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.

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.

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 (née 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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