“Underground Comix opened the way to comic art of a new kind…” – Paul Buhle

Interview with Paul Buhle, historian at Brown University, UGC essay contributor and comic editor, on working with comix artists and changes affecting comix over time. By Amy Marek, University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism Student, 4/5/09

aiga_radamericakomiksWhen you first heard about Underground Classics, what was your reaction? Buhle: I was the publisher of the third underground comic, RADICAL AMERICA KOMIKS, from Madison, 1969, so this offered an exciting trip down memory lane…especially because I am retiring from Brown U and moving to Madison shortly.

In popular culture, but especially in comics, there is typically an origin story. How did you get started in comics and then become interested in comix? Buhle: I was a great comics reader, but learned almost everything that I needed to know about American culture from the 4 reprinted volumes of MAD COMICS. And came to recognize, at an early age, my idol, Harvey Kurtzman (I wrote a high school theme paper about him and got a “B,” the teacher liked the paper but despised comics, as any English teacher would!)

As an editor, how do you work with comic artists? How has that shifted over the years? Buhle: Then and now, as an editor, I worked in collaboration, but in collaboration (then) by letter…Gilbert Shelton breezed through town and picked up a check for $2,000, with which to launch Rip Off Press and publish RAK…and now by email.


Harvey Pekar's American Splendor no. 1, cover (1976)

My best-known collaborator is doubtless Harvey Pekar, in my mind the comic scriptwriter anywhere.

What changes in comics and comix audience do you see over time? Buhle: RADICAL AMERICA KOMIKS sold 30,000 copies nationally but the Electric Eye, on Gilman Street in Madison, sold quite a few, new left and hippie types mainly; my comics appearing since 2004 reach all ages, but with a special attraction to Young Adult readers (biographies of Isadora Duncan and Emma Goldman have won awards for this category). Fans of superhero comics would not normally be interested in these kinds of nonfiction works, but that may be breaking down.

Comics with a c or an x is inherently a commercial enterprise, how did you find working with publishers and being one yourself? Buhle: Sometimes cheerfully, sometimes with great anxiety. There is never enough money for the artists, and that’s my only real complaint.

What connections do you see between comix and the work of younger artists today? Buhle: The film art of the 1930s-40 created by the later victims of the Hollywood Blacklist has influenced serious cinematic artists of every kind since, so the great work of the 1960s and 1970s has provided artistic inspiration and influence for younger artists and writers. Not only that: Denis Kitchen’s reprinting of classic comic art in the 1970s-90s has had a huge influence, perhaps almost as great as what is normally considered the Underground Comix as such.

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?

Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle

Buhle: When I teach my “Sixties Without Apology” lecture course at Brown University, Underground Comix always provide much material for consideration and a lot of enthusiasm among students. The Undergrounds were part of a counterculture that helped bring an end to the Vietnam War by offering a different way to see issues of war, peace and life. The artists did not come from the “schools” of fine art then dominant; they went far to reintroduce the subject, a subject that had been abolished under Abstract Expressionist rules, and they overthrew the deeply conservative political slant of that art by what a future generation would call DIY, Do It Yourself. The artist worked with small self-created publishers and was often the publisher. The center of art moved from New York to San Francisco and Berkeley (and to a small extent, Wisconsin).

What impact do you think comix have had on the comics of today? Buhle: The comics of today, my nonfiction comics, are not “comix.” But Underground Comix opened the way to comic art of a new kind, socially critical, unencumbered by cliches so common in comic strip and comic book art. There will be a review of THE BEATS, Harvey Pekar’s scripting and my editing, with a number of artists, in the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW a week from today, and that is probably the best indication close at hand of how the reputation of comic art has grown. The rise began in the 1990s with Spiegelman’s MAUS, continued with two women’s work, PERSEPOLIS and FUN HOME, and with the growing attention to Pekar’s books.

  • Paul Buhle is a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, author or editor of 35 volumes, including histories of radicalism in the United States and the Caribbean, studies of popular culture, and a series of nonfiction comic art volumes. Before Brown University, Buhle taught at the Cambridge-Godard Graduate School and lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design. He created an archive at the Tamiment Library of New York University on the Oral History of the American Left. He has been an adviser on documentary biographies of Howard Zinn, comic artist Will Eisner, and the labor martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti.

One Response to ““Underground Comix opened the way to comic art of a new kind…” – Paul Buhle”

  1. […] 11:16 am (Uncategorized) UW-Madison journalism student, Amy Marek, recently posted an illuminating interview with Paul Buhle, author of Comics in Wisconsin, focusing on the impact that underground comix had in […]

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