Over the Christmas holiday, I popped into San Francisco’s Isotope comics and chatted up store owner, James Sime—or, perhaps more appropriately, he chatted me up. We spoke about the store and the Bay Comics community and Isotope’s bright red leather custom furniture (all custom-made, incidentally). I don’t know if, in all my years in the scene, I’ve ever met a more enthusiastic ambassador for the medium.
But while Sime spoke with excitement about nearly every subject we broached, he clearly had a current favorite—Pete Hodapp. “I have to get you his new book!” he announced, and then bounded to the back of the store and up a flight of stairs to the little nook he deemed the “Mini Comics Reading Room.”
He came back down with the first issue of Yawning Void. Sime had wanted to grab a copy of The Possum and the Pepper Spray, the book that had won Hoddap this year’s Isotope award, but he had run out. I was still in luck, however. It turned out that both of Hoddap’s books were finalists for the award.
I told Sime that I hadn’t heard of the cartoonist. That’s okay, he said. No one has. In fact, that’s kind of the point of the Isotope Awards. It’s one of the few new cartoonist awards that’s actually given to truly undiscovered cartoonists. As we were discussing the store’s display of custom toilet seats adorned with cartoonist sketches lined up along the store’s concrete wall, Sime pointed to one directly behind the front counter, bearing a sketch of an outhouse.
“Pete drew that one,” he explained. “Actually, that used to be their bathroom until fairly recently.”
Hodapp is a rural cartoonist. It’s a theme that permeates both Yawning Void and The Possum and the Pepper Spray. It’s something he’d like to see more of in comics, as he explains in this first part of our conversation, a medium whose content is too often dominated by cartoonists living in big cities.
Are you from Wisconsin originally?
No, I’m actually from Minnesota. I grew up there and I moved here like seven years ago.
What brought you out there?
I wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, basically. I grew up in southern Minnesota, surrounded by farming communities. I have kids, and I wanted to raise them where there wasn’t an enormous amount of pop-culture to scatter their brains, basically [laughs]. So, we bought a farm in the middle of nowhere and this decrepit house.
So you’re a farmer?
Oh, no, no. I teach printmaking and comics at a local high school.
So, how do you live on a farm and not spend most of your time farming?
I guess the best place to start would be, the corner of Wisconsin where we live was missed bythe glaciers, so it’s super hilly, so nobody has 160 acre farms. It’s kind of become a center for organic agriculture, because of the landscape. But the farm that we lived on was originally used for cattle and stuff, but we never did that. We just had the acreage, and most of it was woods, and then this old farm house.
But we don’t live there anymore. We’ve recently moved from there, into town.
You’ll have to forgive all of these questions from someone who lives in the city, but farming must play some role in your daily life, right?
I’m surrounded by it completely. And I do work for small family farms around here, every year, graphics work and stuff. Basically these farms need good graphic design, but they don’t really know that they need good graphic design [laughs]. They need to compete in the market, I guess, but that’s not where their heads are at. So I do work for them every year, around here.
But the main way we support ourselves is my wife’s work and also the teaching that I do.
You teach comics and graphic art at a local school.
Are comics and acceptable thing to teach in high school at this point?
The school that I teach at is technically a private school, but it’s income-based, so they take your income into consideration, as far as what you pay. So, if you’re totally broke, your kid can still go to school there. It’s just not state-funded.
Shortly after we moved here, somebody said, you should write up a proposal to the school for a class that you want to teach. So I did, and they just kind of went with it. And another big thing about the school I teach at is the kids play a big role in what gets taught there. They have equal input into what gets offered, and they also have equal input as to who gets fired, if it comes to that [laughs]. So that’s why I get to teach comics, because the kids want it.
It sounds like a fairly progressive place.
Yeah, I guess so. In the early 70s, this was kind a center for the back to land movement.
Ah, so there are a lot of hippies.
Well, not so much anymore, because it didn’t really survive. Some of it stuck around, and some of it went out the window. Organic Valley, the people who make butter and milk, are based really close to here. That’s an example of someone who moved here from the back to the land movement and just kind of went on from there, I guess.
And on my Website, there’s an example of a piece I did for them, last year. They have a newspaper they put out, once a year.
How old are your kids?
Eleven, six, and two.
You mentioned that you grew up surrounded by farms. Was your life devoid of pop culture, as well?
Mmmm, not necessarily, I guess. My parents were divorced, and my mom’s side of the family is from Los Angeles, born and raised, and they still live there. And my dad’s side of the family is middle-of-nowhere farmers. So, I definitely had had pop culture in my life, and that’s probably why I didn’t want it in my kids’ life, I guess.
What is it about it that you find offensive?
I guess I don’t find all of it offensive. By no means. I’m not like a hick. I watch movies, and I do all of the things that everybody does, but when I go to Los Angeles, it’s almost soul crushing [laughs]. Everybody has this defined style, and they have this sort of pattern that they have to fit into.
And the whole body image thing—I have three girls, so it’s obviously more of an issue than it would be for somebody who doesn’t have kids or who has a mixture of boys and girls, or whatever. But seeing 12-year-old dressed up like what would have been a 20-year-old woman, when I was growing up—that kind of stuff I don’t want my kids to see.
And you’re on the Internet, so you’re not entirely cut off.
Oh, by no means. And my kids, we watch The Munsters on Netflix. It’s not like they’re not in contact with it. But just the distance, being in the Midwest, the culture is mostly centered on either coast, it kind of works as a filter. So, by the time it gets here, it’s not as potent. And then, moving to a very small town, it’s even less.
I was under the impression that you didn’t really know there wasa comics scene, when you started writing and drawing comics. Is that true?
Oh, no, no. I don’t think that’s true at all. In junior high, I read comics all of the time. Mostly superhero stuff and some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and whatever. But then I kind of dropped out and stopped reading them. I grew out of the superhero thing and didn’t know enough about the superhero thing to follow that. It was just later in life that I started following it.
Was it the discovery of independent comics that led you to begin creating your own?
I think what happened is, I knew it was going on. I lived in Minneapolis for a lot of years. I was always aware of it, but I was always a little too broke to afford a comics habit. I knew from junior high how expensive it could be to show up every week and buy X-Men, or whatever. It wasn’t really an option.
But I would say, maybe five or seven years ago, I would just pick up little things, here and there. And I’ve just always drawn and written, and I cursed myself for not figuring out sooner that I could make something where they could go together. And the other part of it was that I grew up in rural Minnesota, but I also happened to grow up in a town where there was a vibrant punk rock scene.
So, kind of early on, there was this instilled value system that you could do anything. You don’t have to get signed in order to make a record. You don’t have to be a writer, in order to make a zine. You don’t have to be a comic book artist in order to make a comic. So I decided I wanted to try it.
How long ago did you seriously start making comics?
Well, we have a local paper here that gives me a page once a month. So I’ve been making them for that for a little while. And I’d been making other stuff before that, but not really showing it to anybody, I guess. So, the local paper was kind of the first introduction to showing people my stuff.
And then, through that paper, Organic Valley contacted me to do this one-page for then. By then I had already started Yawning Void, but it was one of those things where I was making it, but I had no idea what I was going to do with it. I knew what size I wanted it, but I had no idea how I was possible going to be able to afford to print it.
But the work I did for the paper caught the eye of Organic Valley, and the work I did for Organic Valley is what funding Yawning Void number one. And it just kind of snowballed from there.
[Continued in Part Two.]