WHEN I THINK of cartoons, I think of comic strips and political cartoons. (Can you tell I write for a newspaper?) But Seattle-based Cartoonists Northwest is a big umbrella. Members do animation, web comics, graphic novels, posters and book illustrations — “anything that goes under the label of narrative or sequential art,” Bill Morse, the group’s current president, says.
Members are professionals, amateurs or fans. They’re interested in everything from superhero comics to underground art.
With cartooning and other forms of narrative illustration, “You can pretty much tell any story, from something cute for the kids to something dark that asks really hard questions,” Morse says.
Maureen VanderPas and other students who had been taking an evening cartooning class at the University of Washington formed the group about 40 years ago.
In the classes, “We were having a blast getting to know each other,” she recalls. When the classes ended, their teacher suggested they start their own club, and the group has been meeting and putting out a newsletter called “Penstuff” monthly ever since.
A typical meeting includes a guest speaker or workshop presenter — sometimes a nationally known creator; other times, a member of the group. They might talk about anything from trends in digital art to techniques for depicting perspective. They also celebrate their recent successes and share work they’re proud of. Afterward, they grab dinner at a local restaurant — or at least, they did during normal times. For now, like many groups, they’re meeting via Zoom.
Their annual Cartoonist of the Year banquet has drawn the likes of Berkeley Breathed, of “Bloom County” fame, and even the notoriously reclusive Gary Larson, just before his “The Far Side” series took off. “He kind of stood in the corner a little bit until we started asking him to draw cartoons, and then he came out of it,” VanderPas says.
She says cartoonists are often a bit introverted, observers rather than socializers. But being part of the group helps them come out of their shells. “It’s a wonderful support to see that, ‘Hey; I can do this,’ ” she says. “By hearing everyone else and their confusion, they might feel, ‘I’m not alone.’ ”
Morse grew up drawing and telling stories and, after reading “Peanuts” creator Charles Schultz’s memoir, realized that cartoons combined the two. But in art school, he says, illustration was perceived as somewhere “between fine art and graphic design, and not respected by either,” so for a long time he mostly pursued other art forms.
He first checked out Cartoonists Northwest on a whim after he saw a flyer at a comic-book shop. At his first meeting, “There was a very good, eccentric bunch of people, but most important, it was the support group I’d never had before.”
That kind of support is a bit easier to convey in person, and members hope to get back to that. But meeting online has its advantages. “Now I can invite anybody I want to,” anywhere in the world, Morse says. And even locals are no longer hampered by traffic and parking struggles. “We’re always happy to see new faces,” he says. And for anyone who wonders whether they’ll fit in, he says, “The beauty of it is that the answer is yes.”