Friday, June 12, 2009

BLAB! Magazine’s Midwestern Exhibition

(Above) © 2005 Tim Biskup; Cover to BLAB! #16
Click on image for larger view.

MIDWESTERN BLAB!, CURATED BY MONTE BEAUCHAMP, THE CHICAGO-BASED CREATOR OF BLAB!, focused on the art work of five Midwestern artists who have contributed significantly to BLAB! and are exemplars of the periodical’s core values. Anchor Graphics at Columbia College Chicago is the co-curator of this exhibition, which opens next week, June 18.

“Though BLAB!’s scope is international,” writes Bill North, Senior Curator of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University, in the exhibition’s catalog essay. “The underpinning of its cornucopian visual feast is resolutely Midwestern. BLAB!, a product of the Midwest, boldly affirms the positive view of Midwestern culture. And, in the face of BLAB!, claims of the region’s cultural inferiority ring hollow.”

EXHIBITING ARTISTS: Don Colley, Tom Huck, Teresa James, CJ Pyle, and Fred Stonehouse

WHEN: June 18 – July 22, 2009

OPENING RECEPTION: Thursday, June 18, from 5:00-8:00

Fred Stonehouse Lecture: Wednesday, June 17 at 6:30pm, 623 S. Wabash, Room 203. No reservations needed.

WHERE: Columbia College Chicago’s Leviton A+D Gallery
619 S. Wabash Avenue

Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11 am – 5 pm, Thursday 11 am – 8 pm

COST: Free and Open to the Public

(Above) © 2006 Ryan Heshka; Sun Rays of Death; BLAB! #17
Click on image for larger view.

(Above) © 2001 The Clayton Brothers; Ding Dong! Welcome to Tim House (page 4); BLAB! #12; Click on image for larger view.

(Above) © CJ Pyle; Been a Long Time; 2009; to appear in BLAB! #19, Click on image for larger view.

Above: © 2001 Julien Mandel; Nus Fantastiques; BLAB! #12
Click on image for larger view.

(Above) © 2003 Walter Minus; Lower Broadway Stash (page 3); BLAB! #14, Click on image for larger view.

(Above) © 2006 John Pound; Stone Maze; BLAB! #17
Click on image for larger view.

(Above) © 2005 Bob Staake; Live Like an Artist; BLAB! #16
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(Above) © 2005 Fred Stonehouse; Dog; BLAB! #16
Click on image for larger view.


JOHN: Hi Monte. BLAB! is just an amazing phenomenon. You show all the top comic artists in the world and some of the top fine artists as well, not just in your magazine but in art exhibitions. So, how did a former advertising guy start the best comics anthology in the world?

MONTE: It was a total fluke. Creating a magazine was never a goal... it wasn’t something I set out to do. And reflecting back on the long journey, I’m sure that’s the key reason as to why BLAB! is still here, some 23 years later. There wasn’t a path I tried going down. I didn’t start out digging someone else’s mag and attempt to emulate it. BLAB! came about because my wife at the time suggested I create something on the side to take my mind off the politics of working in corporate America as a full-time advertising art director. She felt I needed to create something I could call my own, that the account executives—the suits—couldn’t tamper with. She saw how I loved to draw and suggested I make my own comic book, which I didn't find too appealing, but that in turn gave way to creating a ’zine about them. So that’s how BLAB! got started, how the whole thing got rolling.

JOHN: How long after you started BLAB! did you realize that you were on to something?

MONTE: Actually, there was a zing about BLAB! from the very start. I never would have produced and released a first issue if there hadn’t been. I had never planned to do a follow-up to that first issue, but it brought in a HUGE amount of fan mail and some real sterling reviews, which I didn’t anticipate. That first issue was never put out to go fishing for acclaim; it was only done to do something the ad people couldn’t tamper with. But the arrival of all those fan letters is what spurred me on to try another issue.

A young upstart cartoonist by the name of Dan Clowes had just moved back to Chicago after graduating from a NYC art school. He had a riveting comics’ style, kindred in spirit to the great cartoonists of the 1950s such as Johnny Craig, so I pitched Dan on doing a spin on Wertham’s 1940’s classic, The Show of Violence, which he dug. I contacted Drew Friedman to see if he'd illustrate two humorous BLAB! ad concepts to run as inside covers and he climbed on board. J.D. King conducted a nifty interview with Len Brown, creator of the legendary Mars Attacks bubble gum cards of the early 1960s. Underground comix artist Kim Deitch turned in a five-page story and drew our wraparound cover. XNO contributed a handful of weirdo-styled portraitures for our feature “The BLAB! Dating Depot.” When that issue rolled off the press, it had a lot of juice about it... jam packed with a lot of fun material.

JOHN: How was the reception to #2?

MONTE: Equal to that of the first; perhaps even better. I say that because out of the blue one day the phone rings and it’s Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books, who created the first paperback books back in the 1940s and also pioneered the legendary line of MAD paperbacks in the mid-1950s. Ian was real impressed with that second issue of BLAB!, claiming he hadn’t seen this kind of energy in a publication since the days of Kurtzman’s MAD. An associate of Ian’s living in San Francisco forwarded him a copy and Ian, who lived in NYC, looked me up. And he would phone from time to time, to talk comics, chat about this and that. Ian was a personable fellow who took a keen interest in what I was doing. He even suggested we collaborate on a book together to be titled The Sons of Mad, but it never got off the ground. Not long after, Ian passed on.

What’s ironic about that is BLAB! #2 was to be the last. The amount of time required to design, edit, and produce each issue, in addition to the overtime hours I was working in advertising, began to really upset my wife and she began giving me a real hard time about it. Yet as fate would have it, Denis Kitchen, of Kitchen Sink Press, was so impressed by that issue he offered me a publishing deal. Not only would it lessen my work load, by about 100 hours, but it also freed me of having to pay the printing bill. So my wife eased up a bit, she went along with it and let me do another issue.

More pages were added, we turned BLAB! into a squarebound anthology; no longer was it a fanzine. Charles Burns turned in a stunning cover. ZAP artist Spain climbed on board. I pitched Dan Clowes on doing a Wertham followup based on his famous book, Seduction of the Innocent. Drew Friedman dug my idea for a one-pager titled, “Comic Shop Clerks of Chicago” and turned it into “Comic Shop Clerks of North America.” XNO illustrated another “BLAB! Dating Depot.” I edited a compendium on Crumb, which ten years later was spun out into a book published by St. Martin’s Press titled, The Life and Times of R. Crumb. In BLAB! #3 we began a string of mini-documentaries on notorious criminals and hobos, such as Box Car Bertha and John Paul Knowles, illustrated and written by Joe Coleman, which to this day I feel are amongst the most riveting pieces ever to appear in the comics medium. They have a real grit about them.

And it was with issue #3 that I realized something REAL special was going on, that BLAB! had a verve, a panache, uniquely its own... a voice that stood apart from all the others — not only in format but content and attitude. That perspective was reinforced when during fall of ’89, I flew to NYC to attend the ZAP comix retrospective at Psychedelic Solution where I ran into legendary ZAP artist, Rick Griffin. We talked for a bit and he mentioned how much he dug the new BLAB!; he was really impressed by it, and before we parted ways he leaned over and said, “BLAB!... it’s the HUMBUG for the ’90s.” Which floored me, because HUMBUG was a jewel of a publication Harvey Kurtzman put out back in the mid-fifties, after he walked out on MAD.

Just last year, I pulled a set of the early digest-sized issues of BLAB! out of storage to reproduce their covers in the catalog for last fall’s BLAB! retrospective at the Mirrianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, curated by Bill North. And as I began flipping through them, I was struck by just how well they held up. Here it was, some 20-odd years later, and those early BLAB!’s still rang true, just like a real good record album from when you were a teenager. They had stood the test of time.

JOHN: Which leads me to ask, why the complete overhaul with BLAB! after issue #7?

MONTE: Though that issue won BLAB! a HARVEY, which is the comics industry’s equivalent of an OSCAR—minus the red carpet, the digest-sized format began to feel restrictive. Design-wise, it was no longer a challenge and from an editorial stance, I needed to shake things up a bit, try something new. So I pitched Kitchen Sink on a complete redesign but their editorial board shot it down. They didn’t want me tampering with BLAB!’s winning formula. I had no desire to continue on as a repeat, so I just stopped doing BLAB!

Several months later, Denis phoned wondering when he could expect the new issue and I said there wasn’t going to be one, and when he inquired why, I explained I had grown tired doing the same old thing. Denis then granted me freedom to do whatever I wanted. He was cool about it, and understood my need to experiment.

The reason I settled on a square format is it’s the key shape most comic panels were drawn in, so the idea of experimenting with it as a design motif seemed real appealing; taking a tiny square comic book panel up to record album-size felt like a refreshing way to go. I also contacted illustrators I admired, terrific talent such as Gary Baseman, Jonathon Rosen, The Clayton Brothers. And I also began bringing gallery artists into the fold, such as Fred Stonehouse and Teresa Mucha — now Teresa James. I felt that by bringing all these different approaches in art together, it could lead to something... that one genre might feed off another. What a gallery artist brought to the fold might bring something fresh out in an illustrator, and what an illustrator brought to the fold might bring something fresh out in a cartoonist. And vice versa.

JOHN: Let’s talk about the young upcoming artists you have discovered or published.

MONTE: Well, I was real impressed by the skill level of Ryan Heshka when he showed up at our door. The way he handled color, composition, and technique was impressive. Yet on the other hand, his subject matter was standard fare... things like pin-up girlies, sci-fi, and funny animals. So I queried Ryan if he was receptive to input... to experimenting... trying out new approaches... new ways to see, what, if anything, might come out of it. And he was. So I put forth the concept of having scenes of people whose faces weren’t revealed, just the barest hint of a side profile. Facial expressions play a huge part within the context of paintings and the idea of exploring scenes of pandemonium, totally void of any facial expression, seemed real intriguing, real engaging, and if handled right just might lead to something new and refreshing within the context of BLAB!. And Ryan dug the idea, and from there we began batting scenarios back and forth and hit on one that had somewhat of a subliminal sci-fi theme to it—of having the rays from the sun as the adversary as opposed to an alien bug-eyed monster terrorizing people. So we developed a smattering of scenes showing the sun’s rays shooting through a depleted ozone layer setting humans on fire and titled the series “Sun Rays of Death.” It appeared in BLAB! #17, and we’ve enjoyed collaborating ever since. So much so that we’re now working on a book together.

Another talent that made contact was Sergio Ruzzier, but at the time he wasn’t quite ready for BLAB! ... yet there was something about his style that was uniquely individual. Several years later, I ran across a new children’s book titled The Little Giant and was floored to see it was written and drawn by Sergio! His style had blossomed. Sergio had come into his own. So I looked him up and his first story for BLAB!, “The Nice Devil”, appeared in #16, and Sergio’s been with BLAB! ever since.

CJ Pyle is yet another BLAB! artist I’m real proud of. He creates abstract portraiture rendered in what he calls his “woven-knot” style, a technique he’s developed over the years with a ball point pen. It’s terrific work... wonderful, totally individual; there’s nothing else like it, and his work is attracting quite a bit of attention—more so in the fine art realm than that of lowbrow, which is what BLAB! is all about—mixing and mingling a myriad of styles, approaches, and mediums.

JOHN: I understand BLAB! is doing an exhibition at Columbia College in Chicago, which opens on June 22. What is the focus of that show?

MONTE: When BLAB! turned into a square-sized publication, I began introducing gallery artists to the fold, and this show is a tribute to BLAB!’s midwest contingent and the particular attributes of their work that drew me to invite them into BLAB!.

JOHN: Looking back at your life, what comic artist first really turned you on to this whole genre?

MONTE: Dr. Seuss, followed by Charles Addams of the New Yorker. They were the first two humorous illustrators that got me interested in cartoon illustration. Next was Don Martin of MAD magazine, followed by Ed Big Daddy Roth, who had taken the country by storm with Rat Fink. I remember digging Jack Kirby around this time. The next artist that REALLY kicked it in to high gear for me was Frank Frazetta. His Creepy magazine covers were filled with awe and wonder. As a kid growing up in a river town in the midwest, those were the early artistic touchstones of my youth ... my heroes, so to speak.

JOHN: Thanks Monte, this was great. I appreciate your time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yet another great posting...Gary

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