It’s a recent Saturday afternoon in the gaming room at Big Adventure Comics, and members of the New Mexican independent comics organization 7000 B.C. are gathered at the tables, drawing, sharing artwork, and examining the latest edition of String, an anthology of their work that will be given away at the store during national Free Comic Book Day, Saturday, May 3. The collection includes meticulously drawn pages from Turner Mark-Jacobs’ new self-published book, Down by the River, based on a story by 19th-century American writer Bret Harte, and a new installment of Bram and Monica Meehan’s Raised by Squirrels, a spy-superhero thriller about a shadowy covert organization. Other anthology selections, from simplistically drawn meditations on making art to surreal sketches and detailed adventure stories, share space with a pair of 7000 B.C. “jams” — short narratives in which each panel is written and drawn by a different member. Altogether, the selections display the wide range of subject matter and drawing styles represented among 7000 B.C. members while reflecting the diverse and unpredictable realm of the illustrated sequential-narrative form of storytelling popularly known as comics.

In a world that’s seen the rise of a corporate-comics industry spurred by movies pulled from long-running superhero titles — as well as an explosion of independently produced comics published on the web, often without superheroes — Northern New Mexico is home to a particularly active independent comics scene. While many of the artists in 7000 B.C. have a presence on the internet, most look forward to publishing their material (which usually means self-publishing) on paper media of various sorts, from traditional-looking comics on slick stock to “ashcan” versions on rough-cut, folded, and stapled copy-machine paper. “I’m looking to appreciate my stuff on a real physical page,” said Mark-Jacobs, who does his original work on poster board in watercolor. “It’s not real until you see it on a printed page,” added one of the group’s most prolific — and eclectic — comic artists, Enrique Martinez. “That’s the reward for all your work: the book.”

Wearing an S.Q.R.L. T-shirt (referring to the Meehans’ mysterious creation), 7000 B.C. president Chuck Larntz said the organization is all about the how-to and resources for getting work into print. A computer engineer who harbored a desire to be a novelist, Larntz joined the organization in 2006 along with his son, who wanted to be a comic artist. His crime-fiction work evolved into a comic series, Savage Investigations. The first edition, “Goodbyes,” with artwork by Nathan Hendricksen, has been published in ashcan format. His series My Name Is André, with artist Peter Ziomek, described by Larntz as a three-part morality tale for kids, has been distributed to schools and libraries. He explained, “7000 B.C. is all about getting work published and out there.” Members take suitcases of books to comic conventions and offer them for sale. Bram Meehan reports that a trip to the Staple! Independent Media Expo in Austin in March resulted in a near sell-out.

Meehan, the board secretary of 7000 B.C., teaches “Creating Comics: The Design of Sequential Art” at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Meehan is one of the prime movers on the Santa Fe comics scene. In addition to the scripts he’s written for Raised by Squirrels (Monica does the illustrations), he’s collaborated with artist Jamie Chase on The Darkness From Warsaw and Death, Cold as Steel, two independently published books attached to the S.Q.R.L. stories. He’s also written pieces included in Chase’s Myx collections of strange and supernatural tales. “Storytelling and illustrating are two different skills,” said Meehan, who advises his students that a comic’s action takes place in the “gutters,” the space between panels where the reader’s imagination goes to work. “I found that I was better at writing than drawing.”

Chase is probably the most visible of the area’s comic artists. He both writes and illustrates stories. Noting that Chase has transcended his independent beginnings, Larntz remarked, “All of us want to be like Jamie Chase.” The intriguing style of his self-published work earned him attention from major comics producers, and his graphic novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Martin Powell adapting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, was released last year by Dark Horse/Sequential Pulp. Dark Horse will soon release his strange and fantastic art for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel At the Earth’s Core.

“I joined 7000 B.C. when I was first getting involved in comics,” Chase said. “It was always good to hang out with like-minded people, getting to learn more about comics and gathering more understanding. I think a lot of them are more independent and more underground than I am now. But I’m still friends with a lot of them and still go to meetings when I can.” For a forthcoming edition of Myx, Chase has involved various area writers and illustrators, including Mark-Jacobs, who has done a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.”

A product of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mark-Jacobs said he spends much of his time “working, throwing away pages, and developing continuity.” He was inspired to illustrate the Bret Harte story because he “felt the imagery in the story is so compelling. It’s like a dream. I wanted to make it a more meditative story.” Down by the River is his first published comic.

Contrast Mark-Jacobs’ assured and detailed work with that of Martinez, a writer-illustrator who’s done everything from the all-ages Comboy, a “super space-fun adventure,” to the adults-only Sykscript series, which includes simple, wide-eyed stories that defy easy description. The story he writes for Nanotech Laundromat, with illustrations by Tyrell Cummings, is “a love story between a woman and her robot servant in the future,” he said. Martinez, who worked as a designer of pop-up books and tours as part of Española band The Imperial Rooster, said that the simplistic, even crude design of James Kochalka’s American Elf, along with Larry Marder’s Beanworld, gave him the inspiration to tell his often twisted stories. “I realized it doesn’t matter what your drawing skills are, as long as you can tell a story.” Martinez’s piece “Birthmarks,” about his experiences with a pregnant girlfriend, is included in 24 Hour Comics Day Highlights 2005, a selection of stories from an annual event in which artists have one day to create a complete comic. “That’s a big deal,” Larntz said.

While much of the work done by 7000 B.C. artists is strange and fantastic, little of it — Raised by Squirrels is the exception — is of the superhero variety. Some of the more intriguing stories, like “Birthmarks,” are pulled from real life. Willow Tomeo, a sophomore at the Institute of American Indian Arts, has just finished her first comic, drawn in pen and ink on plain white 8½ x 11 paper. The story, about two inmates sharing a room in a psychiatric ward, is entitled “You Don’t Belong Here.” Tomeo has been inspired by Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a sci-fi thriller about Seattle teens with a strange infection, as well as Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a depiction of a regular guy’s love for his hometown. “I like sci-fi and superheroes,” Tomeo said. “I think they’re great, but they’re like food. There’s always different kinds to try. I like it when people talk about their own life and their own culture.” Her simple character renditions placed in front of spare backgrounds make her story all the more poignant. 

Much of comic work, with its writing, illustrating, inking, coloring, and lettering, is collaborative. The most obvious example in this group involves the Meehans. Monica described how an issue of Raised by Squirrels comes together, detailing the skills — artistic, technical, and personal — required to create a single comic. “Bram comes up with scripts and writes down what’s said, with notes about this and that. I might try to work in something different and just kind of experiment. In the past I would set rough lettering and he would do final rewrite and then scan it in the computer. Now I do that. I draw thumbnails from his rough sketches, and I tighten them up and do background thinking, things like what’s in the office where the action takes place. Is it appropriate to have, say, a Herman Miller chair in the scene or something else? I work out where word balloons go and draw the panel borders based on my thumbnails and then size them on the page. We just draw the outlines and add the gray tones on the computer with Photoshop, then put the whole thing together in InDesign and then generate a PDF for the web.”

It doesn’t have to be that complicated, as the members show when they put together yet another “jam.” One in the Free Comic Book Day edition of String entitled “Who Knows?” begins innocently enough but goes seriously strange in just four panels. A women wearing hoop earrings complains about a boyfriend moving to Phoenix as her friend furiously texts on her cellphone. Then a nosebleed begins, and, well, you should check it out for yourself. ◀

Free Comic Book Day is celebrated locally at Big Adventure Comics (801 Cerrillos Road, 505-992-8783) and Hastings (542 N. Guadalupe St., 505-988-3973) on Saturday, May 3. See www.freecomicbookday.com. To download back issues of “String,” visit www.7000bc.org.

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