“Who Made That” is an ongoing series that focuses on artists whose work Clevelanders see ALL THE TIME around the city but might never recognize who the artist actually is.
At Detroit Avenue’s Now That’s Class, sometimes you might feel like an alien.
You might have gotten mixed up and taken the wrong turn, and now you’re surrounded by a bunch of beer guzzlin’, alternate-reality punks and weirdos. Among the mismatched, lost and found ephemera of the joint, are Xerox copies of show posters hanging on the wall and placed on a magazine rack by the handful for upcoming events at the bar.
Nathan Ward has been capturing gritty outsider stories with a simple punk styling by way of show flyers for the local bar and music venue over the last few years. His work first caught my eye when I saw a flyer for Nightbirds with Tenement, Give, Masakari, and Smooth Brain last spring. His one page comic “Really Freaky Guy” was also featured in the Cleveland Scene’s Comic Book issue last year.
“The thing I like about punk music is also something that I like about comics and art,” says Ward. “It’s simple and dumb. I like drawing simple and dumb things. Obviously I put more detail into it and make it really intricate, but fundamentally, a lot of [what I draw] is just really bizarre, and I feel like punk has the same kind of attitude.”
Since that flyer, Ward has made countless others including the official show poster for 2014’s Horriblefest, which featured an onslaught of debaucherous characters that one could only imagine were the twisted brethren of the very patrons of Class. There is a quality to Ward’s show flyers that are absolutely tongue-in-cheek. Their content is fueled simultaneously by wittiness combined with a self-deprecating humor that surrounds the music scene constantly, holding itself up to a mirror to convince themselves and others of their constructed confidence.
“You can think about The Ramones and their art. If you look at many of their lyric sheets, you can see these pinhead guys dabbled all over. Those are big influences on me. They would be doing stupid things. The Ramones and early punk, was so stupid but so cool to me,” Ward says.
Basil Wolverton, early Mad Magazine illustrator and “Golden Age” comic pioneer, along with Robert Crumb are also influences Ward cites for his work, but unlike theirs, Ward is much less concerned with capturing characters’ likenesses as they would be in reality, but more like what they would look like if they were lumpy multi-colored beings.
“I like realistic art, but I don’t know, I feel like there’s a lot of it and I prefer to draw from my own imagination. I think if someone can draw from a photo, I’m not as impressed by that. I’d rather see what they can add to what isn’t already there,” he says.
One of the many charms that comics possess for their reader stems from the ability of the form to physically convey a perspective other than that of their own. The appeal of Ward’s illustrations then too, lies perhaps in his ability to believably transport the audience to a place where everything seems familiar, but nothing looks the same.
Ward started designing flyers out of necessity for shows that his bands Cruelster and Smooth Brain were booked to play. “I feel like flyer art has been getting lost. If there is a flyer where someone puts a lot of time into it and it’s interesting, it draws attention the actual event. I started off putting flyers together for my own band, and people would see them, ask me to draw one, and I’d go from there,” Ward explains.
However, just because Clevelanders and beyond might recognize Ward’s drawings from band merchandise or posters, he is far from being a one-note type of guy. “I don’t want my art to be pigeon-holed. I don’t want people to see my art and justthink of Smooth Brain, or something like that. I don’t want it to limit my own artistic style,” reasons Ward.
See all of Ward’s flyers for 2014 thus far on his Tumblr: http://nwardcomics.tumblr.com/
Ultimately though this story isn’t about our reality, or even the hazy realm behind the doors of a punk bar. It’s about Fun-O-Planet; a universe where three humanoid teenage friends are taken by an alien after getting their brains removed, and dropped off onto another planet. “They’re, like, totally brainless and they are kind of left to their own devices to wander around this planet, and they meet all these weird people,” Ward elaborates.
Fun-O-Planet is also Ward’s foray into another dimension in his career, expanding his milieu from short form comic strips on the Internetto the first full color, 40-page edition of a multi-volume release. Ward started a Kickstarter campaign in order to fund the printing of Fun-O-Planet. He has been committing himself to the eventual physical release of his comic since January, putting in no less than 24 hours per finished page. Ward presented 22 full pages of the comic along with archival prints as his BFA thesis towards a degree at The Cleveland Institute of Art in May.
Ward dreams of the final product; a glossy front and backed cover, with pages printed on 35# newsprint, a costly but time-tested tradition amongst comic book artists publishing in the ’60s and ’70s. “The way I want to get it printed is on newsprint,” says Ward. “Just like the comics that I liked reading. […] A lot of people will opt against doing it [because of the expense], but I drew these pages for newsprint.”
“By the time I got to rendering, I was working on it every single waking moment of my life for four months straight at least,” he tells me. I can believe it, especially after viewing the 10 x 12 ½ inch pages that Ward originally drew the comic on. “That’s really big for me considering how much detail I put into every panel, so it was a lot to draw and a lot to shade. […] There were a lot of hours logged into this comic, so I didn’t want to risk waiting around to try to get it published. I wanted to be able to have something to sell at conventions, sort of as a starting point of my comic career, or whatever you’d call it. And that’s where the Kickstarter comes into play,” he says.
Ward is offering everything from signed copies of the comic when it has been printed (hopefully if funded, by early August), button packs with images of Fun-O-Planet‘S main characters printed on them, Cruelster LP’s and T-shirts, to hand drawn original sketches for funders who donate to his campaign. “Since I’ve started, the majority of the pledges I have, mostly the small amounts to just buy the comic, are people I don’t even know at all. They’re just finding it through Kickstarter or some other third party,” he expresses with surprise.
Funders have been supportive of Ward’s vision for the comic and the raw talent behind its cover after only viewing a few PDFs of finished pages online, however once published, I predict that backers will also be as pleasantly surprised by the content of the comic’s plot as it’s visual artistry.
“It sounds pretty simple, but you [not only] see the story through the perspective of these brainless teenagers, you see all of the hallucinations that they’re seeing; they’ll switch points of view. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on inside their heads, but a whole different kind of crazy thing going on outside of them on this planet,” Ward says. “You don’t get a sense of who these characters are in the beginning, but through the story and the hallucinations that they’re having that draw from their pasts, you can kind of piece together who they are, their back-story, and the connections they have to one another. It was a platform for me to get as crazy and super weird as I could.”
Even though Fun-O-Planet does not take place on this Earth, the main characters are vaguely human, after all. Its stars, alien or not, seem to be crafted from the same mannerisms and vernacular that Ward surrounds himself with at Now That’s Class or the DIY music scene as a whole. “Because of the simplicity of the dialogue, the way they talk is so dull and everything, even though crazy things are happening around them by contrast, they seem so bored by it all,” reflects Ward.
“Obviously there’s a lot of humor to it, but it’s dry humor. It’s not like they’re telling jokes or anything, but situations are humorous,” Ward explains when talking about the themes that arise within the book. “It deals with alienation in a way, there’s a lot of characters that are rejects from their original planet or their high school. They have to go to a new planet and start over, so there’s an element of escapism in it.”
Fun-O-Planet, as well as many of Ward’s flyers, seem to address the difference between feeling like an “alien” and presenting oneself as a reject or an outsider to peers that may be performing in a similar way. It’s a common trope among comic book authors, but Ward gives us surreal images with which to illustrate this idea in a way that is at its best through images instead of words.
“I want to keep doing longer comics,” says Ward, who plans to print two more volumes of Fun-O-Planet to complete the series, which is still being written. Ward plans to travel with the comic to underground-friendly conventions in San Francisco, Chicago, and the like, something he had not been able to accomplish without a physical copy of his work to sell in order to be accepted to the juried shows.
“I’m definitely always doing flyers. If I’m doing freelance stuff, I’m mostly doing flyers for punk shows,” says Ward. He is also keeping busy designing a new T-shirt and sticker for CIA’s marketing department and working on a new comic with his twin brother Alex, who is also an artist and musician.
If you would like to help fund Fun-O-Planet and future projects from Nathan Ward, you can donate here: