UG Classics cover Here’s a fresh look at comix from Abrams ComicArts, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix (9x12-inch pages, many in color; hardback, $29.95). At just 144 pages, the book is scarcely a comprehensive over-view published for its own sake; it is, rather, the catalogue for an exhibition of original underground comix art at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, this very spring. Surprisingly perhaps, only 90 of the book’s pages are devoted to displaying the art from the show — at one piece per page, an expansive display — and the selection includes most of the major figures in comix: Crumb, Shelton, Art Spiegelman, S. Clay Wilson, Skip Williamson, Jay Lynch, Denis Kitchen, Justin Green, Jack “Jaxon” Jackson (whose nickname, conferred by Shelton at the Texas Ranger, refers obliquely to JAX beer, a favorite Lone Star State beverage), Kim Deitch, Trina Robbins, to name some; and a few peripheral but seminal figures for the underground, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder and Will Eisner, for instance. The remaining three dozen pages are devoted to five essays about comix.

Jay Lynch, reviewing his own pioneering engagement with the movement, waxes nicely nostalgic, dwelling on the early history of the genre with a view from inside (but slipping momentarily to misstate the date of Zap Comix No. 1, citing 1967 instead of 1968). Trina Robbins does a similar inside job but with an emphasis on the struggle of women cartoonists to impinge upon what was then (and to a large extent still is) a male-dominated art form in which women, when depicted, are degraded and abused. Denis Kitchen teams with journalism professor James Danky, his co-editor for the book,UG artists reflecting on the license ug cartoonists enjoyed, expressing themselves and their unconventional attitudes in their art, as they developed a business acumen while the burgeoning comix phenomenon exploded around them. Patrick Rozenkranz, who has spent 40 years admiring underground comix and writing about them while earning his living in sundry film appreciation endeavors, is more analytical: he attempts to credit the iconoclastic impulses of underground comix for subsequent societal changes, but by telescoping history to create direct cause-and-effect links, he leaves out many contributing factors.

In his essay, the longest in the book, Paul Buhle, a senior lecturer in history at Brown University with thirty books on his vitae, argues that comix are art and belong in art history. Their “dissident themes alone would have placed the undergrounds within the key rebellious artistic traditions of the American twentieth century. Underground comix deftly united the most vernacular of all arts, the comic book, with political rebellion and a reflective critique of American culture.” Mr. Natural And in trying often to realize a psychedelic LSD vision, comix contributed innovative visuals to match their revolutionary content. Buhle’s ringing conclusion is only slightly marred by his mistaken belief in the worn-out tradition that Mad adopted a magazine format in order to escape censorship. In the last analysis, Buhle concludes roundly, comix “were the artistic outpourings of a lost generation, able to achieve only a portion of what the comix revolution of 1969 had promised and would have delivered, in other circumstances, on talent alone. There were so many large losses in those years — the receding waves of social transformation, the transfer of ‘sexual freedom’ into license, the vogue of LSD into cocaine, the reconsolidation of corporate prestige in Ronald Reagan and the restart of the Cold War — that a tragedy in the vernacular art world (or any art world) cannot be taken too seriously.” But for those who pored over these artifacts “with enthusiasm and an adult awareness that the vernacular was reaching up toward a reconciliation of the artists’ hand and the intellectuals’ vision,” the loss “was a blow not to be underestimated.” But there’s hope: “Just now — beyond midlife, thirty years on, with the Web at full cruising speed and the promise of a new graphic novel art on the horizon — we may be recovering.”

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