superheroes to subversives

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February 17, 2003 // UPDATED 4:51 pm - April 27, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

Downtown's Big Brain Comics hosts outspoken artists and a scene that has to be seen

A dozen eyes floating in and around an expansive head stare at the man approaching the Big Brain Comics' register. The eyes belong to the tattooed likeness of Kilgore Trout (a fictional author concocted by Kurt Vonnegut) on the right forearm of Big Brain's main employee, Clarence Thrun.

Despite the frigid weather, Thrun is wearing a bright red t-shirt, leaving Kilgore's view unobstructed. "He's from 'Breakfast of Champions,'" explains Thrun with a relaxed, bemused look not altogether different from the inky Kilgore's.

Behind Thrun, Michael Drivas -- Big Brain's owner and self-described "man behind the show" -- feeds figures into a computer spreadsheet. He turns around whenever a new customer walks in, rushing over to help a man on crutches, giving medicinal advice to a gentleman coughing as he ducks in from the cold. He knows many of their names; perhaps the shop's close quarters add to the feeling of community.

Located on 8th Street South between Nicollet and Marquette avenues, Big Brain isn't big -- not more than 20 by 40 feet, filled with thousands of comics on black wire racks and particleboard bookcases of comics covering the white walls.

While the store has plenty of comic books geared towards children, there are also many comics that weave complex tales based on literary and historical icons and events. Thrun says some curious browsers are befuddled by the array of offerings -- they look around, approach the register and ask, "So what is it that you guys sell?"

A comic, explains Drivas, "just means a book with words and pictures. That's it."

Ask for the most offensive item in the store and the black-clad and studiously mellow Drivas will quickly redefine the conversation: "Who can say what's offensive? That's the essence of the First Amendment -- no one can determine what is or isn't offensive to someone else."

Adds Thrun, "Some people are offended by the Powerpuff Girls."

Alongside the bread-and-butter - Simpsons, Japanimation and mainstream comics (and their derivative products) - Big Brain carries many items chains decline. Just one other Minneapolis bookstore carries works from Bad Press Books, including "The Stamp Art and Postal History of Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez Luna," a hysterical and at times bizarre compendium of faux stamps two artists managed to successfully send through the U.S. Postal Service. (There's one copy left.)

Drivas describes himself as "too pig-headed" for business school, but he knows dealing in "books with pictures" is basically recession-proof. When times get tough, economically and politically, people are drawn to comics. "Somebody making $40 or $50K a year might not be able to afford that second car, but $20 a year can buy plenty of comics," he says.

In the center of the store, two cartoonists, Andy Singer and Joe Sharpnack, sit with a pile of their recently published works at a small table facing scores of Justice League and Simpsons action figures.

Singer and Sharpnack are car-free and, along with "seven hundred pounds of books," hauled themselves over from St. Paul on the bus, making one transfer. It's so cold that Clarence -- who drove eight blocks to work for the first time since he started in July -- brings in two six-packs of Summit's Great White Northern Ale to warm things up.

Singer's daily panel currently has a several-week trial in the Pioneer Press -- if no one calls and freaks out, he gets to keep the job. He and Sharpnack are able to live as full-time political cartoonists, and they seem accustomed to saying whatever they want, whenever they want.

Singer speaks softly but stridently about such issues as the need for fewer SUVs in the country or criticizing the St. Paul plan to turn Ayd Mill Road into a four-lane thoroughfare, cutting through his neighborhood.

Sharpnack lives in Iowa City, where he contributes political cartoons to the daily newspaper; he thinks the SUV drivers with "United We Stand" bumperstickers should be on the front lines in Iraq. His work has appeared in national publications as well as the book on the table today, "Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonist." He suspects his printed jabs at the politics of a former governor spurred an audit from the state authorities that went back the maximum of seven years. "That's more than they went back with John Gotti," he says in his cheerful booming voice, his straight-up hair adding to his exclamatory powers.

"Easy, easy," warns Michael, as he gestures to lower the tone.

Tucked under the right sleeve of Thrun's t-shirt is a tattoo of Holden Caulfield from "The Catcher in the Rye," clad in a trench coat and baseball cap, facing the distant skyline of a bustling metropolis.

"It's like Minneapolis is some sort of weird hub for comics," says the soft-spoken Thrun, who hails from a 40-acre farm just outside of Milaca, Minn.

Roger Lootine lives in Stevens Square and publishes "Residue," a humorous political single-page gag strip featuring Chump, a talking monkey, and a smoking cockroach, Crunchy. "Residue" runs in the alternative weekly The Pulse, with compilations carried by Big Brain. Another cartoonist organizes International Cartoon Conspiracy, a monthly gathering of comic book artists at the Spyhouse coffeeshop on 24th and Nicollet, where all will reconvene later that evening.

Comic artist and transportation activist Ken Avidor, who lives in Southwest Minneapolis, stops in to meet the artists and sell a few issues of his latest "Roadkill Bill" collections, which also runs in The Pulse. Drivas hands Avidor a twenty for the comics as he peruses his favorites European comics. In "The Black Order Brigade" written and illustrated by Enki Balil -- "the greatest comic book ever" according to Avidor - '30s dictator Francisco Franco has returned to power in Spain, and the now-senior-citizen members of Abraham Lincoln Brigade who once illegally fought his rise to power in the Spanish Civil War must return to resume the fight. (The U.S., which backed Franco, prohibited its citizens from taking up arms.)

"See, it opens with a winter scene -- look at these drawings, it's like watching a film," says Avidor, slowly turning the pages of the hardbound comic. He sighs as he points out how the aging fighters watched their friends perish. "And in the end, it's autumn again."

Next to European comics are what most people think of as comic books: '50s superhero, horror and crime monthlies. Many modern parents might laugh at the thought of "Tales From the Crypt" corroding their pre-teen boy's mind, but EC ("An Entertaining Comic") had to spend a good deal of time in U.S. Senate hearings defending their publications -- to no avail. According to toonopedia.com, the Comics Code Authority went into effect in 1955, and most U.S. distributors refused to carry comics without the Code seal. EC's founder Max Gaines decided there was no point in trying to publish comic books after the Authority ordered changes in an anti-racism story because it showed a black man perspiring. Today, EC's current owners, Gemstone Publishing, reap extra profit by reselling the titles it was basically forced to pull from the shelves, smacking the "Objectionable '50s EC comic!" banners across the top of issues like "Two-Fisted Tales."

"Eventually, the superheroes won out; they could be polished and made into role models," says Thrun.

Talk at the cartoonists' table has turned to more recent politics. Sharpnack from Iowa City is nothing less than horrified as Singer and Avidor talk about Mayor R.T. Rybak's recent decision to require the police to go through spokespeople to talk to the media. "This is bad shit," says Avidor, who regularly lampoons Rybak online.

Also tucked under Thrun's right t-shirt sleeve, but further hidden towards the underside of his upper arm, is one more tattoo: Charles Bukowski's "The Woman," an Matisse-like loosely drawn image of a naked blonde. "From Bukowski," explained Thrun, "I learned that you don't have to fit in."

The tattoo itself is about the size of one of the breasts of the character on the cover of the comic "Bazongas." Also, like the tattoo, the quadruple-F cups are not at the eye-level of younger children.

According to Drivas, plenty of women shop at Big Brain, but not a single pair of double-X chromosomes has turned into the store on this particular evening. Magazines like BUST and Bitch grace the back wall of the store -- the stuff of a particular brand of feminism where sexuality and strength are embraced. The kind that can celebrate the silver-haired leather-clad whip-wielding woman towering over a man on the cover of the '80s archive issue of "American Flagg! & White Trash."

Of course, not everyone sees such images the same way. Like Vonnegut, Salinger and Bukowski, the comic book world has had plenty of run-ins with censors and trademark infringement police, so much so that supporters have banded together to form the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Next to the counter is an empty water-cooler jug with a layer of small bills and coins on the bottom. Drivas says he probably raises several hundred dollars every year with that jug. When you contribute $3 dollars or more, you get a free comic, and Kilgore Trout probably gets a kick out of it all.