Monday, 18 October 2010

Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975 by Patrick Rosenkranz

In 2008 I was privileged to meet the legendary underground comic artist/writer Gilbert Shelton at a signing session in Leeds, just one stop on a UK tour promoting the publication of the complete “ Furry Freak Brothers” anthology. I was thrilled to finally meet the man who had created such iconic characters and has been a mainstay of the comix underground practically since its inception. Yet that excitement was tempered by the fact that I was easily the youngest of the queue patiently waiting their turn to meet Shelton, indicating a very real lack of knowledge of underground comix among contemporary comic devotees.

What could lie at the root of such ignorance? These isles have a proud and glorious underground comix history, one that drew greatly upon its American counterpart and imported its greatest titles in significant numbers. That knowledge and passion seems to have ebbed away, leaving only the hardcore patrons like Knockabout Comics to pursue their noble causes without receiving their due.

The publication of “ Rebel Visions” was a vital riposte to that tide of apathy, a vast and authoritative work built for the clear purpose of documenting the entire history of the US underground revolution in a definitive fashion: a not inconsiderable task given the various tributaries that have spewed forth since the early 1960s. Some have brought a great many of the original creators’ fame, fortune and stature like the irrepressible figures of Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin and Shelton himself. Others like Spain and Greg Irons remain shrouded in a near-mythic obscurity, their work long out of print.

Rosenkranz diligently weaves a number of divergent themes using the oral histories of most of the major participants. He delves into the backgrounds of key figures like Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman and S. Clay Wilson, whilst also signifying the original DIY works that were the first fruits of the nascent comix underground, notably Robert Crumb’ s 'The Yum Yum Book' and Jack Jackson’ s 'God Nose'. The surfer turned poster artist Rick Griffin is clearly positioned as the defining catalytic force for the entire West Coast underground movement. Even above the work of contemporaries like Stanley Mouse and Victor Moscoso, his formidable, freewheeling talent effortlessly conjured up images that were to become icons of the psychedelic era, in particular his poster series for hip promoter team The Family Dog.

The births of collective endeavours such as 'Gothic Blimp Works', ' Yarrowstalks' and 'Zap!' are covered in meticulous detail, brought to life in the spirit of creative solidarity by the biggest names in comix. 'The Big Four' of Crumb, Griffin, Moscoso and Wilson dominate these pages, but other names receive critical attention, like Spain Rodriguez with his violent anarchist strip 'Trashman'. These early collections truly broke the boundaries of what comics were expected to accomplish, spilling across the consciousness of countless readers worldwide in a free associative riot of groundbreaking art and transgressive ideas. The book gives over ample space to reproductions of classic strips, often in full blazing colour. Griffin’ s work still gleams with possibility and invention, and Wilson’s grotesque comic strips retain their queasy, black-hearted power.

The underground movement exploded in so many different directions, from the horror-themed strains of Greg Iron's 'Slow Death', to the emerging cadre of feminist creators like Shary Flenniken and Trina Robbins, that Rosenkranz had his hands full outlining the various personal and political shifts that guided each new territory. His skill lies in the interweaving of each of these movements at the right interval of the narrative; everything from the printing travails at Rip Off Press to the copyright battles emanating from the infamous Disney-baiting 'Air Pirates' comic receives a considered and concise airing. Unionization, allegations of chauvinism, self-referentiality; every pertinent issue is afforded its moment as the great tale unfolds, building towards the decline and near-collapse of the entire underground commix scene. Various reason are cited, among them censorship, premature death and creative inertia, but it seems that over-saturation and falling standards had as much to do with it as anything else.

If there is one failing with the book, it is this: my personal underground comic hero Vaughn Bode is at once present and not present as historical record proceeds. Rosenkranz has to necessarily emphasize the West Coast comix explosion, but that inherent bias places the New York-based Bode on the fringes of the main action, often quite literally. Entries concerning Bode figure on the margins of pages whilst Crumb, Griffin, Shelton etc have the full spreads to themselves. Crucially his work is cited in the book, 'Das Kampf' is credited as one of the first DIY comix, and his titling and editorship of 'Gothic Blimp Works' are acknowledged – but a truer sense of the bravery and innovation of his comix and art is not evident in Rosenkranz’ s prose. Rather, he is presented as an early casualty of the counter-culture, a victim of his own proclivities instead of the creative giant that I truly believe him to be.

That being said, “ Rebel Visions” is an essential guide to the comix underground, containing valuable information and insight that affords the contemporary comics reader a comprehensive view onto the first real wave of comic insurgency.

- Kevin McCaighy.

Related links:

Fantagraphics Books