Underground Classics – Getting from comics to comix and doing it with style.
by James Danky and Denis Kitchen
After reading a few of these comic related reference books recently I’m beginning to think they’re doing it wrong. After all, you don’t walk into an art gallery and sit down for an hour to read the brochure before looking at the artwork. But all too often, the artistic content of these books is preceded by essays, introductions, context setting pieces and more. But the art in every case, whether it’s Joe Shuster’s fetish art, Kamishibai Manga or nearly 100 pages of classic Underground Comix, that’s the thing we’re really here for.
(Two classic covers to Dope Comix; #1 by Leslie Cabarga, 1978, #5 by Charles Burns, 1982. With art this good why waste precious pages on text – just one of the ways Underground Classics gets it right.)
Underground Classics is almost the perfect way to do this kind of book. It has a few text pieces at the front, all very good at setting the historical and social importance of the Underground Comix movement into context complete with photos from the time. But after that it’s straight into nearly 100 full page reproductions of the artwork of the movement; covers, interiors and promotional work. And it’s not all finished art either – much of it is original art, complete with all of the blue lines, corrections, white-out and errors that just add to the magic of the work.
So if you really want to get the most out of Underground Comics, either skip the text pieces completely and go straight to the artwork or just read Jay Lynch’s introduction and then hit the artwork. The other text pieces are worth reading, just not before the artwork. I’d much rather see these books presented with a brief introduction and longer, background filling and context setting pieces after the main draw of the books.
(Three of the most famous faces of the Underground Comix scene – Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers. Page detail from The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers issue 1, 1970. Still a bestseller nearly 40 years on. How’s that for a lasting legacy?)
And the artwork is, as you might expect, pretty damn good. All the artists you’d expect are here, presented in a simple alphabetical order with extensive footnotes on every page, including famous names like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman, early pioneers such as Frank Stack, Jack Jackson and many lesser known artists feature in a series of plates taken from the exhibition of underground comics at the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisonsin-Madison that forms the basis for the publication of this book. And it’s that that has really shaped the form of the book – looking through it you really get the sense that this is a really classy exhibition brochure more than some dry historical text – and it’s all the better for it.
(Did you know that Denis Kitchen created a series for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics in 1973? Did you know it was the first to give creators copyright ownership and return original art at Marvel? Me neither. All part of the fascinating world of Underground Comix. Above; cover layout by Peter Poplaski from issue 1. 1973.)
The book is presented as an introduction to Underground Comix and assumes only minimal knowledge. The sad fact is that so many of the important artists of the era covered are relatively unknown today, even sadder that most of them are actually relatively obscure even in comic circles, nevermind the outside world. Yet the works they produced are vitally important in the history of modern comics. The Undergrounds paved the way for creative freedom, the rights of the artist to own their work, the establishment of the direct sales system that freed comic books from restrictive newstand practices and so much more – including influencing many of the greatest comic artists of the modern age.
(Underground Classics also finds room to showcase some of the older, more established artists who not only influenced the cartoonists of the Underground movement but were also influenced by the movement. Detail from Will Eisners tongue firmly in cheek cover to Snarf #3 1972.)
It’s an impressive book, full of informative asides and background on the plates, with a good strong design sense. The plates are presented simply, as they should be so the actual art comes through good and strong. There are quite a few of these Underground Comix reference books out, but this one really does get it right – it is, after all, all about the art. And that makes Underground Classics the best of it’s kind and an essential resource for anyone with even a passing interest in this wonderful medium of comics.