News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Book review: Dirty Pictures by Brian Doherty


reviewed by John A. Lent

Brian Doherty. Dirty Pictures. How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix. New York:  Abrams Press, 2022. 439 pp. US $30.00. ISBN:  978-1-4197-5046-5.

Of the many books I have read on the underground press, comics, and cartoonists, Brian Doherty’s Dirty Pictures deserves to be placed next to Patrick Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions:  The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975. In at least one respect, Doherty’s volume shows up Rebel Visions; it extends the history by at least 45 years, this part taking up one-third of the 398 pages of text. Dirty Pictures differs in other areas, whether good or bad. It has no dirty pictures; in fact, it has no pictures at all, while Rebel Visions is enhanced by images from Rosenkranz’s collection.

Setting comparisons aside, Doherty does a masterful job of following the lives and careers of dozens of underground cartoonists, not covering one at a time and moving on; instead, he blends each into most of the 17 thematic chapters. Chapters are labeled in ways somewhat out of the ordinary:  some deal with a single topic, such as “Chapter 3, Zap! Zap! Zap,” referring to Crumb’s Zap!, or “Chapter 8, Misogyny, Feminism, Tits, Clits, and Wimmen’s Comix”; others are more far reaching, such as “Chapter 15, Comix Bottom Out as Their Contagion Spreads to Weekly and Daily Newspapers, TV, MacArthur Geniuses, and a New Wave of Daring Female Cartoonists.”

Dirty Pictures excels by the amount of information presented, brimming with many quotes by the artists in their individual vocabularies from--the “Jesus is coming” rants of later born-again Christian, Rick Griffin, to the “fuck as every other word” ramblings of others. Anecdotes abound. Depressing ones such as Jack “Jaxon” Jackson, suffering from Tay-Sachs and no longer able to grow, shooting himself to death on his parents’ graves, or Dan O’Neill, whose assets were reduced to “seven dollars, a banjo, a 1963 Mercury convertible, and the baggy suit he wore” as he battled Disney in court and lost. There were the stories of those who managed to survive hard times by their ingenuity--e.g., Kim Deitch, befriending the wealthy Bergdoll family to whom he sold his originals and lived in high style and rent-free for three years in their Virginia mansion, or Trina Robbins, wife of Deitch at one time, making a living as a seamstress and clothing designer for stars such as “Mama” Cass Elliot, David Cassidy, and others. And, funny but sad recountings, as when undergrounder Mark Beyer was invited to talk to Spiegelman’s class and got up, “took maybe five minutes for him to walk two feet--and stood up in front of the class. He put his head down, he says, ‘I hate my work. I want to kill myself.’ End of lecture” (289).

The underground bunch was difficult to nail into simple, neat categories as Doherty found out. On the one hand, they were, as Robert Williams labeled them, “a crazy fucking soup,” adding,

You know, we each had bad mental problems. Griffin was three different fucking people. Moscoso was Napoleon. Crumb was tortured by his own insecurity. Wilson was out of his fucking mind. I’m a fucking disaster to begin with. Some problematic fucks. I don’t know how to express to you how fucked up we were (198).

Contrary to this view is the reality that a number of the undergrounders achieved fame and wealth:  Art Spiegelman, recipient of a “special” Pulitzer Prize, Guggenheim grant, and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et des Lettres; Barbara “Willy” Mendes, honored with part of a Los Angeles space named “Barbara Mendes Square”; Lynda Barry and Alison Bechdel, awarded MacArthur Genius grants, and Julie Doucet, named president of the 2022 Angoulême festival. Others, among them, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, and Phoebe Gloeckner, had their lives or characters featured in movies or television shows.

The works of the underground cartoonists represented a fresh approach to the comics scene, hitherto, loaded down with unrealistic, often staid, superhero stories. The undergrounds shocked, mocked, and socked American society, sometimes, aiming to bring about social awareness and change, more often, expressing personal anguish and stirring things up.

Doherty neatly ties together the divergent aspects and views of the comix and their creators, a mean task in that these artists had connections with just about everything and everyone in the public eye in the 1960s and beyond, including the Beatniks, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and other musicians, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the pornographer Mitchell brothers, American Greeting cards, Students for a Democratic Society, bubblegum and trading cards, prominent attorney William Kunstler, Playboy, and even Jackie O.

Doherty, the editor of Realist, came to this project not as an underground cartoonist or even a fan, but as an outsider with an interest in comics generally. The research he put into this book is very impressive. Besides reading the secondary literature on the topic, he also scoured the archival collections of the Bergdoll family, Jay Kennedy, Kitchen Sink Press, and Jay Lynch at Ohio State and Columbia universities. Interviews (mostly phone, Zoom, or email) were conducted with about 79 key figures, including Crumb, Spiegelman, Robbins, Griffith, Stack, Kitchen, Mendes, Diane Noomin, Roberta Gregory, and Peter Kuper.

Coupling smooth writing with plentiful personal touches and splendid storytelling, Dirty Pictures, despite its long-winded and grating-to-some subtitle, is highly recommended as a resource, a pleasurable read, and a reminder of those crazy times.


A Personal Aside


Dirty Pictures was a treat for this reviewer, because it brought back enjoyable times in my life, one of which was my nine months on the faculty of the University of Wyoming in 1969-1970, during which, as sidelines, I helped organize and participated in anti-race-related and anti-war protests and played the major role in publishing a weekly underground newspaper called Free Lunch, Where the Effete Meet to Eat. Over the years, I have also had the pleasure to have spent time with individuals featured in Doherty’s book, including Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, Lora Fountain, Trina Robbins, Frank Stack, Charles Burns, Roberta Gregory, Leonard Rifas, Bob Beerbohm, and Gary Groth. Some of them and others wrote articles or reviews for International Journal of Comic Art, such as Gilbert Shelton, Leonard Rifas, Trina Robbins, and Harvey Pekar, or were featured in exclusive interviews, e.g., Barbara Mendes and Carol Tyler.


Book review: Comics and Nation. Power, Pop Culture, and Political Transformation in Poland

reviewed by John A. Lent

Ewa Stańczyk. Comics and Nation. Power, Pop Culture, and Political Transformation in Poland. Columbus:  The Ohio State University Press, 2022. 200 pp. US $34.95. ISBN:  978-0-8142-5838-5.

The focuses of Comics and Nation… are how foreign comics influences were received and discussed in Poland, and how those influences played in the work of local comics creators. The book is organized around the century-long history of Poland, divided into the creation of the Second Polish Republic in 1918; the post-World War II reign of Communism; the opening to the West in the 1970s; “the political and economic transformation of 1989; and the memory and autobiographical turn of the 2000s” (4).

Throughout those years, comics “elicited contradictory emotions from deepest fascination to deepest dislike,” which probably can be said of the comics scene in most countries. Examples of public debates concerning comics permeate the world literature, condemned as they were by the Catholic church, both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes in Indonesia, the Park dictatorship in South Korea, and all over the European and North American continents in the 1940s and 1950s, considered as hindrances to reading habits or the cause of juvenile delinquency, while lauded at other times, as educational and/or ideological indoctrination tools, a “medium of urban modernity” (38), and a transnational cultural exchange agent, with both good and bad impacts.

Author Ewa Stańczyk looks at all of these strands, sifting, as she said, through press commentaries from the 1930s to the present, in more than 200 newspapers and magazines, as well as academic journals, exile periodicals, and the samizdat (underground) press, and using memoirs and interviews with comics creators and publishers, and readers’ letters. She tells us that Poland’s first comic strip was in 1919 in a satirical magazine in Lviv (now Ukraine); that about 200 satirical magazines appeared in the country between 1918 and 1939; that much emulating and plagiarizing of European and American comics occurred over the years; that the first comics imported into Poland were from Sweden and Denmark, not the U.S.; that foreign characters were Polonized as early as the 1930s, and that it was not the American cultural influence that was considered dangerous, but rather, those that were “Jewish, Bolshevik, Masonic, socialist, communist, godless, moral relativist” (46).

Certain strips, characters, magazines, and genre/type were treated fully, such as the strip, “The Unemployed Froncek” of the 1930s, “Kapitan Żbik,” Poland’s first super detective of 1968 onwards, which featured the Kapitan’s regular letters to readers; the first comics magazine, Relax, beginning in 1976; one of Poland’s first comics exports, The Legends of Polish History, of 1974; Kapitan Kloss, based on a 1970s TV show, and the arrival of manga, also in the 1970s.

Comics and Nation… is an important resource, being a rare survey of the comics scene in an Eastern European locale, written in English. The book is packed with historical rundowns, quoted material from seldom heard-from Polish scholars and critics, and enjoyable side stories. Its shortcomings include a lack of sufficient images, and a surplus of contextual matter concerning outside-of-Poland comics history, particularly of the U.S. However, these do not take away from its excellence.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Book review: The Mud and the Mirth; Marine Cartoonists in World War I by Cord Scott

reviewed by James Willetts

Cord Scott. The Mud and the Mirth; Marine Cartoonists in World War I. Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University Press, 2022. Mud and the Mirth_web_1.pdf

This is the Marine Corps University Press’ first book of comics analysis and criticism, focused on the pre-first world war and wartime cartoons published by - and about - the Corps. Available for free as a .pdf, the Press show an admirable commitment to public-facing history with the publication of a wide assortment of archived cartoons. It’s a lavishly illustrated monograph, featuring over a hundred full color and black and white images, many of which are made widely available here for the first time.

Scott begins his analysis of military cartooning with an interesting point of departure from typical approaches. He notes that analysis of wartime cartoons usually begins with the patriotic commercial comic books, propaganda, and cartoons of World War II. Indeed, this is where Scott himself began his earlier work, Comics and Conflict, which looked at military cartoons from WWII through to the War in Iraq. In The Mud and the Mirth, however, Scott looks backwards, making a case that the cartoons and imagery published between 1914 and 1918 are part of a longer continuity. He argues that this framework allows readers to observe the “succession of cartoons that told of the Marines’ life well after World War I, into WWII, Korea, and even to the present day.” (4) The cartoonists, publications, and illustrations of the Marine Corps during this period laid the foundation for future military cartoons and comics. These materials are often neglected, to the detriment of broader conversations about military cartooning, wartime propaganda, and explorations of the Marine Corps’ internal culture. Likewise, Scott suggests, the authors and artists who created the sequential strips of the in-house publications have largely been overlooked both by historians of the Corps, and those focused on the development of sequential mediums and comics.

The Mud and The Mirth is structured around the Marine Corp’s pre-war and wartime publications. Scott first addresses pre-war depictions of the Marine Corps in the internal magazines Recruiters Bulletin and the Marines Magazine. These in-house publications specifically addressed the roles and daily lives of Marines stationed around the world. Scott acknowledges the influence of these early publications on crafting imagery that would continue to define the Corps going forward. However, the focus of the book is primarily placed on the cartoons of Stars and Stripes. Over two thirds of the book’s content – and the vast majority of the images contained within – cover the artists and cartoons of Stars and Stripes, published by the Army, but a multi-service newspaper.

These sections are illuminating. Almost all of Pvt. Abian A. “Wally” Wallgren’s Stars and Stripes cartoons (in the Army newspaper) are reprinted,* including all of those from the magazine’s page seven which was most commonly used for the Marine’s illustrations. Wallgren was one of the two people of the newspaper’s art department. Scott explicitly makes the case that the work of these servicemen artists demands further research and analysis. The books greatest triumph, then, is how it skillfully opens up the Marine Corps’ archives for further study. Images from Stars and Stripes, Recruiters Bulletin and Marines Magazine demonstrate the global reach of the Marine Corps and the wide array of activities Marines were involved in. The illustrations in Marines Magazine showing American perceptions of Haiti seem particularly significant and could easily be the main focus for an extended chapter on presentations of race in these cartoons.

Indeed, Marines Magazine and Recruiters Bulletin in particular would benefit from further analysis. While these are not Scott’s primary focus, it would have been nice to see more attention paid to the two pre-war magazines and they place they occupied in the development of military cartooning. A secondary author, or even a curated anthology, could have expanded on Scott’s argument and added deeper analysis of the Marine Corps’ cartoons of the First World War. This represents a missed opportunity from a smaller academic press. While the 20 pages Scott gives to cartoons from pre-war magazines represents almost a fifth of the total length of the monograph, it is not enough space to fully explore these in the same detail as Stars and Stripes.

Nonetheless, this is a useful and necessary correction to the established literature. Hopefully this will somewhat reorient historians of the Marine Corps as well as scholars of war comics and military cartoons. It leaves open room for new and ongoing avenues of research, and for others to take up Scott’s initial inquiries and develop his arguments further.