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. https://www.abramsbooks.com/product/dirty-pictures_9781419750465/
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.