As he's done almost every day, for several hours a day, over the last three months, 20-year-old Jonas McCluggage hunches over a polished, dark wood table at Lofty's Idea. Scuffed blue nail polish flashes as his right hand moves between coffee and watercolors, gifting shade to pencil and Sharpie drawings.
His hair, recently dyed lavender, juts stiffly from under a green beanie that matches his eyes. A crude necklace of metal washers pokes partly out of a hand-sewn, sleeveless shirt comprised of various fabric patches that culminate in one focal red patch — a surreal "pinecone heart" being pecked by a songbird — over his chest. McCluggage makes almost all his own clothes, including custom blue jeans that look as if they just barely survived a fabric shredder, thin segments of denim stitched into an erratic, shaggy veil.
When he smiles, often inspired by something co-conspirator and Lofty's owner Josh Kennard has said from across the table, his face softens into a sheepish and disarming but somehow maniacal grin.
On the surface alone, he's easily as fascinating and as much of a character as the lively personalities he and a small, trusted group of story collaborators are creating for a graphic-novel project, tentatively titled the The Lofty's Comic. The project is epic in scope and ambition, and the art, says Escape Velocity Comics manager Mike Coco, looks "totally professional."
In some frames, characters stand static in portraits, while in others, scenes look as if clipped from a newspaper story of the early 20th century. Odd contraptions like blimp airplanes, tank-tread locomotives and a steam-powered motorcycle transport the heroes.
It's something of a steampunk scrapbook with a cool carny feel, and in the story of its creation, McCluggage could metaphorically be the hero who just discovered his superpowers, and is starting to apply them in the real world. Without forces of evil to battle and no major inner demons left to slay, he's content to throw all his passion into his art, with no fixed plan for tomorrow.
He's also satisfied placing all his trust in a unique, timely friendship to which the work owes its roots and on which it ultimately hinges.
Coco has read comics for more than 30 years. Commenting on just a few frames, he likens McCluggage's style to that of The Walking Dead artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard, and also notes touches of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and Alan Moore's collaborator on the Watchmen, Dave Gibbons.
The narrative incorporates real historical figures like Nikola Tesla, Alfred Nobel, an obscure railway engineer named V.B. Wagner and stunt pilot Art Smith, as well as fictional miners, German spies, scientists, a bearded lady, a native medicine man, a lizard boy and protagonists named and roughly sketched to resemble the book's main creators.
The storyline itself, which alludes to a fake history of Lofty's, promises to be as convoluted as that cast; it centers on a grown-up, German-born test-tube baby, Jordan, and his French lover, Sophie, on the run from Jordan's creators. While getting a crash course in the aforementioned steampunk technology, they encounter "these marvelous adventures," in McCluggage's words.
The kicker: This comic has no word balloons. The only text presented will be through fake correspondence, forged documents, journal entries and odd paraphernalia like phony spy film and captioned family portraits. Readers will have to sift through small "surprises" McCluggage has hidden within the art to make sense of it.
Kennard likens it to "a journey through an antique shop," and Coco says the approach is "not groundbreaking or totally unheard of, but it's unusual.
"It's kind of like tying one arm behind your back," he says. "It puts the whole weight of the story on images."
Some works that have gone this way, he adds, include the popular Japanese Manga comic Gon, which wordlessly follows the adventures of a dog-sized dinosaur, and Owly, a Top Shelf children's book silently built around a giant-eyed owl.
The faux documents in The Lofty's Comic remind Coco of what Alan Moore did at the end of each issue of Watchmen. Moore included several pages of text, such as the character Rorschach's medical records, which provided added insight to the larger story for readers wanting to delve beyond surface enjoyment of the art.
To that same end, McCluggage has monotonously folded fake letters over and over again to antique them, burned edges of paper, blotted documents with coffee and even spent a couple hours reverse-lettering a photo caption for historic authenticity. Picture inking around negative space to create the illusion of white cursive writing on black background: It's not just a meticulous feat of conceptualization, it's fucking insane.
The project began innocuously enough. McCluggage began hanging out at his friend Kennard's south downtown café after getting off work from Nosh and the Blue Star, where he served on chef Alicia Prescott's pastry team for around six months.
One afternoon, Kennard asked McCluggage to sketch something that might be good for a playing card that he could use in a Lofty's loyalty program. Within an hour, the artist drew two men with dark eyes, long dusters and dapper hats standing on a city street, as if posing for a photo somewhere in the Wild West. He handed the sketch over to Kennard and fellow co-worker and artist Caitlin Goebel, prompting them to make up back-stories for the men.
Silly banter soon inspired more drawings, and then more as stories developed through friends. Soon McCluggage was borrowing a friend's typewriter to create documents and researching Industrial Revolution-era machinery and historical figures online.
"It took us two months before we realized how big the project was," Kennard says. "We were just playing."
While McCluggage is solely responsible for the visuals and he and Kennard tag-team the majority of the plot, a few friends have contributed minor story components and small tidbits of advice about the framework and ultimate shaping. For example, one friend who served in Iraq advised McCluggage on how tank treads function to help him more accurately create a hybrid locomotive in a drawing.
Now, there are more than 80 sketched or created items and 25-plus characters, and the team suspects it's only about 60 percent done with the story it aims to tell.
Into the wild
Surprisingly, neither McCluggage nor Kennard cite other comics as a major influence on this project. Neither grew up reading them, and McCluggage didn't even crack one open until Hellboy found him at the age of 16.
It was around that time that his parents moved him and his three younger siblings to Colorado Springs from California. His father, a philosophy professor, and his mother, a second-grade teacher, raised all four kids in a strongly evangelical Christian household, which Jonas was fine with until he was 18.
"I was a fairly normal kid: I loved rules and following rules and rules were the best thing in the world for me ... I bought it up till then," he says. "But I decided to take some responsibility and read the Bible myself and figure out what I believe. It didn't really match up, so I kinda split."
He graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School and moved out, with his parents' support and blessing. But he quickly realized that he didn't really know how to fend for himself.
"I could graph a parabola or solve a log problem," he says, "but I didn't know how to fix myself some eggs."
He tried a stint living with a friend in an apartment, and prepped for a train-hopping expedition. It fell through, and he started planning a two-month hitchhiking adventure instead.
In the interim, he met Kennard at a late 2009 poetry jam, and the two struck up a friendship over art discussions. McCluggage had taken some high school classes, but otherwise had taught himself drawing techniques. He's worked some with acrylics on cardboard, but mostly has drawn — because, he says, he's not a very good planner. "I usually just work with whatever is in my pockets. Pencils and pens don't weigh a lot, so I carry those around."
McCluggage donated a painting to an art auction that Kennard organized, and their friendship grew. They talked about things that would come to inform their vision of The Lofty's Comic: McCluggage says his work owes much to ARGs, or alternative reality games, somewhat subversive and difficult-to-describe community-play games that incorporate multimedia and derive structure from the real world. Kennard cites a third-person computer game called Fallout that he played back in the late '90s, which placed historical clues and minutiae inside the game for players to find, even taunting them for that which they might have missed.
They also talked a lot about McCluggage's impending road adventure. Somewhat like Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, McCluggage was feeling propelled to cast off his possessions and strike out on the road. Kennard counseled the artist-in-existential-crisis against feeling that making money off his art somehow devalued it.
When he returned, McCluggage shared with Kennard the sense of loneliness he discovered in that ascetic pursuit, as well as a new-found understanding for the value of his work. Kennard calls the period McCluggage's rite of passage, likening it to a belated Bar Mitzvah of sorts. (Ostensibly minus the Torah reading.)
Mentors and money
It's hard to imagine now — since the 30-year-old Kennard has helped open an art gallery and watched it flourish; puts in seven-day, 90-plus-hour workweeks between Lofty's and art endeavors; and co-owns and keeps tabs on Olde World Bagels & Deli with his father — but not too long ago, he was in a position similar to McCluggage's, striking out in the world mostly on his own.
"I did my rebellion stage," he says, "I dropped out of [Harrison High School], got two jobs and bought a house at 20."
Disillusioned with the value of conventional education, Kennard never returned for even a GED. He believes that most college-aged kids today would be better off taking the significant amount of money they spend on "a piece of paper" and instead starting a business or investing in property. It's these and less contentious bits of advice in art, business and even relationships that have made him a casual mentor or big brother to younger artists like McCluggage.
"I tell them they still need to toe the line, but find out who they are," he says.
Stubbled under a tweed newsboy cap with a knowing gaze and general confidence that informs both his business and artistic acumen, he's remarkably friendly and hugely encouraging of young artists. It's part of an overarching, community-minded philosophy that helped Rubbish thrive during his time there and for a while afterward. (It lasted under largely new ownership until the end of last year.)
The End of the Beginning, the first art show that he's organized at Lofty's — up through the end of March — pays tribute to the legacy of Rubbish. But the new space itself, he sees as something of a successor to the art venue. He talks about Lofty's as being much more than just a place to drink coffee and see art; in addition, he says, people should use it as an incubator for great conversation and ideas. (See "Goodbye, hello," 7 Days to Live, Feb. 17.)
It's in this spirit that McCluggage toils on free coffee, as both an artistic medium and internal fuel. He also puts in paid time, washing dishes and making sandwiches. But despite Kennard's tutelage, McCluggage says he still doesn't really care about money.
"I probably should," he says, "but all of my dreams and aspirations could be completed on minimum wage.
"I'm the ultimate minimalist," he continues. "I'd almost feel guilty if [the comic] became hugely popular. It'd almost feel like spitting in the face of people who take literature seriously."
The adventures of Jonas
McCluggage has come to terms with public display of at least some of his work. He c has a dozen pieces hanging in the Business of Art Center's Fluxus show, as well as another 10 works for sale at Jives Coffee Lounge in Old Colorado City. His playful murals grace walls at Nosh, the Blue Star and Pikes Perk.
He's also working on a conventional (as in text-driven) autobiographical graphic novel that's thus far sought to recount his hitchhiking voyage. The Adventures of Jonas is viewable in part at 25mph.deviantart.com. Constructed on a computer drawing tablet, it has a much different feel than The Lofty's Comic, but shows a similar mastery of composition and gift for fluid line work.
Creating anywhere from three panels a day to three panels a week on the personal comic, and anywhere from three to five frames a day on the community project, McCluggage projects a seemingly inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm. He and Kennard are having so much fun with the project, as is their immediate community, that they're not really talking about deadlines. They're confident that it will guide its own course.
McCluggage tentatively plans to take off for North Carolina as early as May to reconnect with friends there. Though he's considering taking friends' advice by learning to apply his artistic skill in the tattoo industry, he says he doesn't ever want a career; he aims to work as little as possible and to continue to devote himself to his art full-time.
So once the Lofty's drawings are completed, McCluggage says he'll leave Kennard to take care of the editing, formatting and marketing. Where one might see naiveté in that agreement, the two have formed a friendship perhaps as unique as the collaborative venture, such that any form of betrayal is far from McCluggage's mind: "I trust Josh," he says. "I really don't want to worry about that."
Kennard says it's realistic to expect something like a small-series-release of the work within six months, even if the format and concept could change at any time. The crew wants to keep the production as DIY as possible, likely printing and sharing the final product locally before querying comic publishers on the national level.
"Even though this all started with a coffee shop, I want the comic book to be its own entity," says Kennard. "Kind of like what I'm doing with The End of the Beginning. I want it to go past its walls."
And it very well could.
Coco notes that Hellboy and The Walking Dead's artists were relatively unknown, "certainly not all-caps A-list," before striking it big with those comics. They're "a perfect example" of small, creator-owned projects' potential in the marketplace.
As he puts it, "Quality stuff finds an audience."