Was Highwater Books the most influential art gang to come out of Boston since the ‘Boston School’ photographers?

Exhibit closing party on Saturday

In July 1997, a Harvard Square comic book store clerk by the name of Tom Devlin flew to the San Diego Comic-Con with a comics anthology that he had professionally offset printed and called “Coober Skeber.” It featured Boston folks and denizens of Fort Thunder in Providence drawing knockoffs of Marvel brand superheroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk. The copyright infringement was a flagrant call for attention for a higher purpose. It aimed to bring attention to a proposal for a new way of doing comics: more arty, more personal, more human, more lavishly designed, more cartoony, more—as Devlin coined it—Cute Brut. And the publicity stunt worked. Wired magazine said: “The stories and artwork range from stilted to stunning, but the sort of exuberance that comes from a brief dip back into adolescent obsession runs throughout.”

The artists gathered under the umbrella of Highwater Books, as Devlin’s publishing house came to be called, were and remain under the radar of the Boston fine art world. But the group was probably the most influential art gang to come out of Boston since punk “Boston School” photographers Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, David Armstrong, Shellburne Thurber and friends of the mid 1970s to mid ‘80s.

Of course, this is a kind of silly declaration to make. I mean, what is the competition? And I’m totally biased, because I was part of the Highwater gang. But decide for yourself. A Highwater retrospective “Right Thing the Wrong Way” (the link has lots of pictures) is on view at Fourth Wall Project, 132 Brookline Ave., Boston, through Oct. 24. And you’re invited to a closing party there from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23. They’re talking about it in New York. Out in Seattle, they’re calling it “a can’t miss show.”

From the start, the Highwater gang sought wide attention, and succeeded from that Wired report to the Village Voice naming the anthology “Non No. 5,” which was edited by Jordan Crane and featured numerous Highwater artists, one of its favorite books of 2001. The Voice said: “’Non’ is to young experimental cartoonists what Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s ‘Raw’ was in the ’80s—rule-free turf to find their voices, sometimes explosively.”

Most publishing houses and galleries don’t form art gangs. The artists are formally united by the business enterprise, but they don’t hang out together, they’re not friends. Part of what made Highwater unique was that many of the key players were geographically centered around Boston and Providence, so they influenced and inspired each other directly, by hanging out together, partying, printing posters, going to comics conventions.

The circle of Highwater artists and enablers included Tom Devlin in Somerville then New York then Montreal, Ron Rege Jr. in Cambridge then L.A., Jordan Crane in Somerville then L.A., Jef Czekaj in Somerville, Brooke Corey of Jamaica Plain, Greg Cook then in Gloucester, P. Shaw in Cambridge, Kurt Wolfgang in small town Connecticut, James Kochalka in Burlington, Vermont, Ben Jones of Massachusetts then Providence, Brian Chippendale of Providence, Paul Lyons of Providence, Dave Gavril of greater Boston, Megan Kelso of Seattle then New York, Mat Brinkman in Providence, Matt Madden in New York, Jon Porcellino in Denver and the Midwest, Marc Bell in Canada, Heath Row then in Somerville, T.D. Sidell in Cambridge, Emily Arkin in Somerville, Chris Braiotta in Somerville, and Randy Chang in New York. I’m certainly forgetting some folks. (Please forgive me.)

Boston was more of a base of operations for the Highwater gang than the venue where it presented its art. Though Highwater artists put on two raucous “Cambridge Comics Circuses,” mainly puppet show revues, at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in 1997 and ’98 (the Globe called it an “Underground comic book revival meeting”), and exhibited locally at the Washington Street Art Center, Zeitgeist Gallery, Diesel Cafe and the 2001 Somerville Comix Festival. We also exhibited at Salon of Porto in Portugal in 2001 (see drunken performance video at top or here) and in Angouleme, France, in 2002. We were included in “Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation,” an exhibit that toured from Carnegie Mellon University to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans to the University of North Texas to Western Washington University to the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California, between 2003 and 2004. And so on.

But to focus on such exhibits is misleading, as the focus of the Highwater gang was always books. The Globe said in 2000: “Aiming for a literate, grown-up reader—and ultimately at broadening the audience for the medium—Devlin tends to focus on publishing funny, poignant, and deeply personal work with a strong story line.”

The Highwater gang also pushed the design of comics toward art. The most extraordinary example was “Non No. 5.” Time.com said: “This issue’s silk-screened cover wraps completely around and under the nearly two-inch thick contents. When completely unfolded it turns into a 30-inch long pink and yellow panorama. Underneath the cover sits a thick book with a simple, geometrical patterned cover. Pick it up and you discover underneath, nestled in a cutout hollow of thick cardboard, a smaller book! Then, underneath that, another book hidden away!”

Highwater helped make graphic novels, rather than pamphlet comics, the dominant form of “alternative comics.” It was among the pioneers of the visionary, doodly, cartoony, sketchbook style in art that grew popular nationally in the ‘90s and 2000s. It inspired at least three publishing houses: Buenaventura, Bodega, and Picture Box. And national general interest magazines embraced the gang’s art: Rege and Kelso’s comics appeared in The New York Times Magazine; Cook in Publishers Weekly; and Czekaj, Wolfgang, Ralph and Cook in Nickelodeon magazine.

Part of what makes Highwater influential—beyond the high quality of the comics themselves—is the medium of comics is inherently more affordable and portable than your usual Boston fine art. Making cheap, accessible art was part of the draw for the artists. And we weren’t (much) hampered by operating outside of major existing art institutions because the whole project was driven by a do-it-yourself energy, which included creating your own spaces and your own publications for the distribution of your art. Along these lines, the Fourth Wall retrospective was organized by Highwater folks and we published our own 32-page catalogue history.

In the end, like a lot of crazy art projects, Highwater the business went broke in 2004. “Highwater Books wasn’t just under-capitalized and took on a full slate of books; it was barely capitalized at all and promised books that would have been difficult for anyone to deliver,” Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter wrote then. “…[Devlin] saw comics, I think, as a very specific kind of art book, a way of expressing ideas that didn’t need to be complete statements and that could have as much value from the idiosyncrasy of vision, the first impression, as they could for the impact of a story or their cumulative narrative effect. …. I believe the way Highwater Books has had a small but noticeable impact on the art form as a whole is revealed in the fact you don’t see those questions about the limits of comics nearly as much as you used to. I think that’s because Highwater helped give back to comics that exquisite first shudder, the value of simply letting the strangeness of a world assembled from broken parts of purer media wash over you, the visual equivalent of the way we judge the comfort of a room upon our first few seconds of waking up.”

In the Fourth Wall exhibit catalogue, Ron Rege Jr. tells a funny story that speaks of Highwater’s continuing influence: “Recently I gave a slideshow at the University of Copenhagen. Not that many people showed up but there were like five kids. And they came up to me and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we are taking a class in comics history. We are now studying the era known as Cute Brut.’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ They were like, ‘Yes, you are one of the better known Cute Brut artists.’ Tom made a flippant joke 10 years ago and now there’s kids in Copenhagen studying it like it’s something serious.”

Maybe more remarkable is that Highwater convinced someone in a cool town 3,000 miles away that the Boston art scene might not totally suck. Somerville artist Raul Gonzalez commented here last year: “Elaine [Bay] and I lived in San Francisco before moving to Boston. When Elaine was accepted to the Museum School … I did not look forward to leaving San Francisco. The only thing that gave me some ease about the move were three books, ‘Cave-In,’ ‘Catch Is Catch Can,’ and ‘Skibber Bee Bye.’ And that they were published in Cambridge, Mass. ‘Maybe I can hook up with these guys and draw comics with them,’ I thought.”

“Right Thing the Wrong Way: The Story of Highwater Books,” Fourth Wall Project, 132 Brookline Ave., Boston, Oct. 1 to 24, 2010.

= Check out this Internet Archive version of the Highwater Books website in 2002, including daily web comics.
= “The Complex Simplicity of John Porcellino,” a review from Time.com in 2001.
= “Dancing to Your Own Tune,” a review of Marc Bell’s work, from Time.com in 2003.
= An amusingly inaccurate “Brief history of Highwater Books” in the Boston Phoenix, and Jef Czekaj’s response “Destroy all comics.”

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