Emerging Ink

By Megan Hess

Amateur illustrators find life in Syracuse

Emerging Ink

Josh Blair, 25, spends his days going to the library for story time and to the park for play dates. But as soon as the clock strikes eight, he puts his 2-year-old son Ian to bed and plugs into his 4-year-old low-fi Dell desktop for a long night.

He has no Internet and can’t upload digital photos without a major crash. But the computer is good enough for Blair’s needs: compiling an eclectic mini-comic anthology. Blair’s mini comic belongs to the zine family — short for magazine.

Zines are small-circulation, non-commercial publications of personal writings and art. Often hand-drawn and reproduced via photocopier, they serve as creative outlets for fringe artists. They are composed in a variety of formats — from computer-printed text to comic art — and cover a wide range of topics, including fan-fiction, politics, art, design, social theory, and sexuality. Due to limited circulation, zines are usually not copyrighted, and there is a strong belief that they should be freely distributed.

Blair started his quarterly mini-comic, Candy or Medicine, in 2006 when he moved to Syracuse from Ohio. He was in the hospital with Ian one night when a poster caught his eye. “Is it candy or medicine?” the poster read, alongside an M&M and a tablet of Advil. “It was random and irrelevant,” said Blair, “but that’s what I liked about it. As a result, lots of my ideas revolve around humor.”

Most of Blair’s ideas have been products of random thought. He says that he does some of his best thinking in the shower. As soon as he dries off, he scribbles ideas on scraps of paper or Post-Its.

The illustrations in Candy or Medicine, according to Blair, are also products of this random process. They depict everything from beheadings in “The Somnambulist’s Lament” to explosive mosquitoes in “The Eternal Soup.” Three-quarters of the zine is devoted to gags and jokes and the rest is “just plain artsy.” But Josh Blair isn’t alone on his idealistic quest. Though an official count of small-circulation zines like Candy or Medicine does not exist, they are becoming more visible in bookstores, boutiques, and high-end grocery stores in bustling cities like Chicago, New York City, Portland, and Baltimore.

Zines don’t receive much acclaim in Central New York, but Blair doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s almost cool to foster the culture here,” Blair said.

While some indie bookstores in Syracuse have purchased Blair’s material, very few zines are sold in stores, and most are discovered by word of mouth. Yet some with a wider distribution can be found in chains like Barnes & Noble and attract advertisers who hope to reach trendsetters.

Zines got their start in the ’30s when science fiction fans published and traded “fanzines.” The term was later shortened to “zine” during the punk rock era of the ’70s. But it was really the rise of desktop publishing in the ’80s and the Internet boom in the ’90s that opened the floodgates. Zines became a Web phenomenon with the creation of online e-zines, which served as networking sites.

But according to Blair, the zine culture is deeply rooted in print. He explained that one of the longstanding traditions in zine exchange is bringing homemade copies to the mall to trade with friends. This tradition can’t be applied to e-zines; it’s just not the same to tell a friend to log onto a Web site and look at a zine. Regardless, Blair promotes his comics through blogs and sites like MySpace, Facebook, ComicSpace (a social networking site for comic creators), and www.candyormedicine.com.

Acting as editor and publisher for his mini-comic, Blair provides others with a venue to squeeze their artistic juices. Outsourcing is part of what makes Candy or Medicine unique. Most zines are strictly a labor of love; they are designed, compiled, and printed by one person with an intense personal connection to the project, akin to a diary or an autobiography. But Blair wanted to share what is typically a very exclusive art.

Emerging Ink

“Zines are all about sharing the passion,” Blair said. Candy or Medicine gives other aficionados a means to get their work out there. “Lots of zines have artistic, obscure criteria to limit their appeal. But mine is accessible to those whose art experience is at any level. I want to showcase the work of talented people who are in the same boat as me — perhaps not artistically talented, but have great story ideas.”

Blair scopes out artists from Oswego, NY all the way to Belgium and New Zealand. He advertises his open submission policy: all ages, all abilities, no nudity or crude language. Blair knows very few of his artists personally — perhaps four or five out of his 35 contributors. “I never imagined [Candy or Medicine] would grow into what it is today, to include so many diverse, talented artists,” Blair wrote on his blog.

Blair scrutinizes each comic submitted by other artists to determine the ebb and flow of each issue, then prints out black and white proofs and makes about 200 copies at Staples. Each issue takes about two weeks to compile. His own drawings can take anywhere from one to five nights. Blair illustrates with fine-point Micron pens on Bristol board, a heavyweight paper that holds the ink so it doesn’t bleed. Then he scans them into Adobe Photoshop for touch-ups. Each quarter-page-sized issue of Candy or Medicine is between eight and 16 pages in length and includes several comics.

In addition to Internet promotion, Blair spreads the word at nearby conventions and expos. He has set up shop twice at Ithacon, an annual convention in Ithaca, and once at the Westcott Cultural Fair. The annual Syracuse Heroes Expo, where Blair had half a table this year to sell Candy or Medicine, attracts an abundance of pop culture idols and D-list actors, like the winner of the SciFi channel’s “Who Wants to Be a Superhero.”

Rob Moses, the most frequent contributor to Candy or Medicine, discovered Blair’s mini-comic at the Heroes Expo last year. He bought an issue for $1 and decided to submit some of his own work. His illustration of a cloud puking out shellfish was his first work to get published. “Candy or Medicine quickly became my favorite thing,” said Moses, a sophomore graphic design major at SUNY Oswego. “It’s so satisfying showing off my art to people like me who can enjoy it. Reading a comic is like reading a novel, but it’s much more visual.”

When he’s not scouting for the next Rob Moses, Blair focuses on writing his first graphic novel (details are on the down low). He keeps up with five or six monthly comics and reads comic publisher blogs like Journalista several times a week. All of this he does in his spare time — that is, when he’s not chasing around an overactive 2-year-old. He pulls off the dad thing well, watching for hours as Ian waddles around the library or the park. But Blair is quite the kid himself. “My favorite character is still Daredevil,” he said. “I have almost all of [those issues].”

This past summer, Blair sold most of the 4,000 comic books he’s accumulated over the years. Still, he refuses to let go of a few boxes filled with his most prized issues.

Blair proves you can take the comic book out of the basement, but you can’t take the comic book out of the kid.