A visit with the Cartoonist’s League of Absurd Washingtonians
In the cramped back room of the Mandolin Café, a man in a fez bangs a gong with a corn-cob pipe.
“What are robots?” he intones.
“Robots are cool!” more fez wearers chant, thumbs up, Fonz-style.
“Zombies must die!”
Thumbs point down. “Shoot ’em in the head!”
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe!” the leader declares (French for “This is not a pipe,” a reference to the painting The Treachery of Images by Belgian surrealist René Magritte).
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe!”
And with a couple of claps and some clumsy pirouettes, a meeting of the Cartoonist’s League of Absurd Washingtonians (CLAW) comes to order.
Notebooks open. Laptops boot up. The first fresh lines are drawn.
A few years ago, CLAW Grand Pooh Bah Mark Monlux put a sketchbook in every room of his house. A freelance illustrator and graphic-design consultant since 1985, he’d gotten out of the habit of drawing for fun. He was determined to reclaim the creative joy that had sustained him growing up. He started doodling for kicks.
“I felt like a kid again,” he told me one morning in his home office in South Tacoma.
The room itself is a shrine to his own youth, and to younger times in America. The shelves are crammed with toy cars and figures, a giant porcelain cheeseburger, vintage paperbacks with sensational covers.
When I mistakenly referred to the books as “pulp fiction,” he enlightened me about the evolution of American pop literature, brimming with enthusiasm. He told me about the artists who drew those covers, about changes in inks, technique and popular taste. He waxed nostalgic about comics, about movie posters, about science fiction, about burgers.
When discussing his professional life, however, another Mark Monlux shone through, a forty-six-year-old professional who charts his productivity by the hour, who jets across the country on a wide variety of assignments — recently he had to bone up on medical terminology for brainstorming sessions with a pharmaceutical company that has hired him to create graphics.
Monlux likes his job; it’s satisfying work that uses his talents. Still, it’s work. It doesn’t use all of his talents and it doesn’t satisfy all of Mark Monlux.
Hence the sketchbooks. And hence CLAW.
On a Friday morning last April, a bulletin was stapled to virtual telephone poles all across online Tacoma:
the best CARTOONIST, RR ANDERSON challenges YOU to a sidewalk chalk sketch-off this FRIDAY at DEAD NOON, in DOWNTOWN TACOMA. FIRST EVER EVENT OF ITS KIND ON THE PLANET!
Due to concerns about crime, factions within city government had proposed fencing off Frost Park on the corner of South 9th and Commerce. This was Anderson’s way of protesting, blowing the conch shell to summon all artists.
The call to arms was issued again the next Friday. And the next. And the next. More artists came to Frost Park each week to draw on the sidewalks and walls, hoping to be crowned “Best Illustrator in the Universe of Tacoma.” Crowds gathered to watch. Sponsors lined up to donate prizes. Lunch breaks in the surrounding area grew conspicuously long.
In addition to Anderson, regular participants included Monlux, James Stowe and “Electric” Elliot Trotter. When the rains ended the fun last fall, they found themselves wanting more. They had enjoyed the camaraderie, the razzing and the one-upmanship. They had enjoyed drawing for drawing’s sake.
“Too many of us [draw] for a living and go home and turn off the switch,” Monlux says. Frost Park had helped change that.
So how could they keep the light on?
They spent a month discussing it, but nothing seemed to stick.
Then someone mentioned fezzes.
Howard Cunningham, the Tom Bosley character in the sitcom Happy Days, wore a fez as a member of Leopard Lodge No. 462, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As members of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble wore royal-blue bearskins with horns.
They wore them because the shows’ writers knew funny hats get laughs. They wore them to parody the obscure traditions of groups like the Shriners, Elks and Freemasons. But as such institutions die out in our increasingly insular times, these parodies look a lot like celebrations — an irony embraced by CLAW.
CLAW is a joke. But it’s a joke its members take seriously. They’re serious about upholding the traditions of service and fraternity established by the organizations they mock. They’re courting new members. They’re planning fundraisers. They’re producing a zine of CLAW cartoons. They’ve even endowed a scholarship. This year it’s worth only one hundred dollars, but they’re hopeful it will grow. An apologetic Grand Pooh Bah explains: “We spent a lot of money on the hats and the gong.” •
CLAW’s Open Swim Meeting, fourth Wednesdays, 7:30pm – 10:00pm, Mandolin Café, 3923 S. 12th St., Tacoma, 253.761.3482. Bring art supplies. Free!
The Cartoonist’s League of Absurd Washingtonians promotes cartooning, civic service, friendship and eccentric-headwear awareness. Their zine, Claw-Tu Verata Nikto, is available at The Red Hot, Origin 23 and Shakabrah. Visit cartoonistsleague.org to learn more.