For an alt weekly to review an exhibit titled Alt-Weekly Comics is bittersweet. This lively touring show from the Small Press Expo and the Society of Illustrators surveys a rich history, from Jules Feiffer in the 1950s Village Voice to such stars of the form’s ’80s and ’90s heyday as Doug Allen (the cheerfully dark-humored “Steven”) and Carol Lay (the clever “Story Minute”). However, as wall-text notes, the Internet-age decline of alt weeklies nationally makes it “impossible for artists to make a living in this format.” In 1999, Pittsburgh City Paper ran five comics per issue; today, our downsized print edition runs one (Jen Sorenson’s dandy “Slowpoke”).
Sigh. The milk is spilt; let us praise the cream. These comics set a generational tone, variously smart, sensitive, politically aware, nihilistic or just plain weird. The medium has generated such cultural icons as Matt Groenig, whose strip “Life in Hell” prefaced his creation of The Simpsons, and Alison Bechdel, whose sharp “Dykes to Watch Out For” predated her graphic novel Fun Home, later a hit Broadway musical. Curators Warren Bernard and Bill Kartalopoulos also include stalwarts like Mark Alan Stamaty’s busy, satirical “Washingtoon” and Lynda Barry’s intimately quirky “Ernie Pook’s Comeek.”
The show’s ridiculously broad scope encompasses the densely chronicled urban anomie of Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer”; Kaz’s anarchic “Underworld”; Mark Newgarden’s retro-hip comics parodies; and Ellen Forney’s charming memoirs and no-nonsense docu-comics.
Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” has jumped to daily papers; Derf (“The City”) and Chris Ware make graphic novels; many cartoonists have migrated online. Out of newsprint, something’s lost.
Alt-weekly comics are almost invariably either left-wing or left-field; they are also overwhelmingly white. So it’s smart that Toonseum board president Rob Rogers has curated a companion exhibit, Fear of a Black Marker, featuring work by San Francisco-based Keith Knight, whose “The K Chronicles” is published nationally (and repped in Alt-Weekly Comics). With his deceptively casual, almost doodling style, he covers subjects ranging from completely personal to sociopolitical. In one strip, a monkey lecturing on “primate change” (evolution) gets dung flung at him by incredulous listeners: “And so, The Left and The Right began.” And “How to Discern an Innocent Gesture from a Gang Sign” depicts a series of gesticulating hands whose only difference is skin color.