Michael Duggan, a well-known Seattle illustrator and cartoonist, died on January 13 in Tono, Japan, at the age of 64. The cause was brain cancer, according to his best friend Hubbard Benedict.
Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing through the next few decades, Duggan was a prolific artist whose work appeared in many Seattle publications from the Seattle Sun to The Seattle Times. He also produced two acclaimed graphic novels, East Texas: Tales from Behind the Pine Curtain and I Can’t Tell You Anything: And Other Stories. Of East Texas, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and one of Duggan’s many friends, wrote in the book’s announcement: “Incisive, personal comics are rare. Even rarer are cartoons that make you laugh. Duggan does both at the same time.
Linda Barry was also a cartoonist in Seattle during that era and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin. “The world that Duggan created with his brush was just like him – cheerful, loving and real,” she said via email earlier this month. “He was the least cynical, most friendly and completely open cartoonist I knew, and a man who could do comics.”
Dougan’s work was most often seen in the music magazine I edited from 1986 to 2000, The Rocket, where he illustrated stories, made comics and occasionally wrote articles. For the August 1987 issue, the cover was a self-portrait of Duggan (with noted illustrators Mark Zingarelli and Peter Bagge), showing an ever-smiling Duggan lighting bottle rockets and smoking a cigar.
Art Chantry was Rocket’s art director at the time and worked on many projects with Dugan, including the East Texas book. “I’ve had the opportunity to hire the greatest cartoonists of this generation, but Duggan remains my favorite,” Chantry said. “He brought a fun, side-splitting humor that was surreal but never violent.”
As Duggan’s reputation grew, so did the list of publications he appeared for, including The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Spy, The Village Voice and many more. Later in his career, he also worked in television development for CBS and MTV.
Kit Bos was a reporter at The Seattle Times and befriended Duggan when they produced a report on Seattle’s legendary Doghouse restaurant. “He had a booming, hoarse laugh that was always locked and loaded,” Boss recalled. “He was struck by the ridiculousness of life, and much of that came out in his work.”
Duggan grew up in East Texas before moving to Seattle as a teenager. In the early 1980s, he was able to rent a studio on First Avenue for $100 a month because it was above an adult theater. “Just make sure you don’t go to the wrong door,” he told me when I first visited. His hoarse laugh followed.
In a 2019 episode of the comics podcast Subterranean Dispatch, Duggan cited Seattle’s 1980s music and comics scene as the center of the entire “underground” culture at the time. “It was a self-created ethos,” he said.
Duggan moves into a house in the Green Lake neighborhood, but when a fire destroys most of his archived works, his interest shifts to food. With his second wife, Chizuko Nita, he moved to Japan in the 2000s and in 2018 they launched Michael’s Café American in Tono, Japan, with barbecue and their own brand of coffee. COVID and his cancer diagnosis led to the closure of the successful cafe.
In Tono, a place rich in folklore, he found similar legends as in his youth. “When I was ambivalent about moving to Japan,” he said on the 2019 podcast, “the fairy tales drew me in. Tono is a land of myth and magic. It was identical to what I felt growing up in East Texas.
One of Michael’s best cartoons in The Rocket was an illustration of a southern televangelist with a Little Richard-like pompadour and the line “the bigger the hair, the closer to God?” Whether it’s tales from East Texas, about a Kabuki artist in Tono or the grunge bands that Duggan and I would see together sometimes, and then he drew at The Rocket, it was one of the many artistic observations that Michael Duggan got right.