Going Underground

Posted by on November 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

 

 

Burrowing around recently (well, last year or so), we found a somewhat fresh look or two at comix, one from Abrams ComicArts, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix (9×12-inch pages, many in color; hardback, $29.95). At just 144 pages, the book is scarcely a comprehensive overview published for its own sake; it is, rather, the catalog for an exhibition of original underground comix art at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wis., a couple years ago.

Surprisingly perhaps, only 90 of the book’s pages are devoted to displaying the art from the show — at one piece per page, an expansive display — and the selection includes most of the major figures in comix: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Art Spiegelman, S. Clay Wilson, Skip Williamson, Jay Lynch, Denis Kitchen, Justin Green, Jack “Jaxon” Jackson (whose nickname, conferred by Shelton at the Texas Ranger, refers obliquely to JAX beer, a favorite Lone Star State beverage), Kim Deitch, Trina Robbins, to name some; and a few peripheral but seminal figures for the underground, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder and Will Eisner, for instance.

The remaining three dozen pages are devoted to five essays about comix. Jay Lynch, reviewing his own pioneering engagement with the movement, waxes nicely nostalgic, dwelling on the early history of the genre with a view from inside (but slipping momentarily to misstate the date of Zap Comix #1 as 1967 instead of 1968). Trina Robbins does a similar inside job but with an emphasis on the struggle of women cartoonists to impinge upon what was then (and to a large extent still is) a male-dominated art form in which women, when depicted, are degraded and abused. Denis Kitchen teams with journalism professor James Danky, his co-editor for the book, reflecting on the license UG cartoonists enjoyed, expressing themselves and their unconventional attitudes in their art, as they developed a business acumen while the burgeoning comix phenomenon exploded around them.

Patrick Rosenkranz, who has spent 40 years admiring underground comix and writing about them while earning his living in sundry film appreciation endeavors, is more analytical: He attempts to credit the iconoclastic impulses of underground comix for subsequent societal changes, but by telescoping history to create direct cause-and-effect links, he leaves out many contributing factors.

In his essay, the longest in the book, Paul Buhle, a senior lecturer in history at Brown University with 30 books on his vitae, argues that comix are art and belong in art history. Their “dissident themes alone would have placed the undergrounds within the key rebellious artistic traditions of the American 20th century. Underground comix deftly united the most vernacular of all arts, the comic book, with political rebellion and a reflective critique of American culture.” And in trying often to realize a psychedelic LSD vision, comix contributed innovative visuals to match their revolutionary content.

 


From The New Adventures of Jesus: Second Coming, ©2010 Frank Stack.

 

Buhle’s ringing conclusion is only slightly marred by his mistaken belief in the worn-out tradition that Mad adopted a magazine format in order to escape censorship. In the last analysis, Buhle concludes roundly, comix “were the artistic outpourings of a lost generation, able to achieve only a portion of what the comix revolution of 1969 had promised and would have delivered, in other circumstances, on talent alone. There were so many large losses in those years — the receding waves of social transformation, the transfer of ‘sexual freedom’ into license, the vogue of LSD into cocaine, the reconsolidation of corporate prestige in Ronald Reagan and the restart of the Cold War — that a tragedy in the vernacular art world (or any art world) cannot be taken too seriously.” But for those who pored over these artifacts “with enthusiasm and an adult awareness that the vernacular was reaching up toward a reconciliation of the artists’ hand and the intellectuals’ vision,” the loss “was a blow not to be underestimated.” But there’s hope: “Just now — beyond midlife, thirty years on, with the Web at full cruising speed and the promise of a new graphic novel art on the horizon — we may be recovering.”

Underground Classics offers but a taste of the genre, whetting the appetite. In Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975, Patrick Rosenkranz’s 2002 tome from Fantagraphics (292 9×12-inch pages, some in color; hardcover, $39.95), we have something approaching a smorgasbord, a generous sampling of comix art accompanied by a text that traces the growth and development of the genre chronologically, chapters tagged with years as well as themes — “1967: Good Vibes,” “1971: Revolution,” and so on. As X-Tra‘s Brian Tucker observed online in 2004 (Vol. 6, #2), because the book relies heavily on its author’s interviews with 50 UG cartoonists, it is “more oral history than critical analysis.” In its voluminousness, Rebel Visions is a trove of information about comix — almost, as Tucker says, “an indispensable sourcebook for anyone interested in the underground comix milieu.”

I agree, generally speaking, although the volume is not without blemish. I’m going to belabor some of that aspect of the book for a few paragraphs, but the faults, while not inconsiderable, should not detract from the otherwise valuable insights this tome offers about a phenomenon we know less and less about the further away from it we get. The book, in other words, is worth having on your shelf — but with a warning label, which I will now supply.

While the testimony of the witnesses makes history live, Rosenkranz usually retails this information uncritically — that is, accepting the information his interviewees offer without question or comment. He does much the same in his essay in Underground Classics when he quotes Robert Williams, who says in the early 1970s, he and his cohorts feared that a government “clamp down” was coming: “We know for a fact that they were reconditioning internment camps in eastern and southern California. Our phones were being tapped, and the cops were watching down the street. It was just continual surveillance. Either we were going to get forced into the army or we’d get thrown into an internment camp.”

 


©2010 Trina Robbins.

 

GeeDubya and Darth Cheney have very nearly made a paranoid conspiracy theorist out of me, but even in the enhanced anxiety of my present mental state, it seems to me that Williams has gone overboard here. Rosenkranz offers not the slightest demurer, however, piling up Williams’ testimony as evidence of governmental agencies “pawing through your e-mail.” That governmental agencies somewhere are pawing through my e-mail I no longer doubt, but I do doubt that they were doing that sort of eavesdropping in the early 1970s when the technology for it was much less sophisticated.

Oral history, which is essentially eye-witness accounts of what transpired earlier in the witness’s life, requires scrupulous editing to correct, or at least acknowledge, dubious assertions and suspect claims made in the testimony. As nearly as I can tell without having read every word of Rebel Visions, Rosenkranz doesn’t perform this vital function; instead of editing the text or advising his readers, he acts as cheerleader, urging his witnesses on and wholeheartedly embracing their every utterance as unvarnished truth. The grief fostered by this benign neglect is that every witness’s version of reality, however fictional, becomes fact. And the actual facts, history itself, recedes into the foggy past, lost forever.

Rosenkranz’s noncommittal, even permissive, editorial posture may be deliberate and canny: It can’t help but encourage his interviewees to talk, to reveal all. And “all,” indeed, is what we get here, from 50 different points of view. And as a documentary record of the thoughts and beliefs of UG cartoonists, whether they’re accurate or not, the book fulfils an otherwise empty niche in the history of comics. But the volume of the material that Rosenkranz has assembled coupled to his apparently lackadaisical and unquestioning acceptance of it all can breed a nonchalance that can lead to awkward moments if not outright drastic FUBARs. (That last term is a buzz word derived from the military expression Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.)

 

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7 Responses to “Going Underground”

  1. Harvey Baby, what side of the bed did you get out of the day you wrote this? While I appreciate your assessment that “the decades Rosenkranz spent interviewing comix pioneers are not all wasted,” and that Rebel Visions provides “a suitable text for the pictures, perhaps the only text with any pretension, however sometimes shaky, to being authoritative,” you really should have called me before you published this thing. We could have corrected some of your mistakes.

    A companion piece to Estren’s A History of Underground Comics? Wow. That’s low. My 1974 book Artsy Fartsy Funnies might be pasted with that label, but Rebel Visions came much later and did a far better job than either of these early histories. My approach was anything but “lackadaisical and unquestioning.” I’ve read nearly every interview done with underground cartoonists in addition to conducting my own. I wrote the questions that elicited the responses I needed, selected the appropriate quotes, arranged them to best tell the story, and wrote the text that ties them together. I also carefully studied all the comic material produced in the underground to select interesting and suitable illustrations. It’s no secret that I admire the men and women behind the underground comix movement, and I let them tell their own strange and wonderful stories.

    “Earning his living in sundry film appreciation endeavors?” What the heck does that mean? I’ve worked as a head shop proprietor, bartender, journalist, educator, and portrait photographer. I took up film and video in 1982 after living with the Eskimos in arctic Alaska for a year as part of a team documenting changes in their lifestyle from oil exploration, and have made numerous independent films and commercial productions since that time. Writing books about comics is a labor of love, not a way to earn a living.

    I need to respond to a few other specifics in your essay.

    The Griffith story about his first comic strip in the underground press: Griffith himself told me it was in Screw magazine in the early seventies when I first interviewed him. New York Times editor Steve Heller, pictured in the Zippy strip accepting Griffith’s comic when he was editor of Screw, confirmed the story. I don’t know why Griffith changed it to EVO. Maybe it was artistic license. Maybe he “misremembered.” (What an odd word) In any case I saw the discrepancy and put both accounts into the book for the reader to note.

    Gilbert Shelton, who was responsible for assembling and printing the first The Adventures of Jesus told me the story of its 1964 origin. Stack had been sending him and other friends copies of his Jesus strips by mail for some time, but this was the first time they were assembled and mass-produced. (50 copies) Uber-collector Arnold Scheiman (The Good Doctor) claims that there are three versions of that first printing. I don’t know what the particular tells are, but that’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Show me the 1961 (1962? 1963?) editions and I’ll change my account.

    Contestants for the first underground comic book? I still nominate Rick Griffin’s The Surfing Funnies (1961) and The Cartoon History of Surfing (1963). Some people add Vaughn Bode’s Das Kamp to the list, but the inclusion of that book feels wrong to me. Even Robert Ronnie Branaman, published by Charles Plymell in 1963 has more of a claim to that title.

    Rosenkranz is often misspelled. (Rosencrantz, Rosencrans, etc.) It’s just one of those names. Bob Levin recently called me Rosenzweig. It’s the first time though that I saw Rozenkranz, one of your versions of my name. I don’t mind really, but Harvey (Harvee? Harvie?) choose one and stick with it, okay?

    You’re putting the cart before the horse when you say “Rosenkranz’s noncommittal, even permissive, editorial posture may be deliberate and canny: It can’t help but encourage his interviewees to talk, to reveal all.” How exactly does the interviewee know which parts of the transcript I plan to use in the future? How do they know what kind of “editorial posture” I’m going to take before they read the book? I encouraged them to talk freely by asking the right questions and listening well. I heard plenty of wild stories during my research, but I didn’t print them.

    Mistakes? I made some. In the hardcover edition of Rebel Visions, I got the death dates wrong for Rory Hayes and Rand Holmes. I credited Vaughn Bode for a Larry Todd cartoon (page 238). A Bhob Stewart photo was accidentally credited to me, and the numbering on the footnotes got screwed up, but I was able to correct those errata in the 2008 paperback edition.

    Should I have provided proof that Nixon and his thugs were preparing concentration camps in California and drawing up lists of dissidents? Or that COINTELPRO was harassing underground newspaper staffs? Or that Robert Crumb’s tax problems were connected to his depiction of Frosty the Snowman blowing up the Rockefeller mansion? That’s another book. Robert Williams’ comments were the context for his view of the situation when he created his art.

    I also didn’t feel it was my place to dissect or appraise the individual comics and illustrations I included in my book. That’s the reader’s job. They should look at the art and make up their own minds. I’ll provide historical and biographical insights about what prompted the work, but no one needs a critic to tell them how to think.

    FUBAR? Actually, I don’t like that term. It implies a military context. I prefer just plain Fucked Up.

    • R.C. Harvey says:

      Ahh, Brother Gildenstern (or Rosenstern or Gildencranz), I think your Rebel Visions is a valuable book for exactly the reasons you claim it is a valuable book—namely, that it presents a view of the world and of underground comix from the perspective of those who were living it and producing them at the time. Even if their interpretation of the larger history around them is often mistaken or skewed—even if they don’t always agree on the dates of publication of various artifacts—what they thought then and are thinking now about it all is valuable. And I think I said as much in the course of the review itself. And I also prefaced the critical passages (about the Williams quote and Griffith’s first published cartoon) by saying, in effect, that such criticism should not detract from the over-all value of the book. Still, I can understand why you are miffed about the review. I would be, too.
      You must admit, however, that if you produce a work in which there are contradictory facts (where Griffith first published) with the expectation that the reader will recognize the contradiction and decide for himself which of them is more accurate (or not), you run the risk that the reader may decide something quite different—i.e., that the editor/author of the book is irresponsible or deranged. That’s the risk you run; and if you’re willing to run the risk, you must also be willing to allow the sort of interpretation I make about it.
      As I implied in the review, I doubt that anyone is going ever to produce a definitive history of comix because of the numerous divergent opinions among those who were there about what happened and when it happened. All such histories must be accepted for the truth of tone and attitude but questioned about such “facts” as dates and the like. And your remarks seem to bear me out.
      As for the spelling of your name, if I may rely upon philosophy about such matters, perhaps we should simply let the reader decide.

  2. deniswheary says:

    I appreciate the work of both Patrick Rosenkranz and R.C. Harvey.
    While most journalists simply re-write corporate press releases, perpetuate unsubstantiated stories, tow the party line, spew the politically correct version and / or pass on uncritically the commonly held belief, I admire and applaud writers willing to do real research into the facts and interview the actual participants, creators and eye witnesses, even within a marginal field such as comics. (And yes, guys, while I love my comics, these are not life and death, or war and peace issues here.)
    Mr. Rosenkranz has written at least five books on underground comix, including Artsy Fartsy Funnies (1974), the hardcover Rebel Visions (2003), and the second softcover edition (2008), which I consider as Rebel Visions Vol 2, since it contains much additional information as well as different illustrations than the 2003 edition. Those books contain more fully footnoted first person accounts by the comix artists than any published comics histories that I have found, and they put the Estren and Skinn books to shame. There are plenty of articles and books full of critics’ and academic’s opinions on the value, function and significance of graphic art and picture story telling. That Rosenkranz presents Robert Williams’ remarks as spoken, and didn’t confirm as fact whether internment camps were set up in California or not, seems to miss the point made by Robt Wms. as well as the reason why the quote was included in Rebel Visions at all. It obviously was quoted as an explanation of the mood of the time, not as a historical report on California Governor Ronald Reagan’s police and prison policies.
    As co-publisher of George Metzger’s “Beyond Time and Again” (1976), I personally appreciate R.C. Harvey’s research into the origins of the Graphic Novel, and publishing his conclusion: that Will Eisner did not, in fact, invent or produce that term or the first graphic novel. Harvey’s assertion helped set the record straight, so that subsequent books, such as Bob Andelman’s “Will Eisner; A Spirited Life” did not continue indefinitely a mistaken credit Mr. Eisner himself was loath to recognize or correct. I understand and fully acknowledge the great contributions Will Eisner made to comics (picture story telling, whatever) especially in The Spirit, but I believe Mr. Eisner would have had difficulty denying he invented the wheel if some group wanted to reward him (with an EISNER!) for doing so. I think it is unfortunate that Mr. Harvey now feels the need to refer to himself as “we”, use an old irrelevant Army term (FUBAR), and to launch broad and unsubstantiated criticisms (“not without blemish”…”faults… not inconsiderable” ) at the Rosenkranz books. And what’s with those double negatives? It sounds to me like Harvey, who mentions essays by Robbins, Kitchen, Danky, Lynch and Buhle without much comment, but really takes off on Rosenkranz, may be suffering from professional jealousy.
    What Harvey finds as a major weakness, that Rebel Visions contains more of the comix creators’ own words, warts and all, and less opinions by the book’s author, will, I my opinion, make Rosenkranz’s books more relevant to future generations than the effete distinctions of the elites or the heavy handed condemnations of iconoclasts.

    • R.C. Harvey says:

      Why, Denis, would I be jealous? Is Patrick better looking than me? What?
      As for whether my “facts” are more accurate than someone else’s, I think one of the undercurrents in my review is that everyone who was involved in comix at the time they were being produced has a somewhat different version of the facts. I count Frank Stack as a friend, and he manages a couple of versions of the facts at different tellings. That’s no crime; it’s merely evidence of the fallibility of human memory.
      Eisner recognized, by the way, that he was often credited for things he didn’t do. And he’d say whenever that happened, he’d just smile and nod his head in seeming agreement. I suspect he knew that it might well be pointless to argue with someone whose mind is already made up. But he was a gent about it. At the San Diego Convention one year, Chuck Cuidera and Eisner were on a panel together, and Cuidera, who had drawn the early Blackhawk comic books, was upset because Eisner was being credited as the creator of the Blackhawks; Cuidera claimed he had created them. Eisner quickly defused the situation by saying that whoever had created such characters was less important than what was done with the characters, and, he went on, Cuidera had done more for the development of the Blackhawk concept by producing the comic for as many years as he did.
      Canny, Eisner was. By crediting Cuidera in a way I think appropriate, he dodged the ostensible real issue—who created the Blackhawks; but he also, in effect, heaped praise on Cuidera.
      If you possess actual dated copies of “first” appearances of Wonder Warthog and other such creations, I’m sure your dates are correct. I’m quoting from second-hand sources. Then again, I haven’t seen many actual “first” editions of comix that carried publication dates. So the actual “facts” of such matters are likely always to be in dispute.

  3. IITravel says:

    This article seems well written on the surface and while I very much agree with your review of the book “Underground Classics”, which I picked up last week and was rather disappointed with, I stand on the other end with your opinion of Rosenkranz’s “Rebel Visions”.
    I’ve only been collecting Underground Comix for about 4 years now, but in that time I’ve delved deeply into it’s history and have purchased and read most of the books I could find on the subject, including Estren’s, Skinn’s and Rosenkranz’s. I found Rosenkranz’s the best by far and the author I respect most, and the newer one has more of everything included, while Estren’s I found informative but dryer than the other 2. Sure you’ll find a couple errors (the issue of Yarrowstalks in which Plymell showed Donahue the R. Crumb page was from issue #2, not 1 or 3) in so many fact filled pages, your article is 2 pages and you’ve got some, more than suspect errors, in yours. The biggest is your claim that Wonder Wart-Hog first appeared in Texas Ranger’s Dec. 1961 issue, it was actually the Sept. 1962 issue (you are more than welcome to examine my copies of both to verify), making the Bacchanal issues (March and April) both earlier appearances (I’ve got both of those too if you want to see them). I quoted the December 1961 date also in an article I wrote a couple years ago, but since then I can verify it being wrong because I’ve purchased the issue since then. There was an even earlier appearance of an Underground Comix charater of Dohler’s ProJunior in a fanzine called Wild! before Wonder Wart-Hog.
    Also, if you reference Jay Kennedy’s guide, you’ll find only 2 comix listed from 1963 (none before, except for his error on Adventures of Jesus being 1962). One being Das Kampf in May, 1963 and Robert Ronnie Branaman which is 1963 but according to Branaman and Plymell they don’t recall when in that year it was printed. Even if Das Kampf was printed before Robert Ronnie Branaman, the first print of 100 or so copies of Das Kampf was 100 loose pages (not bound) making it more of a portfolio, while Branaman’s was a bound comix which was semi-coherent about a character injecting some fictitious drug.
    Frank Stack actually was working on (while not editor) the Texas Ranger from 1956 and continued to contribute past 1959.
    As to when the pages of The Adventures of Jesus where first put together you should read (reread) the preface to The Adventures of Jesus, the Second Coming from Stack’s own words again as well as an article in I believe it was Blab #3 (September 1988) which also verifies 1962 was in error and was Spring 1964.
    These errors makes be think other “facts” in this article are also suspect since they don’t seem to have been verified.

  4. R.C. Harvey says:

    I’ve managed to mash together my responses to you and to Denis: the last part of my response to him is actually addressed to you. Sorry: I haven’t quite mastered this machinery.

  5. R.C. Harvey says:

    Soon after all the foregoing transpired, veteran undergrounder Jay Lynch wrote me about my questioning the extent of government surveillance Robert Williams was experiencing—and his fear that he and other underground cartoonists might be soon carted off to internment camps. Most of my complaint about Rosenkranz’s treatment of the quotation from Williams arose at the notion that internment camps existed back in the 1970s; that seemed particularly outlandish. Still does. But that doesn’t mean it’s wholly imaginary, as Lynch assured me:
    “On Williams’ quotes on the paranoia of the era over surveillance: Many of us did get our FBI files under the old Freedom of Information Act which confirmed said surveillance . And documents have been released and countless books written about the Fed’s MK ULTRA program which further confirm that we were being watched by the Fed. So it would seem to me that the surveillance issue would be well known by the average reader of 1960s lore. And going into MK ULTRA would have been as unnecessary for Rosenkranz to have gone into as say the reason for Nixon’s resignation.”
    I had forgotten about J. Edgar Hoover; had I clawed memory of him and his paranoia up from the back of my mind, I wouldn’t have questioned Williams’ claim about being surveilled. That’s not really so outlandish, given the times, and it, by itself, wouldn’t have prodded my dubiousness. But the internment camps—that was a little over the top. For the early 1970s.
    Lynch tells me I’m being naive, and he may be right. In any event, I don’t question the existence of internment camps today: GeeDubya and Darth Cheney have worked their subrosa magic wonderfully. (Although I never thought I’d use “magic” and “wonderfully” in the same sentence as “GeeDubya” and “Darth Cheney.”)
    My apologies to Williams and to Rosenkranz.