Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of the Underground Comix. By Drew Friedman. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2022. $34.95.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
Some of the “Underground comix” artists themselves, along with older generation savants including Harvey Kurtzman, predicted that the new, stunning and challenging genre of comic art of the late 1960s-70s would likely have a limited shelf life. They had a point. The UG comic was totally rebellious against existing standards, its sales depended significantly on “head shops” selling soft drug paraphernalia, and upon publicity generated by the ephemeral “underground” newspaper circuit. Artists, a few dozen of them, leaped into the breach because they urgently wanted to express themselves without censorship or limits, and to have a copyright on their own creations. Such a phenomenon could no more likely survive a decade or so than the $75/month apartment rents or $10 nickel bags of dope.
And it didn’t. By the middle 1980s, a more modest version, “alternative comics,” seemed to mirror the pale version of the UG press, the local “alternative weeklies.” The Revolution had come and gone and left its artists largely stranded. A few made large names for themselves in new venues, Art Spiegelman by far the most famous and accomplished, along with Robert Crumb, who could be described as entering a slow fade. Others struggled to go onward. Among the artists still at it, Bill Griffith and a few others have continued to shine. In the end, the Undergrounds had sacrificed themselves, so to speak, for the birth of a large and diverse comic art.
Galleries, scholars,museums and even collectors might have tried harder to document the UG phenomenon. From the beginning of the genre until the end of the century and somewhat beyond, any serious attention remained scarce for what had been accomplished in the burst of energy, and by whom. The advance of something called “Comic Art” powered by the recognition of RAW magazine and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, to leave the past behind. The handful of artists who managed in the following years to get recognition in the New York Times and elsewhere were mostly of younger generations, and if graphic novels blossomed as a genre for the under-30 reader, anything like official appreciation lagged when it did not reach the surface of recognition.
And yet . . . a dramatically fresh art for its time: millions of readers (if we count the readership of the underground press), a lot of talent, all this leaves a record, somehow. The many collections published by Fantagraphics and others, reach readers seriously interested. Actual journals (mostly on-line) help to bring forward young scholars and help situate them in academic programs. Selected library collections consolidate holdings and provide guides. Beyond all that, there is an uncertain, informal but very real record of the evolution of comic art at large, with the Underground Movement increasingly recognized as a legitimate and important art form in its time and place.
Drew Friedman is a self-described fan or even Fan Boy of Crumb and others in the day, drawn to them and their stories personally, and for that matter, helped along the way of his own career by Crumb among others. Best seen, Maverix and Lunatix is an homage in the best way that Friedman can provide. And what an homage it is!
He draws over, or redraws, photos taken from some past period in an artist’s life, unpredictably from early in their careers or later on. Crucially, he has done the research to provide useful details (including birth and death dates) for nearly a hundred artists. More than a handful of them appeared with such brevity in the UG comix, remained so obscure, that Friedman’s’ work offers revelations of an unseen subculture. Other artists, who made quite a name for themselves in some brief moment before turning to other art forms, lifestyles, or simply collapsing into early deaths, find their stories helpfully here as well. Surprisingly, then, this is, in some limited but important way, a scholarly text.
Most readers will, naturally perhaps, direct their eyes to the drawings, which range from the spectacular to the plainly weird (well in keeping to the genre), then look across the page to the mini-biographies. Here, and perhaps also in the drawings, there is a lot of personal tragedy. Roger Brand among others succumbed to alcoholism, others died in road accidents in the US or abroad, some just turned up dead in apartments with no further accounting.
Others, plenty of others, simply turned from comic or comix into sturdy careers in every corner of graphic design, or painting, teaching art, or even web design. What nearly all have in common is a hole in the personal saga: their life in comics was essentially over. Perhaps that life had been too brief, too early in most of their lives, for its eclipse to remain a bitter disappointment. But I wonder.
It is slightly amazing to me that so many, with wild and carefree (not drug free) lifestyles, lived so long and are in many cases, still alive! In their seventies. Not all, even of those depicted as alive in the book: we now seem to be losing the UG artists by the month if not the week, Diane Nooman (aka Newman) and Aline Kominsky within the last six months, Justin Green passing just early enough for his death to be recorded here.
For this reviewer, at least, the faces depicted by Friedman look out at us with an aura of innocence, even for those with the kinds of personal habits that would not come close to the usual description of innocence. They were on hand at the creation, they took part in one of the great, still unacknowledged leaps of comic art, and they watched it collapse, even if it did not collapse most of them. This is something that can be appreciated only by looking at the art and reading the capsule biographies, not once but repeatedly. Thanks, Drew.
Paul Buhle, publisher of Radical America Komiks (1969), has been an essayist in several of the volumes exploring the history of the undergrounds including Underground Classics, the exhibit book for a traveling exhibit of the art.