The Great Ones

Eight Comix creators who pricked America's dark underbelly

When Bagge moved to Seattle in the early '90s, he inaugurated Hate, which reflected the values and lifestyles of his new environs, with brother Buddy from the Bradley Family careering through grunge-era Seattle. Bagge's comics have always been a barometer of the youth culture. As he eases into middle age, the trick now will be for Bagge not to become mired in that which he can no longer grasp. He's a genuine original and perhaps comicdom's pre-eminent humorist, but Hate, while still an often riotous read, has been growing somewhat stale.

Recommended collections: Stupid Comics ($10.95), The Bradleys ($14.95), Hey, Buddy! ($12.95)

Clowes' brilliance is at times so dazzling he seems capable of overshadowing everyone in the field and rewriting the entire comics rule book. At other times, he'll leave you scratching your head, wondering if he even desires to live up to his limitless potential.

In the early '80s, Clowes' Lloyd Llewellyn series--a deadpan strip about a private investigator--was infused with a Space Age lounge/ beatnik sensibility. Prescient, perhaps, but it showed no real hint of the troubling ruminations to come when Clowes inaugurated his Eightball series later in the decade.

With Eightball, Clowes opened up his head and laid all the limitless misanthropy, self-loathing and paranoid dread in his fertile brain down on paper. He proved to be a wonderfully, exotically bitter little man. With "I Love You Deeply/I Hate You Deeply," Clowes elevated the art of bile to previously untapped heights of pique. His "Dan Pussey" saga lampooned the superhero-comics industry with razor-edged precision. Many of Clowes' tales were rendered in spooky, noir-ish lines and shading that perfectly complemented his superb, idiosyncratic writing style.

The most startlingly unique and haunting running story to come from Eightball was "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron," a seedy mystery that had the protagonist suffering through a world of sadistic cops, murderous thugs, bizarre pornography, mutant animals and a hideously deformed girl who lusted after him. Feh! I have actually experienced cold-sweat nightmares after falling asleep with the pages of "Velvet Glove" open on my chest and roiling in my head.

Recommended collections: Lout Rampage ($14.95), Orgy Bound ($14.95), Pussey! ($8.95)

Without Crumb, the very existence of the rest of this list is nigh unthinkable, so great has been his influence, his encouragement, his contributions.

Like most great figures in the arts, Crumb's work has been misunderstood, exploited, taken out of context and used against him. Often decried as a socially irresponsible racist/misogynist, Crumb's twisted muse is undeniably, wrenchingly perverse. But his is also the most inspired, intelligent, thoughtful, analytical and ultimately hilarious stuff ever to come from the underground or the alternative. As both an artist and a writer, Crumb is simply without peer in comics.

It was Crumb's Zap Comix that heralded the underground movement in 1967. Zap's nascent exercises reveal a man influenced equally by the big-foot drawing style and simple values of the '20s and '30s and the burgeoning counterculture of the mid-'60s Bay Area, from whence he came. Early characters--among them Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade and Forky O'Donnell--were cute 'n' precocious, but they also gleefully gobbled drugs; committed violent, heinous crimes against humanity; and, most of all, fucked like minks in season. In this dichotomy lay true subversion: the comforting and familiar doing very discomfiting and unfamiliar things.

After dropping cultural bombshells like so many shucked peanut shells, Crumb seemed to idle through much of the '70s, lacking the manic spirit and energy that fueled his earlier output.

The 1994 film Crumb documented his life, work and gloriously insane family, sealing his legend. By then, though, genius boy had moved to France, escaping the adulation of fans, which he deeply detests.

In a rare 1996 interview with OC Weekly, a disgusted Crumb said he was through with comics and would be moving on to work in other, less familiar mediums. So far, he's made good on that evil threat, but the hunch here is that the boycott will not last forever.

Recommended collections: The Complete Crumb Comics, Vols. 4-11 ($18.95 each), The Book of Mr. Natural ($12.95), R. Crumb Draws the Blues ($17.95), My Troubles With Women ($17.95)

Kim Deitch has been on the scene as long as Crumb, but he remains probably the most underrated artist in all of comicdom.

Deitch's strips are haunted by senile old men, alcoholic vagrants, seedy carnies and early animated cartoons. Yet for all the rogues who populate his work, a sweet, naive brand of nostalgia pervades it as well. His is a world of bizarre hallucinations, of benevolent creatures from foreign worlds, of seemingly delusional nursing-home patients who know a lot more about reality than you do. If anyone's work in this medium would lend itself to effective translation on film, it's Deitch's--think of Jarmusch meets Lynch with a bit of Capra on the side.

His artwork is hallmarked by busy, wispy lines; a sometimes curious lack of shading; and bug-eyed faces that look eternally confused. In every panel Deitch draws, there is usually much more going on than is readily apparent, clues to the outcome of a story that aid in its comprehension. Most of his tales and characters are interlinked as well, although it can take years, even decades, for Deitch to reveal the nature of their relationship.

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