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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