The sociopolitical parables of Inner City Romance, an underground comic published between 1972 and 1978 are pure, uncut products of cagey, post-Sixties radicalism. Across five issues, cartoony-photorealist from the Bay Guy Colwell shakes off his free love hangover and wrestles with the disillusionment that pops-up once idealism hits a wall. More often than not, an Inner City Romance story ends with a shocking moment of politically loaded brutality that acknowledges how much work still needs to be done. There's no other underground comic quite like this one.
Let's start with Colwell at his most successfully blunt: "Sex Crime," a didactic stunner from issue #5. We witness a woman raped in an alley by a white man, only to be stopped by another white man who also takes it upon himself to assault her. She shoots the second rapist, and then, an African-American man, dressed in a Black Panther turtleneck comes to her aid after hearing the shots and the woman shoots and kills him without hesitation, a big bullet hole blasted through his chest. The whole thing is drawn in a reedy, EC Comics pop-expressionist style, but devastating in its neorealist moralizing. And although this black character is a clear cut, tragic victim of circumstance, Colwell still doesn't indulge the idealizing-the-underclass-and-minorities hippie-dippie nonsense common amongst even engaged white outsiders. Spending nearly two years in prison for non-cooperation during the draft presumably added a lived-in pragmatism to his characterizations.
In short, Colwell affords his characters significant flaws, even if that complicates his agitprop. Consider, issue #1's "Choices" which follows three men, Marvin and James (both black) and Paddy (a white guy), all fresh out of jail. Marvin and Paddy immediately pick right back up with their knucklehead antics, getting high, fucking, and laying out loose plans for a pimping career. Marvin is less sure, so he leaves, hooks up with a woman hip to the Panthers, "Free Angela" poster on her wall, and wonders whether his jailhouse pals are victims of the system, the problem, or have the right idea as full-stop hedonists in a society that won't help them much even if they intended to reform. "Choices" concludes with Marvin returning to his friends' four-person orgy and imagining two possible scenarios. He's either going to join in on their fuck fest or shoot all four of them dead. That screwin' or shootin' are the only two choices here says it all.
Issues #2, #3, and #4 of Inner City Romance ambitiously experiment with storytelling and find new ways to package Colwell's sinewy brand of humanism: #2, "Radical Rock," is a ridiculous rock opera about police brutality -- an exercise in rhyming verse and melodramatic cartooning; #3 presents the dreams and nightmares of three men in prison, investigating escapism with visual nods to Emory Douglas' Black Panthers posters and the swirling sprawl of rock n' roll flyers, with some Moebius-esque minimalism by way of a sex fantasy that touches on gay sex and unflinchingly presents prison rape; and #4 "Ramps" explores a housing project the city intends to turn into something more lucrative and the nefarious ways it contrives to evict the "undesirable."
"Ramps" is the most nuanced Inner City Romance story (and the most nerdy, as it dives into the meat and potatoes of corrupt local government and policy) and like "Choices," shows that Colwell is at his best when he sits with his scrappy characters for an extended period of time, so they cannot be reduced to salt of the earth symbols. A twelve-panel page from "Ramps" peers into the room of different tenants, Andy's Warhol's Chelsea Girls-style, and observes them all in private moments that are quotidian and a touch tragic: a wheelchair-bound vet stares at a television; a woman sweeping looks out the window; an addict shoots up; a man grips his automatic weapon a poster that says "NOW" behind him. On the next page, we see large panel that luxuriates in the joint being a teenaged tenant smokes right before he skateboards down one of the building's wheelchair ramps, falls, and gives the city's powers-that-be a reason for kicking everybody out.
Colwell's focus on working class characters, particularly black characters is impressive, but we must also be mindful of how much we praise Colwell's ability to well, not just shit the bed on loaded issues, particularly race. Patrick Rosenkranz's essays in this edition provide plenty of context for Colwell's ambitious book, but early on, problematically frame Colwell's work around black bonafides. Rosenkranz quotes Colwell talking about how "the African-American cartoonist Grass Green" insisted "that Colwell must be black," which sounds impressive but means very little if you actually think about it. Whether Grass Green thought Colwell was African-American is ultimately irrelevant (surely some black cartoonist somewhere felt differently about Inner City Romance) and Green isn't afforded much context here; his name's just used to bolster Colwell's cred. Citing a legendary black cartoonist whose work is almost entirely unavailable in order to make a case for a white cartoonist whose work is currently receiving a spiffy reissue is pretty gross.
And by issue #5, the limits of Colwell's approach, however "down" he might have been, are apparent. No longer fueled by the zeitgeist of sixties fall out, this issue is the most frayed and confused. There are two lovely extended sex scenes, one between a black couple ("Good For You") and the other, a white couple ("All Over The Clover"), two profoundly strange not entirely successful strips ("Down Up," and "Interkids"), and the punch-to-the-gut intensity of "Sex Crime." It's as if Colwell sees the Reagan '80s on the way and realizes his sprawling, political stories just won't do the job (consider then, Colwell's '80s comic, Doll, about exploitation, sex, and greed, a recalibrated response to Reagan's reign of terror).
All of this might make Inner City Romance seem too po-faced and sincere, but Colwell's work, though more grounded than most undergrounds, retains an anarchic spirit. It just finds other uses for that anything-goes post-sixties energy. Because really, no one draws an acid trip like Colwell, who eschews the wavy lines and bug-eyed fractal weirdness we come to expect with drug comics for something just as free associative but more stable. And Colwell understands the cheap thrills of sex comics as well as the political implications of illustrating bodies intertwined. He's the rare male artist who is an equal opportunity objectifier, with men and woman doted upon all the same, and in "Radical Rock," Colwell tangentially focuses on the parents of a radical having sex. It is an older black couple and so, these few pages of fucking function as a "black is beautiful," anti-ageism statement in a comic that is ostensibly about youth culture's vitality. It's one of those delightful, things that totally doesn't need to be there, but pushes the comic's humanism further than you'd expect.
So, sure Inner City Romance stands out as the rare underground comic by a white dude that considers the black experience without a tinge of white savior condescension or over-the-top ironic racism (shout out R. Crumb!), but what matters more about these toughminded strips is how Colwell's locates some activist hope for the downtrodden and just plain fucked-over even as he artfully illustrates how much is stacked against them.