Ink and Drink prepares to fall 'Off the Wagon'
Three men are sitting at a barroom table with a pitcher and half-emptied glasses of beer, looking like they might be a few comic panels away from explosively bad news. Two youngish men, well dressed and groomed, sit opposite a third, whose facial hair and leather bike gloves match well with his older age. In the middle of a table sits a metal suitcase.
But there are no unmarked bills, nerve gases or nuclear launch codes about to jump into play. Just a stack of comic books. And a few more rounds.
The three men, Bryan Hollerbach, 50; Carlos Gabriel Ruiz, 32; and Jason Green, 32, are the founders and editors of Ink and Drink, a group of comic enthusiasts who meet monthly at local bars and publish biannual compilations of local artists' and writers' works. Judging from Ink and Drink's three anthologies and growing notoriety, one would think they had world domination -- or at least publishing success -- in mind all along.
But before they were publishers, comic editors and the members of a self-described, tongue-in-cheek "triumvirate of opinionated guys," Hollerbach, Ruiz and Green were just coworkers at PLAYBACK:stl, a local
arts and entertainment magazine, finding distraction in rambling e-mails. The founders and co-editors of the comic collective Ink and Drink would discuss, recommend and occasionally slam their current comic reads.
Ruiz said that the "comic collective" began as "a reason to get out of the house to drink and talk about comics" for a small group of comic enthusiasts.
In late 2008, they transplanted their long e-mail conversations to face-to-face dialogue in local bars. For a year and a half, a handful of members would sit around, discussing comics. Those Hollerbach called "the more artistically inclined," or illustrators, would bring pencil
sketches to ink. In what was a bizarro knitting circle of sorts, the exchange of ideas and opinions, now liberated from the internet, eventually reached a critical mass.
"We never really intended for the creative collaboration until we had been around each other so much and bounced so many ideas off each other we were like 'Hey, let's put a book together,'" Green said.
A few months before the local Project Comic Con in St. Louis, a convention for comic book enthusiasts that pays tribute in its title to San Diego's annual spectacle Comic Con, six members decided to publish a short anthology for Halloween. The collaborative book would become "Spirit of St. Louis," selling out its first print run and becoming a top 10 best-seller at Star Clipper, a comic and hobby shop in the Delmar Loop.
The group quickly cemented the project as a biannual event, lining up genres for future compilations. After "Spirit" came the crime anthology, "Shots in the Dark," and then "Blasted!" a science fiction compilation. And in two months, "Off the Wagon" will make its debut Chicago's C2E2 convention.
In less than two years, Ink and Drink's function had morphed from the original excuse "to get out of the house" to a serious comic publisher, its anthologies sold across St. Louis and as far away as Kansas City, Chicago and New York. Publishing anthologies is a highlight for each of the editors.
Each compilation is a collection of collaborative and solo projects limited to eight pages, each story loosely grounded in a shared theme and woven together in what Hollerbach calls a "symphonic progression" of different notes.
"You get all the stories in, and it's like Christmas," Ruiz said.
The collaborative style
The original easy-going and collaborative spirit of Ink and Drink's origins has not been lost as the group has expanded its reach, and the initial sessions translate to the page. Authors and illustrators team up in new combinations, borrowing inspiration and advice in the Ink and Drink monthly bar sessions. A writer may tackle a piece while inking another story for the same compilation, possible in a medium that combines visual art and text in unset proportions and lends itself well to solo or group work.
Ink and Drink's creations
Spirits of St. Louis: 13 Tales of Terror from the Gateway City (2010)
Shots in the Dark: Dispatches from America's Most Dangerous City (2011)
Blasted! An Ink and Drink Comics Science Fiction Anthology (2011)
Off the Wagon: An Ink and Drink (To be released April 2012)
A fantasy-based anthology (late 2012)
In fact, after 40 plus years of reading comics, Hollerbach published his first ever comic, a piece in "Shots in the Dark."
"For me it's been a wonderful learning experience," he said. "I've done everything else under the sun, this is my first real time to sit down and write an actual comic strip." In his excitement, his first script was 20 pages long and included a google map printout of an escape route for a heist in "Shots in the Dark."
Christine "Steenz" Stewart, a first-time contributor to Ink and Drink, became involved through her job at Star Clipper. Hearing about the compilation, she e-mailed the editors with her sketches and writings. Soon, she was at Ink and Drink, talking and drawing comics. "I just did it," she said.
Stewart is a newcomer to the comics world, citing coloring books and art blogs as major influences, beginning to read comics seriously in only the past few years. Like many, her first notions of comics were informed by popular images of superhero comics.
"Before I started reading comics, I didn't really know what I was getting into. I assumed it was fighting bad guys and saving ladies," Stewart said. These days, she publishes what she calls a "day in the life" series. In "Off the Wagon," she applies her themes of everyday conversation to "Jim and Buck in "Treasure Huntin'," where her two original titular characters go on a bounty hunt for hidden treasure. The comic is mainly conversation, and the dialogue reads like a lazy Sunday adventure between two friends, but peppered with light-hearted explosions and fighting scenes in an old Western hideout.
Solo projects are the exception in Ink and Drink. For Mike Harvey, a local artist and writer who has published in each of the compilations, the number of opportunities he has had to collaborate with other artists has even become hard to track.
For one piece, Harvey "did the writing and the penciling, and another artist did the inking and the coloring...who did another illustration for another writer, who may write two stories -- it gets confusing," Harvey said. "As far as organization, can't say we're the most organized, but we get it done. It's like some type of funky comic basket."
With the rapid growth and genuine interest in comics and a local scene, the editors are the first to admit to a certain lack of top-down structure in the organization. Contrasted to corporate-run comic lines -- think of the household names Marvel and D.C. -- Hollerbach said that the Ink and Drinks editors act more as facilitators than directors, creating a space for others to create within. Ink and Drink keeps the process of creation firmly in the creator's hands.
"We're the back end of that," Hollerbach said. "We're here by and large for guidance."
And if a contributor disagrees with the editors' advice, that contributor can tell the editors to "take a hike," Green said. Even with little leverage, the compilations come out "like clockwork."
Still, without excessive editorial work, the labor of compiling, publishing and selling is time-intensive. Green and Ruiz are both new fathers, and, as Hollerbach pointed out, all three work day jobs. But their passion for comics is clear in the way they discuss the work.
"It's a tremendous amount of work. We're just doing it. [At my day job] I have people telling me what to do all day long, I have the freedom to do whatever I want with comics, and no one can tell me what to do," Ruiz said. "If I want to work with a writer, I'll work with a writer, and he's going to trust me and give me the freedom that I need to make his story happen, and I'm going to trust him"
Off the wagon
The ability Ink and Drink offers its contributors to experiment in what Hollerbach called a "grassroots" manner has fueled Ink and Drink's arrival onto the comic scene in a little less than two years.
When flipping through the unreleased pages of "Off the Wagon: An Ink and Drink Comics Western Anthology," the upcoming anthology planned for release on April 13, it is obvious that none of the comics share an artist. When taking your time to read through each comic, it becomes clear they do not share a writer.
From Kyle Morton's wordless series of panels darkly depicting the moments before a public hanging, to Jonathan J. Norfleet's and Benjamin Sawyer's depiction of a young cowboy's coming of age gun battle against aliens on "The New Frontier," to Mike Harvey's comical saloon banter and cartoonish action, "Off the Wagon" binds the stories together in genre. Beyond the shared Western theme, the narrative and art are left to the writers and artists. The individual quirks and talents jump from each comic, but the compilations are naturally cohesive, even without strict oversight. The reader can imagine arguments and agreements between Inkers and Drinkers just by reading the book. Each voice has its place in the conversation within "Off the Wagon."
Finding an individual voice
Harvey has his own solo projects, most notably Knuckle Buster and See You Next Wednesday, and is someone who "works on too much stuff," he said. The bulk of his work has been published outside of Ink and Drink.
Over the past few years, the progression of Harvey's art is clear: His lines are more cut, the cartoonish traits are honed to a fuller quality and the humor rings truer with each anthology. At Ink and Drink, Harvey said he found a creative force in collaboration, as well as a bit of what Green calls "friendly one upsmanship."
Last year, Harvey was named the local cartoonist of the year by the Riverfront Times. But he is bashful about it. "If I can do it, it shows anyone can," he said.
Not everyone can do Harvey's style, and he sells himself short when describing his own merits. His humility touches upon what he sees as an important part of Ink and Drink -- what is good for comics is good for everyone involved in comics.
"One of our biggest strengths is that we show off just how the talent base is in this town, how many different things people are capable of," Green said.
And after an hour and a half of conversation, real life calls them back to their homes. The three men get up to leave, and walk out of the bar, unceremoniously. But with a little artistic interpretation and poetic license, they were cowboys walking out of swinging saloon doors.