PORTLAND, Maine — Bob Bergeron and Katy Finch sat together on the edge of the concrete bandstand in Deering Oaks Park last week, making an unlikely pair.
Finch is a social worker. She’s small, blonde and has an engaging smile, though her words are measured and chosen with care. Bergeron is a bear of a man, with a snow white beard, a graveled voice and the tanned skin of someone who spends his days outside. He sipped on a high-gravity beer in a paper bag as he talked and let his genial f-bombs fly free.
They may be an odd couple but Finch and Bergeron are the improbable partners behind the city’s only comic zine dedicated to chronicling the fully fleshed lives of marginalized people living on Portland’s streets, shelters and wooded border zones. Their black-and-white cartoons in “The Pirate Ship” portray the city’s drinkers, fighters and hard-case hustlers as they really are — with all their hopes, doubts, triumphs and failures intact. Finch and Bergeron go beyond the stereotypes, summoning-up three-dimensional characters, sprinkled with a fair amount of black humor.
Their sixth issue came out this month.
“We never forget the ‘comic’ in ‘comic book,'” Bergeron said. “They always want to play the sad Sarah McLaughlin music for the sad homeless guy. F-that. Me and my boys have a lot of fun. We’ve had a lot of adventures in our lives. We’re no different than anyone else.”
The latest issue features several stories, including the continuing saga of “Rugburn and Sadie in Love.” It also tells the tale of the day the fence went up around Preble Street’s courtyard, a popular hangout spot.
Bergeron knows what he’s talking about. He’s spent the last 20 years in Portland, sometimes housed and sober, but often drinking and sleeping outside or in a shelter. He’s currently trying to get a room for the winter at the YMCA — mostly so he’ll have a place to keep drawing his zine.
Zine is short for magazine. It refers to the genre of underground, handmade, often photocopied, publications like “The Pirate Ship.”
Finch has a home. She works with the city’s population of people experiencing homelessness. It’s Finch’s second career after toiling in New York’s film industry for years.
Bergeron is not one of Finch’s clients but they met on her very first day as a social work intern at Preble Street in 2016.
“I was in the outreach slot,” Finch said. Which meant: “Go out to the courtyard.”
Bergeron remembers it well.
“She made a beeline to the biggest, smelliest, ugliest meanest-looking guys,” Bergeron said. “That was me and my boys.”
He immediately noticed her Massachusetts accent. It turned out she was from Cape Cod. He was from Leominster. Finch said her favorite author, Robert Cormier, was from there.
“And I used to sell him his milk and bread when I worked at the store. We made friends just like that.” Bergeron said, snapping his fingers. “There was never any social worker and client kind of thing with us.”
Finch invited Bergeron to a writing group she was running at the time. One week, Bergeron was the only person to show up and he spent the session ragaling her with tales of adventure from his life on the streets. The next week, Finch brought in a comic strip she’d made, based on what Bergeron had told her.
“And that’s when it clicked,” Bergeron said, “Because I’ve loved cartoons ever since I was a child. I was like, ‘F—k it. Let’s make comics.’ She didn’t even know I could draw, at the time.”
They published their first issue in January 2017. The zine was called “The Pirate Ship” because Bergeron and his friends think of themselves as a crew of swashbucklers, with Portland as their vessel. The zine was an immediate local hit, especially in the community of people Bergeron knew on the street.
“Nobody had told their stories before,” Bergeron said.
Their new audience especially appreciated the zine’s realistic subject matter and less-than-serious tone.
Finch said that was always the aim, from the start. They wanted to tell stories describing the full human experience, instead of maudlin stories, full of victims.
She said she’s much more interested in what Bergeron and his boys like about themselves, what keeps them going and the conversations they have together. That way, the zine can serve as both a window and a mirror, she said.
As a window, it gives outsiders like herself a rare view inside the lives of people experiencing homelessness in Portland. As a mirror, it reflects those lives back at the people living them — something they almost never see portrayed in the media.
“The lives of the homeless are no different,” Bergeron said. “They just got a different frame. We laugh. We have joy. We have sadness. We have good luck. We have bad luck — sounds like everybody else’s life.”
“What we’re putting out there is contradicting what a lot of people think,” Finch said.
The pair share writing and drawing duties in each issue. Often, one will sketch a story and the other will ink it. Finch said she’s very proud that they’ve been able to continue their collaboration through the past few years — and especially this year. They used to spend afternoons together, in coffee shops, talking and drawing. But now they’re forced to have quick, 15-minute meetings outside, due to the coronavirus.
“You don’t need stability, or the right tools, or be 100 percent healthy to make art that’s going to engage people,” she said. “Even when there’s a freaking pandemic, and the hellscape of 2020, we’re still publishing.”
Bergeron said he also hopes the zine serves as a documentary marker for the people he writes about.
“My friends just want their stories to be remembered — because we die all the time. Like every week, one of my friends dies,” Bergeron said. “I don’t want these friends — their stories — to be forgotten.”
To illustrate the point, on a humorous note, Bergeron told the tale of Deering Oaks’ vodka tree:
One night, Joe Blaze — a real and recurring character in “The Pirate Ship” — stole a bottle of vodka from the grocery store. Blaze then took his new bottle into the park, to enjoy it alone, in peace. But before he had a chance to open it, the cops arrived.
He tossed his pristine fifth of hooch down the hollow of a tree, to save it from getting confiscated. The police asked him a few questions, checked for outstanding warrants and then let him go.
Blaze then tried to retrieve his bottle but he was out of luck. The tree was too deep and his arms were too short. Blaze tried everything but the vodka stayed just out of reach.
“And to this day, that vodka is still in that tree,” Bergeron said. “It’s become the ‘Legend of the Vodka Tree.'”
It’s out there, right now, waiting for someone with arms long enough to get it.
Bergeron and Finch both laughed when he finished the story. Then Bergeron lit a cigarette and Finch looked at him, sighed and smiled.
“Look, you can write about whatever you think the zine’s social relevance is,” Bergeron said. “But what it comes down to is: Me and Katy are just two people who like to draw comics — I would give up everything to keep making comics with Katy.”
You can get a copy of the latest issue online at their Etsy store, at Strange Maine in Portland or email Finch and Bergeron directly at email@example.com. You can also catch their monthly comicstrip in Mainer.