‘Dirty Pictures’ shines a light on a corner of the comics industry that still hasn’t gotten its due

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Half a century later, the underground comics launched in the late 1960s are both everywhere and nowhere. The artwork of movement figureheads like R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, and others has become visual shorthand for the counterculture, and an increasingly indisputable addition to the canon of 20th century art in the minds of collectors and museum curators. . Meanwhile, the creator-driven, do-it-yourself philosophy that set the undergrounds apart from their more commercial counterparts has become the coin of the kingdom for dozens of comic publishers spanning the gamut of subject matter, from literary work to genre and superheroes.

Bring the underground to the surface. Despite their vast impact, the entire history of the underground comix movement has never been fully told in a coherent and systematic way. Sure, over the years we’ve seen good work focusing on individual creators or publishers, and good bibliographic work tracing titles and printing histories from the perspective of collectors, but nothing that exposes the whole the story from start to finish.

Dirty Pictures: How an underground network of nerds, feminists, misfits, geniuses, bikers, hotheads, printers, intellectuals and art school rebels revolutionized art and invented the comix, a new book by Brian Doherty published this month by Abrams Press, is an ambitious attempt to set the record straight. With nearly 400 pages with numerous notes and references, dirty pictures lists the many memorable tales and anecdotes that served as folklore for the underground movement; takes stock of the colorful cast of creators, publishers and retailers; and draws a line that begins with Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD and Disney’s Funny Animal Comics of the 1940s and 1950s and leads directly to the various indie, art, and literary comics and graphic novels of the 2020s.

Doherty is an editor at the libertarian-leaning newspaper Raison magazine, contributor to a range of mainstream publications and comics, and previously covered another contemporary avatar of the counterculture, the Burning Man festival. On the comics side, he knows his stuff, and when he doesn’t, he knows who to ask. Much of his information comes from first-hand interviews with participants in the movement, and he’s clearly cross-checked some of the more shaggy dog ​​stories rather than just repeating them for posterity.

Black and white comics, colorful designers. Doherty anchors the story around a core of characters at the center of the underground pantheon: Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robins, Kim Deitch, Denis Kitchen, Spain Rodriguez, Harvey Pekar and Howard Cruise among many others. Each cast member moves back and forth through the story, weaving different threads and themes as we navigate well-known historical milestones like the release of Zap #1.

dirty pictures is at its best when it connects the dots of personal and professional relationships, as well as the connections between underground comix and its seemingly very distant cousin, the mainstream comics industry. For example, one of the first places of networking was the Topps bubble card company in the mid-1960s, where a very young Art Spiegelman, who knew comic book history, found himself supervising Wally Wood, Jack Davis, a pre-ZAP R. Crumb and other big names in comics are getting into independent business ventures. That’s how many of these older veterans came to rub shoulders with Spiegelman and Crumb in Wally Wood’s groundbreaking indie “pro-zine.” Witzend. Additional link: The shop was run by Woody Gelman, who ran the comic book reprint company Nostalgia Press at the same time.

There’s also a hilarious story of Trina Robins bringing pot brownies to a Marvel bullpen event in the late ’60s, and of Spiegelman, who briefly worked as a colorist at Marvel around the same time, getting a stern warning. from production manager Sol Brodsky for coloring police cars. pink.

Doherty’s focus on characters and personalities brings historical details to life. It also sheds light on the relative socio-economic diversity of a movement that is lumped together, but actually comes from many different places: see the book’s hilarious subtitle for a hint. Nowadays, political divisions tend to follow geography, at least in the popular imagination. One of the most interesting features of the underground movement was how the desire to use the medium of comics to tell personal, political, satirical, secular and expressive stories captured the imagination of everyone from stereotypical coastal hippies to nerdy entertainers to freaks and heartthrob bikers. , with the big caveat that most of those people were white and the vast majority were male. The rifts finally came to the surface in the 1970s when the “War on Drugs” shut down major book distribution channels and boom times erupted.

The rise and fall of business. For ICv2 readers interested in the story from the business side, Doherty covers the pivotal role played by publishers, distributors and retailers, using the same in-depth, multi-faceted journalistic approach. It’s a part of the story that seems particularly overrun with stories from dubious sources. It focuses on the major drivers on the publishing side, Rip Off Press, Last Gasp, Kitchen Sink, and later Raw, Weirdo and Fantagraphics, but also highlights the role that certain stores and conventions have played in bringing different audiences together. of comics and comix. While researching my own book about a part of the comic book publishing industry that fits into the undergrounds of this era, I was continually impressed by the characters and ancillary stories that Doherty put in light.

The last third of dirty pictures brings out the underground history of the 60s and 70s, tracing its relationship to the indie comics of the 80s and 90s and the graphic novels of today. In a farewell chapter, Doherty discusses the “contested legacy” of the underground, who used shocking imagery to break down so many boundaries half a century ago, but appear crude and offensive through the prism of values ​​and beliefs. 21st century cultural sensitivities.

TL:DR Instant judgment. If this topic interests you, dirty pictures is probably the most comprehensive and authoritative account we will have, and is well worth reading. My biggest complaint? False advertising! There is not a single image, dirty or otherwise, in this whole book! Maybe Abrams ComicArts could fix that with a coffee table companion edition?

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICv2.com editorial team.

Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.

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