The Great Ones

Eight Comix creators who pricked America's dark underbelly

I'll never forget the first time my tender, young brain was defiled by underground comics--or comix, as they were then referred to. My head spun around, my eyes bulged and watered, my loins quivered, and I instantly grew a fine new pelt of pubic hair. This was the day I lost my psychological virginity. The year was 1970. I was 12 years old. The Hardlife Boutique was a head shop located just down the hill from where I lived in Syracuse, New York. My gang of neophyte hippies would hang out in that joint, playing pinball, sniffing cheap incense, bopping to bad psychedelic music, and thinking we were the Stone Groove Shit. With time, we gained the trust of the owner, and one fine day, he pulled a treasure chest of glorious smut out from behind the counter. Those evil comix.

There was one called Big Ass by someone named R. Crumb. Seemed like a good call to me. I flipped to an impressionistic group of pictures called "All Meat Comix." There, in bold and beautifully rendered lines, was a huge, obscene tongue probing a clitoris the size of a toilet plunger; a butt emitting a river of feces, captioned, "Shitting is pleasure--Go baby go!"; and a bundle of rubbery-looking titties, suspended in midair by a rope-and-harness rig. The last panel depicted a King Kong-sized human weenus, trembling on a city street among the skyscrapers as spectators gawked in awe.

I checked out more titles: Zap. Bijou. Projunior. Young Lust. On these pages, forbidden, sublimated hippie-kid notions came to life. Cops were exposed as the psychopathic sadists they clearly were as they beat, raped and murdered young people with unbridled glee. Politicians were heinous, genocidal, cowardly perverts plotting the end of civilization in dank, sweaty rooms. If a little boy behaved himself, he was rewarded with some time between Mommy's thighs. Longhairs gleefully consumed all manner of drugs, opening their minds, expanding their horizons and changing the world.

I was hooked, and there would be no turning back.

Reams have been written in ensuing years about how Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, S. Clay Wilson and the other founders of the underground movement blew away the perimeters of the comics medium. What is less frequently discussed is the effect their efforts had on ALL media, effects that resonate to this day in films, books, radio, television and magazines. Underground comics are at once the least-discussed and perhaps the most-important entity to emerge from the American cultural revolution of the '60s and early '70s. The claustrophobic nightmares, electric wet dreams and stream-of-consciousness musings these men and women created were a watershed. Without their pioneering efforts to explode all manner of censorship, would there ever have been a Simpsons, a Howard Stern, a Pulp Fiction, a zine explosion?

At the very least, underground comics were the first medium to fully examine the dark underbelly of the human mind in a manner so graphic, so relevant in its freedom that there could never be any return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet.

With time, underground comics burned themselves out, like everything else of the era. In their place rose a new movement in the medium, this time called alternative comics, and a new generation of creators. The writing and art became more sophisticated and intelligent and less intent on mind-blowing vulgarity.

It can be reasonably debated that comics figures such as Crumb, Pekar, Robert Williams and Daniel Clowes rank with the very best artists and/or writers of the 20th century, yet only a few thousand people are privy to their work. They toil in a medium that most people think is the province only of grown men in tights. Yet alternative artists create concise autobiography, eye-opening history, sprawling fiction, subversive comedy. Their scope and subject matter are limitless. It is to them that we'll confine ourselves here, because frankly, I don't give a big, fat rat's ass whether Spawn can beat up Wolverine.

Those few stubborn souls who push on in alternative comics, regardless of the minuscule rewards in cash and acclaim, are heroic figures to me. What they create stimulates and challenges, pushes the limits of the imagination and the human muse. It's good jazz.

Below, in politically convenient alphabetical order, is a primer for the uninitiated on what I believe to be the most gifted and essential artists working in alternative comics today.

Like many of today's heavies, Bagge first came to light in the pages of Weirdo, an anthology title started in the early '80s. Formative characters Martini Baton and Girly-Girl were shrieking manifestations of the punk ethos of the day. Bagge's work bespoke the glee of wanton adolescent violence, suburban boredom and hyperactivity. The artwork was inspired by the likes of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Basil Wolverton--whose consummate grotesques had bent the brain of many a '50s and '60s child--only Bagge took his tantrum-throwing creations to new heights of drafted anarchy. Girly-Girl might even show you the "huge, festering boil" she had growing on her abdomen.

Bagge netted his own series, Neat Stuff, wherein he hit his stride exploring the inner workings of such recurring characters as the hyperdysfunctional Bradley Family, the paranoid narcissist Studs Kirby, überdork Junior, and the young, semiautobiographical suburbanites, Chet and Bunny Leeway; all of them were brought to life in a manner that was both outrageously funny and wholly believable.

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