by Martin Wagner
Way back when I was but a young thing there was a comic called Hepcats by Martin Wagner. This was around 89/90 and the buzz was all about self publishing. Dave Sim was leading a merry band of talented cartoonists into battle against the might of corporate cartooning. And for a while it seemed everyone wanted to join the party: Terry Moore, Jeff Smith, Colleen Doran, James Owen, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch and Martin Wagner to name but a few.
And if you had to put money on anyone of that lot succeeding it would have been Martin Wagner. Incredibly passionate, young, talented and driven to publish his anthropomorphic Hepcats, Wagner made a promise of 100 issues and for a little while it even seemed possible.
But sometime around 1994 the whole thing stalled, just as Wagner had started to take it into much darker territory than the initial life and loves of some college kids storylines had promised. And Wagner made some seriously bad business decisions along the way which meant a lot of people – readers and retailers got burnt by him. (More details on that, and the long overdue steps to rectify those mistakes on his blog).
I’ve still got my copies of Hepcats: The Collegiate years and Snowblind Part 1 on the shelf, but I long ago gave up any hope of seeing anymore issues. Wagner’s started up a Hepcats blog and is making some Hepcats mini-comics again, purely for fun and a bit of cash, but it seems his grand project is dead and buried. There was talk of finishing it as a webcomic but I’ll believe that when I see it. (Update Dec 2010 – still nothing)
Which is a terrible shame, because I really enjoyed the series the first time round. And I’ve just enjoyed most of it all over again, thanks to the scanned in pages of Hepcats issues 0-10 on the Hepcats-Comicgenesis website run by fan Stephanie Krus. (The Snowblind collection, the best Hepcats book, has issues 3-10, as Wagner, ever the impractical creator, formatted issue 2 in such a way as to make it almost impossible to reprint.)
It may have been very much a product of it’s time, but for me it will always be a very enjoyable time and a damn fine comic. Well worth a look.
(The gang in happy times early on. From l-to-r: Gunther, Arnie, Erica and Joey. From Hepcats: Snowblind. (c) Martin Wagner.)
It all started as a light hearted college strip about four college kids: Joey, Gunther, Arnie, and Erica. Joey’s the jerk, Gunther’s the dependable one, Arnies the slightly nerdy one, who thinks he’s found the love of his life in Erica. Erica’s an exotic dancer (as was Wagner’s wife at the time I believe) working her way through college and trying to keep the many, many dark secrets of her past at bay. And yes, everyone in Hepcats is an animal. That’s okay. Remember this was the time of Cerebus and Maus. Anthropomorphic was fine. In fact, it still is.
Wagner’s artwork was a detailed, complicated and busy thing, and occasionaly it let him down, but he had a great sense of page layout (another of Dave Sim’s influences on the book) that he used to great effect towards the end of the series.
Whereas the early stuff was all fairly lightweight yet funny, once we got into the material collected in Snowblind it got very dark very quickly:
(Towards the end of Snowblind, where it all comes together and Erica’s past life catches up to her. Suddenly the laughter’s gone and the intensity and desperation takes over.)
Erica’s past catches up with her at the end and it’s still, years later, an incredibly strong, emotionally draining read in the latter half of the book. Gone is the earlier comedy, as Wagner manages to wring every last drop of emotion and despair from the story.
After the final, devastating issue in Snowblind there were just two more issues, as yet uncollected and not on the website yet. I managed to lose them years ago and can’t remember what happened. So this may well be all I’ve got. But it’s enough.
The ending of Snowblind kind of works as an ending to the series, albeit an ending where you then go off and fill in the rest of the character’s lives for them. If you can find the book somewhere, buy it. It’s worth a slow read through somewhere comfortable and dark. But failing that, settle down in front of a monitor and point the mouse at the start of the scans. Welcome to Hepcats. One of those lost gems that litter the history of the comic medium.