An interview with Brian Doherty, author of ‘Dirty Pictures,’ an oral history of underground comix
“Zap was central in proving comics were a true self-expressive art, not just commercial kid’s entertainment,” writes Brian Doherty about the trailblazing Zap Comix in Dirty Pictures, his recently-published history of underground comix. Sporting the unwieldy but apt subtitle “How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix,” Dirty Pictures is a highly entertaining read, a thick tome that offers a fast-paced and comprehensive oral history of underground comix from the artists and writers who created the genre.
Dirty Pictures is also an immense work of comics fandom and a labor of love by Doherty, author of the 2004 book This Is Burning Man: The Rise of A New American Underground. In an exclusive email interview with Book and Film Globe, Doherty admits that, as a kid, he found comix both attractive and repulsive. “I became interested/fascinated/scared way too young seeing both Wilson-like and Crumb-like imagery on wall of college-adjacent sandwich shop in Gainesville, Fla when I was like 8 years old,” he says, “then being a pre-teen subscriber to Comics Journal, which covered and interviewed undergrounders and featured their imagery.”
Continuing, Doherty says, “but rather than make me a big reader of them in my teens or even twenties, that too-early exposure scared me–there was something grimy, grotty, intense; hinting at things about the adult world that were dark and icky that even when I became a big fan of ugx-influenced but generally less intense ‘80s and ‘90s alt-indie comics – Hernandez, Matt, Bagge, Clowes, Ware, Doucet, Seth, etc. I still didn’t dip into being an understanding and appreciative reader ‘til like my 40s.”
Although people have argued that the first underground comic published was 1965’s Lenny of Laredo by cartoonist Joel Beck, the 1968 publication of Zap Comix #1 by artist Robert Crumb is widely-considered to have launched the ‘Golden Era’ of comix running, roughly, from 1968 to 1973. Whereas that first issue of Zap was a showcase for the former greetings card artist, Crumb opened up the pages of subsequent issues to friends and fellow travelers like S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Spain Rodriquez, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin, all of whom would achieve “rock star” status as pioneers of this new art form. The commercial success of that first issue of Zap led to an explosion of artist/writers exploring their own individual muse as well as independent publishers to print them.
Underground comix were small press publications created by outsiders who eschewed the confines of the ‘Comics Code Authority’ adhered to by mainstream publishers like DC Comics and Marvel. Comix were often satirical in nature, always irreverent, anti-authoritarian, and they portrayed explicit sexuality, violence, and drug use while also exploring socially-conscious themes. Associated with the counter-culture scene of the 1960s, as Doherty explains, comix creators largely grew up in the 1950s and were heavily influenced by EC Comics publications (especially their horror and suspense stories) as well as the Harvey Kurtzman era of Mad Magazine (1952-56) and serialized newspaper comic strips.
Doherty shows that although underground comix was largely a ‘boys club’ led by the aforementioned Zap Comix crew as well as high-profile artists/writers like Skip Williamson, Jay Lynch, Bill Griffith, and Art Spiegelman, there were also a number of distaff creators that crashed the party. Artists/writers like Trina Robbins, Barbara “Willy” Mendes, Dori Seda, Sharon Rudahl, Diane Noomin, and Aline Kominsky brought a feminine and often feminist perspective to comix and, if the boys wouldn’t let them play in their sandbox, they went and built their own with publications like Tits and Clits and Wimmen’s Comix.
Although relatively short-lived, the comix era resulted in an incredible number of publications. Jay Kennedy’s 1982 book The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide lists, literally, hundreds of titles published during the genre’s halcyon age. Comix publishing hit the skids by the mid-1970s, however, impacted by a steep increase in paper prices, the closure of ‘head shops’ that were their main distribution pipeline, and constant harassment by law enforcement types (cops and DAs), often prodded by religious busybodies, which resulted in a number of high-profile arrests and lawsuits.
As comix entered into the Reagan era of the 1980s, imprints like The Print Mint went out of business altogether whereas others, like Kitchen Sink paid the bills through reprints of newspaper strips in book form. Those publishers who had soldiered on through the dark days found sales crater; as cited by Doherty, Fred Todd of Rip Off Press estimates that they lost 90% of their sales in 1980, and a few months later he laid off virtually his entire staff.
Despite those legal and financial headwinds, the spirit of comix lived on through the 1980s via Robert Crumb’s lowbrow Weirdo magazine and Art Spiegelman’s artier Raw. Dirty Pictures, shows that there is a more-or-less direct line from underground comix and later, punk rock-inspired mini-comics through Weirdo and Raw to the modestly-successful alternative comics of artist/writers like Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, and Gary Panter in the 1990s and ‘00s.
“I was inspired to write this book less by fascination with the work per se than with the personalities,” Doherty says, “and the story of a weird gaggle of underdogs overturning their corner of pop culture, changing its function and range as art, its business model, and its cultural status – elevating it much farther than you might expect stuff that was literally getting clerks arrested in late ‘60s/early ‘70s would be the linchpin taking comics to academia and museums and galleries. But I grew to love the work in the process of understanding and learning the creators’ stories.”
Doherty documents the story of comix via new artist interviews and previously-published materials, saying that “the specifics of the research beginning in November 2019 created some huge difficulties: with about 12 exceptions, I was not able to meet my subjects, and meeting is always best for conversation and color. Because of the pandemic, he conducted most interviews via phone or video chat. It was not ideal. Also, archival access because of restrictions of time or physical access were also far less than ideal. Time, of course, has meant some of the major characters in the story for me to meet or interview, but very many were still around, despite their careers mostly beginning over 50 years ago.”
Even though underground comix were marginal publications existing on the fringes of polite society, books featuring the most popular artists and characters–Crumb’s Mr. Natural, Gilbert Shelton’s Freak Brothers, Bill Griffin’s Zippy the Pinhead–sold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies and would eventually re-shape the pop culture zeitgeist. Comix influenced television and movies and inspired zines and books in spite of the genre’s relative obscurity. “It’s not as easy to find nowadays,” says Doherty of comix, which are largely available as “expensive back issues or expensive hardback reprints.” He adds, “it’s too intriguing to disappear, even beyond its core historical importance in development of modern comics as a form for serious self-expression, autobio, history, and cultural politics in a way comics never were before this movement came along.”
Does Doherty think that there will ever be another art form like underground comix? “I think we are living in an ongoing continuation of this movement in the best way: not that there are people doing exactly what Jay Lynch of Skip Williamson or Crumb or Greg Irons or whoever were doing, but the underground movement was simply about: comics need not meet the standards of big corporate IP or dad at the breakfast table; they were an art form that could express the human heart and id in any and every way, and that is the cultural moment comics are still in. Yes, superhero genre adventure and manga are still dominant, but you can now do things in comics you could never have done without this movement, and that won’t stop.”
Some comix artists have forged a degree of respectability in the arts and culture worlds. Robert Crumb’s status is virtually unassailable, in spite of the controversial nature of much of his work under the lens of the 21st century. The subject of a 1994 documentary film, Crumb received a touring exhibit of his art in 2009-2010 as well as a 2012 career retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Crumb’s Zap bandmate Robert Williams successfully made the jump from comix to the world of fine art, furthering his legacy by launching Juxtapoz magazine, which covers a smorgasbord of lowbrow, outsider, and street artists. Art Spiegelman earned a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical graphic novel Maus, and even artists as outré as Spain Rodriquez, Greg Irons, and S. Clay Wilson have seen their work archived in deluxe book editions.
Considering his deep dive into underground comix as both a fan and a historian, who is Doherty’s favorite comix artist? “You both must say Crumb, and can’t say Crumb,” he says, “but I will say that the mentality range and hilarity of Justin Green, innovator of autobio in comix with Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary and also with a wide body of silly, witty, educational, and humane comix drawn in a style as individual as handwriting, delighted me the most to explore in the course of writing this book.”
Doherty brings a fan’s enthusiasm and an academic’s discipline to Dirty Pictures, weaving an entertaining tale of creative misfits who banded together to create a new and exciting, if ultimately short-lived genre of art and expression that proved to be influential beyond its meager commercial reach. Doherty’s appreciation for the subject is obvious, but he lets the creators tell their stories, warts and all, to create the most far-reaching history of underground comix that anyone will ever likely write. As Spiegelman sums up the era, quoted from an interview with The New York Review of Books, “it’s important to remember that comix have their roots in subversive joy and nonsense.”