One night about 10 years ago at the Frontier Room, the historic dive bar on First Avenue in Seattle, cartoonists Pete Morrissette and Sam Roberts were struck with inspiration.
They began to draw up a rough strip about a Seattle file clerk named Smitty Fisher, who runs into an acquaintance at the bus stop. Nothing unusual about that, in theory. But the friend is wearing a corpse mask, with a steak knife stuck in his left eye, the eyeball dangling from a few rotten tendrils down by his nose.
Through the first few panels of "Smitty Fisher," our hero, against his better judgment, pulls the knife out of the ghoul's eye, killing him and creating quite a bit of anxiety for himself.
"It was just supposed to be a one-page joke where Smitty pulls this knife out of a mask and then walks away and freaks out," said Roberts, the strip writer.
But here it is, the beginning of 2005, and Roberts (now in Portland) and Morrissette (in Juneau), are still chronicling the interdimensional, science fiction meanderings of Smitty, his associates and the haunted corpse. "Smitty Fisher" is a semi-weekly Web comic, www.smittyfisher.com, that's started to attract hits from all over the world.
"I wanted to do a corpse murder mystery, one where the corpse disappears," Roberts said. "It was a nonsensical strip. But then I thought, 'What if I could find a way to make it make sense?'"
Morrissette and Roberts met as eighth graders at Quabbin Regional Junior/Senior High School in Barre, Mass. They shared an interest in underground comics and super-hero stories. Morrissette had a large set of "The New Teen Titans," a teenaged sidekick crimefighting group that included Robin, Kid Flash and Wondergirl. Roberts tended to collect underground comics from the 1960s and 1970s.
It was the early 1980s, and comic book shops were becoming more prevalent around the country. The types of people who read comics were changing, and so were the storylines.
"You had content that was a little more sophisticated," Morrissette said. "We started getting stuff like 'Love and Rockets' when it came out. That stuff was just so wild; there was nothing like it."
They began collaborating on their own comics. Roberts wrote, Morrissette drew. Their first, "Agents of S.C.U.M.," appeared in the Quabbin school newspaper.
"It stood for something like 'Super Cool Unified Men,' and there was this one guy in the group that was big and purple and got his strength from drinking beer," Morrissette said. "The stronger he got, the drunker he'd get, so he'd be completely useless."
"It was completely offensive at the junior high school level," he said, "and the principal objected not to (the beer), but to the use of the word scum."
They continued to collaborate, even when Roberts moved to a different high school.
Comics became such an obsession that neither bothered to get a driver's license before they were 20. Roberts graduated from high school, began working at regular jobs and with "nothing better to do," moved to Seattle in the late 1980s. Morrissette went on to earn a degree in illustration at Syracuse University, decided he didn't want to join the rat race in New York and moved to Seattle in 1991.
They began working together immediately, this time on a political satire called "Slaughter Man." The lead character, wielding a chainsaw and wearing overalls and a smiley-face mask, was loosely based on an image from former-Monkee Michael Nesmith's 1981 "Elephant Parts."
"I Xeroxed a bunch of our Slaughter Man comics and dropped them off at various comic shops," Roberts said. "We stopped doing it once I was no longer in the copy business."
"Smitty" originally appeared as a one-page, 15-panel comic in a free zine called "Comic Release," an anthology of Seattle cartoonists.
"We had hoped to serialize a comic, and when 'Comic Release' came out, (Smitty) was just the idea that we had on the table at the moment," Morrissette said.
"Smitty" is set in early-90s Seattle, when Belltown and much of Capitol Hill still had their dive scenes and not, as Roberts and Morrissette put it, "yuppie fruit cocktail bars." The characters are based on combinations of different people. Smitty is a file clerk, as is Roberts and as was Morrissette, but the character is intended to be sort of an "everyman." The corpse is actually based on another friend, who did his own makeup for Halloween: "The steak knife in the eye has always been one of my favorite images ever," Roberts said.
"Comic Release" lasted for two or three issues before folding, and "Smitty" soon went into hiatus. Morrissette moved to Juneau in 1998. Roberts eventually moved to Portland.
The strip was not forgotten. Roberts continued working on his own ideas, occasionally exploring "Smitty" storylines and the possibility of converting "Smitty" to a nine-panel grid. Morrissette taught himself Photoshop and Illustrator, while working on his own zine, Beyond Help, and experimenting with converting "Smitty" to the computer. He grew bored with his own ideas and found that he missed comics.
"I'd been reading a couple comics on the Internet and saw the potential of self-publishing," Morrissette said. "When we ran around dropping off our comics at the comic stores, it was really a limited audience. But I was thinking if I can get it up on the Internet, that might be really cool."
"You can't beat the advantage of Web comics," Morrissette said. "To print a comic, it's what, $500? And to host a Web site it's $10 a month. Anybody can put stuff up there, and you can have it read by a lot of people for a long time."
"A lot of the Web comics out there are about in-jokes and video games and really bad-looking anime characters running around, but there's a couple of comics that I really like," Morrissette said.
Roberts and Morrissette were soon back to work. By a little more than a year ago Roberts had filled four 60- to 80-page books with nine-panel "Smitty" storylines, plus a fifth book, a spin-off set in the future.
"Just about everything I read goes into it, and I read a lot of comics," Roberts said. "That actually helps with pacing the dialogue. You have to get the words to interact with the pictures, and also you have to make sure that the words go from one panel to the next in a reasonable amount of time. Mostly I just watch the world around me for all the character bits."
"Smitty Fisher" has been online for about a year and has a mailing list of 75 readers. As of Tuesday, Morrissette had completed drawing episode 29 of the 61-panel first book. The goal is to complete a strip a week.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.