Comix: The Underground Revolution by Dez Skinn
I finished reading Comix: The Underground Revolution (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004) right after reading Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. The two books are a perfect match for one another. In many ways, Skinn’s work begins where Men of Tomorrow leaves off—with the birth of Mad magazine, and the undergrounds that followed suit from Harvey Kurtzman’s lead.
I am a late arrival on the comix scene, so for me to find what serves both as an itemization and a brief history of the period in the pages of one volume is a real gift. The book is visually rich, including huge amounts of source material, none of which has been watered down for more sensitive audiences.
In the foreward to Comix: The Underground Revolution, Denis Kitchen explains the position of artists who contributed to the underground’s beginnings:
We knew that copyrights to comics were historically—almost without exception—owned not by creators but by publishers or syndicates.
We knew, for example, that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed away their rights as very young men, and over the years received only a pittance in comparison with their publisher, DC Comics. We knew that our creative inspiration, Harvey Kurtzman, left Mad because of an equity dispute with EC publisher Bill Gaines, and we saw that Kurtzman remained financially precarious while Gaines, whose business was saved by Mad, made millions. And we observed that even the most successful newspaper strip artists, with very few exceptions (Al Capp, Will Eisner and Milton Caniff), were unable to wrest ownership of their own famous creations.
From the start, every cartoonist in the counterculture understood that the old economic system was unacceptable. An artist first, and a publisher second, I understood that creators on principle should own their copyrights and trademarks (9).
Enter the new age of comics creation. Between the push for artists’ advocating for their ownership rights and an intense exploration of subjects that were largely taboo in comics previous to this point in history, comix were born—the “x” referring to x-rated comic books catering to a uniquely adult audience.
Comix: The Underground Revolution contextualizes the movement especially in terms of its beginnings in San Francisco with the publication of R. Crumb’s Zap! comics in 1967. The book’s introduction is a high-level overview of underground comics, including their early influences such as the pornographic cartoons called Tijuana Bibles in the 1930s. The Tijuana Bibles were a series of under-the-counter eight-page folded strips, the height and width of a cigarette package, which mocked the most popular newspaper strip features of the of the day, with over a thousand different depictions of ordinarily innocent material rendered sexually explicit.
The chapters in Comix: The Underground Revolution are organized thematically. In Chapter 1, “Heroes of the Revolution” the principal artists (and publishers) involved in the early underground comix scene are featured:
- Gilbert Shelton
- Rick Griffin
- Denis Kitchen
- Vaughn Bodé
- S. Clay Wilson
- Spain Rodriguez
- Art Spiegelman
- Hunt Emerson
- Brian Talbot
Chapters 2 and onward, and the themes that each addresses, are listed below:
- Chapter 2: “Can’t Get Enuff: Sex in comix”
- Chapter 3: “Grass Roots: Drugs in comix”
- Chapter 4: “Beyond the Page: Adding music to the movement”
- Chapter 5: “Publish and be Damned: Getting the work out there”
- Chapter 6: “Girls on Top: Wimmen’s comix”
- Chapter 7: “Anarchy in the UK”
- Chapter 8: “Where have all the Flower Children Gone? Long time passing, long time ago”
- Chapter 9: “Children of the Revolution: The kids are alright”
Comix: The Underground Revolution is a solid review of an important era in the history of the comic book and its later cousin, the graphic novel. The scene is described in terms of the myriad influences of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in particular in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, with its sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll creed. The challenges of operating small presses, or alternatively working with larger commercial presses and distributors are well detailed in Chapter 5. Numerous court cases pertaining to obscenity and pornography charges (some of which were successful and others failures) in both the US and the UK are also well described, as well as the implications of these cases on future work. In Chapter 9, the significant contribution of Canadian artists is included as a topic.
A handful of creators whose work is now securely entrenched in the mainstream had their beginnings in the early underground movement. Among them are Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, and Dave Gibbons. The early pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein’s paintings ran parellel to the underground movement, with their subversive artistic works inspiring a whole generation of pop and commercial artists to follow.
I see only two notable absences in Comix: The Underground Revolution, one of which is out of necessity. First, the danger of providing a broad overview of the comix movement involves not being able to zero in to a meaningful degree on a vast number of the creators whose works are mentioned. For example, I recently read Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life. This volume seriously blew my mind due to the heart-wrenching personal honesty with which it addressed the topics of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity. R. Crumb himself lauds Gloeckner’s work, and yet Dez Skinn only mentions Gloeckner because of her books being confiscated by border guards in the UK. To not have at least have named Gloeckner’s work is an important omission, since for the avid researcher, this can become a point of entry into additional investigation. Obviously, to focus in even greater depth on the many individuals cited would have made publication an even more unwieldy task than the book’s Acknowledgments suggest that it was. I cannot imagine the copyright clearances that must have been necessary to include the images found on virtually every page of Comix: The Underground Revolution. But at least in Gloeckner’s case, I think she deserved greater recognition.
My other main complaint with Skinn’s history has to do with the ending of the book. There was no real conclusion; its last pages address the topics of independent films that have been produced on comix-related themes, with a description of Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe following immediately afterwards. But where is the closure? Perhaps in the author’s mind, there is none. Nonetheless, in the interests of balancing the foreward and introduction at the beginning of Comix: The Underground Revolution with its final moments, I would have liked to see a final reflection on comix, perhaps with speculation on how the presence of Web comics may lead to a diaspora of the form into uncharted territory.
At the end of the book, a “Comix checklist” is included, which lists the vast majority of titles and artists contributing to the movement. A bibliography of critical works and recommended readings provides ample opportunity for the serious comics aficionado to continue researching this fascinating period.
The second to last chapter of Comix traces the demise of the undergrounds; the final chapter of leads us into a new generation of comics, the independents. Pioneered by the likes of Fantagraphics Books and Drawn & Quarterly, the names seen in the last chapter are most likely familiar to more recent followers of the graphic novel, which leads to further explorations in the field…To be continued!
The names of many of the key movers and shakers of the movement are featured in interviews on the Inkstuds radio show. The interviews provide a beautiful symmetry to Comix: The Underground Revolution, since the bulk of the show is dedicated to underground and independent artists, both of the past and the present.