In the '80s, a much hipper high school friend showed me some issues of a magazine called Raw. Edited by Art Spiegelman and Franoise Mouly, Raw revealed a side of comics far from the Sunday funnies or DC and Marvel superheroes. At the time, Raw shook up my sense of what comics could be with its bold, edgy style.
But before Raw in the '80s, and well before today's acclaimed graphic novelists like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), were the early pioneers of underground comics. The Chazen Museum documents their scene in a new exhibition, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix.
While names like R. Crumb will be familiar to anyone with an interest in pop culture, Underground Classics also seeks to give due to artists who are lesser known today. The show reflects the growing acceptance of comics as an art form. In 2006, the Milwaukee Art Museum hosted a similar traveling show called Masters of American Comics.
Many of the comics are presented as large-format original sketches (not their final, reduced-in-size printed form), illuminating the artists' creative processes, right down to little notes in the margins. One can see some of Art Spiegelman's earliest drawings for Maus, his Pulitzer-winning account of growing up as the son of Holocaust survivors (strangely, though, the Maus pages are displayed out of sequence).
The Chazen show is heaviest on material from the '60s and '70s and is a vibrant, over-the-top slice of the counterculture of its time. As such, it's heavy on sex and drugs and, unfortunately, some pretty screwed-up gender attitudes. It's also less overtly political than one might expect (Steve Stiles' comic about his involvement with the Wobblies labor union is an exception).
While the culture may have been "counter" in many ways, Underground Classics is a reminder that the same sexism that permeated the mainstream still tainted alternative culture as well. There's enough of this - a woman pushed off a cliff for rejecting sexual advances, another woman stabbed in the abdomen, yet another offered to a cop as a sexual bribe - that it's hard to overlook.
Both the show and the exhibition catalog do offer a nod to female pioneers like Trina Robbins. But given the overwhelming impression created by the show, one can imagine how hard it was for women cartoonists to carve out a space for themselves in this environment.
None of this, of course, is to say that the Chazen shouldn't present such a show. On the contrary, Underground Classics is a genuine slice of American pop culture and a reflection of its time. It has local relevance, too: Several of the publications highlighted were Wisconsin-based (like Radical America and The Bugle).
A companion blog at undergroundclassics.wordpress.com offers further background and thoughtful interviews with many of the artists.