Dune Zine and the Drawing Jam at Cafe Racer

The monthly comix zine Dune is the most egalitarian publication in Seattle. It’s also the one with the narrowest possible distribution. “The other day some guy asked me how to get a copy of Dune,” says Max Clotfelter, the zine’s organizer, “And I told him, you’ve just gotta show up and draw. You’ve gotta contribute to get a copy.”

On the third Tuesday of each month, artists converge on Café Racer for an all-call drawing jam. Each of them will pitch in a completed page of art and two dollars for printing expenses, and at the end of the night Clotfelter gathers the work and photocopies it into the next issue of Dune, to be distributed at the following month’s jam. There is no editorial direction or control, and the only rule is that the work must be created that night.

Café Racer is the perfect backdrop for an indie comix event, a homey neighborhood bar decorated with a crowded hodgepodge of vividly-colored paintings, knick knacks and other obsessively-worked decorative elements. The café itself looks like an indie comix backdropyou can almost see R. Crumb-esque crosshatching creeping up from the dimly-lit corners.

On the evening I visited, the cafe was packed. About fifty artists had shown up to contribute, cluttering every available surface with their sketchpads, pens, erasers, and pints of beer. A long table in the center of the café was crowded with artists hunched earnestly over their work, giving off an almost monastic vibe. One huddled scribe asked “Does anyone have an eraser?” and someone responded, “Yes,” tossing one over without looking up from their work.

Artists of all skill levels attend the jam and contribute to Dune. At a table in the upstairs room, I spoke to Abigail Swanson, a first timer and Café Racer employee who came here on her night off to participate. “I’m just drawing this weird penis guy,” she said, almost apologetically, “I accidentally sat down at the ‘pro table’ and I’m a Newb Deluxe.”  

“There’s actually no hierarchy here, you can sit anywhere,” jam regular Marc Palm corrected. But this table was loaded with some serious talent. John Ohannesian, a working pro, labored over a full-page drawing, pausing intermittently to chat with his colleagues. Beside him, Brian Beardsley made steady progress on a four-panel piece. “It’s my ode to Spy vs. Spy,” he said. Across from them, Mark Allender sat penciling his page and occasionally glancing at an open copy of a well-worn graphic novel. He was reproducing a grim sequence from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but replacing Batman with the San Francisco Batkid. Next to Allender, Marc Palm worked on a multi-panel dialogue between hideous monsters that was as violent and profane as Palm is friendly and unassuming.  

Clotfelter greeted a pair of women who just arrived, “You gonna draw tonight?”

“Yeah. We’re jam virgins!”

Drawing comics is an engrossingly difficult and therefore usually solitary endeavor, so a funky energy emanates when it takes place in public. The entire cafe alternated between pockets of cheery social bustle and zones of deep concentration. The world of comix is generally depicted as a sweaty, bearded boys’ club, and it mostly is, but the crowd at Racer was diverse enough, race- gender- and sexuality-wise, to suggest a welcoming approximation of inclusiveness.

There were several non-artists in attendance, drawn in by the casual but creatively conducive vibe. Jacq Cohen made the rounds with Wanda, her one-eyed Boston terrier. “I don’t do comics, I’m just a professional comics enthusiast,” Cohen said, alluding to her day job as a publicist for Fantagraphics. “Most of my friends come here, so it’s nice to have them all in one place.”   

Stories differ on the genesis of the name Dune. “Max told me once, but I can’t remember exactly,” Allender attempted to explain, “Something to do with there being no theme and lots of contributors, so each issue shifts and moves according to whatever, like a sand dune. Something artsy fartsy like that.”

The actual answer is decidedly less poetic. According to Max: “Naming an anthology with a group of people is always the worst. I asked twelve friends on a group Facebook message if anyone had any ideas and the name [Dune] was thrown out in reference to the 1980s Marvel comics adaptation of the Lynch movie. Jason T. Miles said something like, ‘Let’s just call it Dune and get on with our lives.’”

As the evening progressed, the contribution box in the center of the “pro table” slowly filled with dollar bills, and the makeshift hopper beside it gradually accrued finished work. A good portion of the pages consisted of amateurish scrawls and untrained doodles, but a significant number showed great skill, the accomplished work of talented practitioners doing it for love of the medium.

Leaving the café, I ran into Jim Woodring and Tom Dougherty, local luminaries and elder statesmen of the scene. Woodring is the progenitor of comix events at Café Racer, having started a meetup of like-minded artists there back in 2005 called Friends of the Nib. The small, tight-knit, mostly professional group met here weekly for years.

“That was a totally different incarnation,” Woodring said. “All of a sudden there are all of these cartoonists. I’m guessing that in ten years a lot of them will have ripened into figures on the world stage, and people will say, ‘Oh, they came out of that Café Racer scene in Seattle.’”

“Racer is the constant,” Dougherty added. “They’ve always been totally welcoming. We had a guy who was passing through town from Canada several months ago, and he went out of his way to be here on a Tuesday night. That’s pretty magical.”

Click through slide show to see some completed pages from next month’s issue of Dune.