Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW! A HISTORY OF UNDERGROUND COMICS BY MARK JAMES ESTREN (Straight Arrow Books, 1974)

I gotta admit it and you gotta 'fess up to the fact as well...no bout a doubt it underground comix are way passe. Not that they weren't by the time this book was unleashed on the hipper-de-la-decadent youth of the mid-seventies, but you can't deny that the whole dad-blamed movement is more or less past its shelf life, and by a good fortysome years at that. No longer durty smut, these comix are most definitely HIGH ART what with original examples going for the usual extraterrestrial prices while the likes of Kim Deitch and Bill Griffith well ensconced in the legit everyday world (and have being do since the late-seventies at least) to the point where they're every bit as part of the Establishment of Today as Ernie Bushmiller was in his own respective time.

But then again what would you expect now that the new humor, once daring and always trying to push boundaries more and more until it became looser than Matthew Sheppard's sphincter, is these days nothing but pious preachiness that can even make the once loathed Al Capp look positively fresh in comparison? All of the aspects of what used to be cutting edge comedy have all but withered into nada now that the entire genre of what was supposed to make us all guffaw and chortle has turned into ONE BIG SCOLD.

And as far as being scolded like that mean principal goes, it sure is enough to make your manhood rush right back up into the ribcage. Let's face it, the enlightened ex-sixties radical humor has HAD IT...if I wanna read something tasteless yet edgy enough to make me laugh in a sick way these days its' either those (by now old I'll admit) A. Wyatt Mann cartoons that always seem to pop up in search engines even when I'm not looking for them, or better yet those Tyrone Rage ones I wrote up last fall featuring this black guy who gets into a variety of tacky and tasteless endeavors which reflect (usually for the worst) the inner city experience that most would not like to talk about. Y'know those memes that always end with Our Hero giving off a loud "sheeeeeee-it" as the ultimate punchline. They may not all be high-larious, but they do make me do a li'l chortling and I certainly do want to read more.

But yeah, weren't these original underground comix unique 'n original 'n whatever off the top of my shiny head superlatives even an old turd such as I could think up? Sons of the fifties satire splurge, these books were just as much a part of the whole laff parade zeitgeist as Ernie Kovacs or THE BULLWINKLE SHOW only revved up a few notches because hey, there weren't any teachers or parents looking over any shoulders giving out a little more editorial control than needed. Of course these were a reflection of the time what with all of the turmoil and unrest and all those things aging radicals continue to speak about in reverent tones, but best of all these comix were jammed with HOT FLASH THRILLS and OVERBEARING BAD TASTE!  That's the only reason one's gotta look into these comix and one good reason you should try to locate this hoary old tome on a subject which I guess might just fit in, however loosely, to the whole BLOG TO COMM ideal as much as the Pink Fairies and Can album of the same strata do, not to mention Tootsie Pop Drops.

Well, I gotta say that the writing here wasn't bad at all, especially since I was thinkin' the worst after reading a variety of reviews (most notably Ed Ward in CREEM) which lambasted this comix rundown for comin' off as little more'n the college dissertation beefed up for publication that well, it most certainly was. But the story is clear and concise, lacking a good hunk of the revolutionary right ons and stick it to the mans that had overcome a good portion of the underground press for the prior five or so years before this tome was released. Naturally given the entire, uh "subject matter" the whole off the pig revolutionary spirit can easily be discerned, but it sure as shit smells ain't wrapped up in that troubled sensitive teenage glop that made those Billy Jack movies the relevancy touchstone of the seventies! (Not that an occasional nerve-shredding moment of "moralistic" goo makes its presence known, but thankfully the feeling gets washed away with an appearance of some less culturally significant blood and s-x...hey, we ain't talkin' 'bout no WAR IS NOT GOOD FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS poster here!)

Actually this Estren guy did a pretty neat job detailing the history and development of the underground, beginning with the natural origins and working his way up to the then-present which might have been the best jumping off place for this book. Especially when you consider just how COMMERCIALIZED that the undergrounds had already become by this time what with legit paperback reprints and wide exposure in a variety of hipper-than-hip newsstand rags that most certainly weren't being sold under the counter at bars like in the old days! And if a beneath-the-underkid overweight pimplefarm of a suburban slob such as myself knew about these things, then man they were ANYTHING but "underground" and in fact shoulda been sold at the A&P right next to the tomatoes if you ask me!

But back to the story at hand...Estren should be commended 'stead of vilified not only with his dissection of the whole underground phenomenon but for detailing its whys and wherefores. As usual one's gotta disagree with various points and conclusions but so wha', 'long as you can get your fill of DEFINITELY UN-REDEEMING SOCIAL VALUE outta what pops up here.

And plenty does, not only regarding the big names inna biz but those guys who just happen to be my personal faves like Jay Kinney and Bill Griffith even despite their occasional lapses into whatcha'd call the standard New Youth Movement mindset. At least they, like the rest of the underground cache, knew enough to even ridicule the very same self-important, mirror-gazing, save the world people who bought these rags in the first place, and in my own opinion these aspects of underground comix are what makes 'em sooooo good in the first place!

Nice selection of reprints and examples here. The EC stuff looks horrid but given how hard these were to find back then I guess we hadda be happy with what we got, while the plethora of panels and such really gives one an idea that these things were a whole lot more'n just the usual head fodder. Bizarrely enough, there ain't any complete underground saga reprints here but you can get a pretty good whiff of just what the whole genre was about but what is shown. And to switch gears every so slightly, I'm sure glad that a good portion of what has been presented stands in contrast to the whole good vibe-y down on the farm vision one has of the youth kultur of the day (as if the likes of S. Clay Wilson or Spain---even ol' R. Crumb himself ever did represent the pacifist and downright chicken-out aspects of Woodstock Generation).

Yep, the "kind men like" comics, the early satire fanzines, MAD and EC, even KRAZY KAT all pop up in the mix and mooshed all together ya gotta admit that it all made sense like you thought it would. Not bad really...wonder why this got such a bad rap upon release anyway?

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