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Unusual Suspect

Greg Peters gets a national audience in a new book spotlighting "subversive alternative" cartoonists.

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University of Louisiana at Lafayette's grad-school application was Michigan native Greg Peters' first indication that things worked a little differently in Louisiana.

In 1990, Peters was filling out 50-page applications for English doctorate programs to schools around the country, and paying approximately $50 in fees and postage. Then he stumbled upon ULL's version -- a one-page form that cost $5. "I had never given a thought to Louisiana, but thought it was so refreshing that I applied," says Peters. He eventually narrowed his school search to two choices: ULL or the School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa in Boulder, Co., where Peters' professors would have included beat icons William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. "God knows why, but I chose ULL," says Peters with a laugh.

Fourteen years later, there's a long list of Louisiana politicians and government officials who wish Peters would have gone with the beats. Since 1996, Peters has skewered numerous public figures with comic strips that turn benign clip art into a vehicle for biting sarcasm and commentary. His cartoon Suspect Device debuted in 1996 at The Times of Acadiana before Peters quit the newspaper in 1998, and has run in Gambit Weekly since 1999. A second strip, the bi-weekly Snake Oil, debuted in Lafayette's The Independent last August. His fans include actor John Goodman, who's called him "world-class," and the Chicago Reader, which has commissioned original strips.

Now Peters stands to find a national audience: he was recently included in the new book Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists, a collection that finds him in some impressive company, including Aaron McGruder of Boondocks fame and Maxine creator Marian Henley. This past summer, Peters participated in Attitude 2 exhibits in Mantova, Italy, and at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City.

"Greg was a natural for Attitude 2, one of the few alternative weekly political cartoonists whose mission is to skewer local and state politicians," says Attitude 2 editor (and syndicated cartoonist) Ted Rall. "One would think that there would be such a cartoonist, or several, in every major city, but there just aren't. Coupled with an over-the-top clip-art style and incredibly distinct cartooning personality, Greg's strip is everything that his readers and editors can hope for."

Peters' craft is fueled by his punk rock-influenced DIY personality and educational background in literary criticism, Marxism, post-structuralism, and Buddhism -- all meeting the surreal arena of Louisiana politics. He got his first taste of cartooning by contributing to Dysfunctional Family Circus, an online comic that attached new, often sexually explicit, captions to Bill Keane's Family Circus strip. (Keane eventually threatened legal action and shut it down.) That laid the foundation for Suspect Device's format -- taking an existing piece of art and twisting it in imaginative ways.

"The clip art thing was always a punk staple," says Peters. "Like the cut-out letters and clip art that Jamie Reid, the Sex Pistols designer, did using Queen Elizabeth with the safety clip through her cheek picture. They're very much out of the DIY ethos. And the attitude simply of baseline mistrust for authority, and the demand that you be shown, not told."

Peters was working as a graphic designer at The Times of Acadiana when an editor asked him to illustrate a comic about gambling, which set the wheels in motion for a regular strip. It didn't take long for him to start making waves. Times editor Harris Meyer resigned in 1998 after the publisher withheld a strip lampooning a local ambulance service's business practices. (The strip eventually ran in a softened version, but Peters also resigned a week later.) It was an early indicator that Peters refused to shy away from controversial subjects, or pander to readers.

"I made a deliberate decision when I started not to dumb it down, and not to explain it," he says of Suspect Device. "I figured, if it was going to be in newspapers that covered state and local politics and current events, that people would have to be familiar with those subjects in the first place. And I had more I wanted to do in that space than recap the week's news. I figured also that since it was not a general readership daily newspaper, which tries to be all things to all people, that I could throw in references and keep it at whatever level I wanted to."

As a result, Peters' juxtapositions can be as surreal as a state Legislative session. Consider Mike Foster in a Mexican cantina; escaped Audubon Zoo monkeys in the Governor's mansion; Jay Blossman singing altered Bruce Springsteen lyrics; a dog answering the phone to take a Cox Cable poll; and Bobby Jindal starring in Driving Miss Daisy.

While individual figures draw their share of Peters' ire, other strips address social issues, sometimes functioning as rants and mini-essays. (The word count in some of his comic strips is longer than many newspapers' editorials.) Louisiana's poor education system and environmental record are frequent subjects, and now that Peters and his wife (whom he met at ULL) have two young sons, the dark fatalism that permeates occasional strips suggests Peters would be more than happy to leave Louisiana.

Not true, he says. "In many ways, it's a wonderful place to live. There are serious problems, but there are serious problems everywhere. Why does anyone stay here? The food, the music, people, family. You don't stay for the education or the politics."

For now, Peters is thankful for his recognition in the Attitude 2 anthology, and mulls over ideas for a different strip with national syndication potential. But given the endless supply of material available to him right outside his backyard, it's a safe bet that he'll continue his crusade to provoke Louisiana readers. "My message is kind of an emperor's new clothes thing: I'm making fun of them, but I'm also trying to remind people that you have a choice. And if you don't get involved in it, then it's going to continue, and they'll continue to put on the circus show for you, amusing you by proposing laws about pants that show ass crack, or Darwin being racist, at the same time that they're screwing over your future."

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