When Maverix and Lunatix Walked the Earth
Illustrator Drew Friedman pays loving tribute to the golden age of comix
Like many of us who came of age in the 1970s, underground comix would intractably influence the life of the artist and writer Drew Friedman. The son of novelist, screenwriter, and satirist Bruce Jay Friedman, Drew already had one foot in the literary counterculture as a child, but his discovery of comix at age nine blew his young mind, seemingly writing his future in stone . Friedman attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, taking classes from comics legends like Will Eisner (The Spirit), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine), and Art Spiegelman (Maus), among other industry heavyweights.
With his brother Josh writing the scripts, Friedman’s first published artwork appeared in Spiegelman’s Raw magazine. His comics and B&W portraits subsequently appeared in alternative publications like Heavy Metal, High Times, Weirdo, and National Lampoon. As Friedman’s art was absorbed into pop culture, he began focusing primarily on his portraiture, his work appearing in venues like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone magazine, and even The Wall Street Journal. Fantagraphics has published a dozen previous collections of Friedman’s stylized portraits, but with his latest collection, Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix, Friedman comes full circle back to his original inspiration.
As Friedman writes in his introduction to Maverix and Lunatix, “Diary of a Nine-Year-Old Underground Comix Fanatic,” the book is his personal tribute to underground comix creators. Explaining the cultural importance of comix, Friedman writes of “young artists influenced by Harvey Kurtzman’s iconoclastic and trailblazing satirical publications Mad, Trump, and Humbug, throw in some Tijuana Bibles and Paul Krassner’s The Realist, and dispense it out to an eager comic book-weaned, anti-establishment counterculture, and the Underground Comix revolution exploded, redefining the potential of comics, creating a major paradigm shift and blowing the lid off the traditional comic book.”
Underground comix were a uniquely American creation that would grab a worldwide audience in spite of the format’s limited distribution and shoestring production budgets. While people often say that cartoonist Joel Beck’s 1965 publication of Lenny of Laredo was the first ‘comix’, so too does Jack “Jaxon” Jackson’s self-published 1964 book God Nose make a claim for that honor. But the 1968 publication of Zap Comix #1 by artist Robert Crumb usually gets credit for launching the short-lived “Golden Era” of comix which ran, roughly, from 1968 to 1973. Satirical, anti-authoritarian, irreverent, and explicitly violent and sexual, underground comix were created by a generation influenced by EC Comics, rock music, B-movies, and Mad magazine, young artists exploring the freedom provided by pen and ink.
Friedman takes a more expansive view of the underground comix era for Maverix and Lunatix, covering “the freewheeling decade 1967-1977” with highly-textured black and white portraits of both well-known and somewhat obscure comix creators familiar only to the fanboy. Citing that Jay Kennedy’s book The Underground Comix Price Guide lists over 3,000 artists who contributed to comix in some form, Friedman whittled his collection down to 101 creators, of which he writes “to varying degrees, this radical, egalitarian, artistically innovative movement created funny, thought-provoking, horrifying, silly, provocative, whimsical, antisocial, self-indulgent, spacey, perverted, dumb, outrageous, and in many cases brilliant comics work.”
Presenting his ‘icons’ in alphabetical order, starting with ‘Mickey Rat’ creator Robert Armstrong and ending with the notorious S. Clay Wilson (‘The Checkered Demon’), Friedman offers a gorgeous, often-detailed, and visually-insightful portrait of each artist, accompanied by a one or two-paragraph biography that tells you a little bit about the artist. Freidman paints from reference photos, interpreting each portrait with his own unique eye and a perspective that is as distinctive as a fingerprint. Where details are lacking in the original reference, Friedman improvises, adding appropriate backing art to the canvas. Freidman also included an appendix to the primary collection that features smaller portraits of influential comix publishers like Ron Turner (Last Gasp), Dennis Kitchen (Kitchen Sink), Don Donahue (Apex Novelties), and the Rip Off Press gang.
He represents all the big names in underground comix, including such artistic trailblazers as Robert Crumb (‘Felix the Cat’), Gilbert Shelton (‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’), Bill Griffith (‘Zippy the Pinhead’), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Trina Robbins (Wimmen’s Comix), Manuel ‘Spain’ Rodriguez (‘Trashman’), and Shary Flenniken (‘Trots and Bonnie’). He portrays Crumb sitting in a French bistro, sketchbook in hand; Ms. Robbins is sitting in an ‘Earth Mother’ lotus position, surrounded by bells and books and knick-knacks. ‘Spain’ is standing on the street, sneer on his face, with New York City as a backdrop while infamous record collector, jazz critic, and frequent David Letterman show guest Harvey Pekar poses sitting in front of an enormous record collection.
But it’s with the mid-card talents, rather than the headliners, that Maverix and Lunatix really shines. Justin Green, who passed away earlier this year, published in comix like Bijou Funnies and Young Lust, but we primarily know him for his autobiographical 1972 book Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Green’s soul-baring art and stories opened the door for previously-unrealized self-referential comix, influencing fellow artists like Crumb and Spiegelman. Larry Gonick isn’t a household name, but his serialized The Cartoon History of the World opened numerous avenues of creativity for other artists to walk (appropriately, his portrait features a starry, cosmic backdrop). Barbara ‘Willy’ Mendes, who co-produced the first all-woman book It Ain’t Me Babe with Trina Robbins, moved beyond comix and into fine art, later opening an art gallery in Los Angeles.
It’s not surprising that a number of comix artists, after the format took a commercial nosedive, moved into careers in graphics or art. Notably, Zap Comix contributor Robert Williams became a critically-acclaimed painter and founded the art magazine Juxtapoz. Jay Lynch worked for The Topps Company, designing popular trading card sets like Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids while writing the popular ‘Phoebe and the Pigeon People’ weekly comic strip for The Chicago Reader. William Stout, known for his distinctive cartoon cover artwork for the Trademark of Quality bootleg record label, contributed to comix like Bizarre Sex and Bicentennial Gross-Outs before moving into science fiction and fantasy art, specializing in dinosaurs.
Sadly, a number of talented creators never got the opportunity to evolve and thrive outside of the comix format due to early departures from this plane of existence. Vaughan Bodē, creator of the Cheech Wizard character that appeared monthly in National Lampoon, died in 1975 due to “sexual misadventure.” Alcoholism shortened the lives of Roger Brand (Tales of the Leather Nun) and Joel Beck, while drug addiction took Rory Hayes (Bogeyman) and Greg Irons (Skull Comix) was hit by a bus going the wrong way in Bangkok. Zap Comix contributor and psychedelic art legend Rick Griffin died in a motorcycle accident.
For an art movement as influential and far-reaching as underground comix, a surprising number of creators disappeared entirely from the pop culture zeitgeist. Richard “Grass” Green and Larry Fuller, two of the first African-American comix creators, fell off the map in the 1980s while Charles Dallas, a contributor to titles like Insect Fear and Slow Death, gave up on comix altogether and returned to Pennsylvania from San Francisco. Well-known and obscure alike, Friedman preserves their lives in a sort of gray-hued amber with Maverix and Lunatix.
Much as he did with the portraits of mainstream comics creators collected in his Heroes of the Comics and More Heroes of the Comics books, Friedman offers loving tribute with Maverix and Lunatix to the underground comix from which he took inspiration as a child. The book features a cheeky foreword by comedian Marc Maron and an informative, entertaining afterword (“Like Spontaneous Combustion”) by comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz, but it’s Friedman’s portraits that immortalize these artists and writers for posterity. You don’t have to be a comix fanboy to appreciate the skill and creative energy that Friedman brings to every portrait in Maverix and Lunatix.
(Fantagraphics, October 18th, 2022)