Rebel Visions:
The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975

by Patrick Rosenkranz
(Fantagraphics, 2002)

Only a handful of books and scant, scattered chapters have ever been devoted to the history of the American underground comics -- despite the fact that the movement had such a tremendous and undeniable impact on comics art and comics publishing in the U.S. and abroad. The undergrounds were a product of their times, a backhanded slap across the face of the vapid, innocuous, kid-safe mass-market comics of the late 1950s and early '60s.

As cartoonist Gilbert Shelton attests, "Underground comics were more like art and less like comics." They tackled taboo topics of politics, sex, drugs, history and everyday life in ways that were even more daring than the most exalted and groundbreaking films of their time. The undergrounds were produced through tiny publishing houses by a comparative handful of folks in a far-ranging variety of styles. They were distributed to headshops via a direct marketing system that, while primitive, presaged the modern "direct sales" distribution system that saved mainstream comics in the mid-'70s. What's more, in an era when very few mainstream artists or writers were granted ownership of their material, the men and women who created the undergrounds usually retained ownership of their characters. Without them, the face of the "independent comics movement" of the late 1970s and early '80s -- as well as the "adult" comics scene that blossomed in Europe at roughly the same time -- would have been far different.

Author Patrick Rosenkranz has written about the subject before and even produced a radio show, Underground Comix Radiozine, for Portland, Oregon's KBOO-FM. His previous book on the undergrounds, Komix Kountermedia, was published briefly by Crown Publishers in 1973 but was dropped due to Supreme Court rulings on local standards for obscenity. In his appropriately titled Rebel Visions, Rosenkranz has brought to bear a decade of scholarly interest in the underground comics medium, delivering a big, comprehensive, comprehensible, carefully researched and well-informed tome, filled with detailed historical, biographical and technical information -- much of it taken from rare personal interviews with underground artists, writers and publishers. And, by the bristling beard of Mr. Natural, it's a damn well-written volume. The text is brisk, often humorous, but carefully crafted and extremely informative.

Chapter by chapter, Rosenkranz leads us through the chronological development of the undergrounds and we clearly see the blossoming of the titles and their artists. Of course, the most famous and influential of the underground cartoonists are well covered in the text: Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Greg Irons, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Jay Kinney, Victor Moscoso, Kim Dietch, Bill Griffith, Justin Green, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Art Speilgelman, Robert Williams, Jack Jackson, Skip Williamson and others of the usual collection of suspects. Rosenkranz also details the careers of previously less acknowledged folks like Fred Schrier, Ted Richards, Bobby London, Dennis Kitchen (later the publisher of Kitchen Sink Press) and Frank Stack. We are not simply treated to the usual biographical details about these people; Rosenkranz truly portrays the evolution of the scene. The players' stories are revealed as we see them work and interact with each other on an almost week-to-week basis. We are left with the impression that the underground movement was an artistic community, with each player influenced by and influencing the work of others. Of particular note is the prominence that Robert Crumb seemed to have had in the rag-tag collective. That Crumb was and is the most famous of the undergrounders is a widely known fact. Never been has it been so clearly spelled out just how respected and admired he was by other cartoonists in the movement. More often than not, it was Crumb's lead that the others followed, and the creators whom Rosenkranz interviewed freely admit it.

To his credit, Rosenkranz pays as much attention to the more adventure, fantasy and sci-fi oriented artists as he does to humorists like Crumb, Shelton, Wilson, et al. The careers of Spain, Rand Holmes, Greg Irons, Rich Corben, Jack Jackson and others of their delightfully disreputable ilk are covered in great detail. Spain especially gets a lion's share of much-deserved coverage (attaboy, Rodriguez!). And at last, a book that details the underground career of Moondog creator, the great George Metzger! Right on, I dare say. Curiously missing in the mix, however: Rick Veitch (brother of underground comics author and frequent Greg Irons collaborator Tom Veitch) whose groundbreaking cinematic layouts and Jack Kirby inspired art on the sci-fi horror comic Two Fisted Zombies made the single issue of the comic book one of the most interesting titles of the later San Francisco-spawned undergrounds.

Rebel Visions is a great book, and so splendidly written that I would have no qualms whatsoever about recommending this beefy volume to just about anyone, not only to those interested in the history of either comics or "komix." Don't hesitate. Search it out. Buy it. Enjoy it. It is a treasure, and one that you'll plunder again and again.

- Rambles
written by Timothy Truman
published 23 August 2003

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