Photos compliments of Crumb Newsletter blog.
Photos compliments of Crumb Newsletter blog.
Showcasing original art, printed pages, comic book covers and other work by fifty-seven artists, the exhibition explores the underground comix movement that began in the 1960s in which cartoonists rebelled against mainstream society and mainstream publishing to create a new, uncensored era of comic art.
Recently, James Danky, a co-curator of Underground Classics with Denis Kitchen, answered a few questions about the intriguing exhibition.
In the fall of 1977 I organized a conference on the UW campus on book publishing in Wisconsin and Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press attended it. We introduced ourselves and I have the distinct memory of casually saying how great it would be to see his and the other comix artists’ work in a museum. As we have remarked to each other since, you need to be careful with those casual statements given that was thirty-three years ago!
How did you personally become interested in comics and comix?
I have always read comics. I am sure I began with the funnies in the newspaper back when the offerings were more numerous, though I quickly added reading comic books as well. I would sit on the floor of the supermarket while my mother shopped (this was the 1950s, after all) and would read several comics and then select one to buy for twelve cents. If the title was other than Disney I would hide the book inside Life or Look but markets tended to offer a pretty mild selection of books. In 1967 I discovered comix when a friend lent me his copy of Zap, which blew my mind as the saying goes. From then on my reading was almost exclusively comix, as the titles published by the major firms had lost my interest. Today I read comix and their successors, namely titles published by younger artists including Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Jason Lutes and Linda Barry. The creativity of their art and the stories they choose to tell make for compelling reading.
What is the difference between comics and comix?
Comics have been an integral part of art since people drew on caves in Europe, if not before. In the twentieth century comics have come to have a more limited definition that frequently depended upon their location within the media. Newspaper strips, whether dramatic or humorous, were aimed at a general, family audience. Likewise, many comic books from producers like Disney or Dell provided content that involved funny animals and the like and could safely, after the mid-1950s, be shared with even younger children. There were many important comics that were none of these things, comics that contained graphic views of war or horror, but the Comics Code movement during the McCarthy era drove them out of business. This left a landscape where comics artists and readers were constrained in their choices and this frustration led to comix. The “x” is there to distinguish the two approaches. Comix offered artists the freedom to use unfettered language, depict graphic sex or recreational drug use, and make use of extreme violence when the story called for it. This entirely new approach to the medium produced works that were completely different than any that had come before and that also reflected the tremendous social changes associated with the 1960s.
There were perceptive critics and even a historian or two who appreciated the work done by comix artists right away. However, their efforts were fragmented and often little read. Over the last few years there have been some important books, including Pat Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions, which have put comix into a broader context. Denis and I believe our book, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, represents the first serious examination of comix as art, but our work relies on the contribution of many others.
Comix have gained a new acceptance over the last few decades and here I could point to a number of indicators but perhaps it is useful to think of Art Spiegelman’s joining the New Yorker in 1992 and later when his wife, Francoise Mouly, became the magazine’s art director. As the premier venue for cartoonists, the changes at the New Yorker have opened its pages to cartoonists whose work would have never appeared before. It is a factor of age, as in those of us who grew up on comix are now of an age to want to see such images, read such stories that publications include them.
How well does the general public understand and appreciate comics and comix? Have there been misconceptions over the years?
Despite the changes noted above, comics and comix remain a demonized form of media. The historical demonization sent forth by Dr. Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent, which produced the Comics Code of the 1950s, established a frame in which stories told using drawings were deemed juvenile and of little value. How many parents declared that reading comics was a waste of time? The result has been to limit the audience of comics in ways that other literary forms are not. Comics and comix can both be extraordinary forms for authors and artists to employ in telling stories. Comix offer the added benefit of being able to tell a story without the usual constraints or responsibilities. When Will Eisner’s A Contract with God appeared in 1978 (published by Denis Kitchen), the world had its first graphic novel. It is hard to underestimate the effects of Eisner’s work and I would note the strong presence of graphic novels and graphic nonfiction in many school reading programs as well as college courses.
I am tempted to say that Denis and I learned how little we knew about how museums worked, but mostly we came to understand how best to tell the story of the fifty-seven artists in the exhibit so that it would make sense to the art museum-attending community. With the help of Russell Panczenko and his staff at the Chazen, I think we have succeeded.
What do you hope people get from seeing this exhibition?
I hope those of a certain age, one closer to my own, enjoy reliving a part of their past, a part that they may not have considered recently or shared with those who came later. For students today, I think the opportunity to see the work done by a generation of artists and to consider how these lines on paper changed everything. The legacy of the sixties is more than rock n’ roll, important as that was.
Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, 1963–1990 runs through July 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 263.2068 or visit chazen.wisc.edu.
When you first heard about Underground Classics, what was your reaction?
I wasn’t too surprised there is a lot of retro interest in this field, which is practically extinct. I guess it’s cool to be extinct though. To me alternative comics seem like watered down underground comics so I’m glad to see your pining the right tree and not doing something that is socially acceptable.
In popular culture, but especially in comics, there is an origin story. So how did you get started in comics and then if you could talk about the transformation to comix.
I was born into it. I remember sitting on my dad’s [Vaughn Bode] lap as he drew “The Masked Lizard” around 1965, and he let me try and color parts of it. I think I ended up stabbing myself in the forehead with a pencil – I still bare the mark from that wound. I later went to comic conventions with my dad.
Jim Warren was the first person to buy my art. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember Frank Frazetta was the guest that year and he was displaying his new Sea Hag painting in the middle of the room – how could I forget that? When I was 15, 3 years after my father’s death in 1978, I started finishing my dad’s unfinished works for Heavy Metal magazine and I’ve been a professional ever since – never having to have a regular job. I owe that to my dad Vaughn’s exceptional legacy or (3rd legacy) he left me [laughs].
Artists are usually depicted as solitary workers but I have seen enough photos of comix being created in group situations. How did you work then? And how has that shifted over the years.
I always liked a jam – I work better when it’s made [in a fun environment]. I’ve done some great jams with the guys from Gwar and Larry Welz and Larry Todd; I am a jam player for sure. When I work by myself I work fast—but it’s not as fun. I usually hire a friend or two to help me through the process so I don’t have to spend so much time toiling over the various processes that comics demand.
Which comix artists are you closest to in terms of your appreciation for their work?
Spain and Paul Mavrides I see often and admire what ever they are working on. My favorite undergrounders are Jack Jackson and Greg Irons – both have a look and a style of storytelling that’s stuck deeply into my psyche from the time my father handed me a pile of undergrounds and said, “Here son, read but don’t show your friends.”
I was forever an underground fan from then on. Never could pick up an above-ground comic; they’re just too dull and they’ve never fucked or took a shit.
“Isn’t that what everybody does?” I would ask myself. “This super hero stuff is a pile of crap.”
In addition to the changes in style and content you describe, could you give us a sense of how you saw your audience over time?
Well, out of all the underground artists I think our (my fathers’ and my art) market has changed the most. My father rode the wave well and was shot almost to super stardom and then was cut short. So who is to say what his market would have been if there wasn’t a 10 year lapse in the material from when I started putting new stuff out. Back in the mid 70s he was a true rock star and people crowded around him to get an autograph after his cartoon concert slide show (which he performed at the Louvre in Paris) before his death. Yes, it was a time of heavy change and the end of an era and Vaughn was gone but not forgotten. Since then his work raised itself up in the new underground art form of Graffiti art, which I have embraced as another field to make my art in. The earliest Graffiti writers in NYC adorned their pieces with Bode characters and the rest became underground history. Now to do a Bode character is like a right of passage in the urban art of graffiti and it has spread world-wide. From Hippies to Hip Hop that’s your game if you’re a Bode.
Comics with a c or an x is inherently a commercial enterprise, how did you find working with publishers and being one yourself?
Publishing seemed important to me when I was younger. Now that I have an overview I see publishing as a promotional tool for licensing and not where the money is. If you are on top of the field like Crumb or Frank Miller publishing is a diamond in the rough. If you are a steady-as-she-goes artist like me you will find more money in selling art and licensing your images for toys and clothing and even movies and TV. I never had a desire to publish myself, guess it’s too much work and I already saw comics as a tedious experience.
Did you collect comics as a child? How has your collecting changed over time? What do you collect now? When did you become aware of a change in collectors in terms of institutionalizing comix in libraries and museums? Are any of your originals in a museum?
No, I didn’t collect comics. My dad gave all his undergrounds to me, and that was my collection. Whenever I am in a comics store and there is no adult section I usually walk out of the place; if they have an adult section I tend to lean towards erotica like Milo Manara type stuff.
I admire those who can draw women well, so I collect Erotica. I first noticed when I went to Mort Walkers museum in Rye New York. I heard of a castle like place where they have comics on display. I went in ‘82 when I was attending the School of Visual Arts. A few years later I met a curator of the museum and donated some of my dad’s art and mine as well. I have donated to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco too. I believe my dad has a piece in Angouleme’ as well.
What are the connections you make between comix and the work of younger artists today?
Well it is increasingly difficult to have your own style. The derivatives are through the roof. I find myself cringing and glad I don’t have to deal with it when I think about Manga influence and pop culture influence and all the mish-mosh that has been thrown in the comic field soup. It seemed simpler in my father’s day – there was a golden cow that everyone seemed to help build and the public loved it! Now it’s spread too wide into a sea of bondage and false icons wallowing in their own influential muck.
The role of the artist in society is the kind of question that raises the hackles of many artists who see non-artists as trying to define creative individuals, but it seems a worthwhile inquiry given the social context that surrounded underground comix. So how do you see that role?
My role? I draw what I want, and dress the way I want. I find if I wear a hoodie I am scowled at and if I wear proper clothes I am smiled at. I am glad I don’t do that with my art – never have, never will. I am working on Cobalt 60 – the movie to be directed by Zack Snyder – at the moment, I guess we will see how the general public embraces the underground after a movie like that comes out. I have a feeling I’ll be able to dress the way I want and draw what I want just like I’ve always done and ill still get scowled at.
“Telling Comix Tales: Worlds of Difference in Words and Images”
Lecture by Mary N. Layoun, professor of comparative literature, UW-Madison, Related to the exhibit, “Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, 1963–1990.”
For more information, see:
James Danky’s interview with Terry Bell aired today at 5:35am and 7:35am on Wisconsin Public Radio:
Tie-in Book Released, Published: 05/04/2009 12:05am by ICv2
About 500 people attended the opening of a major exhibition of underground comic art (see “The Transformation of Comics into Comix”) last Friday at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin. The 125 pieces from 57 artists, arranged chronologically in the galleries, span roughly 20 years beginning in the late 60s and ending with Will Elder’s cover for Snarf #10, which shows the death of the counterculture with a parody of Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.
The opening also marked the release of Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, a 144-page hardcover from Abrams’ ComicArts imprint. The book, by co-curators of the exhibition James Danky and Denis Kitchen, serves as a catalogue for the exhibition, but also includes essays by Danky and Kitchen; Patrick Rosenkranz; Trina Robbins; and Paul Buhle. The book carries an MSRP of $29.95.
The exhibition has been over 30 years in the making, according to Danky. “I met Denis in the fall of 1977 at the Wisconsin Historical Society where I was the librarian,” he said. “I had organized a conference on book publishing in Wisconsin and Denis came because he was a book publisher. I was already a fan of his work through Mom’s and the Bugle American and I remember very clearly saying to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to see original underground art on the walls of a museum?’ It just shows how you should be really careful about those casual conversations because sometimes it may take a very, very long time to figure it out.”
The large number of artists in the show reflects the philosophy of the curators. “It’s light on the biggest of names, like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, because the intent is to take those iconic, well-known names and put them back in context where they grew up,” Danky said. “Underground comix were a movement.”
We asked Kitchen if he ever thought he would see underground comix art hanging in a museum. “A number of us who were doing this took pride in it and we saw it as more than just that day’s entertainment, and I think we thought the stuff might have some longevity and appreciation,” he said. “But I don’t think we ever consciously expressed the idea of actually hanging in a bonafide museum. It was fun being an outlaw art and being viewed as disreputable, but there’s something to be said for respect.”
The organizers hope to travel the exhibition to other museums.
Some more pics: