REVIEWS

The Best of Comix Book

24079A Ghost Returns

Like an old bottle bobbing up on an island decades after it has been hurled outward by unseen hands, Comix Book, a singular creation of 1970s comic art, has come back. Actually, the unseen hands are mostly those of a boom-and-bust market for comic art, and the object returned is perhaps even more time-worn than blurry glass. We are looking, here, at comics seen in a way now almost impossible to bring back to our perception in the twenty-first century. How did things change so fast and what is this?

Let’s jump into the time machine, landing in the early 1970s when hard-working Denis Kitchen established a midcoast comics empire in a former Mukluk factory of little Princeton, Wisconsin. He did not have many titles, but an occasional Crumb could sell several hundred thousand and he had the editorial courage of his convictions, with gay-themed comics and dare-to-bust-us dope-celebrating comics.

Kitchen badly wanted a breakthrough, and he always Thought Big. In those days, before multiplying big-budget superhero films, no one was bigger in comics than Stan Lee. Kitchen’s idea was to get Marvel on board as publisher and distributor of what was, in fact, a stepchild of the Undergrounds. And probably just in time because the cops were hovering over the head shops that sold comix; worse, the counter-culture generation was steadily less counter, the former hipsters’ culture more mainstream. Time was actually running out, although that only become abundantly clear and final a few years later. Lee had also sought to lure Kitchen to New York and mainstream comics a couple times, and no doubt that smoothed the way to a business partnership of sorts.

A Justin Green page from Comix Book.

A Justin Green page from Comix Book.

According to plans, Comix Book would be able to publish nudity/sexuality and four-letter words within limits, limits that were far more constraining than the limitless freedom of the Underground Comix but further out than any mainstream firm had up to then been willing to go. Lee and Marvel would get the copyright—a highly sensitive issue for the artists—but also pay $100/page, and find or create an audience (through a print run of 200,000) otherwise unimaginable for such art. Kitchen would make the editorial decisions himself, far from Manhattan.

A generous handful of great artists from the little pool of the undergrounds signed on. Just to name a few: Trina Robbins, the mother-figure of women’s comix; Kim Deitch (who happened to be her ex), gay artist Howard Cruse; Justin Green, already famed for his autobiographical-psychological explorations; and an almost unbelievable name for something near underground, the evangelical Christian weirdo legend, Basil Wolverton. Comix Book was slated first for monthly and then, more realistically, bi-monthly production.

The art was truly astounding. Artists enjoyed enormous freedom for length and content, again within some limits. Sex and violence were more ridiculed than exploited. Campy memories of past genres, print, film and musical, were explored lovingly, turned around for what we might call an immanent critique, the view from the inside. Even a small, early chunk of Art Spiegelman’s Maus appeared here first.

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Most remarkable in an artistic sense, to this reviewer, is the blending of the counter-culture anti-establishment politics of that era’s artists with the frequent sense of looking backward. Most of Comix Book’s contributors were, without thinking about it too intensely (or perhaps consciously), mining the veins of a popular culture scarcely ever aware of itself. The forward-looking 1960s had yielded to a backward-looking 1970s, exactly because the vernacular cultural totems so yearned for were now increasingly, hopelessly out of sight. The sources of comic art were themselves deeply embedded in the popular cultural world already slipping away, with the expansion of suburbs, the draining of life in the streets of the aging cities, and the glum feeling that “oldies” had come to stay for a reason.

By issue #5, the game was up. Marvel pulled the title. Kitchen wheedled Stan Lee to get the art back for two issues, and drew upon his own field of talent to make them unique. Even Harvey Pekar made an appearance. As a consolation, Kitchen Sink enjoyed some anthological glory, and recovered a bit of a slipping comic market. One might say that Comix Book’s demise also made the rise of Arcade, a more specialized and arty anthology series, possible. That series, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman, only lasted seven issues. With the close of the 1970s, it was goodbye Undergrounds.

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Stan Lee doesn’t have much to say in his own introduction to this volume, but salutes Kitchen for producing a quality product, albeit not the all-out no-holds-barred version of the undergrounds sold under the commercial counter. He’s probably right: it was the compromise nature that may have killed Comix Book.

Then again, times had changed, people had changed, and the object in front of us may be best understood as that old mix of art and commerce. Or not “understood” so much as enjoyed because, it is own terms, it is a remarkable collection.##

Paul Buhle is still sorry there was no follow up to Radical America Komiks (1969).

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14 Responses to The Best of Comix Book

  1. James says:

    A mystery is solved in this collection of work by people who should be embarrassed that they ever allowed themselves to be published by Marvel Comics with the inclusion of Alex Toth’s 39/74. This masterpiece is a tight bit of cinematic realism co-written by his wife Guyla that is the greatest-ever use of duotone shading apart from Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer strips. When it was run in Wally Wood’s prozine Witzend, the Marvel Comics copyright notice baffled Toth fans for years. After all, Toth only ever drew a few strips for Marvel: a few western and romance stories and a bizarre and ineffective tight-penciling gig over Kirby layouts for an early X-Men issue that was further ruined by Colletta inking, which proved that Stan Lee had absolutely nil comprehension of the abilities of Toth, given that the artist’s main strength is page design. Now in the introduction to Comix Book, we discover that 39/74 was actually commissioned by Kitchen for use in Comix Book, but this exquisite piece was rejected by Stan Lee as boring, finally and definitively confirming that clown’s tasteless philistinism.

  2. Mike Hunter says:

    http://chrissamnee.tumblr.com/post/70155572155/thebristolboard-forgotten-masterpiece-39-74

    Superbly done! But, nothing remotely “underground” about “39/74,” hence no wonder it was rejected for “Comix Book.”

    Some thoughts by Toth re the story: http://www.tothfans.com/Uploaded/56iyh9gcq41mdqoxnzet/223/1-28830.jpg

  3. James says:

    One could make the argument that the purpose of the magazine was not to be underground at all but alternative—-to primarily publish work that didn’t fit in with Marvel’s usual mission. Kitchen would hardly have expected Toth to do any sort of “underground” strip anyway, since the right-leaning artist was not exactly into sex, drugs and rock and roll. At any rate, Marvel would not publish any strips dealing with those areas. And 39/74 is head and shoulders over any of the other work IN the magazine, as much as I admired Art S’s piece and Vaughn Bode, etc. at the time. Lee and his skeevy company didn’t deserve it, in fact.

  4. Mike Hunter says:

    One could make that argument, but one would be wrong.

    Having bought the undergrounds as they first came out, and later running across “Comix Book,” clearly this was in the underground vein. On slick paper and magazine-sized, somewhat tamed down, yet still one of that category: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comix_Book .

    For that matter, the original UG books were hardly all hardcore sex and violence; there was fantasy, psychedelia, epic-SF titles such as “The First Kingdom.” Many works far more genteel than “Comix Book.” Which didn’t make them “alternative”; the underground comics field was simply far broader and more diverse than its stereotyped image.

    Still, though, I’ve no idea what was in Kitchen’s mind — or what he expected to get, whether any parameters were given — when commissioning a story from Toth for “Comix Book.” My copies of the magazine aren’t handy to check out, but I’ve the impression “39/74″ would’ve been an odd item indeed, among all the loudly-proclaimed “underground” work therein.

  5. James says:

    I also bought the undergrounds and the first issue of Comix Book at the time and am fully aware of the range of material on offer. Yes, of course the Toth story is far afield from the rest of what was in the magazine, but it is certainly beautifully done and only boring to, say, someone whose idea of good comics is unending fight scenes and soap operatics. The rest of the material in CB is hardly underground…but it couldn’t be other than compromised. At any rate, despite what Mr. Buhle says above, Kitchen obviously WASN’T given editorial control, since it was Lee who rejected 39/74.

  6. Grant Joon says:

    So does this feature the complete “We Fellow Traveleers” (sic)? That series alone justified the existence of Comix Book. Sometimes I even prefer it to “Binky Brown” – it shows JG deploying his usual iconography and themes within a serial/picaresque mode. A real shame it was also for all intents and purposes his last stand. I don’t think he ever did anything so ambitious again.

  7. James says:

    I haven’t seen the magazine since the time it came out and I only flipped through the hardcover and speed-read the intro, so I didn’t even recall that Justin Green was IN the thing. But yes, that was an interesting strip—and wasn’t Spiegleman’s Ace Hole in it, as well? And that was the first time I ever saw Cruse, and there were other good strips I can’t recall now. So yeah Mike, I did overstate in a few regards. There were certainly some worthy pieces printed in CB. The contents are by underground talent, but the content is more in keeping with what we NOW would consider alternative. I shouldn’t claim Toth’s retro piece as the best thing that CB might’ve ever contained. It probably would’ve been the best-DRAWN piece, if Lee hadn’t overridden the editor’s judgment and rejected it. Obviously Kitchen realizes its value, since it is included in the present collection. But also, it is hard to claim that Lee was completely tasteless, since he certainly exploited some good artists in his time. I do think it was less about appreciating aesthetic quality than taking what he was able to get from their efforts to further his own aims. In other words, he lucked out to find a lot of suckers.

  8. Mike Hunter says:

    ———————
    Grant Joon says:

    So does this feature the complete “We Fellow Traveleers” (sic)? That series alone justified the existence of Comix Book…
    ———————

    Don’t know if it has all of it; the multipage preview here — http://www.darkhorse.com/Books/24-079/The-Best-of-Comix-Book-When-Marvel-Went-Underground-HC — shows it’s at least partially included.

    ———————-
    James says:

    …There were certainly some worthy pieces printed in CB. The contents are by underground talent, but the content is more in keeping with what we NOW would consider alternative.
    ———————-

    Well, since they were created then rather than NOW — and since you are “fully aware of the range of material on offer [in the undergrounds]“, wouldn’t it then be accurate to call “Comix Book” underground?

    To argue otherwise is as ahistorical as calling Rodolphe Töpffer “underground” because of the frequent bizarrerie to be found in his comics.*

    To clarify the underground/alterative division:

    ———————-
    Alternative comics cover a range of American comics that have appeared since the 1980s, following the underground comix movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s…

    From underground to alternative
    By the mid-1970s, artists within the underground comix scene felt that it had become less creative than it had been in the past. According to Art Spiegelman, “What had seemed like a revolution simply deflated into a lifestyle. Underground comics were stereotyped as dealing only with sex, dope and cheap thrills. They got stuffed back into the closet, along with bong pipes and love beads, as things started to get uglier.” In an attempt to address this, underground cartoonists moved to start magazines that anthologized new, artistically ambitious comics in the 1980s. RAW, a lavishly produced, large format anthology that was clearly intended to be seen as a work of art was founded by Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly in 1980. Another magazine, Weirdo, was started by the leading figure in underground comix, Robert Crumb, in 1981…
    ———————–
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_comics

    And when did the book in question come out?

    ————————
    Comix Book was an underground comic book series published from 1974–1976, originally by Marvel Comics.
    ———————–
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comix_Book

    Thus, the underground/alterative division simply boils down to a temporal one, since both have featured material that ranges from the explicit to the genteel; approaches from experimental to the “classic.”

    * http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_p_24.jpg ;
    http://philippewillems.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/this-strangest-of-narrative-forms-rodolphe-topffers-sequential-art-mosaic-a-journal-for-the-interdisciplinary-study-of-literature-vol-41-2-june-2008/

  9. Mike Hunter says:

    To counteract that “everybody who Stan Lee cut a check for was a ‘sucker’ ” argument of James’s, some other pluses of “Comix Book”:

    ———————–
    When S Clay Wilson Worked For Marvel Comics – John Lind on Comix Book…

    As James Vance outlines in his essay for the collection, I think a good argument can be made that this project helped directly open the door for creator-owned material at Marvel. This back and forth between Denis and Stan Lee over ownership and copyrights was taking place back in the mid-1970s and ultimately ended with the underground creators being allowed to retain all rights to their stories and creations. It was groundbreaking for mainstream comics publishing and this format obviously served as the business model for Marvel’s future Epic Illustrated line, launched six years later, for which creators also retained characters, copyrights, and royalties. These types of precedents led to creator-owned work eventually being accepted throughout the industry…

    Some of the material was uneven as far as quality, but some creators contributed outstanding work; for example, Justin Green’s “We Fellow Travellers” is a crazy, well-crafted long-form story. Art Spiegelman’s early version of “Maus” is included—this was its first national exposure. A number of classic Deitch comix, Trina’s “Panthea,” and a Harvey Pekar story (from 1976, the same year American Splendor debuted) are also high points in my opinion. Marvel was restrictive to some degree in terms of content, but in rereading all of the material for the collection, we were all surprised at how far the limits were pushed in what was allowed to appear: nudity, socially sensitive topics, drug use, and strong adult content and language.

    In addition to a great paycheck for the era, Marvel provided huge exposure for some of these cartoonists—even relatively successful and respected ones like Spiegelman, Deitch, and Wilson weren’t seeing print runs anywhere close to what Comix Book could provide. The print run is believed to have been an astounding 200,000 copies per issue for Comix Book #1, #2, and #3.
    ———————–
    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/07/02/when-s-clay-wilson-worked-for-marvel-comics-john-lind-on-comix-book/

  10. James says:

    That’s great that a lot of the artists got paid better and reached a larger audience than they had previously and that through CB Marvel first began publishing “creator-owned” work, but the fact that Lee was able to override Kitchen’s editorial decisions on even one story is enough to say it wasn’t underground; the underground was a movement begun in direct opposition to the sort of restrictions on content that Comix Book imposed.

  11. R. Fiore says:

    They published some strong material, but all you have to do to see how essentially half-assed Comix Book was is to compare it to Arcade. The notion that Comix Book somehow made Arcade possible is absurd on the face of it. The way Comix Book went was on conventional newsstands (though not many) and Arcade never got there. Part of the problem with Comix Book is that so many of the key talents wouldn’t work under those terms. Underground comics cartoonists would have to give up some of their self indulgent habits to reach a larger audience, but Kitchen’s half way was too far.

    At the time Barefootz would have been considered a prime example of Comix Book’s half-assedness. But then, at the beginning Barefootz was a case study in the vapidity of trying to find something to do when you’re avoiding your main subject.

  12. Mike Hunter says:

    ——————
    James says:

    …the underground was a movement begun in direct opposition to the sort of restrictions on content that Comix Book imposed.
    ——————-

    I’ve been concentrating on content, but that “no restrictions shall be enforced from outside” factor is crucial in the liberating mindset of UG creators.

    ——————–
    Crumb stated that the appeal of underground comix was their lack of censorship: “People forget that that was what it was all about. That was why we did it. We didn’t have anybody standing over us saying ‘No, you can’t draw this’ or ‘You can’t show that’. We could do whatever we wanted.”
    ———————
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_comix

    Another factor unique to the undergrounds would be their non-corporate structure. Small-press or self-published (who can forget Crumb selling the first issue of “Zap” in the streets of Haight-Ashbury?*), with distribution to head shops in an informal, low-scale basis, rather than through huge distribution syndicates.

    Both factors antithetical to the corporate-published (for the first few issues, anyway), “you can go this far but not further” nature of “Comix Book”…

    ——————–
    R. Fiore says:

    …At the time Barefootz would have been considered a prime example of Comix Book’s half-assedness. But then, at the beginning Barefootz was a case study in the vapidity of trying to find something to do when you’re avoiding your main subject.
    ——————–

    What a contrast there was between the smoothly-rendered yet forgettable, bland “Barefootz” and the brilliantly funny, sharply-observed portrayals of gay culture Cruse produced once he “came out”! (His “Cabbage Patch Clone” is a satiric masterpiece…)

  13. “Even a small, early chunk of Art Spiegelman’s Maus appeared here first.”

    Not really, the story had originally appeared in “Funny Animals” #1 (from 1972). Spiegelman wasn’t interested in doing work for Comix Book with Marvel owning the copyright, but he allowed this story to be reprinted.

    “One might say that Comix Book’s demise also made the rise of Arcade, a more specialized and arty anthology series, possible.”

    What I remember is that Griffith & Spiegelman started “Arcade” precisely as a reaction against “Comix Book” and Marvel’s attempt to publish underground comix.

  14. steven samuels says:

    It is amusing to read Lee’s intro where he says how “daring” it was to publish the series. What a pathetic little industry.

    On the upside, though, at least the proceeds did save Kitchen Sink during that rough stretch. Like Kitchen states in his intro. Not to mention the artists who participated.

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