Comix and academia collide

Co-author and –curator James Danky on the origins and relevance of Underground Classics. By Amy Marek, University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism Student, 3/22/09

With the recent rise in popularity of graphic novels and comics, James Danky and Denis Kitchen’s look at the history and evolution of American underground comix  illuminates their impact on popular culture. Danky and Kitchen’s blending of passion and scholarship will both entertain and change minds.

“Even those who experienced the 60s may find their memories renewed by seeing comix they enjoyed in their youth, and for those too young to have known the work when it was produced, it will, to use an old expression, ‘blow their minds’.”

Danky, who has dedicated his career to bringing popular culture into the academy, including imaginatively documenting the print culture of everyone from neo-Nazis to zinesters, returns to his “hippie roots” for this project. Cartoonist, writer, editor, publisher and entrepreneur Denis Kitchen’s connections with key underground comix cartoonists allowed for an inclusive and comprehensive look at the evolution of underground comix, featuring unseen original art provided by artists’ themselves and personal collectors.

James Danky

James Danky

“The exhibit, upon which the book depends, would not be possible without the keen eye and superb collector’s instinct that led Denis to trade and purchase art from all of the important comix artists he met while publishing their works under his Krupp Comic Works and Kitchen Sink Press. But we needed more art, from different artists or different portions of their career and that was provided by Eric Sack of Philadelphia, who must have the largest collection of underground comix original art anywhere.”

Other than collaborating with Kitchen, Danky says getting the chance to talk to the artists in the course of seeking their permission for the book was one of the most interesting parts of the project.

“If I were to use a Sixties turn of phrase, I would say it was a gathering of the underground artist tribe. The generosity of the artists in letting us make use of their now-historic work has been astonishing, as has their enthusiasm for revisiting the revolutionary art that all of them helped to create.”

In addition to documenting the exhibit, the book provides deep context justifying Underground Classics claim as “the first serious examination of underground comix as art,” according to Danky. He says they accomplished this by commissioning essays from Paul Buhle, an old friend and historian at Brown University; Pat Rosenkranz, author of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution; and Trina Robbins, the most important female underground cartoonist and, later, a serious historian of women in comics.

“Their essays place the artists and their creations in the social and artistic context of the era in a way that will introduce those new to the phenomenon while reminding older readers why they loved to read them long ago.”

Comics are hot and likely to stay that way in the next few years, according to Danky.

“Comix are a crucial part of that market in terms of how they influence readers and artists active today, think Dan Clowes or Chris Ware who are the next generation, but also figures like Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and on who began in comix and continues to be important artists.”

“But it is really the readers of today who will find Underground Classics to be shockingly wonderful. They have no idea how the visual freedom they take for granted when reading comics today was created, and by whom. And they will love the images, whether for a glimpse into their parent’s secret past or for the uninhibited approach to art and life.”

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