Mid-Life Creative Imperatives Part 2 (of 3)

Posted by on February 25th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE

The writer Benjamin Peret once raged that the United States represented “the most emphatic garbage, the ignoble sense of money, the indigence of ideas, the savage hypocrisy in morals, and altogether … a loathsome swinishness pushed to the point of paroxysm.”

Most original, contrarian, and independent-minded creative work acknowledges this indictment, explicitly or implicitly, to greater or lesser degree, enthusiastically or reluctantly, but nonetheless inevitably. There were few truly radical intellects and oppositional voices in the history of commercial comic books; outstanding aesthetic achievement was almost always an accident, accomplished in spite of the best efforts of hack editors and insensate publishers to turn out an assembly-line product of cheap, formulaic junk. Dating from the 1930s, comic books were the bottom feeders of popular culture. Early comics publishers were a variety of fly-by-night operators, grafters with prohibition money, and dying pulp publishers like Standard and Street & Smith who were desperately casting about for new business ventures. Artists were treated like chattel, ideas were appropriated with a single, initial payment, work was paid for piece­meal, and in short order, craft labor was neatly divided among writing, penciling, inking, coloring, etc. The better to speed up the production process. Artists who displayed enough savvy would in turn start studios to supply publishers with product in bulk so that they could join in the exploitation of their fellow artists and rake in more money. The great cartoonist and satirist Harvey Kurtzman, who created Mad, once likened working in comics to “the scene in The African Queen when Humphrey Bogart’s pulling the boat through the reeds, and he climbs out and he’s [covered in] leeches. And then after he’s got all the leeches off, he slides back into the water and starts pulling the boat again. It’s more like that than (endlessly taking) insults. Always climbing back.” It wasn’t even a profession, it was an industry.

Many of the artists coming into the field through the 1940s and ’50s were immigrants looking for a way up the economic ladder and out of poverty, and saw comics primarily as an economic escape hatch. Others were writers and illustrators from other fields who couldn’t find work in their first choice, and decided to slum. Artists who were devoted to the art of cartooning and saw comics as a vocation were few and far between. Nonetheless, there were a handful of exceptional artists who chafed at the commercial restrictions and resented the economic injustice endemic to the business. Bernard Krigstein and Gil Kane were two such independent spirits: Krigstein was among the earliest cartoonists to seriously experiment with the visual possibilities of narrative form, despite the resistance of his editors at the legendary EC; Kane was an outspoken critic of the industry from the early ’60s who eventually tried to self-publish his own comic.

If you wanted to draw comics in comic-book form (as opposed to the newspaper-strip format or gag cartoons, which were far more difficult fields to break into), there were no alternatives to the major corporate comics publishers until the ’70s and ’80s — and even these were, economically, unpropitious. There were a handful of courageous attempts to self-publish or circumvent the traditional publishers made by artists working in commercial comics prior to that time, though.

A consortium of six artists, led by Harvey Kurtzman, self-published the humor magazine Humbug in 1957. Kurtzman had created Mad in 1954, but had a falling-out with the publisher, Bill Gaines. He immediately started editing Trump, a new humor magazine for Hugh Hefner. Hefner canceled Trump after two (glorious) issues, effectively putting Kurtzman out of work, and leaving his staff of artists stranded. The artists agreed to collectively finance a new humor magazine that Kurtzman would edit. The publishers were Kurtzman, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, Bill Elder, Harry Chester and Jack Davis. Publishing was only the first hurdle, though; they needed a distributor, but the only company they could find who would take them on was Charlton Comics, a notoriously low-rent publisher which also happened to be run by the mob. According to Kurtzman and Roth, no matter how many copies the magazine sold, their distributor’s records showed them just shy of profitability, which is to say they were getting deeper and deeper into debt with their distributor. When Charlton’s representative told them he wanted them to produce Cracked, a Mad imitation, to alternate every other month with Humbug, they realized that they were heading toward lifelong servitude. They quit publishing the magazine after 13 issues, and after losing a substantial sum of money.

Wally Wood was one of the greatest craftsmen comics had ever seen. His career took off, like so many other artists of the era, with his work at EC Comics, on their science fiction, war, and suspense titles, as well as Mad. He was independent-minded, however, and deeply resented the capricious editorial edicts of comics editors and publishers. Although he continued working for Mad into the early ’60s. most of his post-EC work was illustrating illiterate stories for a variety of second rate comics publishers as well as scraping together illustration assignments. Notoriously willful and well known for chafing against editorial restrictions, he published his own magazine, Witzend, in 1966, as a venue to publish artists who could work without editorial interference. It featured work by both commercial mainstream artists and underground cartoonists, such as Reed Crandall, Steve Ditko, Roger Brand, Vaughn Bode, Kenneth Smith, and, of course, himself. This allowed him the freedom to write and draw his own work (as well as the work of friends) without the carping editorial demands he despised. The magazine wasn’t economically successful — it’s doubtful any of the artists got paid for their work — and Wood abandoned it after six issues. But, he went on to self-publish several comics albums in the folkloric fantasy genre in the late ’70s, which also failed to achieve financial success. After a long and bitter comics career, and a debilitating bout of alcoholism that left him at the mercy of weekly visits to a dialysis machine, he killed himself in 1981.

In 1968, Gil Kane tried to break out of commercial comics by self-publishing a violent spy thriller called His Name Is… SAVAGE!, part James Bond, part Point Blank. Distribution was, according to Kane, sabotaged by the Comics Code Authority, the self-censorship organization set up by comics publishers in the ’50s in an attempt to forestall government censorship in the wake of the Senate sub­committee hearings on juvenile delinquency. Only 10% of the print run ever found its way to stores, which sealed its fate; there was no #2. Kane went on to publish Blackmark, a SF/S&S story, through Ballantine, a graphic novel in the paperback format. He then went on to co-create with Ron Goulart Star Hawks, a uniquely a double-tier newspaper strip, his third and last effort to get away from Marvel and DC Comics.

Artists who flourished in the prevailing commercial environment were those whose mentalities were coterminous with, and who cheerfully met the limited commercial goals of, the editors and publishers. Efforts to unionize the artists (one of which was spearheaded by Krigstein in the late ’50s) failed ignominiously. There were a handful of intelligent fanzines in the ’50s and ’60s, but no press that would galvanize the artists or champion the art form. The National Cartoonists Society acted as if comic books didn’t exist, and both Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff in testimony before the Senate sub-committee hearings on comics did their best to distance themselves from the sleazy comic-book industry.

The landscape had changed considerably by 1976, when I started co-editing and publishing The Comics Journal; and between then and now, it’s become a different world altogether. Although the mid-to-late ’70s was a moribund period in comics history (undergrounds had lost their vitality and momentum and mainstream comics had hit some kind of all-time low in both quality and circulation), the underground movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s began a revolution in comics that reignited during the early ’80s with a flurry of independent publishing activity.

Continue reading: PART THREE

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