Drawing from a deep, dark well

Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the (London) Times Literary Supplement.

Above all, the underground comix of the late 1960s and early 1970s were dirty. Unlike the newspaper strips of the era, which featured clean lines and obvious gags, underground comix were jam-packed with scuzzy, hallucinatory images, offering surreal plot lines that often veered toward incoherence. As postwar America ensconced itself in squeaky clean suburbs, taking cover from the unruly libido in the repression currently recycled each night on Nickelodeon's mock-nostalgic TV Land, artists such as R. Crumb, Robert Williams and S. Clay Wilson reveled in urban grime and plunged directly into the apparently endless abyss of male sexuality. Challenging the canons of American decorum, the savage surrealists of the comix underground developed a wildly improvisatory graphic language replete with images of every conceivable perversion. The results were anything but pretty.

Take for example Gilbert Shelton's 1969 "Wonder Wart-Hog Breaks Up the Muthalode Smut Ring," which pictures an animalized microgenitomorph who causes his girlfriend to literally explode during a sexual attack. The image, involving grotesquely misshapen body parts, is truly vile, yet at the same time it is hilarious in a grim kind of way, if only as a testament to the twisted nature of animal lust in its raw human form. Or take Wilson's "Head First: A Tale of Human Pathos on the High Seas Deck," in which two salty sailors drink a cup of grog and, not before long, one lops off the other's monstrous genital. As cartoonist Jay Kinney remarks, underground comix presented "castration fears and pornography and every fear rolled up in one moment." This is black humor of a peculiarly dark and repellent sort.

Newly authorized to represent the object of their desires in the throes of every conceivable sexual activity, comix artists testify to a fundamental anxiety in the face of their own lust. So it is that the ancient image of the vagina with teeth, the threatening maw of castration in flagrante, appears as a kind of leitmotif in the images assembled in "Rebel Visions," Patrick Rosenkranz's painstaking history of the underground movement. Even as one admires the furious libidinal frankness and graphic invention of the comix artists, one cannot but be appalled by the misogyny of so many of the images they created. Indeed, it is almost axiomatic that in the comix of the underground, when a woman enters a panel, one of the men will soon enter her, whether she invites him to do so or not. While female comix artists such as Trina Robbins were rightly repelled by such images, they offer a stunning symptomatology of the male libido as it sought to break the chains of 1950s-style sexual repression.

As such, the comix of the underground are of a piece with 1960s rock music and the psychedelic euphoria of the hippie era, as underground artists sought first and foremost a kind of liberation through a late romantic authenticity in which one drew comix for comix's sake. In the words of Bill Griffith, inventor of the wacked-out "Zippy the Pinhead," the only comic to successfully make the transition from the underground to the world of daily newspaper syndication, "The underground was the first time cartoonists considered themselves working for their own personal reasons, [for] personal expression as opposed to working for a publisher, working for a comic book, working for a market." Rents in San Francisco's Haight district and New York's Lower East Side were cheap enough to allow for a full-scale Bohemia, LSD was still legally being made and distributed by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland, and the Pill had recently been invented. No doubt it was easier then than it is now to live the life of the romantic artist, as 1965 ushered in what one artist calls a "breath of fresh air in the weary world."

More than anything else, it was LSD that opened the doors to the unconscious. R. Crumb, surely the greatest of the comix artists, a master draftsman whose drawings are among the very best American artworks of the last half-century, describes how his somewhat frightful experience tripping on "fuzzy acid" changed his art for good. "The whole time I was in this fuzzy state of mind, the separation, the barrier betwixt the conscious and the subconscious was broken open somehow. A grotesque kaleidoscope, a tawdry carnival of disassociated images kept sputtering to the surface, especially if I was sitting and staring, which I often did." So it was that during this period, Crumb prospected around his unconscious mind and discovered his panoply of bizarre figures, the staples of his comic art for the next decade, among them Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont, Schuman the Human, the Snoid, Eggs Ackley, the Vulture Demonesses and Shabno the Shoe-Horn Dog. Indeed, Crumb's inspired fuzzy acid months are the underground's version of the euphoric state in which a wildly fertile Rilke composed the "Sonnets to Orpheus."

The underground movement may be understood as a thoroughly romantic reaction to the world of the postwar newspaper comic strip, as it is chronicled in Brian Walker's "The Comics: Since 1945." In the late 1940s, newspaper circulation hit its all-time high, and there was ample space for the comics, which helped move millions of daily papers off the racks. Soap opera strips such as Milton Caniff's "Steve Canyon" were splendidly drawn in an impressionistic manner, producing a kind of film noir atmosphere in a daily comic strip. At the same time, satirical artists such as Al Capp and Walt Kelly offered daily doses of wicked humor that pilloried the hypocrisy of American politicians and the sentimentality of home-grown American culture. While Capp's voluptuous Daisy Mae and dopily hunky Abner are a far cry from the romping sexual figures of the underground comix, Capp's images carry a certain subversive libidinal energy that marks them as among the very best newspaper comics ever drawn.

Challenged by television, the daily comic strip began its long decline in the mid-1950s as urban newspapers were folding left and right, as city dwellers streamed to the suburbs. While Walker, as the founder and former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art, is ecumenical in his tastes, offering positive accounts of virtually all of the hundreds of strips he includes in this volume, it is hard not to feel that the late 1950s and 1960s mark a serious diminution in the quality of the daily comic strip. The syndicates that distributed strips were more powerful than ever, and many of the most successful strips of the period appear wholly anodyne. Bil Keane, whose sentimental "Family Circus" was a wildly popular offering, unwittingly attests to his mediocrity and that of many others when he speaks of his desire to please: "I tone down every idea I get."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" would bring back the satirical edge to the daily comics, though Trudeau's strips have never been powered by drawing but by topical and political humor. Of the later comics included in "The Comics," Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" shines brightly, as Watterson brings unusual graphic invention to his depiction of the adventures of a highly imaginative child and his stuffed animal. But many of the most successful strips of the last two decades, among them Jim Davis' "Garfield," Cathy Guisewite's "Cathy," Berke Breathed's "Bloom County" and Scott Adams' "Dilbert," are simply wretched, visually impoverished strips lacking graphic invention and verbal wit.

During their short, brilliant efflorescence from 1963 until 1975, underground comix swiftly revolutionized American comic art, producing mordantly funny stories bristling with graphic invention. In 1991, Harvey Kurtzman, guiding lunatic of the original 1950s Mad, in many respects the comix's fairy godfather, offered this reflection: "The underground was doomed to self-destruction. Like the Shakers who didn't believe in sex, the underground didn't believe in survival.... Success, you see, would bring them into the establishment. And becoming part of the establishment was failure, because you unavoidably inherit the conditions of that establishment -- the easy life, formula work, editorial restrictions, material possessions, and so on." Twenty-five years after the original underground flamed out in good romantic fashion, "Rebel Visions" and "Hysteria in Remission" testify to the wild fertility of the comix imagination.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°