This issue marks part one of “Deck,” a five part series on the hipster lifestyle. In this installment, we explore the subculture’s impact on that perennial favorite of young people, the alternative comic through the eyes of a comic book artist and resident who has seized on the frustration of hipster gentrification to create something subversive: a work of humor.
When Michael Schliefke rode his bike through his neighborhood in East Austin several years ago, little did he know that the incident would serve as fodder for a multivolume comic, but to hear the wiry, bespectacled painter tell it, it was just another day.
“I was riding my bike and was noticing more and more graffiti on stop signs and the like about stopping gentrification,” he said in an email interview. “The idea of making a farcical story about a white kid wanting to stop the gentrification he’s a part of soon came together.”
A life-long resident of the city, Schliefke was intrigued by the blossoming of tags and print protesting the in-flux of white, upscale urbanites into what had been a traditionally low-rent and Hispanic neighborhood. Separated by Interstate Highway 35, for decades the region served as an enclave for Mexican immigrants and their families hoping to start anew. With its unique blend of restaurants, churches, and the ever ubiquitous supermercados, East Austin wasn’t just geographically distinct it was by design its own de facto town.
That all began to change somewhere in the 2000s. As ambitious U of T graduates, bohemians and out of towners flocked to East Austin to experience their own share of the weirdness the city had to offer, the culture- to say little of the complexion- of East Austin began to change. Put off by what they saw as little more than a thinly veiled race and class struggle, local residents. One group, People Organized for the Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER for short), has held hearings on this issue. Blogs dedicated to the topic of East Austin’s gentrification litter the internet, and even King of The Hill creator Mike Judge has addressed it in an episode of his hit show.
Against that backdrop, the Really White Vigilante was born. A semi-humorous, satirical take on the neighborhood’s changes, the epic follows a nameless young man as he dons his white cape and cowl and battles corporate suits, developers and, yes, hipsters in a quixotic quest to preserve the cultural legacy of East Austin. So far three volumes of the series have been produced, and a forth is coming later this year.
“Hipsters are a natural enemy for the vigilante, as their fashion and iPhones are seemingly endless,” he said. “They’re a great foil for the overly earnest hero- ironic, almost mindlessly callous about reality and seem content to just chase the latest fads and fashions.”
Though Schliefke is the latest to use his quill to skewer subcultures, he’s not the first- nor is he the last. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, comic book artist Rick Griffin satirized the surfer culture in various comic books featuring the surfer Murphy, a trend which would continue through the 1970s (ironically, Griffin himself was a surfer), and long before Jack Chick’s books would become chic to read, Frank Stack’ Jesus illustrations were popular among Jesus Freaks and freethinkers alike.
According to Professor Paul Lopes of Colgate University, alternative comics have always been a venue to express new, innovative and subversive ideas, and even though they are still not as well known as Superman, and Batman, they’ve impacted the counterculture just the same.
“In general, alternative comic books are a very niche market within an already niche market of comic books,” he said in a quick email. “But certain major comic books have had an impact, in particular Maus by Art Spiegelman and Marjorie Satrapi’s Persepolis.”
However, according to Lopes- who has a book out on the subject, by the way- the artsy, alternative graphic novels reflected by the works of Speigelman, Satrapi and even Schliefke are overshadowed by pulpy texts such as Frank Miller’s Sin City and more recently, V for Vendetta.
However, as graphic novels become more popularized thanks to movie and TV series adaptations (see: Hellboy), the glut of illustrated media has exploded. Where once chains such as Barnes and Noble and Borders would have been reluctant to carry such faire, now entire sections of stores are devoted to the medium, especially Japanese manga. Not surprisingly, a lot of the growth is because of the internet. But Lopes doesn’t see it amounting to much.
“While the internet has helped in networking people within the alternative comic book movement, it has had little impact on exposing this art to a larger audience,” he said.
For Schliefke, however, every soul counts.
“I want the readers to be alerted to some of the issues [regarding gentrification] and weigh them for themselves,” he said. “I personally don’t think of hipsters as a great evil, but more as the amusing fashion trend of the decade- one in which everything has become recycled to the point where all meaning is lost.”
POSTSCRIPT: In the next installment, we explore a world very little talked about in the hipster subculture: that of the Christian hipsters. As one young editor chronicles the lives of these individuals, he contends with a fortuitous spiritual backdrop, one with great implications for the society at large.