Excerpted from “Notes from the Underground,” originally published Feb. 18, 2010
OCT. 17-18, 2009, SAN FRANCISCO’S CAVERNOUS, AIRPLANE-HANGAR-LIKE CONCOURSE raised its industrial gate to one of the biggest independent comic book conventions in California, the Alternative Press Expo – a kind of Comic-Con for the odd and artsy – and in poured a capacity crowd, fanning out among the 325 comics artists, writers, publishers, sellers and distributors.
There were guys selling prints of Christopher Walken tinkering in a garage, building a robot while drinking a Tab. There was the girl who glued found objects onto construction paper, bound it, and presented each unique creation as a comic book. There was Drawn & Quarterly, a distributor from Montreal, hawking Dave Eggers and Robert Crumb. Jeff Smith, artist and writer behind Bone, a 5-million-selling, 1,300-page epic of a fable, was there, as was Phoebe Gloeckner, 2008 Guggenheim Fellow and creator of the brutally frank The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Monterey’s Bridgett Spicer of the comic strip Squid Row.
Anime chicks and skater dudes, earnest geeks and pierced co-eds, art schoolers and anxious fans were all there. And Jeff Hoke. He was there, too. He stood out. Not so much because he was older than the prevailing demographic of those two days, or that he looked serene jammed in the bustling marketplace of vendors, but because his book and his booth looked so much better than the raw get-ups around him. His book was filled with arcane stuff, but meticulously executed, a fully realized hybrid of words, illustrations and layout.
In his own way, Hoke embodied the growing stature of APE’s art form, which spans generations, and has gained momentum in the move from obscure subculture to piercing niches in the mainstream. Though he’s part of a genre that’s growing, Hoke admits he’s still got some ways to go. “APE is not [entirely] my crowd,” he says. “I’m a fringe of a fringe of a lot of different groups: retired architects, psychologists, weird old guys.”
Asked where he’s from, Hoke replies, “Monterey.”
THERE’S THIS MUSEUM OUTSIDE A CITY, a hulking stone fortress of Egyptian motifs, Greek columns and Art Deco shapes, guarded by two sentinel statues: a dragon straddling a globe and a bald baby, arms folded. Up its steps, across its castle-like threshold, lies a vast, circular lobby, lined with arches embedded with statues of seven Muses including Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry. The floor is a swirling pattern of fractals emanating from a circle that contains a triangle that contains a circle enscribed with the Latin words gavitas, miraculum and levitas (gravitas, wonder, levity). There’s a front desk and a map to the seven exhibition halls of the Museum of Lost Wonder. To continue the journey into this arcane world of science and mysticism, one just needs to turn the page.
Hoke conceived, wrote and illustrated The Museum of Lost Wonder – a 160-page tour through his imaginary museum, inspired by 16th – and 17th-century invention, alchemy and philosophy – while serving for 16 years as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s senior exhibit designer..
“I get paid to build other people’s ideas,” he says months after APE, in his modest, third-floor apartment near Cannery Row. “I needed to work on my own ideas. With [The Museum], I could do anything. It’s a memory palace to put all the ideas I had as a kid.”
Though The Museum of Lost Wonder is appointed with pictures of kids who demonstrate hands-on projects,, it primarily appeals to the adult intellect and sense of wonder, to a time when science didn’t explain all, leaving room for the imagination. “The kid in adults,” Hoke puts it. “I like the time period when science was personal. Curiosity cabinets filled with watches, shells, machines next to what they thought were unicorn horns.”