A free-wheeling, frank account of the rise and fall of the underground comic scene.
Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This Is Burning Man, serves up a tale of underground comix, “the ‘x’ to mark them as distinct from the mainstream comics to which they were in opposition.” Perhaps the best known of their creators is cartoonist R. Crumb, who, despite what today are considered “problematic” depictions of gender and race, has evolved into an artist taken seriously enough to exhibit at major museums. Doherty’s pioneering players share the idea that just as music and film were breaking free of conventions in the countercultural era of the 1960s, so comix, “born of smartass rebel kids,” could become revolutionary vehicles for the mores and attitudes of the day. A major difference was that music and film had big corporations behind them, while comix were largely homegrown, underfunded affairs. Crumb, through the pages of Zap! and other seat-of-the-pants magazines, became internationally famous. So did Art Spiegelman, who early on “realized he could not make himself draw something he wasn’t intellectually or emotionally drawn to for the rest of his life” and who began to imagine a Holocaust-era tale of cats and mice half a century ago, well before Maus brought him to mainstream attention. Doherty pokes into every corner of the scene, recounting how the always entrepreneurial Stan Lee tried to co-opt it with a Marvel sort-of-comix book and noting that where only a few male artists are remembered today, plenty of women such as Trina Robbins made great art and deserve more attention. While the author closes with a grim recitation of artists and publishers who fell victim to drugs, alcohol, or the various ailments of old age, he observes that comix exert cultural influence today.
Lively, well researched, and full of telling anecdotes; just the thing for comix aficionados and collectors.
Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix will be published by Abrams in June 2022.
Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and is the author of This is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground (Little, Brown, 2004). His reporting, essays, and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, and Fantagraphics’s The Best American Comics Criticism, among others. He has also served as a judge for the comics industry’s Eisner Awards.