Underground Comix Redux
A new generation of artists reinvents this vital pop art form
Underground comix, along with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, were landmarks of the ’60s. But while “swinging” sexual mores, recreational drug use, rock music and even some psychedelic art styles were assimilated into the mainstream American culture, underground comix went underground in the mid-’70s, victim of the apathy of the post-Nixon era. Sure, there occasionally appeared a new comic that harked back to the heyday of the undergrounders—Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” springs most readily to mind—and some ’60s stalwarts, such as the legendary R. Crumb, continued to publish sporadically. But by and large, underground comix, like the political and countercultural climate in which they flourished, were thought to be a thing of the past.
But like psychedelic music and paisley-print fashion, underground comix are experiencing a revival, as young artists and their older mentors find ways to beat the high costs of mass-market publishing and reach a new audience that shares their edgy, punkish sensibility. The communal cartoonists of the ’60s have been replaced by ’80s “art gangs” that use new-age technology to express a much starker, more nihilistic vision than their ’60s predecessors. Couple this new movement with the continuing efforts of vets such as Crumb and Raw magazine editor Art Spiegelman, and one could conclude that we’re in the midst of a comix resurgence. One who draws just such a conclusion is writer MICHAEL MACRONE, who filed this report on the new comix underground.
Maybe you remember the good old days when record stores, head shops and political bookstores stocked “comix” like no other—Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson’s Bijou Funnies, Last Gasp Eco-Funnies’ Slow Death Funnies, Trina Robbins’ Wimmen’s Comix and, by 1972, hundreds more. But maybe, after the Supreme Court sanctioned community-standard censorship, and repressive legislation closed most head shops, you never saw underground comix at all.
Undergrounds rose and fell with the counterculture of the Nixon Era (1968–73). In exploring drug culture, radical politics, sexuality, feminism, rock music, ecology and everyday life, comix dilated a medium dominated by superheroics. By defiantly breaking open the cultural subconscious and by uprooting bourgeois mores, undergrounds addressed a coherent culture of dissent.
But, in the words of Trina Robbins, “everyone got real complacent in the ’70s. We got Nixon out, the war in Vietnam was over, marijuana was decriminalized, abortion was legal. I thought, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’” The counterculture sublimated and, according to comix historian Clay Geerdes, “By 1973 there was little rationale left for the underground press. Editors and artists found themselves entering their thirties, and yuppiedom loomed on the horizon.” Or at least an income—in some other, more established market.
In the wake of the “great underground crash” of the mid-’70s, most publishers ceased or curtailed operation. Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, under publisher Ron Turner, weathered the storm with a series of innovations into trade paperbacks and merchandising, most successfully with Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead.” Denis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink supports the infrequent Dope Comix, Harold Hedd, and Bizarre Sex with more profitable and regular reprints of classic comic strips by Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon) and Will Eisner (The Spirit) in slick packages. The comix that remain by and large languish in comics specialty shops, which most adults don’t know exist.
But there are a few relatively healthy vestiges of underground comix. On the West Coast, Last Gasp continues Robert Crumb’s most recent comix project: Weirdo magazine, now edited by cartoonist Peter Bagge in suburban Seattle. Weirdo isn’t so much countercultural as sociopathic, forging its vision and audience in communal alienation. Sworn to by some, sworn at by others, Weirdo is a regular forum for not only Crumb (notably the yuppie-baiting “Mode O’Day and Her Pals”) and other “first generation” comix artists (Bill Griffith, Spain “Trashman” Rodriguez, Kim Deitch), but also younger cartoonists with a more cynical, individualistic and baroque outlook. Bagge features a good number of colleagues (Ken Struck, Kaz, Drew Friedman) who “did time” at New York’s now-trendy School of Visual Arts (SVA). SVA, which produced painters Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, offers cartooning classes conducted by Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner and original Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman. SVA also helps support Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s Raw magazine, a graphix-oriented, large-format “coffee-table art book.” Raw mixes new work by the first generation (e.g., Spiegelman’s own funny-animal family history, “Maus”) with the work of Europeans and SVA alums: Kaz and Friedman, Mark Beyer (who attended briefly), Jerry Moriarty, and Mark Newgarden (who co-edits Bad News).
Back at Last Gasp, Zap and Wimmen’s Comix persist, both published irregularly. Zap remains the classic underground, spotlighting the diehards among the original comix artists. Wimmen’s Comix, supervised by an active collective based in the San Francisco Bay Area, serves as an important forum for women’s issues, including the exploration of “women’s narrative.” In the words of contributor Caryn Leschen, “Not only in subject matter but also in the way stories are told, women’s narrative is very different from men’s.”
The “underground crash” signalled the dispersal of a coherent market, stranding a new generation of artists who, by necessity, made their living elsewhere, but who still pursued comix as an avocation. In 1975, Clay Geerdes distributed a small, self-published “mini” anthology, Pandemonium Express Funnies, assembled by students of first-generation artist Dan O’Neill. Geerdes then began soliciting artwork for his Comix World press, issuing his own “mini comix,” xeroxed on standard letter-size paper, folded twice, trimmed and stapled into a neat, cheap, eight-page package. The minis, averaging 50¢ a copy and distributed primarily by mail, had precedent in the risqué “eight-pagers” (or “Tijuana bibles”) of the ’20s through ’40s, and in the “seven-cent comix” issued by underground cartoonists in the early ’70s.
Geerdes and his stable of artists were at the spearhead of a revolution in amateur comix, eventually (and grudgingly) named “newave” or, more generally, “alternative” comix. Self-published comix, in mini and larger formats, are at the base of a complex and evolving structure loosely framing a multitude of markets and packages. Several cartoonists and collectors have become “small press” comix publishers—notably Brad Foster (Jabberwocky Graphix), Bob Lewis and Kat Pritz (Scratchez), Michael Dowers (Starhead), “Furry Couch” (Real Fun), L.A.’s Ray Zone (Zomoid Illustories) and Geerdes (Comix World). So-called “alternative” papers, the upscale inheritors of the underground press, still publish comix, mostly single panels and short strips. Comix also appear in punk fanzines and in the bizarre productions of neo-dada groups such as the SubGenius Foundation in Dallas. Although the National Lampoon and East Village Eye have excised their regular comix sections, High Times has picked up the slack, adopting Gary Panter, Ron Hauge, Mimi Pond, Mark Marek, Wayne White, Mark Newgarden and Tom Hachtman. Among other slick publications, Esquire features a Lynda Barry color page each month, and Heavy Metal employs Drew Friedman, Charles Burns, John Holmstrom and J.D. King.
A few artists have graduated to ground-level (commercial-alternative) and/or above-ground (mainstream) comics. Wimmin’s Comix’s Trina Robbins published an adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s Dope with ground-level Eclipse Comics and now produces Meet Misty for mainstream Marvel Comics’ children’s line. Ground-level Fantagraphics Books publishes Peter Bagge’s wonderful Neat Stuff magazine and a superb title, Love and Rockets, by punk-inspired artists Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. But, for the most part, daring and original graphic narrative is stuck at the lower levels of the market.
Comix critic and mini publisher Dale (Dada Gumbo) Luciano speculates that “considered purely in terms of reproductive quality, there soon may be little practical difference between photo-duplication and offset printing.” Gary Panter sees this as an affair of political economics: “Alternative comix may not seem political, by and large, but implicitly they are. They’re formed by economic situation and access to technology. Xerox machines got better and offset got too expensive.”
The grim facts of life are that free expression is never “free.” An interesting—and in light of current economic reality, almost pathetic—anecdote illuminates the attrition of underground comix. In late 1967, Don Donahue, at the time production manager of the Berkeley Barb, had eagerly agreed to publish Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix #1, which was to become the first and most important “underground” comic. Donahue relates: “I didn’t have any money, but I did have a tape recorder worth about $300. A friend, Charles Plymell, had a printing press, and we made a deal: 5000 copies of the comic book for the tape recorder. It was a pretty even deal.”
Printing costs today are much more prohibitive. Crumb says: “I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to the way it was, because print costs are just too high now; there’s just not that much room for small publishers to take chances with unknown artists, even if they might be good artists. When you’ve got to put such a steep cover price on anything that you run through a standard printing process, people can’t just go out and say, ‘I think I’ll buy this and see what it looks like.’”
But in the midst of skyrocketing print costs and within the constraints of what small press publisher Bob Lewis calls “this repressed, right-wing, religion-oriented society,” the technological revolution may underwrite a new grass-roots counterculture. The do-it-yourself aesthetic—dodging censorship, editorial interference and most overhead costs—encourages intensely individualistic, widespread free expression.
The anarchistic potential of newave aside, many alternative artists have some intention of catching the eye of the Establishment—either ground-level/mainstream comics publishers or commercial firms. Artists not fond of starvation naturally assume an upscale attitude. Peter Bagge notes that “alternative artists submit stuff to Weirdo all the time—tons of it. They see even Weirdo as a stepping stone, because we actually pay money and circulate 10,000 copies. But really, it’s small potatoes in the big picture.”
Progress, however, is progress, and as we all know, that’s the essence of capitalism as practiced in the U.S.A. Ray Zone, Los Angeles-based “3-D expert,” comix publisher and aesthetic entrepreneur, doesn’t hesitate to call the newave artists “apolitical capitalists—real Americans.” “They’re really into money,” he stated flatly. “Blatant self-promoters.” But the L.A. artists are more involved in fine-arts marketing and the cultural ramifications of consumerism than other newavers. Clay Geerdes counters: “Most of the guys doing newave stuff are hobbyists who don’t expect to get into the business and make a lot of bucks at it. Mini comix are done for the fun of it, as a way of bouncing around ideas.”
This L.A. group (including Gary Panter, Carol Lay, and underground forefather and painter Robert Williams) are all at least remotely associated with the Art Boys, an “art gang” masterminded by Zone and Williams in the early ’80s. The Art Boys (and girls) were inspired by a Marin County-based association of artists in diverse media, the Artistas, who emulate ’50s biker gangs and require purchase of an expensive Artistas leather jacket for membership. The Art Boys, parodying the Artistas, offer membership to anyone who buys their “crummy T-shirt.” Other “art gangs” include the groundbreaking Artpolice in Minneapolis (est. 1974), who publish a semi-regular newave portfolio of paintings and drawings; the Loonies in San Francisco, who gather to “network” and cavort in neighborhood bars; the Art Maggots in Eugene, Oregon, dedicated to semiotic parodies; the Wimmen’s Comix collective; and scattered gangs of graffiti artists. One observer noted that many artists’ groups are “basically just an excuse to get together and get drunk.” But the Art Boys also sponsor community events (such as the “Ugly Madonna Art Sweepstakes”), mobile art shows and other uplifting happenings. Zone’s newave Zomoids have become an important focus for the outrageously modern style of cartooning called “punk” or “New Wave,” not to be confused with newave mini comix.
“Punk” comix, as practiced by children of the postmodern ’50s and ’60s, are the visual equivalent of punk music: deliberately sharp and crude, energetic and campy in a ’50s style referenced to the angular geometrics of new-wave album cover graphics and Russian Constructivism. The prominent New Wave artists include Panter, Lynda Barry, Mark Beyer and Mimi Pond, Ron Hauge, Mark Marek, “XNO” & “Bob X,” Wayne White and Matt Groening. Although there is no organized New Wave movement, the style did not arise wholly atomistically. Lynda Barry notes that “a lot of artists are influenced by Gary Panter’s work—they would never deny it. Everybody sees each other’s work and gets a kick in the butt from it.” “Panter introduced to the comic book and the newave,” declaims Zone, “the formal concerns of the Abstract Expressionist painters.”
Panter and colleague Jay Condom, as the “Shit Generation,” have produced the most extreme punk comix with Pee Dog. This self-published study in illegibility and gestalt interpretation breaks taboos with a vengeance not seen since the early work of S. Clay Wilson in Zap. In the process, as Zone says, “it deliberately employs and amplifies the low-brow aura of comics.” Crumb published a “Pee Dog” spread in Weirdo #8; but Panter draws a contrast between the Shit Generation’s oeuvre and the narratives of the “wise-ass” school represented in Weirdo and Bad News: “Most of the stuff [in Weirdo] is like, ‘hyuk, hyuk, hyuk; let’s drink more beer.’ On the other hand, Pee Dog is real scared; it’s a world of terrifying forces.” But so is J.R. Williams’ “Skinboy,” just one of the overlooked strips in Weirdo that confront the fearsome underside of modern existence.
Although a few underground artists have managed to sustain their craft and audience by expanding into the trade book market, trade books cost real money to produce and promote. At the other end of the spectrum, newave comix cost almost nothing; but then again, they’re so underground as to be practically invisible to the uninitiated. Further, the low-rent constraints of the medium, while militating against exclusivity, encourage entry but not exit. “People aren’t compelled to really develop themselves into accomplished artists,” Crumb laments.
Some newavers have produced excellent comix, but for most serious cartoonists, the established comic format and market is their only hope for significant exposure. Self-publisher Steve Lafler issues Dog Boy in the standard package “not because it’s an ideal format or the format I think necessary, but because it’s the most marketable format I can afford.” Bob Lewis has taken the same step with the anthology comic Scratchez and has begun marketing the book through major comics distributors. But many will not even consider handling Scratchez because of its challenging content and explicit material. “This stuff would be considered tame in Europe,” Lewis grumbles. “I think it’s going to take years to educate the American public to the nature of our format and content.”
But, in the latter days of an Administration many consider worse than the Nixon reign that opened the doors for the underground “boom,” there is real hope for the underground comic book. Trina Robbins is enthusiastic: “If the underground comix can just hold on a little longer, I have the feeling their time might come around all over again. I feel the whole mood of the ’60s coming back. It all kind of fell apart in the late ’70s, but maybe things had to get really bad before they could get any better. You’re starting to see demonstrations again, a lot of anger about how this country is being run and repressed. That feeling of protest is coming back, and that’s what underground comix are really about.”
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First published in High Times (September, 1985)