creativity and climate are somehow intertwined.

For roughly six months of the year they’re stuck inside with little better to do than pluck away at a guitar. The world outside goes dormant, but indoors creativity blooms.

The same might be said of cartoonists, of whom a surprising number call this thawing tundra home.

“I think that’s the truth,” agreed Jeremy Smith, a Chicago cartoonist known as Onsmith. “Maybe it’s the Midwestern work ethic, too.”

Those funny little drawings? The result of hours locked inside, hunched over the drawing board.

The fruits of those long, lonely days are on display in “Off-Kilter Comics,” an exhibition at Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) featuring work by Smith and five other pioneering cartoonists from Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, Mo. — all of them working well outside of the cape-and-tights genre.

“All of us are doing work that, well, is just a little off-kilter,” Smith explained. “It’s not really … conventional in the way we go about it, either visually or in (the writing of) the stories.”

For the uninitiated, “Off-Kilter” is an introduction to some of the cutting-edge work happening in modern comics.

The most unconventional of the bunch may be John Hankiewicz, author of the self-published “Tepid” comics and a recent collection, “Asthma.”

Words and images meet at oblique angles in Hankiewicz’s comics, often traveling separate paths along the same narrative. His quiet, cryptic stories move between tightly rendered, realistic spaces and a surreal cartoon world.

Comics can mystify, but they are also an excellent way to convey information; consider the oft-used example of the emergency landing instructions tucked into every airplane seat.

Dan Zettwoch exploits this aspect of comics and manages to entertain, as well.

Zettwoch suffused his innovative 2002 comic “Ironclad” with historical details from the Civil War battle between the
Merrimack and the Monitor. In “The Spirit Duplicator,” he followed the advancement of printing technology from the mimeograph to the inkjet printer through a series of fictional church bulletins.

There is a wide range of visual and narrative styles on display in “Off-Kilter.” Compare Northeast resident Zak Sally’s ink-soaked subversion of funny animal comics in “Sammy the Mouse” to the clear, illustrative style Lilli Carré employs in “Tales of Woodsman Pete,” a collection of bittersweet modern fables, and you’ll get a sense of the medium’s versatility.

These days, a spate of comics anthologies has made it possible to sample the best of comics without ever stepping foot in a comic book store. “An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories,” edited by Ivan Brunetti, was just one of several recent attempts to sell comics to the highbrow bookstore crowd.

A master cartoonist in his own right, Brunetti contributed original pages from the latest edition of his comic “Schizo” to the gallery show, Smith said. The oversized pages, filled with deceptively simple-looking cartoons, promise to be a highlight of “Off-Kilter.”

Brunetti and his fellow cartoonists will show prints, paintings and other works not necessarily related to comics, but those original pages may be the most exciting part of the show.

Unlike the mass-produced reproductions that end up in the hands of readers, original comics pages don’t hide the creative process. They show mistakes covered in Wite-Out and sketchy pencil lines underneath the finished inks.

These are glimpses into the mind of a cartoonist, said Ed Moorman, a student in MCAD’s comic art program. MCAD is one of a handful of places in the country where young cartoonists can earn a degree in their art.

“I get a real sense for the different methods and different ways of thinking on paper,” Moorman said.

Barbara Schulz, an MCAD faculty member and professional cartoonist, said the “Off-Kilter” cartoonists demonstrate the amazing potential of the medium beyond superhero comics and daily newspaper strips.

“That’s something I really want my students to see — how to push the boundaries of what a comic is,” Schulz said.