Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix. by Brian Doherty. Abrams Press. 2022. 448 pp. $30.
Comix! No, not just comics. Comix is the term we use to describe all the work created by independent comics creators (often auteur cartoonists doing both the writing and the drawing) dating back to the Sixties underground up to today. Brian Doherty has had a great time digging into the roots of, and connecting the dots to, this quirky offshoot of the comics medium. First off, I gotta say that Doherty is quite in tune with his subject and cuts to the chase. Perhaps the biggest question that comes up on this topic is What in the hell was R. Crumb thinking? Well, you won’t get far without an open mind on this. Doherty gets to the heart of the matter with a quote from 1972. A reporter for The New York Times asked what Crumb’s intention was in creating some of his most macabre and provocative work. Crumb answered, “I don’t know. I think I was just being a punk.” Then Doherty adds to that the fact that Crumb and his fellow cartoonists were all bucking a highly restrictive system of censorship. Nothing was allowed at the risk of offending anyone! If that sounds familiar, well, it won’t be lost on anyone reading this book. The point is, Crumb was indeed reacting to something, rebelling against something. Did he go too far? Or was it more one guy’s approach, along with a whole slew of other cartoonists, both men and women, with their own fiery takes on society? I think this whole book rests upon the assumption that a reader can walk and chew gum at the same time. In other words, yes, there is a possibility of seriously looking at the most controversial facets of comix without retreating from it. One key aspect to understanding is to look at the motivation to rebel. As Doherty reminds us, the “x” in comix is there for a reason: to distinguish comix from mainstream comics, the all too often watered-down and lame opposition, particularly during the days of the Comics Code.
Once we get something of a handle on Crumb, the rest of comix is a piece of cake! Well, maybe not. But that’s basically the arc we’re following: the great warriors, led by Crumb, out to raise hell; then, the reaction to all this ruckus, which included anyone offended by the first wave of mayhem; ultimately, a long process of the original “filth” working its way through the rest of the culture; and finally, all the accounts settled and those left standing declared the champions: Crumb, Spiegelman, and so on. Doherty does an impressive job of maintaining the flow of events, logically moving from one place, one publisher, one movement, after another. For those old enough to remember some of this history, it rings very true. Doherty has written the kind of book that many of us knew was possible. It involves keeping an eye on the key players and examining their aspirations and actual activities. Again, it’s impossible to avoid both Crumb and Spiegelman, both very aware of the fact they had reputations to either maintain or enhance. And then, of course, you had all sorts of other activity brewing, not the least of which was the feminist contingent led by Trina Robbins and her crew at Wimmen’s Comix. Robbins and her women cartoonists were determined to fight fire with fire.
Like any great art movement, comix is the story of the artists who led the way as well as of those to have taken up the mantle. What sustains the character and spirit of comix today harkens back to the highly charged independent streak of the original underground. You can’t have comix, or anything that resembles it, without a healthy embrace of the subversive, the experimental, and the guts to see through the most outrageous expression. It may offend. In fact, it definitely will offend and there will be consequences to pay. But, all in all, we’re far better off when an artist isn’t restricted or afraid to just be a punk, as Crumb summed it up. But art cannot remain in a vacuum or it will die. As Doherty points out, a new wave of artists brought in refinements. Most notably was a finer sense of the literary as demonstrated by Los Bros Hernandez and their ambitious Love and Rockets comics willing to take on richer and subtler literary aspirations. I’ve been a champion of the term, “alternative comics,” as I see it as a very valuable distinction. It’s nice to see Doherty using it here. He points out that pivotal break with the past as the underground ruckus rebellion gave way to a more cerebral alternative vibe. Indeed, it was to be a new and significant development to the still unfolding world of indie comics, a world that has given shape to the highly personal and strange creature we know today as the “graphic novel.” Sure, there are still diehard purists who claim to not understand what is meant by that term outside of being a brazen marketing tool. But people do know what a graphic novel is, or can be, just as they know what is meant by the term, “comix.” And that’s because, believe it not, people can really walk and chew gum at the same time. If they couldn’t, well, we’d really be in a lot more trouble. Doherty’s book is a very welcome addition to our understanding of comix, from its origins up to its current offshoots, offering common sense insight.
DIRTY PICTURES is available beginning June 14, 2022 and ready for pre-order. Visit Abrams Press.