Erupting from the turbulent social waters of the 1960’s counter-culture movement, the genre known as underground comics kicked down the doors of the staid funny book status quo with frank depictions of in-your-face drug use, the sweaty excesses of every imaginable sexual orientation and radical political statements unimaginable in the pages of the conventional Comics Code Authority-sanctioned fare found at the corner malt shop newstand. This revolutionary era in American comics is preserved and celebrated with great aplomb in Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix by co-authors James Danky and Denis Kitchen, published this month by Abrams ComicsArts. A companion volume to a fascinating gallery show at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art, the book documents the first time in American comics when the uncensored ideas of anti-establishment thinkers—from women, blacks and homosexuals to other disenfranchised members of American society—were given full and unfettered voice.
Gaining infamy during their rise, the undergrounds unleashed a slew of hungry young comics creators such as Trina Robbins, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, and the inimitable Robert Crumb, who sought to publish material reflecting their real-world sensibilities and experiences. And while much media attention was paid to the often violent, prurient and “transgressive” new comics, the unprecedented creative freedom the undergrounds allowed their creators was given short shrift. Indeed the DIY environment of the 1960s Underground movement provided fertile ground, a place where a new generation of talent and ideas could flourish and be expounded upon.
The hardcover collection opens with an introduction by underground notable Jay Lynch (Bijou Funnies), followed by insightful essays from underground comics historian Patrick Rosenkranz, artist Trina Robbins and comics author Paul Buhle, each offering an up close and personal look into the underground era, its meaning, and its legacy. The remainder of the book is given over to a diverse and engrossing series of un-retouched plates showcasing over eighty pieces of original art that form much of the gallery exhibition and allow the reader to see the works in a detailed and personal manner, with blue pencil notes, remnants of Wite-out, tape and even the wear and tear of aging fully evident.
Russell Panchzenko, director of the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the show is an effort to highlight undervalued forms of popular art. “We were intrigued by all the different forms of drawing generally no longer included as art, like fashion illustration and advertising art, so we wanted to bring in a broad range of the art world’s variety with an emphasis on the importance of drawing,” Panchzenko says. “Cartoons are very much a part of that and the works that came from the Underground spoke openly about and depicted the social changes of their era, sexual and political, and it’s important to try to come to grips with that,” he says. Panchezenko even pointed out the importance of mounting such a show in Wisconsin: “the Underground movement is actually important in the state’s history thanks to major figures like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Denis Kitchen having all lived and worked in the Princeton area.”
Denis Kitchen, literary agent, co-curator of the exhibition, founder of the seminal comics publishing house, Kitchen Sink Enterprises, and co-author of Underground Classics, says “the goal was to show that this was a movement of many different artists—not just Robert Crumb—and show the scope and variety of idiosyncratic styles. The undergrounds get stereotyped as just a lot of sex, violence and drugs, when there was a lot of political stuff and different ways of expressing points of view—like head-on autobiography.” His co-author and co-curator James Danky, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism, says, “underground comics described things that real people do, even if depicted as being done by funny animals. That graphic and narrative freedom gave license to the artists. It was a great burden for some artists and a great opportunity for others.”
The gamut of the human experience and imagination is encountered head-on in both the gallery exhibition and the book and both the armchair comics historian and the curious comics newbie alike can learn much by re-examining these often febrile chronicles of the American counter-cultural zeitgeist. The undeniable influence of the Underground movement can be seen in such latter-day works of serious comics fiction as Alan Moore’s revolutionary super-hero epic, Watchmen, The Hernandez Brothers’s Chicano-influenced literary tour de force, Love & Rockets, and Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, an equally revolutionary fictional examination of gay rights and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Undergrounds marked what amounted to the American comics medium’s coming of age and the recent publication of several books on the subject—among them, Rebel Visions: the Underground Comix Revolution by Patrick Rosenkrantz—is both gratifying and inspirational. The period, theartists and the works it produced are gaining the recognition and respect they so richly deserve. The gallery exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art runs through July 12.