Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hepcats (1987-1998)

The late 80s and early 90s were a boon period for independent comics, particularly self published ones. The rise of the graphic novel with works such as Watchmen and Maus, cast comics in the public eye for the first time as a medium of powerful storytelling possibilities. Out of this particular phase, four major self-published bodies of work arose: Dave Sim's Cerebus, Jeff Smith's Bone, Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, and Martin Wagner's Hepcats. Both Cerebus and Bone's finite stories concluded in 2004, Strangers in Paradise in 2007, all of them outlasting the self-publishing boom. Hepcats never concluded and ceased publishing with the second book of the first graphic novel, Snowblind, unpublished. Yet, even with only volume 1 of Snowblind (issues 2-10) having seen print, it's is still regarded as one of the greatest indy graphic novels of all time.

Hepcats began as a comic strip for The University of Texas' student newspaper. The characters all have cartoon animal heads, but regard one another and function as humans. The anthropomorphism is an aesthetic choice, a throwback from Wagner's earlier strip at the University of Huston, where the mascot was a cougar, and so were all the characters. Seldom (the comic strip) to never (the comic book) are the character's animal features referenced.

The series follows four friends: Arnie, Erica, Joey, and Gunther and their lives in and out of college. The strip grew in popularity and the characters grew in depth- in time the four panel comic strip format yielded less gags and more thought. By the time the comic book began, the charm and drama of the characters and stories were nothing but purely and realistically human. This was the driving force of Hepcats - real people and real problems told realistically. Unlike slice of life memoirs or most comics attuned to average life, Hepcats is told through a crisp cinematic story - too good for television, too complicated for movies.

I'm tempted to discuss the plot, but I don't want to spoil anything. Hepcats issues 0-10 are available for free online! Issues 11 and 12 are promised to be uploaded in the near future, and eventually The Collegiate Hepcats (the first collected Hepcats book, featuring all the strips) may be available. Be on the lookout for issue 11 - it's brutal, one of the most intense single issues of any comic ever. Once, I was loaning the series to a friend of mine and his mom picked that issue off the floor, though she's read a random comic, maybe connect with her son better... yeah, she was traumatized.

After a lag in Wagner's self-publishing, Antarctic Press picked up Hepcats in 1996 for a huge relaunch, including the brand new, full color issue zero. The series ran reprints of the previous issues and was intended to continue with new issues beginning at issue 13 (Snowblind part 2 begins with issues 11 & 12). Issue 12 came and nothing followed. Martin Wagner's withdrawal from the comics industry has been the subject of much drama and gossip but, suffice it to say, times were tough and the job just wasn't paying the bills any more.

Thanks to the internet, this was not the end of Hepcats. The fan community on Martin Wagner's YahooGroup provided encouragement and he's committed to finishing Snowblind for publication online. Currently, he's in the process of completing a minicomic set in 2008, post Snowblind. Though it was never intended for anyone other than the fan community, Image has asked to feature it in their Popgun Anthology.

After 20 years Hepcats hasn't aged. It's still rich with freshness and modernity. The characters are lovable, the story is heartrending, and the art is rendered with an architect's preciseness. It's a comic anyone can connect with, and everyone can fall in love with (just give mom a warning before she reads issue 11).

READ IT: Hepcats issuse 0-10
READ: The Minicomic

Also, you can score a hardcover copy of Snowblind direct from the artist (very limited quantities) here. AND you can also order original Hepcats art as well as other cool Hepcats items from him via the YahooGroup. Support the man and his craft.

BUY: Snowblind
BUY: Hepcats art etc.

- Cap


Anonymous said...

Oh man...

I used to have almost every issue of Hepcats in the mid 1990's. I used to scour comic shops everywhere and in cities I happened to travel to with my folks looking for old issues of this, among other titles.

Hepcats was an awesome series. Wagner had his reasons for ending it prematurely but it really was, as you point out, kind of cinematic in its approach. I especially loved how he used glass and shattered images in later issues.

When did you discover these? I hear Wagner got into filmmaking, leaving the comic world behind permanently.


P.S. That Hepcats music CD was a rare buy at the time.

Media Potluck said...

I first discovered Hepcats on the shelves of the once prolific, now extinct, Tropic Comics in Fort Lauderdale. I saw issue #5 on the rack and was drawn to the weird, pink, running, somewhat-anthropomorphic woman on the cover. I was way interested in it based on the killer art and checked out their back issues to see if I could catch up. I saw the anti-comic censorship ad in the back with Arnie and Erica, in full-frontal afterglow, and put it back. In them days I wasn't allowed to watch the Simpsons let alone own a comic with SEX in it. Three or so years later I came across some random issues at Tate's Comics and then, experiencing it's total awesomeness eBayed the whole run. I had to do some SERIOUS online scouring for months and months to score Radio Hepcats. When I finally did it was direct from Antarctic Press of all places - they were having a warehouse clearance!

Wagner has been struggling with Texas' indy film industry for some time now. I have confidence that his diligence will pay off sooner rather than later. The Hepcats YahooGroup is run by him and he communicates frequently - a good way to keep your finger on the surprisingly lively Hepcats pulse.

- Cap