Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Comic books are for kids. But they’re not just for kids. They’re also for adults. And seniors. And teenagers. In India, a nation plagued by a 35 percent adult illiteracy rate and 22 official languages, educational comic books are used to teach everything from health to science to contemporary culture. In Japan, phone-book-sized weekly manga entertain salarymen on their long train rides to work. Around the world, cartoon-illustrated tracts are employed to convert nonbelievers to the born-again teachings of Jack Chick. In Hollywood, popular graphic novels are used as fodder for just about every big-budget movie that hits theaters. Comic books are for everybody. That’s one of the messages the New Mexico-based arts organization 7000 BC is trying to get across.
“It’s mostly [about] building an awareness of comics as an art form and a tool of communication,” says Jeff Benham, a writer and artist who has worked with 7000 BC almost since its creation.
The group started out in 2004 as a collaboration between three comic-loving friends from northern New Mexico: Enrique “Ryk” Martinez, Jarrett “Jett Boy” Boynton and Tyrrell Cummings. “Basically, us three started doing our own books—DIY, self-publishing our own stuff,” recalls Martinez from his home in Española. “We decided there was enough of us—it was the whole strength in numbers thing--we just decided to form a group. We handed out some flyers at our local comic book shop in Santa Fe, and we got about 15 people in the first meeting. It just snowballed from there.”
The group shared more than simply a passion for reading comics, however. “The genesis was we taught a workshop at the Hands Across Cultures teen center here in Española,” explains Martinez. “We’d never had any teaching experience, per se, but it just went over really well. We decided that would be the main focus of the organization—to promote comics through education. Once we started doing it, we got offers from all kinds of people, from the Santa Fe Art Institute to the Harwood [Art Center in Albuquerque]. We started doing a bunch of workshops. We got more and more people involved and we started getting out our own stuff with the 7000 BC imprint. Also, we started looking into publishing some anthologies featuring the group’s members.”
7000 BC is alternately known as Sweet Seven Thousand’s Baaadassss Comics. That’s a reference to both our capital city’s elevation (the place where the group began) and Melvin Van Peebles’ pioneering indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (a spiritual godfather to all artists who seek to carve their own autonomous path). Three years after its inception, 7000 BC is a growing nonprofit collective with a stated goal to provide “opportunities for comics writers and artists to develop their personal styles and storytelling voices, while promoting an understanding of the cultural significance of comic art through seminars and workshops.”
Like most Americans, Benham, Martinez and the other members of 7000 BC grew up reading comic books. “I think I learned to read from comics,” says Martinez, only half-joking. But what is it about this particular medium that attracts him as an artist? “I love the spontaneity of it,” says Martinez, whose simple, school desk doodles are often called upon to express the anxieties and exasperations of youth. “I love that I can just sit down with a pen and paper and express myself without going through any other channel.”
Benham, an artist who has worked in a variety of media, approaches it differently: “I think I’ve always worked with story and image, because I do a lot of work in theater, I've done some TV, some film, a little bit of everything in that spectrum. Just the idea of communicating on both those levels [story and image]; they’re both so powerful.”
7000 BC counts “about 60” local writers and artists as members, with “15 core members” putting out regular comics—more than 30 of them to date. The comic book creators who have allied themselves with 7000 BC self-publish their books. They create the titles, pay for the printing and—with the help of 7000 BC—distribute their work around the country. The books are sold in comic shops, at conventions and through the group’s website (www.7000bc.org). In Albuquerque, Comic Warehouse and Astro-Zombies stock the books. In Santa Fe, they can be found at True Believers Comics and Gallery. “We haven’t had any official national releases like through Diamond Distributors,” admits Benham, referencing North America’s largest comic book distribution company. “We’re working toward that. But we do have stuff in shops around the country by dealing with them directly.”
So far, 7000 BC published one anthology book (the adult-oriented Eroticon, which hit stores earlier this year) and helped promote and distribute dozens of one-shots (Jamie Chase’s graphic fantasy novel Muse, Tyrrell Cummings’ moody love story Webb) and continuing series (Bram and Monica Meehan’s superhero/superspy series Raised by Squirrels, Jeff Benham and Ryk Martinez’ grade school reminiscence The Salmonilla Chronicles). Thumbing though the assorted titles, readers will find no dominant “theme” or “style” to the books put out by 7000 BC. “We've got so many different approaches, which is one of the great things about the group—everyone works differently, so everybody finds their own way,” points out Benham, whose name is attached to a half-dozen books in 7000 BC’s roster.
Small press and indie publishing conventions like San Francisco’s Alternative Press Expo (APE) have provided 7000 BC with significant exposure. In September, Benham and several other artists attended the up-and-coming Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland. There, Bram and Monica Meehan’s Raised by Squirrels: Los Alamos was nominated for Best Small Press Book. Last week, the Meehans were at SPX, the annual Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md., promoting their book and those of their fellow New Mexico creators.
These national conventions also allow 7000 BC members to meet up with other creator-run organizations which publish small-press comics. But, notes Benham, “We’re doing something unique in the other things we’re doing, such as teaching workshops and seminars.” Most of the workshops (on storytelling techniques, layout and other technical aspects) have been in Santa Fe, but the group is making deeper inroads into the Duke City. The group recently cosponsored a talk by renowned comic book guru Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics, at the Art Center Design College in Albuquerque. “We’re just starting down here in Albuquerque,” says Benham. “We had one [workshop] at the Harwood and one at Menaul School. We’re talking about doing stuff with ACLU, mentoring high school kids. We’ve taught everyone from 5-year-olds up through college level.”
Comic books, as both art form and communication, are “really being recognized, mostly by younger people,” notes Benham. “Older people still aren’t recognizing it as much. But they’re slowly coming around. Younger people are very aware of it as a way of communicating.” You can chalk this up to Hollywood’s sudden love affair with the graphic novel and to the saturation of Japanese-style comic books among America’s young adult population. If you haven’t noticed this phenomenon, take a glance at the rapidly expanding manga section next time you're in Hastings or Borders.
“It’s just the way society has shifted. There’s more focus on combining image and word,” says Benham, who expects comic books to become an increasing part of our multi-media society. “It’s also nice that libraries are starting to recognizing it, too. And schools as well. I think it’s starting to explode. I think it’s right on the edge of really going crazy. Everyone knows who Frank Miller [creator of Sin City and 300] is now. Twenty years ago, nobody would have known him outside of the comics world.”