The Great Ones

Eight Comix creators who pricked America's dark underbelly

Unfortunately, his work has been sporadic and interlinked; stories have appeared in a number of unrelated publications, making a full appreciation and understanding of Deitch's intent difficult. It's past time someone pulled this magnificently unique body of work together into one large, cohesive volume.

Recommended collections: Beyond the Pale ($14.95), All Waldo Comics ($7.95)

Among the reasons Fleener is the only woman to make my list: too many female cartoonists get caught up in heavy-handed feminist politicking, sidetracking what might otherwise be potent work into an unpleasant guilt trip/whine fest. There, I said it; go ahead and castrate my chauvinist ass.

Fleener, in stark contrast, is the ultimate party girl, whose autobiographical excursions into Southern California surf culture are more fun than a whole barn fulla sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

A late bloomer in alternative comics, Fleener's early work includes "Madame X From Planet Sex," a slight, short strip that appeared in Weirdo. But it wasn't long before she found her niche in autobiography, and no one has ever rendered autobiographical comics with more unbridled enthusiasm.

From her early years as an acid-gobbling LA hippie chick up to her present status as a nature-worshiping beach mama, Fleener wrote of the wild parties, coke whores, rock & roll bands, sex orgies, and mystical spirits that populated her life. Even Crumb has been moved to remark, "The hedonistic life that Mary Fleener's comics reflect down there is really frightening to me!"

A couple of years ago, her Slutburger gave way to Fleener, a bold, hallucinatory children's title (!?!?!) published by Matt Groening's Zongo Comics. It's adventurous, fun stuff, but one can't help missing Slutburger's bold sensationalism.

Recommended collections: Life of the Party ($14.95)

Seeing Griffith's Zippy--a cartoonized dose of Sartre and Jarry--coexist on newspaper-comics pages beside Garfield and Funky Winkerbean is one of those cosmic mind fucks that makes life worth living. Zippy is a pointy-headed retard in a puffy muumuu with a 5 o'clock shadow who spews pop-culture-worshiping non sequiturs as his alter ego, the artist-patterned Griffy, cynically expounds on the vacuity of the human race.

Griffith is another of underground comics' founding fathers (with great early work in Young Lust), and Zippy has been with us since those heady days. In the early years, he was more disturbing, given to sexually attacking automobile bumpers and having nervous breakdowns. Zippy's mellowed with age, but Griffith has sharpened and defined the character rather than compromised him.

Griffith also does superb work sans Zippy: stupidity-indicting strips such as Griffith Observatory and vacation sketchbooks whose panels mix a curious blend of disgust and bemusement with the idiocy that surrounds him. In his own strange fashion, Griffith remains a more astute commentator on human foibles than a dozen top essayists.

Recommended collections: Zippy Stories ($14.95), Nation of Pinheads ($5.95), Zippy's House of Fun ($39.95 hardcover, full color), Griffith Observatory ($4.95), Get Me a Table Without Flies, Harry ($14.95)

Unlike the rest on this list, Pekar is strictly a writer; he consigns his work to artists ranging from the best (Crumb, Spain) to the unfortunate (Gary Dumm, Joe Zabel). Yet aside from Crumb, Pekar has influenced the comics world more than any other figure.

Crumb first spawned the notion of autobiographical comics, but Pekar just about claimed the genre as his own in the American Splendor comics he inaugurated in 1976. Pekar imitators are now a dime a dozen, most of them lacking his knack for capturing the essence of life.

In 1990, Pekar was diagnosed with lymphoma. It wasn't life-threatening, but he didn't deal well with the disease, falling apart physically and emotionally and almost destroying his relationship with his wife, Joyce Brabner. From this bout came Pekar's 1994 magnum opus, Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel written with Brabner, illustrated by Frank Stack (a.k.a. Foolbert Sturgeon), and detailing a year in which he almost lost everything.

Pekar may also be familiar to non-comics fans from numerous past appearances on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, in which the duo's genuine distaste for each other and resultant on-the-air fireworks made great theater for years.

Recommended collections: American Splendor Presents--Bob & Harv Comics ($16), Our Cancer Year ($17.95)

Spain (ne Manuel Rodriguez) is an intense, brooding figure of fierce disposition and political conviction. This former biker writes and draws in a dark, gritty, angular style that perfectly suits his ideologically leftist muse, whether he's working in fiction or autobiography.

One of the original Zap artists, Spain's early work focused on a radical liberator called Trashman and on surreal, dream-like tales of fetishistic sex. He later branched out into autobiography and was among the best of the breed, if only because he had led such a fascinating existence. His tales of life as a '50s greaser and among the Road Vultures motorcycle gang are particularly gripping, complemented by a rich, dense use of black in the artwork.

Still later, Spain created a character known as the Big Bitch, who led an ongoing saga that mixed his fondness for bondage and kinky sex with a fascination with espionage. Spain has also dabbled in straight historical strips, focusing on war and such infamous figures as Joseph Stalin. He has also done album-cover art (notably for Frank Zappa) and is closely associated with the tongue-firmly-in-cheek religious cult the Church of the Subgenius.

Recommended collections: My True Story ($14.95), She Comics ($14.95)

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