A conversation with Providence Comic Consortium’s Walker Mettling

by Erin Prinz-Schwartz

Illustration by Devyn Park

published April 3, 2015

Providence is a great city for certain things—coffee milk, noise music, gruesome bike vs. pothole accidents, and notably, indie comics and zines. This weekend, the Rhode Island Independent Publishing Expo (RIPE) took place at Providence Public Library on Washington Street. Three sunny rooms were packed with comic artists selling books all Saturday and Sunday afternoon, punctuated by talks on everything from creativity to political art to the predictive abilities of scifi. Walking around the expo was exciting, albeit overwhelming: comic book covers were teeming with robo-rabbits, neon entrails, future city skylines, independent wolf-girls. Some were drawn with clean, minimal linework, some in dense, sketchy ink, purposefully messy scrawls; in watercolor, black pen; neon marker; photocopied, digitally painted. There were a lot of visitors browsing tables, and there were also a lot of exhibitors. The comics scene in Providence is doing well.

Comic art in Providence has a surprising group of contributors—kids at community libraries. The Providence Comics Consortium (PCC) is a group that provides after-school programming to kids by teaching them how to produce their own comics. But it only takes a quick flip through one of PCC’s publications to understand that this is not an average library class. Almost nothing is off-limits, and it seems like the kids benefit from it. Their stories are usually hilarious, and occasionally, surprisingly moving and sad. It was represented by a table at the expo that featured a gumball machine full of surreal tchotchkes (like googly eyes on a razor blade, not for children under the age of 13).

I spoke to Walker Mettling, a co-founder of Providence Comics Consortium, next to a wall rack full of comics at Ada Books on the West Side. Mettling also organized a show of Comic Consortium work and other comic-related arts at 186 Carpenter in January that was loosely inspired by the 1980s Garbage Pail Kids trading cards and their spinoff cult film. Throughout the interview, Mettling kept running into the printing studio in the back to grab a book either relevant to a point he was making or written by an author he had just referenced. By the end of the interview, I had a tall, colorful stack of them on the arm of my chair.


The College Hill Independent: What is the Providence Comics Consortium? How was it started?

Walker Mettling: The Providence Comics Consortium started in October of 2010. It was initially the Providence Community Library, they tapped me and Andrew Esche… do you know about the break between the libraries in town?

{I did: in 2009, the City of Providence ran out of funding for the Providence Public Libraries (PPL), in operation since 1871. All nine neighborhood branches were going to be closed before a group of volunteers created the nonprofit Providence Community Libraries (PCL) to maintain them. Today, the city-funded Providence Public Library manages the historic library downtown, where RIPE was held, and the Providence Community Library network runs the rest of the city’s branches. Roughly two-thirds of PCL’s budget comes from the city.}

The Comics Consortium started right after the Providence Community Library sprouted up, and they wanted to do more programming with less money. They wanted to do a comics class, and the idea was to use it as a back door to literacy and to get kids interested in books. I think our interest was in comics being a print medium, and actually making books—that the kids would make books, and that the books would live in the libraries. And my long-term creative and curatorial practice has always been about putting different groups of people together, so giving adult cartoonists assignments to work with the kids has been part of it since the beginning.

The way artist Mickey Zacchilli describes the role of adults in the Comics Consortium is “adult working cartoonists doing fan-fiction of the characters that the kids invent.” I wasn’t sure about that at first, but I think I’m really into that as a description now.

So we started with community libraries, then branched out. We were at Foo Fest last year and ran an advice booth via pneumatic tube. I think we dispensed 250-something pieces of advice.

I almost asked for a piece of advice from the PCC at Foo Fest, but the line was too long. This was the setup: people at street level write questions on a sheet, then stick it up a pneumatic tube that rises three stories to the top floor of AS220. There, Comic Consortium child cartoonists quickly draw an answer to the question and shoot it back down, where it’s posted on a corkboard for everyone to see.


The Indy: What are some of the other projects you’ve done?

WM: A couple years ago, the DOT wanted us to do some books about seatbelt safety. I wasn’t sure, then I talked to the kids and they were like, “yeah!” So we did three little books, then a bigger anthology. A bunch of kids had written raps, and the library asked us to put them in the book, but we didn’t want there to be big text blocks. So we had dinosaurs rapping, and giant gorillas, rapping about “seatbelt, seatbelt, put it on.” There was actually a concert where they performed all their raps, and a lot of books got handed out.

Right now I’m at the Mount Pleasant Library, and we’re making life-size sculptures of heinous car accidents that will be in the library. The plan at this point is to have motion sensors in them so that when patrons get up close, the sculptures scream out and talk about not wearing their seatbelt. We’re gonna have a car, then we’re gonna have this minotaur, with his guts trailing out, and the nerve holding onto his eye hanging out of his head. There’s weird stuff like that.

We were also in a Creative Time show, in a touring art show called Living as Form. We made a book for the show, The Math Warriors, about a math vigilante gang. We were between WikiLeaks and Ai Weiwei in that show, which was weird. And there was another group there that did stuff with kids about economic literacy. We actually stole the idea of the pneumatic tube at Foo Fest from them. Their setup was, you talk to a banker lady sitting at a desk, where you would ask for financial advice. Then she would shoot the questions through the wall, where there was a panel of kids who would answer financial questions and then shoot them back, and they would get posted.


The Indy: Can you talk a little about Collect ’Em All!, the Garbage Pail Kids exhibit at 186 Carpenter?

WM: The genesis of the carpenter show involved Jori Ketten [co-founder of 186 Carpenter] and a mutual friend of ours, Casey Coleman. Casey’s brother found a huge cache of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in the trash in New Orleans. Casey used to live in town, and there was confusion about who he left the Garbage Pail Kids to when he left: me or Jori. From the beginning, she was like, “I want to do a show with all the Garbage Pail Kids in it.” And I don’t think I was the only one who was skeptical about that, but after a while, I said, “You haven’t done a show yet with those Garbage Pail Kids that Casey left me.” And she said, “I’ll give you the doubles, but then you have to help with the show.”


The Indy: So the show was created to resolve this dispute, basically.

WM: Well, it was year ago that we had that conversation, and I said I couldn’t do the show until January. We decided to riff off of these trading cards and make some new cards, and we’d put up all the books that the Comics Consortium made. And other people just got involved through us mentioning it. Like Jacob Brendon, he used to run a junk store in Worcester. He made all the toys in the case.

At the Exhibit, you could buy a pack of trading cards that were created for the exhibit. (I got Living Baby Made of Cow Meat, Mateo the Great, and Taco Bear.) There were also Frankenstein-esque homemade toys, photo albums full of obscure trading cards, watercolor illustrations, a collection of masks of 1980s pop culture characters on the wall, sheets of uncut trading cards, and of course, the highly contested Garbage Pail Kids card collection.

The big book of trading cards and the MAD Magazine cards that were uncut on the wall, those were Josh Gravel. He runs the Arkham Film Society. They play weird old B movies, 16 millimeter, and horror. He’s a big film collector, so in the middle of January he had a night where he put together a video. He always overdoes it a bit, it’s kind of like going to a noise show where there’s a little bit of endurance involved… he put together a 90 minute video answer to all the stuff we had up there.

In terms of doing the trading cards, adults and kids would submit linework, and I plopped those into a template for the black layer of cards and colored all of them as a sheet and did the color separations by hand. We had a party where we packed all the cards, and put the pieces of gum in. There was another crew making all the stuff for the gumball machine. There were a bunch of kids there on the night of the Josh Gravel program, but there were razor blades with googly eyes in the gumball machine. We were on the edge of our seat watching what the kids got, but they just got, like, slime with a plastic cat head in it or something.


The Indy: Yeah, I guess it’s good that no kids got razor blades.

WM: But there’s also a crazy paradigm shift that would produce. Like, “what?! You can put googly eyes on a razor blade and then put it in this machine?!” And I think that’s what a lot of this is trying to do, in a way. Having just a miniscule amount of danger involved is really good.


The Indy: You realize that you can play with things you’re not supposed to play with.

WM: Right, and in terms of the Comic Consortium books… the book that’s been by far the most controversial is a collection of prose stories called The Baboon, the Banana Dog and Other Stories. But it was interesting, in terms of establishing the lines. Because when it’s a kid’s writing versus their art, where the prose is not filtered through their drawing… adults will project more stuff onto it.


The Indy: What was controversial about it?

WM: Well, there are a bunch of cool things that are controversial about it. I had one parent who was worried about her son talking about the stories we made up in class in public. There were zombie children, for example. There was also the baboon, and I think all of us need to have baboon nightmares at some point. Baboons are terrifying. But one of the stories is about the baboon being harried by airport security. He finds a dead body by the dumpsters, and he strips the corpse and puts on the corpse’s clothes, so that totally makes sense.

But there’s other stuff that didn’t come up. One of the stories is a list of all the rides at a crazy theme park, and one of the rides is for parents—you put your kids on the ride if you want to swap their genders. A kid wrote this piece called “The One-Page Story of Jimmy-Rhonda,” and it’s about Jimmy-Rhonda’s life after going through this ride. And it’s like, “these are the facts about Jimmy-Rhonda…” it’s this weird, trippy gender-bendy story.

The story of Jimmy-Rhonda is very short. Reproduced from the book, here are the facts: “1) She liked the gremlins. 2) She had a hamster. 3) His name was DAME. 4) She had a potato tattoo. 5) She loves chicken.”

I told the mom of the kid who was uncomfortable that I totally understand having those feelings, and if you don’t think he’s ready, bring him back in a year. And she asked if we were going to continue with these types of themes. But the kids are driving it. I do have fixed boundaries, but it’s not like I’m going to censor them if they cross my lines—we’ll just have conversations about it. I think it’s important for them to cross lines and to have weird-ass conversations about it.

I just finished doing a class at a Montessori school, and doing classes in school is totally different. There’s a sheen across what they’ll even allow themselves to think when they’re at school. But when you’re a kid who’s just at the library, it’s kind of like summer camp. It’s not as sterile as being in school, where you have to be careful about what you’re thinking. And I think that’s the thing with the stories that the parents had trouble with. You can certainly write stories and give characters situations that force them to make bad decisions. And you can write characters who are just doing bad things.

So I wrote an introduction about that, and the kids wrote an introduction from their perspective. And Brian Evanson came to speak—he’s the head of Literary Arts at Brown, and he basically got kicked out of Utah for his first book. He got kicked out of the Latter-day Saints Church, and lost his job at Brigham Young. And we talked about that; images are crazy like that. You watch weird Italian zombie movies too young and you’re sleeping with the light on until you’re fifteen. And you can also write something, and you get run out of town. So Bryan Evanston wrote a foreword to that book, too.


ERIN PRINZ-SCHWARTZ B’15 wants the PCC to make life-sized sculptures of the heinous bike vs. pothole accidents that she’s gotten into.