31 years later, celebrating the ‘seminal’ alternative press spawned by the Comet Tavern

I spent some formative years at 10th and E Pine, beginning around 1975. — Cathy Hillenbrand

You will have to travel to Georgetown to be part of it but a piece of the forgotten (or, really, never known for most of us) history of Pike/Pine in the ’70s and ’80s will be celebrated starting next Saturday at Fantagraphics as part of the Real Comet Press Retrospective at the south Seattle book, comics and graphic novel shop. More about next week’s event honoring still-going-strong neighborhood activist Cathy Hillenbrand, the glimpse of Pike/Pine culture circa 1981 that Real Comet Press represents and how that glimpse connects to the future of Capitol Hill, below.

Join us on Saturday, March 10 from 6:00 to 9:00 PM to fete the former publisher. Real Comet alumni Hayes, Dougan and Chantry will host the celebration, which includes an exhibition of art, books and ephemera from the Real Comet archives. A limited number of out-of-print Real Comet Press titles will be available for sale (including the iconic Lynda Barry poster “Poodle with a Mohawk”). This reception coincides with the colorful Georgetown Art Attack featuring arts presentations throughout the historic neighborhood.

You might know Hillenbrand’s name from our coverage of her work helping the community effort to shape transit oriented development near the Broadway light rail station. But 35 years ago, she had, um, other interests in the neighborhood as the owner of the Comet. Fantagraphics explains what came next:

“From Comix to Critiques” was the focus of seminal Seattle publisher Real Comet Press. Founded in 1981 by arts activist Cathy Hillenbrand, then owner the Comet Tavern, this prescient enterprise published an amazing array of books that foreshadowed Seattle’s ascendance to the forefront of international pop culture. Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery celebrates the legacy of Cathy Hillenbrand with “Real Comet Press: A Retrospective” opening Saturday, March 10, continuing through April 10, 2012. This exhibition features art, graphics and book works by regional artists nurtured by Real Comet Press including Lynda Barry, Michael Dougan, Art Chantry, and Ruth Hayes, among others.

As owner of the Comet Tavern in the late 70s, Hillenbrand became an advocate for Seattle’s avant garde artists. In 1980, Lynda Barry won a contest to design the Comet’s matchbook cover, beginning a long association with the young Capitol Hill cartoonist. A year later, Hillenbrand published the text to “Propagandists Lament,” a performance work by Seattle artist Annie Grosshans. She soon sold the tavern to devote full time to publishing. Real Comet Press went on to publish four books by Lynda Barry – Girls + Boys, Big Ideas, The Good Times Are Killing Me, and Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies, Naked Ladies – as well as East Texas by Michael Dougan, Instant Litter by Art Chantry, and a series of animated flipbooks by Ruth Hayes. In addition, Real Comet Press published catalogues, criticism, and feminist theory by artists, curators and critics such as Lucy Lippard, Jo Spence, Douglas Kahn, Rini Templeton, Ernst Friedrich, James Turrell, and countless others. Many of Hillenbrand’s books and memorable marketing materials were designed the brilliant graphic artists associated with The Rocket magazine.

We asked Hillenbrand about how her days on “avant garde” E Pike decades back connects to her work today dealing with an agency like Sound Transit to try to help shape the future of Broadway. Here’s her thoughtful reply:

My life at the Comet Tavern gave me a great sense of ownership and love for this part of Capitol Hill.  I was very involved with and/or – an artist-run alternative space that occupied what is now Oddfellows for most of the 70’s.  Somehow that led to my buying the Comet, and later to my starting The Real Comet Press out of my house at the other end of Capitol Hill.  I moved to Seattle just as I turned 20, and I’ve lived on Capitol Hill ever since then, save a year on Mercer Island back in 1970.

 The Press came out of a notion of mine that Seattle was a particularly interesting crossroads of art created here and of art made here by artists from elsewhere – fueled I think by and/or and its programming, and by my involvement in the arts community through and/or and The Women Artists Group.  When I say art, I mean visual and performance art in particular.  The theater scene was another element – then the Empty Space was across Pike St from the Comet, and and/or was around the corner.  The Comet Tavern was an amazing crossroads at the time.  I spent some formative years at 10th and E Pine, beginning around 1975.  I owned the Comet from 1977 – 1981.

 My sons went to SAAS, another part of this end of the Hill, and for one year around 1986, Real Comet was in the space where Brocklinds is now.  We shared space with Seal Press which had been dislocated from Pioneer Square by the Metro Bus Tunnel.  We spent a year on E. Pike, then were relocated by Metro again because Metro helped Brocklinds buy that building (Brocklinds was where the Paramount Bus Tunnel Station is now).  There were streetwalkers out there on E. Pike at that time, sad young women.   We moved down to the Northwest Industrial Buildings at Denny and Western.

 I’m very committed to home in the most local sense, and Capitol Hill is my locale.  I love my neighborhood.  I love gardening in the parking strip and seeing my neighbors go by.  I’ve spent years connecting people in multitudes of ways.  Publishing let me meet artists from all over the world and follow my interests in art and in social change.  I have always had a strong sense of stewardship of my community at every scale, and my work now follows right through – I live two blocks from the Light Rail Station – this is hyper-local for me, and I love working on it.

In addition to the Saturday, March 10th party honoring Hillenbrand noted above, Fantagraphics will also be celebrating Real Comet through March leading up to a session at Emerald City Comicon later this month.

On Saturday, March 24 at 6:00 PM Fantagraphics Bookstore presents Susan Kirtley, author of Lynda Barry: Girlhood Through the Looking Glass from University of Mississippi Press, in conversation with Cathy Hillenbrand. This enlightening discussion will be followed by an informal reception and book signing.

On Friday, March 30 at 6:00 PM, Hillenbrand joins cartoonists Ellen Forney and Jim Woodring, and Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds on the panel discussion “Northwest Noir: Seattle’s Legacy of Counterculture Comix” moderated by Fantagraphics Bookstore curator Larry Reid at Emerald City Comicon at the Washington State Convention Center.

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5 thoughts on “31 years later, celebrating the ‘seminal’ alternative press spawned by the Comet Tavern

  1. This is so great. Not only did I have the Poodle with a Mohawk poster in my college dorm room, I have the pleasure of working with Cathy Hillenbrand on Capitol Hill issues today. Real Comet was a Seattle gem and Cathy continues to do great work on behalf of this community. Congratulations on the retrospective and a big ‘thank you’ to Larry Reid for putting it together. Cathy is a Capitol Hill hero.

  2. I’ve had the privilege to work with Cathy during our studio’s efforts associated with community workshops, outreach, and assembling the early design recommendations for moving forward with future development above the Broadway Lightrail station site. John & I from our office have continued on as volunteer members of the community group that is championing the best development that we can possibly achieve on the Sound Transit owner properties. During that work, I’ve found Cathy to be one of those individuals here on the Hill that tirelessly works to make an absolutely positive impact on the environment that we call call home.

    Thanks to Cathy for leading the charge and helping to empower individuals to shape the future of our community.

    Sidenote: The Comet was the first bar I had an over-21 beer (back in 1990). The Hill was great in those days, different but great, and will continue to evolve into an even stronger community. I encourage everyone to please get involved to be sure it does. The Community Council or Chamber are good places to start, among many others.

  3. Its so great to learn a little about the mid-century history of the hill. All too often we focus on the very new or the very old (in this town like 1880-1940), but somehow the middle decades sink into oblivion.

    I too have had the pleasure of working with Cathy on many of the TOD issues. She has worked harder than anyone on that project and Capitol Hill will be greater for her efforts. Reading this story I feel even luckier to have had the chance to work with someone that has done so much and in so many different ways for our unique neighborhood.

    Thanks Cathy!

  4. Congratulations to you, Cathy, and howdy over the years from Phil Shallat, now avoiding skin damage in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was one of the gang at the Empty Space across Pike St. from the Comet in the mid-70s and spent many a raucous post-show there screaming above the din and downing suds. I loved the Comet. I tended bar there for a spell. I was in the Comet when John Lennon was shot. I followed the countdown on Nixon’s resignation from the Comet. Those were the days, as Mark Twain put it, “heady with the wine of youth”. Keep truckin’, Cathy!