Coffee is communion, at least in the world of Paul Madonna. In his own words, “We sit down, we talk about selling the house, traveling the world, getting a dog — all over coffee.”
Madonna, Bayview-based artist, illustrator, writer and award-winning author, is renowned for his long-running city-inspired comic strip series ‘All Over Coffee,’ which ran in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Pink Section for nearly 12 years. Once described by Madonna as “a comic strip without the comic,” the series paired intricate sketches of The City — a street corner, a view of Alcatraz or a deserted alleyway — with poignant, poetic text. The infusion of art and literature challenged typical comic strip conventions, attracting a regional cult following and setting Madonna on a path of artistic discovery.
Though “All Over Coffee” stopped running in 2015, Madonna has adapted the series into a three-part book collection. The third and final installment, “You Know Exactly What You Have To Do,” launched this month.
Madonna, a Pittsburgh native, has been writing and drawing since he can remember. “As a kid, I loved making comics and cartoons. I had different characters and I would write stories for them,” Madonna recalls. He’d often copy things he liked — “Peanuts,” movie posters, album covers. “Failed imitation is the most original thing we can have because you find your own style, your own voice. You might blow it, and it might not look anything like it, but suddenly you realize ‘that’s me.’”
Dreams and a backpack
Madonna was 22 when moved to San Francisco in 1994, with no more than a backpack, a strong work ethic and dreams of being a cartoonist. He was drawn to The City’s underground comix movement, inspired by cartoonists like Trina Robbins, an early champion of science fiction fanzines, and Robert Crumb, creator of San Francisco-based Zap Comix. He was also drawn to the local cafe scene.
“The cafe culture was huge out here, and it was known as a community for artists,” Madonna says. “Back then, you could get a coffee and bagel for about two bucks, and they’d often slip me free food because I was young and making art.”
During his early years in the Bay, Madonna was a self-described “stoner bicyclist with no money, living hand to mouth.” He couch surfed his way around the Panhandle, with a brief stint in Bayview, studying The City by bike and cafe-hopping to find quiet spaces to write and draw. He started self-publishing autobiographical zines, pulling all-nighters at the local Kinko’s and befriending the employees to print cheap copies.
“I realized that in order for people to give you money for what you do, they have to know it, and they have to like it. And they can’t like it unless they know it,” Madonna says. He’d leave free copies everywhere he went, determined to circulate his work.
As he struggled to make ends meet, Madonna realized that life as a professional artist wouldn’t be easy. “My ambition grew exhausting. It was making me crazy. I wondered if I was wrong about being an artist,” he says.
For a number of years, he stopped identifying as a full-time artist, picking up jobs at a local wood shop. He’d spend nearly every morning writing and sketching before work at cafes around The City, creating a sense of home over coffee. After a year, he’d unconsciously created a small body of work. “I had filled 10 sketchbooks. I realized this was real. I could put my ambition back in place and turn on the fire again,” Madonna recalls.
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By the early 2000s, Madonna was working on a graphic novel that featured a fictionalized character that grew up in The City’s Sunset district, so he started drawing the neighborhood. “I grabbed my sketchbook, put in some ink and water, went to the Sunset and drew from life,” says Madonna.
This marked a subtle yet pivotal shift in Madonna’s career. “I started making these drawings that were so alive, unlike any of the other drawings I was making at the time,” he says. As the novel’s story line grew more convoluted, he found that pairing short, succinct phrases often got to the heart of his writing more directly. “I cut out individual lines and just started pairing them with these drawings. Sometimes it was nonsensical, but it did something to me.”
“That’s how ‘All Over Coffee’ was born,” Madonna says.
The big break
Around the same time, San Francisco Chronicle’s Editor in Chief Phil Bronstein launched a campaign targeting creative talent in the Bay Area, airing commercials encouraging local artists to get in touch with the outlet. Madonna’s friend, cartoonist Keith Knight, encouraged him to pitch “All Over Coffee,” to the paper. Though Madonna was skeptical, he mailed in the strip on a Tuesday, and by that Thursday he landed a meeting with the editors. “They said they’d been looking for something like this for two years, and that when they saw my work, they knew they’d found it,” Madonna says.
The Chronicle was at one of its heights of distribution, and the series quickly made a splash. “The day it launched, it set off this crazy reaction. I couldn’t believe how much it mattered to people,” Madonna says. The Chronicle’s Letters section would be filled with words from confused, angry locals, calling the series nonsensical and unfit for the comic strip section. “But there were more lovers than haters, mostly writers and architects,” Madonna says. After about five years of the series running, the angry letters slowed, as “All Over Coffee” transformed into a minor institution.
During those years, Madonna gave everything he had to the Chronicle and “All Over Coffee,” calling the experience “art bootcamp.” He was sustained by his aggressive entrepreneurial spirit, which he credits to his parents. “They opened their first pizza shop in downtown Pittsburgh in their early 20s. They taught me how to run a business, and how to run a life. The stuff they don’t teach you in art school,” he says.
Madonna published his first book edition of “All Over Coffee” in 2007, followed by “Everything is its own reward” in 2011. “You Know Exactly What You Have to Do” includes Madonna’s short stories, classic “All Over Coffee”-style comics and collaborations with award-winning authors, including Cheryl Strayed, the author of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The City’s former poet laureate. It’s the last book in the collection, as Madonna says farewell to the series and transitions to his next adventure. “This is the last book of what made my career. This is for San Francisco.”
In his tidy studio in Bayview, Madonna says “All Over Coffee” changed the trajectory of his career, opening doors he never imagined possible. Madonna’s work is now widely recognized, and can be seen in the Oakland Museum of California, the William Blake Association in France and the San Francisco International Airport. He recently returned from a month-long commission in Switzerland, and completed his next book.
“I could have never imagined the impact of the series, and having the chance to see the world in the way I have,” Madonna says.
Though Madonna says he is grateful for his overseas travels and commissions, he always appreciates coming home to the Bay. No matter how long he might stay away, he says, “San Francisco’s not a jealous lover.”