Newave!; The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980s

Posted by on December 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Michael Dowers, ed.; Fantagraphics; 892 pp. (yep, you read that right); $24.99; B&W with color section;  hardcover (ISBN: 9781606993132)

A while back, I stumbled upon Abstract Comics and finding it continually engrossing, I pronounced it forthwith the most eye-opening and surprising book of the year. O, impetuous youth!

The chief surprise with Newave! is the vitality and merit it sustains throughout its length and not so much in its content, although there is a lot of content … well over 70 complete minis from the day. This is altogether riveting stuff, a host of guerilla comics from so many different hands offering an astonishing variety of visual experiences.

The book comes with a decade’s subtitle but editor Michael Dowers is less exacting in his purview, wisely so. He begins his selections with the withering of underground comics publishing, as the demise of head shops dried up the commercial possibilities for counterculture and alternative funnies. Undaunted, creative talents took to expressing themselves in the mini format, personally photocopying and printing sheets to be folded by hand, trimmed by hand to form pages and stapled together. By hand. Or else artists would draw their material and send it on to someone else who’d compile and assemble a book in much the same process. Everybody was scratching a very individual itch, one that was almost always totally divorced from economic viability.

Dowers ends his survey at the time when “NEWAVE had turned into something different … tastes changed and mini comics became more socially accepted and easier to find.” Subtitle notwithstanding, comics prior and after are included, which suggests that the hefty tome tries to get a handle not on a chronological decade but on a state of mind, a subculture vibe.

There’s no pretense that this handle should be mistaken as the definitive one. The material came into being laterally, as an end run around tradition, resisting parameters and shedding any notion of groupthink. The “movement” thrived, defying order and corralling. Dowers estimates that some 60% of all the minis of the era have “fallen into obscurity” and that it would take “50 or more books like this” to cover the subject adequately. His own table of contents, as organizational life raft, dutifully notes the known and available information, but it is far too casual for academics or archivists. It doesn’t even mention the book’s own embedded section of color cover reproductions.

There’s no index, so no way to easily track down all the Clay Geerdes inclusions but even this seems in keeping with the non-reined-in nature of the material. However there is a list of artists’ website addresses to further your own foraging. Selected creators are interviewed and contribute essays; the former tend to be crisp and revealing, the latter rambling, indulgent and no less irreplaceable. But historical treatise this is not.

Nor does it make claims to a “greatest hits” aesthetic. Dowers offers “just a brief overview of some of the best work that has been created by obsessed nutballs.” There’s no compelling reason to believe, for instance, that Dale Luciano’s Dada Gumbo #5 and #7 are worthy of inclusion and #6 is somehow shy.

The form of the book at 5”x 6” is perfect in that it mimics the most common mini size. It’s like a really big Big Little Book of freedom funnies on steroids and other fortifiers. Immediacy and intimacy are sensational still, as if defying any trace of hardcover entombment. Transmission feels direct, however delayed, and it’s striking how vital the communiqués remain.

Reflecting their origins and formats, pieces are uniformly short, hit-and-run, spur-of-the-moment distillations of what was on creators’ minds as of the very instant. Brief strips, miniature pin ups, sketchbook leafs and compressed ideas predominate. At 14 pages, The Pizz’s Clyde is a veritable epic.

Clyde’s intensity survives intact. So too does that of Dennis Worden’s Suburban Teens On Acid. Likewise the gallery of Crazy Men in Michael Roden and Jim Ryan’s fifth issue, everything by XNO and all the other pieces too plentiful to single out. There’s work here from such luminaries as Mary Fleener, Gary Panter, Rick Geary, Hilary Barta, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Sam Henderson, Peter Bagge, J.R. Williams and, as they say, a host of others (promotional material for the book drops the name of Daniel Clowes and there’s astonishment all around as I cannot at this moment recall, amongst this august multitude, what exactly he contributed). Some of their material is of interest as fledgling efforts, but more often their work is enjoyable on its own merits.

Dennis Worden’s Suburban Teens On Acid

You’ll have your own personal discoveries and favorites (Wherefore art thou, Molly Keily?) while I myself remain an abject sucker for humor. I probably laughed most heartily at Jim Siergey’s cover to Nart #2, “The Kielbasing of Caesar,” and at Steve Willis’ character Morty gone missing (possibly forced to compete in dog toaster races) although there were many other very close competitors.

Today, anyone trying to pay the least attention to mini, DIY, self-published, handmade and small-batch comics soon learns the field is dauntingly vast and grandiosely intractable. The more you see, the more such work proves creatively expansive, egalitarianly opportunistic, organically infectious and a relative mechanical and technical breeze. Its frontiers are everywhere, a nexus nowhere and any stance on what’s “cutting edge” probably says more about personal parochialism than the state of the art. Newave! proves t’was ever so and maybe even then some.

all images © their respective creators

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