Bezango, WA – a film honoring Northwest Cartoonists

Editor’s note: We caught wind that Ron Austin ’91 was making a documentary about Northwest artists, “Bezango, WA.” Recently we got hold of him and gathered a few of his reflections on cartoons and Evergreen.

Dante Garcia (DG): How did cartooning become such a big part of your life?
Ron Austin (RA): My parents never bought a television. I grew up in Seattle during the 1970s and 80s listening to The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by E.G. Marshall, and reading comics. That was my main source of entertainment. Archie comics and super hero comics were a huge influence, and so were the daily strips in the Seattle P.I. and The Times.  I also read MAD Magazine and National Lampoon a lot. The artists behind those cartoons were like rock stars to me. I just assumed this is how everyone felt about comic artists.

DG: What role did Evergreen play in cartooning for you personally and culturally?
RA: Like many people who grew up in the 1980s, and lived in the Northwest, I read The Rocket (a weekly newspaper about music). As far as I remember Matt Groening and Lynda Barry appeared in every issue. So when I chose to go to Evergreen, because of their film studies program, I was also super excited to find out that Matt Groening and Lynda Barry were alumni. At that time in 1986 Matt Groening was just starting to become nationally known. The Simpsons were on the horizon.

I began submitting cartoons to The Cooper Point Journal during my second year at Evergreen. Honestly my illustrations were quite rough when looking back on them, but my cartoons were funny or at least poignant, and so they were accepted and published.  This was really life changing for me. It was quite a rush to be on a bus and witness a stranger reading the paper and reacting to my cartoon. The internet is great because you can reach a much wider audience, but there is certainly a magical quality about print.

The Cooper Point Journal provided an avenue to learn about meeting deadlines and to create quality work on a weekly basis. The CPJ really taught me to fall in love with being published. It was also a great place to meet other people who loved comics, like Edward Martin III who eventually became the CPJ Comic Editor for a few years, and Megan Kelso. Megan went on to work as a professional cartoonist. The college has a great community of artists who appreciate sequential art.

DG: What’s a historic/epic/memorable aspect of cartooning that comes from or happened at Evergreen – most people don’t know of?
RA: I saw a funny comic about a character named Morty the Dog. I think it was published in an underground paper that was distributed on campus, and occasionally I would see Morty comics pop up in the CPJ. They were fantastic. I learned later that they were created by Steve Willis, a former librarian at TESC and alumni. I didn’t meet Steve until much later, but among the CPJ cartoonists his work was well known.  There was folklore associated with him. He attended Evergreen with Matt Groening, Lynda Barry and was friends with them. He also knew Charles Burns a little bit. After Steve graduated from Evergreen he was offered cartooning work with major magazines, but he chose to go in a different direction. He eventually received a Masters degree in library science. For him cartooning has been a lifelong hobby, a passionate focus of his life, but not a source of income. That is the way he chose it. Yet, I believe had he pursued professional cartooning he would have been as well known as Lynda Barry and maybe Matt Groening. He was that good.

DG: What has been forgotten at Evergreen or used to happen surrounding cartooning at Evergreen – ritual, project, space?
RA: I actually think that cartooning as an art form and academic study, may be more accepted then when I was a student. Chelsea Baker, a 2006 graduate from Evergreen and co-organizer of the Olympia Comic Convention, completed an independent studies contract about sequential art while she was a student. It is great that there is a college  that supports such work. Editor’s Note: For more on Chelsea Baker ’06, see the Evergreen Express article from 2008.

I haven’t been to the CPJ in many years, so I’m not sure how things have changed at the office exactly, but I bet they don’t lay the paper out on light tables and use a wax machine to glue content to the paper.   Of course,  with computers, it is much easier to work with page layout and that is a good thing. But the physical handling of images, comics, and text added a certain authenticity to the craft of publishing.

DG: Who is Steve Willis (how did he impact you) and can you share a bit more about Bezango, WA – do you have any art of Steve Willis you can send us?
RA: Steve created a comic called Bezango, WA., and according to him it was just a word he made up. He liked the sound of it. He later made it into in an eight issue comic book called Bezango WA 985. To quote him:  “Bezango was another name for the weird and unusual people and places tucked away in these moss-covered hills of Southwest Washington.”  My film partner, Louise Amandes, and I thought it would a good name for our movie about Northwest cartoonists. Steve has a blog and he also spoke on the animation/comic panel at the 40th anniversary reunion last spring:

DG: For all the aspiring cartoonists at Evergreen do you have a gem of information you can impart upon them?

RA: If someone wants to make traditional style comics or cartoons then I would suggest to focus on a subject that has a lot of cross over in interests.  Local artists David Lasky and Frank Young, created a graphic novel about The Carter Family, the first superstar group of country music. Their book has been featured in Time Magazine and recently was the #1 book about country music on  David and Frank are wonderful artists in their own right, but choosing a subject with mass appeal seems to have also helped get their work out to the public.

DG: So what is this documentary,  “Bezango, WA”?
RA: Bezango, WA is a documentary film that chronicles the art, history, and lives of prominent Pacific Northwest cartoonists and comic artists. Louise Amandes and I look at how cartooning has transitioned over the last hundred years in the area. This includes researching artists from Oregon and Washington. An important part of our project also focuses on The Evergreen State College. In the film we ask what it is about the College that has produced so many unique artists. This includes Matt Groening, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Megan Kelso, Craig Bartlett, Steve Willis, and many more. They’ve all gone on to make a unique mark in the world of comics and cartoons.

DG: Anything else that you would like to share with current Evergreeners or Alumni?
RA: Through the process of making this film Louise and I came to learn that making a living as a cartoonist and comic artist is a challenging experience. At the same time we witnessed many artists committed to producing comics simply because it is their passion.

There is a thriving community of young people, most of them in their twenties and early thirties, who are focused on the tradition of hand-made comics. The Olympia Comic Con, The Projects in Portland,  Stumptown in Portland, and Short Run in Seattle are largely focused on independent publishing.  There is an incredible support network for local artists who are interested in sequential art and a lot of this is because of the organization by former Greeners such as Chelsea Baker. Interestingly, now, because of online networking, it easier than ever to keep the community of traditional print artists strong. This is a wonderful thing, and it didn’t exist as much even ten years ago.

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