Missing Links: Newave!

Posted by on July 16th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

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Various; Michael Dowers, ed.; Fantagraphics; $24.99, 892 pp.; Hardcover, Color, B&W;  ISBN: 978-1606993132

Newave! is an astonishing collection of minicomic from the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, roughly from the collapse of the underground comics distribution system to the inception of the Xeric grant and an increasingly wider scope of small-press comics shows.  This book puts the lie to the notion that underground cartooning was fallow during this period; indeed, all it did was really go underground.

A number of underground and DIY traditions and methods came together for this group of artists.  Sci-fi and comics fanzines had a huge impact on how these comics were distributed, as artists found other artists and quickly set up viral mail chains with each other, bringing in new cartoonists and new points of view along the way.  The rise of the APA-zine (APA=Amateur Press Association) was also a factor, along with more accessible and affordable photocopier equipment.  Breaking free of having to put up money to send to a printer made it that much easier for aspiring artists to express themselves.  The APA demanded a degree of cooperation and a work ethic that had everything to do with expression and nothing to do with money.  The rise of punk rock as a reaction against popular culture was another inspiration for a number of artists, while the introduction of the home computer and desktop publishing created new opportunities and interest for the prospective artist.  While the collapse of the underground distribution system made it nearly impossible for anyone to make real money off of their minis, these other factors made it easier than ever for anyone to try their hand at comics.

The shadow of underground comics did loom large in the early days, as the first hundred or so pages of this anthology will attest.  A number of artists were gleefully working out their ids on the page, throwing in sex and drugs in a manner that had been done before, and better.  It’s not an accident that the vast majority of artists in this book are men, as the early material leans as much on Tijuana bibles as it does classic underground work.  Reading warmed-over Gilbert Shelton shtick like “Real Dope Thrills” or straightforward sex fantasies like “Blown Away” or “Two-Titted Tales” was sort of like reading a kid’s dirty doodles drawn on a school desk.

This generation of puerile material, however, was part of the price paid for the possibilities that the Newave philosophy provided.  Indeed, Clay Geerdes, the man who wrote the Newave manifesto, was quite explicit when he noted that he accepted all submissions and did no editing.  Indeed, he would even encourage artists to draw stories about things he thought were weird or funny.  This attitude was a direct response to Art Spiegelman and the fact that his anthologies Arcade and Raw rejected so many submissions.  Geerdes saw this more as Spiegelman giving his friends assignments than an editor honestly seeking out the best possible work.  Geerdes published some pretty bad comics, but he also allowed a lot of young talent to grow in a low-pressure environment.

Given the number of cartoonists who later went on to make a wider mark on the world of comics featured in this volume, it’s obvious that this cooperative approach was effective for those artists who were motivated, ambitious and talented.  It’s fascinating to read early work by the likes of Rick Geary, Jim Siergey, and JR Williams—all of them emerging as nearly fully formed cartoonists even at the beginning of their careers.  While their work is interesting (especially Williams, a top-notch humorist who combined relentless mayhem with a cartoony line), it’s just as fascinating to read work by the likes of Jim Ryan, Steve Willis, Bob X, Tom Christopher and others.

Newave! gains momentum as it proceeds, an impressive feat for a 900-page anthology.  That’s a tribute to editor Michael Dowers, himself a minicomics stalwart, and designer Adam Grano.  Grano has a knack for design that plays to the strengths of the material he’s working with, especially with regard to archival material.  In a volume that collects out-of-print, photocopied minicomics, it would have been a mistake to give this book the deluxe coffee-table treatment.  Instead, Newave! is a brick of a book, measuring 5″x 6″—a format that mimics the original minicomic dimensions, while giving them just enough room to breathe.  This is a book that considered details like paper choice very closely; the thick, slightly glossy paper chosen made the black-and-white artwork snap on the page.  I daresay that the print quality on this book far exceeded the original printings for most of the comics included.

The back half of Newave! features nary a dud.  The stories from minicomics legend Steve Willis are especially memorable, whether it’s solo work or one of the many jams featured here.  Jams are rarely published these days, but exquisite corpse-style cartooning was a hallmark of the era.  Part of that was a manifestation of the community that these cartoonists fostered, but the Dada Gumbo series pointed to how much dada techniques influenced the ’80s cartoonists: found imagery, extemporizing from randomly dropped in imagery and the embrace of the absurd.

Newave! can be read in a number of different ways.  It’s a sampler of an era gone by and a permanent archive of same.  It’s a book that shines a spotlight on the early careers of any number of artists, at a time when expressing themselves freely was their only concern.  The two stories drawn by Mary Fleener are especially fascinating in that regard; even then, her heavy “cubismo” style was in full effect.  It’s a volume that could serve to help rediscover artists who either haven’t done much in recent years or have fallen out of public consciousness, like the aforementioned JR Williams or Dennis Worden.  The latter’s “Suburban Teens On Acid” is a classic slice-of-life slacker comic that had a clear influence on many such comics to come.  It’s a volume full of missing links, documenting the secret history of alt/underground comics.  Created just before the Internet became an everyday institution, this was an era whose history was in danger of being forgotten, thanks to small print runs and the ephemeral nature of the comics as art objects.

The book takes that history seriously, an important consideration considering how poorly comics has done in recording its progression (until very recently).  The interviews are thorough (if perhaps a bit boilerplate and flip at times) and give facts, figures and dates that provide context for what we see here.  That data, combined with the roughly chronological presentation of the comics themselves, shapes Newave! into a coherent (if segmented) work that documents the way these cartoonists created a culture and community structure, a foundation that would set the stage for what would come in the ’90s and beyond.

By the book’s end, which is highlighted by the amazing Starhead Comix minis published by Jeff Gaither, Newave! has featured a startling array of comics (including contributions by Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Mack White, Molly Kiely and others) that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s scene—and in fact  are better than most current minicomics.  In an era when some cartoonists are learning how to create minicomics as part of a formal art education, Newave! should be a crucial text.

all images ©2010 their respective artists

Cover by XNO

Images, from top to bottom: Jim Blanchard, JR Williams, Comix Wave, Steve Willis, Mary Fleener, Mary Fleener and Peter Bagge & JR Williams

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