It has been forty years and two generations since Robert Crumb published Zap Comix #1 in 1968, the first major event in the underground comix movement. Marking this anniversary, Patrick Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution—1963-1975 (Fantagraphics Books, $34.99 paper) serves as a comprehensive and invaluable history of this groundbreaking period in American comics. This new softcover edition presents an updated and expanded version of the 2002 hardcover.
Readers may also be fascinated by Rosenkranz’s description of the background against which this creative revolution took place. American culture has changed so much over four decades that even readers who lived through the 1960s and early 1970s may be startled by what it was like back then. The emergence of underground comix paralleled and reflected the birth of the hippie subculture, the sexual revolution, and the rise of a fervid antiwar movement in a time when so many young men were in danger of being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Rosenkranz describes the widespread use of drugs, from pot to LSD and beyond, and even mentions office orgies. Perhaps more startlingly, he points to the even stronger forces of conservatism, and even repression, in the 1960s which overwhelmed the new liberal and radical movements by the early 1970s. At the start of his book Rosenkranz reminds the readers that in the supposedly liberal 1960s, one could be sent to prison for using a certain four-letter word in print, and in the course of his book reports on police and government actions against the publishers, distributors and sellers of underground comix. Even the world of art was stifling new creative voices. The art establishment, including academia, only recognized Abstract Expressionism as proper contemporary art, and considered figurative art passé,diving some of the founders of underground comics to turn to that supposedly gutter medium to express themselves.
Rosenkranz narrates the history of undergrounds basically through recounting multiple parallel biographies of the movement’s artists, ranging from famous major figures like Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith and S. Clay Wilson to lesser known creators like Rory Hayes and Willy Murphy, both now deceased. Rosenkranz has clearly conducted extensive interviews with surviving artists, often allowing them to tell their stories in their own words in his book. Although he does not attempt critical analysis, he reproduces examples of the artists’ work on nearly every page, often in full color, enabling readers to judge it for themselves. Rebel Visions is perhaps just as valuable as an anthology of classic underground art as it is as a history of the movement.
It's surprising to realize just how short the underground comix movement proved to be. Although early efforts date back to 1963, the movement burst onto the scene in 1968 but peaked and then crashed, both in 1973. In part it was because of government action against the head shops where undergrounds were sold, and in part because much of the audience had turned more conservative in taste. But it was also because of a bubble in underground publishing, turning out more comix than the market would buy, which seems all too reminiscent of the boom and bust in mainstream comics in the 1990s (not to mention the fate of the housing market in 2008.) Rosenkranz points out how many underground artists saw themselves as continuing in the tradition of Harvey Kurtzman and EC Comics, and as with EC in the 1950s, the undergrounds’ heyday met an abrupt and undeserved end.
But the underground movement did not truly die. Rebel Visions shows how Art Spiegelman, Denis Kitchen and Crumb served as transitional figures between the undergrounds and the alternative comics that succeeded them, leading to the successful explosion of graphic novels here in the early 21st century. It was in the undergrounds, Rosenkranz emphasizes, that American comic book creators first exercised freedom of expression that today’s graphic novelists take for granted. And, as Rosenkranz notes, today works by the greats of underground comix hang in museums and galleries and fetch high prices. Thus the supposedly trashy popular culture of one decade becomes the classic art of another.
Last year was the centennial of the birth of Herge, the Belgian cartoonist who wrote and drew the many adventures of the intrepid boy reporter Tintin, and books continue to appear celebrating Herge’s creative legacy. The Art of Herge, Inventor of Tintin, Vol. 1: 1907-1937 (Last Gasp, $39.95) was written by Philippe Goddin, former archivist of Studios Herge, and translated by ubiquitous “Tintinologist” Michael Farr. This book is the first of three volumes that focus on Herge’s work as an artist. Starting with his first known drawing (from 1911, when he was only four!), volume one traces Herge’s artistic evolution, emphasizing the early Tintin stories, but also demonstrating his ability to work in other styles, ranging from realism in book illustrations to Cubist influences in an advertising poster. Many Herge admirers should appreciate this book simply as a showcase of the master’s artwork.
Unfortunately, Goddin devotes his text to recounting Herge’s life and the plots of the early Tintin books rather than attempting critical analysis of the art. For example, the book reproduces certain illustrations from Tintin’s adventure in China, The Blue Lotus, that show the influence of Chinese prints, but Goddin seems not to notice. Moreover, Goddin never analyzes Herge’s visual storytelling methods in his comics, or addresses the question of whether Herge was influenced by other, contemporaneous comic strips.
Indeed, this reviewer has yet to read a book about Herge that recognizes the existence of the rest of the comics medium!
If Goddin errs by avoiding a critical approach altogether, Tom McCarthy goes to the opposite extreme in Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, $18.95). McCarthy is quite right that fiction, including the Tintin books, may have buried subtexts of which not even their author was consciously aware. But McCarthy seizes upon certain aspects of the books and constructs elaborate critical arguments that rather than truly illuminating the heart of the Tintin stories, often seem to diverge increasingly far from it. For example, McCarthy singles out the motif of tombs and crypts in Tintin’s sagas, apparently unaware that Joseph Campbell pointed out decades ago that symbolic deaths and resurrections occur in all heroic adventure tales. In one Freudian chapter, McCarthy unconvincingly argues that jewelry symbolizes recurring character Bianca Castafiore’s private parts (and names the chapter after them!), while ignoring what Herge’s depiction of Castafiore, Tintin’s sole significant female character, says about his attitude towards women. Does the ubiquity of tobacco in Tintin indicate “fakeness,” as McCarthy proposes, or merely reflect the fact that 20th century Europeans smoked a lot? However intriguing many of McCarthy’s arguments and observations are, he may well have missed the proverbial forest for the trees.