On November 22, 1858, a band of rough-and-tumble gold-seekers founded the Denver City Town Company. Since then, the Mile High City has changed, um, a lot. And for the past 10 years, cartoonist and illustrator Karl Christian Krumpholz has captured its changing visage in comics like Queen’s City, which was released in April. For Denver’s Big Day, we caught up with the city’s very own modern-day Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame) to revisit illustrations that best capture its streets and explore the city that became his muse.
“Illustrating was a way for me to get to know Denver, since I was a stranger,” says Krumpholz, who moved from Boston to Denver in 2006. In particular, the large signs, neon lights, and old-Western feel of Colfax’s architecture fascinated him. “I was spending a lot of time in bars on Colfax Avenue. It had its own character. I wanted to capture what it’s like to live in the city at this moment.”
In 2013, Krumpholz began a comic series called 30 Miles of Crazy! to document the characters wandering Colfax Avenue, aka “America’s longest and wickedest avenue.”
“It was only when I started doing the 30 Miles of Crazy!—a series of true stories of people in Denver—that I was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is where my voice is,’ ” he says. In 2019, Birdcage Bottom Books distributed the seventh issue of the short multiseries comic collection. The issue was self-published.
In the four years leading up to the pandemic, Krumpholz had been illustrating Westword’s weekly comic, The Denver Bootleg, about the city’s music scene. When that was put on hiatus in March 2020, the artist took to Colfax, snapping photos, researching boarded-up buildings, and sketching—capturing Denver in this moment in time. “So many of the places that I was seeing were disappearing,” he says. “These buildings would have all this history attached to it, in some cases hundreds of years of history. The idea was to document what Denver was like in the 21st century.”
For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced hundreds of businesses to close. Record unemployment and an ongoing, stifling housing crisis have affected Denver residents for more than 18 months. A lot of that landed in Krumpholz’s pages. “I illustrated Shelby’s, which, only a few years ago, was listed as one of the best bars in America. And now, it’s a parking lot,” he says.
Earlier this year, he published the fifth volume of The Lighthouse in The City, a collection of illustrations from his diary (which he regularly posts on his Instagram, @karlchristiankrumpholz). In it, readers get a sense of how attitudes shifted during the pandemic through people he met. “I had a lot of stories about being attacked,” he says. Violent outbursts on the streets, he says, felt more frequent. Houselessness, more pressing. And a sense of desperation among people he encountered began to color his illustrations.
One of his most memorable comics from the ongoing series was inspired by the day when he and his wife Kelly witnessed a brick fly through the front window at St. Paul Tavern on Colfax Avenue. Over the summer, a man came into the bar aggressively demanding water. After the bartender refused to serve his hostile request, the man shattered a window with a brick. Krumpholz dodged the flying object and collected himself as police arrived at the scene.
“The man kept saying ‘I never wanted to be homeless,’ ” Krumpholz says. “The guy was yelling that he basically just wanted some human dignity. This is the idea behind the comics. Maybe we should treat some of these instances with some sort of compassion.”
In the meantime, Krumpholz anticipates returning to his music scene comic series in Westword and will continue to humanize the city’s unique structures and unpredictable characters populating its streets for the years to come. “If I was going to send a birthday comic to Denver, it might be like a one-two punch,” Krumpholz says. “I would want to say, ‘This is why I like Denver, but this is some of the more difficult truths about this city.’ I think we have to keep a clear eye about that.”
Prints of Krumpholz work from Queen’s City are currently available for purchase at the History Colorado Center.