Local artist/writer duo document 2021 and beyond

For many artists and illustrators, working on a new project can often serve as therapy, a way to escape or even deal with the stresses and microaggressions of everyday life. Take those stresses away, however, and it can be just as disconcerting.

Like many, local illustrator Morgan Miller III found himself to be both isolated and distressed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He attempted to make sense of it in his own way, creating slightly satirical cartoon-style illustrations that served as something of a diary, but also helped him deal with the new normal of quarantining and pandemic-related politicizing.

“It started as something of a way of processing what was going on by drawing in my sketchbook, and then it turned into a way of documenting what was going on,” says Miller, a fifth generation San Diegan.

“In my life, I’ve often had a hard time figuring out subject matter and everything that was going on was just perfect to draw,” Miller continues. “I just felt powerless over these major issues — the pandemic, everything that Trump was doing, the authoritarian leanings of the Republicans, and the Black Lives Matter movement — so it seemed like a good way to participate and to just personally understand what was going on. The best way to understand it was to do what I do best, which was drawing.”

Before the pandemic, Miller was helping run the Athenaeum Art Center’s print studio in Logan Heights, where he taught classes and helped maintain the presses. With classes canceled but still having access to the space, Miller says he began creating zine-style issues of his 2020 illustrations and releasing them. The responses were positive, but he says the writing portion of the project didn’t come as easy to him as the drawing.

“Yeah, it became too much for me to handle on my own,” Miller says. “I was sort of trudging through it. I’d rather be spending my time on the drawing.”

Morgan Miller III (left) and James Call

Morgan Miller III (left) and James Call

(Courtesy photo by Iran Arellano)

Enter James Call. The local musician, music writer and radio DJ had known Miller for years, the two having bonded over art and music after meeting at Krakatoa cafe in Golden Hill.

“I was immediately impressed with his artwork,” Call recalls. “The cleverness and detail of his renderings, but it was mostly the cleverness. He was doing all these interesting things as well, like making and printing his own books, and making these unique bindings.”

So when Miller asked him if he’d like to collaborate on what he now saw as an ongoing project, Call says he immediately said yes. Little did they know that 2021 was going to be, in many ways, an even stranger year than the one before. This is clearly on display in “2021: January-June,” their new graphic novel that chronicles everything from the Georgia Senate races and the January attacks at the Capitol to the end of mask mandates near the middle of the year.

“We wanted to capture the feel of that year, how we felt in the moment of when these things were happening,” says Call, who immediately wrote accompanying text as soon as Miller finished a new drawing. “It’s certainly a chronicle of a unique time, but it’s also a lament and an indictment.”

The “2021” book was something of a continuation and extension of the blog-style website where Miller and Call would post new content (morganthe3rd.com). The initial printing of 50 sold out almost immediately, and Miller says that was extremely encouraging, further letting him know that people were responding to the work. He had it reprinted and made it available at the website, as well as local shops like Verbatim Books in North Park and Folk Arts Rare Records in City Heights.

“You get into a bubble of sorts when it comes to Facebook and social media, so it felt great when people actually bought it,” Miller says. “It let me know that there was a broad audience for it.”

Still, the book is not without its opinions and is decidedly high on satirical writing and renderings. Yes, it’s a highly original, even beautiful documentation of the zeitgeist of the time — serving as a Robert Crumb-style visual and editorial snapshot of one of the strangest periods in American history — but it can also be highly polarizing for those who may not agree, for example, that Sen. Ted Cruz is a seditionist or that universal health care is a good thing.

“There were some people who were turned off by the politics involved,” Call says, referencing his own sister as someone who didn’t like what her self-described “Bernie Sanders Democrat” brother had to say about Trump or how they portrayed people who believed in conspiracy theories like QAnon. “She didn’t say anything at all at first, but finally she came back and said, ‘I disagree on everything you had to say about Trump.’”

Both Miller and Call have no plans to stop, however, and regularly post new comics on the website with plans for new collections in the future. Whereas before Miller would produce an illustration and Call would add text after the fact, they both say that the process is much more collaborative. Both seem to want to continue with it for as long as they have something to say about current events and, judging by the news cycle, there’s no reason to suspect that fresh inspiration will slow down anytime soon.

“We’ll text each other and ask ‘should we do this?’ and ‘is this important?’” Miller says. “And more often than not, it is.”

Combs is a freelance writer.