An eye-opening debut

Minneapolis' new "festival of independent culture" puts comics front-and-center

Autoptic's organizers include, in the back row, Zak Sally, Caitlin Skaalrud, Tom Kaczynski, Jenny King and Justin Skarhus and, in front, Robert Algeo and Raighne Hogan. Credit: Lyon Keasler

It seems safe to assume there was a spike in web searches on the term “autoptic” roughly eight months ago, which was about the time a group of Minneapolis cartoonists announced their new “one-day festival of independent culture” by the same name.

(Go ahead, Google it. We’ll wait.)

The blame (or credit!) goes to Zak Sally, whose thinking went something like this:

The Aug. 18 Autoptic festival is part of a new wave of comics-centric cultural gatherings taking place across North America, shows that highlight the efforts of small-press and independent creators, celebrate a global comics culture and draw connections between the medium and the wider world of visual and performing arts. Predecessors include MoCCa in New York City, TCAF in Toronto, CAKE in Chicago and BCGF in Brooklyn, and Autoptic is elbowing its way into their ranks with an international guest list headlined by Jaime Hernandez, whose work on “Love and Rockets” over the past three decades with his brother, Gilbert, is one of the greatest achievements in American comics.

So when Sally was brainstorming names for this new Minneapolis show, he thought just about anything would be better than another acronym.

“The other important part was finding a word no one could pronounce,” joked Jordan Shiveley, teasing Sally from across a table in his South Minneapolis studio, where most of the Autoptic team gathered on a steamy mid-July morning. Shiveley, who is also a printmaker and runs a small comics imprint, Grimalkin Press, moved here from Missouri a few years ago, drawn by Minneapolis’ reputation as a highly literate city with rich arts scene.

“That was one of the reasons I said we have to do this, because we have so many cartoonists here and so many great cartoonists here, and so much great printing and so much good book culture here,” he said.

The interplay among those disciplines — cartooning, print- and bookmaking — is livelier now than ever in comics’ independent and small press scene, where the printed object is once again ascendant. As cartoonist and Uncivilized Books publisher Tom Kaczynski explained, the once-thriving underground world of ’zines and mini-comics basically “imploded” at the end of the ’90s, when the Internet opened up new, pixilated vistas of self expression.

“The mini-comics (and) the ’zines are coming back because a lot of people are seeing there are things they can do in print they can’t do online, or the satisfaction of having something real is different from just having something in the ether,” Kaczynski said. “I think these … new comics shows are both fueling that and starting up because these things exist.”

Autoptic’s organizers acknowledge a debt to Minneapolis Indy Xpo, or MIX (another acronym, but maybe the best of the bunch), a show that ran for just two years in 2010 and 2011 at the Soap Factory. The crowds at MIX proved Minneapolis was overdue for a different type of comics festival, one that wasn’t so much a celebration of geek culture’s favorite entertainment franchises, but of comics as art.

Even with its enlightened viewpoint, Autoptic faces the challenge of getting wider, non-comics-reading audience through the door. It helps that those doors are attached to Aria, the Warehouse District event space that formerly housed Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

It also helps they’ve assembled a multimedia exhibitor list featuring printmakers, poster artists and independent record labels. Autoptic is that very rare festival with tables reserved for both the Doomtree hip-hop collective and Chicago-based art-print makers Sonnenzimmer.

For the comics crowd, though, the festival itself is just the culmination of a week of events.

Six days earlier, 21 comics artists from North America and Europe, including Sally and Kaczynski, convene the weeklong Pierre Feuille Ciseaux no. 4 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Named after the French phrase for “rock paper scissors,” the Pierre Feuille Ciseaux is a laboratory for formal experimentation in comics storytelling inspired by the mid-century Oulipo literary movement in France, notable for producing a novel written without ever using the letter “e.” Comics made during the week go on display Aug. 17 at MCAD, and that same day the school opens up for public comics- and ’zine-making workshops with the artists.

The school also hosts an Aug. 16 talk by Autoptic’s featured guest, Jaime Hernandez, whose work is the subject of a retrospective now on display in the school’s gallery. It’s a rare chance to see the work of an American master up close, one expertly curated by Sally, whose love for the material and awe of Hernandez is apparent.

More comics gallery shows and artist talks take place during the week leading up to Autoptic at Northeast gallery CO Exhibitions and the downtown offices of Alliance Francaise, which helped coordinate the Pierre Feuille Ciseaux event.

It was, Kaczynski explained, a “magical confluence” of events that brought Hernandez and a slew of other comics artists to town at the same time as Autoptic. (MCAD’s exhibition schedule may have had some small influence on the festival date, the organizers admit with a wink.) The result is that Autoptic debuts as a major event on the comics festival circuit — one the organizers hope to bring back biannually, beginning in 2015.

Said Sally: “This is the most … comics-as-an-art form weekend that’s certainly ever happened in Minneapolis, and maybe the Midwest.”

Autoptic runs 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Aug. 18 at Aria, 105 N. 1st St. Other events take place at various locations through the week.

“Jaime Hernandez: 30 Years of Locas (… and Counting)” runs through Aug. 18 at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S. An artist talk with Hernandez is 7 p.m. Aug. 16. 874-3700.