You can almost feel the sweat dripping off the pages of “Sammy the Mouse,” Zak Sally’s latest series of comic books. He spent months slaving over the first volume’s run, working from home at the helm of his personal printing press.
“Sammy the Mouse” stands as just one graphic novel in a growing comic community in Minneapolis, a hotbed of artists working outside of DC Comics and Marvel in favor of experimental work tied to physical means.
Initially funded through Kickstarter, Sally’s tale of foul-mouthed animals first landed on the page via his used press. As his new publisher Tom Kaczynski remembers, this wasn’t an easy “control P.”
“He was literally just in his overalls printing and screaming at his machine as papers were running through,” Kaczynski said.
Kaczynski, a fellow local artist and founder of Uncivilized Books, now publishes Sally’s comics, but “Sammy the Mouse: Book 2” maintains the homemade aesthetic of the original hand-stitched run.
“There’s a griminess to his work that’s really satisfying. It feels that he really worked on it — you can almost see the hand of the artist in there,” Kaczynski said.
Sally’s dark humor follows a duck dressed in Lincoln-esque garb and a beer-guzzling mouse. Both characters look ragged on the heavily textured pages, other times truly grotesque after drowning themselves in gin.
Kaczynski publishes Sally’s depraved saga from his attic, one of several micropublishers in the area. He sees Minneapolis as reaching back to the era of photocopied ’zines, when Xerox machines ruled the underground landscape in the ’80s.
“Now I think the ’zine scene is resurging,” Kaczynski said. “It’s a little bit of a pushback against everything being digital.”
Uncivilized Books is not exactly in defiance of the digital age — Kaczynski recognizes the opportunity to reach more readers online. But for Sally and his old printing press, the comics are inextricably tied to the medium.
“Getting a printing press was just a natural extension of the copy shop,” Sally said.
The Eisner Award-nominated artist grew up amidst the first boom of alternative comics in the ’80s and published his first mini-comics on his own too. This era certainly influences the stark recklessness throughout “Sammy the Mouse.”
It features talking animals, but Sally’s work isn’t a pastiche of Disney characters on a bender. The violence-prone cast yields a spontaneity that’s above and beyond Mickey Mouse or Pluto’s misadventures.
In the tradition of most cartoonists, Sally is self-taught. Unfortunately, he never had an opportunity before now to study his passion after high school.
“It was unthinkable,” Sally said. “When I was that age, if you talk about comics on the street it was still garbage culture.”
The art form once relegated as “garbage culture” now inspires a bevy of local talent, and Sally sees the Minneapolis College of Art and Design as a new breeding ground for alternative comics.
Since 1997, MCAD has offered degrees in comic art, a program Barbara Schulz has taught courses in for eight years. Schulz (no relation to the Charles of “Peanuts” fame) first studied painting when she couldn’t find higher education for comics.
“When I was going to college in the ’80s, it was pretty much disallowed to do comics,” Schulz said.
She credits MCAD for its strong support of student publishing — Schulz encourages students to publish online to attract a readership, a far cry from the era she grew up in.
“You don’t need a distribution system and you don’t need a store,” Schulz said. “You just need someone surfing the web who’s interested in comics.”
Back when Schulz attended school for painting, no Internet meant she had to find alternative comics from the growing self-published artists. One of those early series that influenced Schulz now hangs on the walls of MCAD’s gallery.
Jaime Hernandez and his brothers self-published their first series of photocopied comics in 1981. Looking around the MCAD gallery’s new exhibition of the California-born artist, Schulz remembers the impact of reading her first issue of “Love and Rockets.”
“I think Jaime Hernandez really opened my eyes to what comics could be,” Schulz said. “That there really was a place for comics beyond the superhero, and that was a way to reach an audience.”
Combining everything from punk rock to pro wrestling, the youngest Hernandez expanded the genre immensely. His early comics straddled the line between classic comic book tropes and the latest pop culture of the time.
But Schulz said Hernandez’s depiction of realism throughout his series “Locas” remains why his work hangs on the walls of MCAD. Hernandez and his brothers shaped the comic book world’s imagination, allowing for both tales of immigrants and campy sci-fi.
Kaczynski and Sally’s work also hinges on the pioneering work of Hernandez. The drunken tales of “Sammy the Mouse” might not fit the same universe of “Love and Rockets,” but Sally’s characters owe their dark humor to realism comic artists like Hernandez.
“‘Love and Rockets’ is certainly going to be one of the masterpieces of comics,” Schulz said. “It will shape and influence other artists for years to come.”
Upcoming comic-related events around town
“Sammy the Mouse: Book 2” release with Zak Sally
Where: Magers and Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S, Minneapolis
When: 7 p.m., Wednesday
Exhibition: Jaime Hernandez, 30 Years of Locas
Where: MCAD Gallery, 2501 Stevens Ave., Minneapolis
When: ongoing until August 18th