Greg Irons: In the Fire

Posted by on September 27th, 2010 at 1:06 AM

by Bob Levin

Some artists seem to have had greatness as their destination as surely as if a tracking device had been implanted in their genes. Some veer toward it capriciously like a demon had seized the wheel. They start with a talent — to which they feed — in bites and gulps — their times; and, once expressed, the result is… YOWL! One of these was the underground cartoonist Greg Irons, the subject of Patrick Rosenkranz’s overlooked — and fascinating — retrospective You Call This Art?!! (Fantagraphics 2006).

Irons was born in Philadelphia in 1947. His father was an alcoholic commercial artist and his mother a nurse at TV Guide. At 10, they moved him, his older sister and younger brother from Roxborough to Gulph Mills, which was… Well, according to Wikipedia, George Washington camped there the winter before Valley Forge — and nothing had happened since. He was a quiet, shy, fear-ridden child — some maniac, he believed, would kill him — interested in art and model ships. He was a troubled adolescent — a risk-taker (as if to quell his fears) — interested in drinking and partying and — (still) art. When he flunked sophomore Spanish, his parents sent him to a military academy. When he returned, and Upper Merion High expelled him for smoking, they threw him out.

He landed in Center City. He was 17. He lived with a 23-year-old waitress at The Second Fret, who modeled at Philadelphia College of Art. He painted; he played guitar. He smoked pot and scarfed acid — when public health officials were still warning it made you stare at the sun and burn out your eyes. He was at Ground Zero when police were busting long-haired young men on charges of being female impersonators. When it took the ACLU to enjoin the police from harassing the freaks hanging in Rittenhouse Square. For Philly’s first Be-in (Alice’s Happy Un-Birthday Party. May 14, 1967), he did the poster. In one of its first acid rock bands (The Candymen, later Cat’s Cradle), he played bass. He is recalled as “weird,” “depressed,” “immensely talented,” “a beautiful, lost boy.” When a psychiatrist delivered his 4-F, he fled to San Francisco. It was the Summer of Love.

He stayed four months. He parleyed rock-show posters for Milan Melvin, another Fret ex-pat, into gigs for Bill Graham, then swung to London, where he drew cels for Yellow Submarine — and added meth-amphetamine to his supplemental mix. He toured Spain and Morocco; and when he next saw the Bay Area, it was 1969, and the air was filled less with love than with tear gas, and police batons were crushing any flowers still on skulls. He ran the adrenaline-triggering streets. End the War. Third World Liberation. People’s Park. In that inferno, he forged a commitment. The pigs had swords, but he had pens. He drew tanks and bayonets for Yellow Dog. He drew choppers and bazookas for the Berkeley Tribe. But the real action for hippie artist-revolutionaries was underground comix. The UG allowed near total freedom, near total control; and the cartoonists outdid themselves in breaking taboos, offending tastes, shattering sensibilities, crossing lines. Their responsibility, said their legendary theoretician S. Clay Wilson: “Blister irises and fuck up minds.”

In books like Deviant Slice, Skull Comics, Slow Death Funnies, from scripts by Tom Veitch, an ex-Benedictine monk with whom he’d allied over sacramental psilocybin, Irons blister-fucked with the best. Their work rang two gongs: gross-out horror and make-Hunter-Thompson-seem-a-wuss political. Personally, as a kid who spiked pre-puberty with Tales from the Crypt et al., the horror lullabyed “Ho-hum”; but the political… “Bee-doodly-oo-DOO!” There was the heroin-smuggling CIA; the pissing-in-the-bottle, quad amputee “Johnny-comes-marching-home” mock Time cover; the skag-addicted Vince Shazam, hallucinating Viet Cong, slaughtering an entire bank’s staff and customers. But Veitch-Irons’s masterpiece was Legion of Charlies, in which a split-screen rendering of My Lai and Tate-Sebring segues into a tribe of drug-fueled, homicidal rape-and-pillage vets, in thrall to a Charlie (Manson)/Kali (Lt. Rusty) god, cannibalizing, among others, Spiro Agnew and the Pope. Irons adorned this ode with crazed eyeballs, blasted body bits, mounds of hacking/chopping/ gore-stained folk, and one entire forearm being munched. He was, he said, reporting America — the America of Kennedys and King and X, Vietnam, Chicago, Kent State. Legion was designed as a ten minute “exorcism.” A way for readers to get over it and get on. “After a lot of television and acid,” he said, “(they) can’t sit down and read a 500-page novel any more.”

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2 Responses to “Greg Irons: In the Fire”

  1. Jeff Albertson says:

    Bob, thank you very much for this.

    I remember how “The Legion of Charlies” bloody well peeled my eyeballs when I was 16.

    Irons; he died too young– and comics are that much poorer for it.
    I know that at the time of his death, he’d been commissioned (along with Veitch) to do a new full-color story for Marvel’s ‘Epic Illustrated’ by Archie Goodwin. So his return to comics was assured.

    Irons was also a committed ecologist.

  2. Bob Levin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I didn’t get to Irons until recently — and “Charlies” still has the capacity to peel eyeballs.