Karl Christian Krumpholz loved other cities before Denver. But after living in Philadelphia and Boston, he can no longer see past the Mile High City’s agreeably jumbled architecture and culture. At least as a cartoonist.
“When I was in Boston there was a comics scene, but everyone was pretty much in their own little corners,” said Krumpholz, 50. “And I grew up in Philadelphia, where I worked in a comics store and put out my first, primitive little zine. But Denver is my wife’s city, so I’m the outsider.”
During the pandemic, Krumpholz published a daily, black-and-white comic, “The Lighthouse in the City,” which had begun in late 2019 as a document of his wife Kelly’s hysterectomy and recovery. His latest collection, “The Lighthouse in the City, Vol. 5,” gathers comics originally published between January and March of 2021, with Denver indie press Kilgore Books planning a 124-page edition later this year.
But Krumpholz’s magnum opus of civic cartooning — and the one that nearly, if indirectly, got him killed — is “Queen City.” (More on that below.) Published April 10 by Tinto Press, “Queen City” is a 170-page tribute to Denver’s built environment, however booming or busted. Krumpholz collected its drawings from his city commissions, weekly comic strips in Westword, magazines and other work, snowballing as he went.
“The original idea for (the book) was basically that Denver bars and restaurants are disappearing, so why don’t we illustrate these places to memorialize them?” said Krumpholz, whose books include the gritty, Colfax-inspired “30 Miles of Crazy!” “Shelby’s had just closed, and everyone was wondering if Bar Bar and Knob Hill were still going to survive. So I thought, ‘I’ll throw a couple comics in from my Westword columns, and it’ll be about 40 pages.’ ”
But Krumpholz ended up with so much material, some of it sourced from bar portraits that friends and fans commissioned, that he realized a continuity amid Denver’s seemingly brutal cycle of growth and decline.
“The idea of a city is always changing,” Krumpholz said. “When people look back fondly on ‘classic Denver,’ they’re talking about the places they loved. But these new places that come in eventually become a classic part of that neighborhood, and everyone will say the same thing about that place.”
That’s not to say Krumpholz doesn’t miss the shuttered watering holes and venues he’s haunted. A few of the city’s best-known clubs and bars, including El Chapultepec, Barracuda’s, Three Kings Tavern and, recently, Streets Denver, have shut down permanently in the last 12 months. Others in the book, such as the Aladdin Theatre or the 15th Street Tavern, were demolished years or decades before Krumpholz arrived.
His “curious and fresh” eye, as Denver author Jason Heller writes in the “Queen City” introduction, appraises Civic Center’s stately Greek Amphitheatre the same as it does Tooey’s Off Colfax (R.I.P.), Gabor’s (also R.I.P.) or the 715 in Five Points (reinvented for a new century and crowd). It’s curated, not comprehensive. All the same, Krumpholz crams a good deal of history into the wide-armed book.
There’s precedent in the work of Julie Worth, whose “Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City” shared urban-history vignettes alongside cartoons from The New Yorker. Also on Krumpholz’s shelf: Paul Madonna (stunning watercolors of San Francisco), John Tebeau (an illustrated NYC bar guide) and others who tend to see their cities in shadow and line.
“Queen City,” with its moody, gray-and-blue inking, is a celebration of Denver’s eclecticism. Skyscrapers loom over dive bars while classic signage wiggles and wilts. Environments are mostly stripped of human life, allowing neon letters and cluttered storefronts to draw the eye instead of pedestrians. Some portraits are glancing and evocative, like late favorite Patsy’s Inn, while others offer thick impressions of stucco, or fine detail in skyscraper windows, roofs and Victorian brick designs.
“It seemed like there was this boom period when I first got out here,” Krumpholz said. “People were saying, ‘Oh, Colfax (Avenue) is so gentrified now.’ Not true. … Not at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon in broad daylight.”
That’s when Krumpholz met Denver Post photographer AAron Ontiveroz for a portrait shoot on March 29. If he looks a bit tense in the resulting photos, it’s because they were snapped minutes after police left the scene outside of Pete’s Satire Lounge, where an irate, apparently intoxicated man had randomly and violently attacked him and Ontiveroz.
The comic Krumpholz drew about it, which tells the story best, recounts a man who had cornered them and attempted to stab them with a shiv (in this case, brass knuckles with a 3-inch nail on the end) before being chased off to cause more havoc down the street.
At one point, Krumpholz held off the attacker off by brandishing one of Ontiveroz’s 6-foot, collapsable light poles like a trident, he and Ontiveroz said.
“This is one of those things you deal with when living in a city,” Krumpholz said, while acknowledging nothing like this has happened to him before. “I’m just glad no one was hurt. … AAron said to me afterward, ‘I should have taken his photo!’ but the guy had thrown his gear into the middle of Colfax. It was insane, but also funny. I’m going to put that in the comic.”
“Queen City” is available at Denver’s Mutiny Information Cafe and Kilgore Books, and online at tintopress.com.
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