What underground comix taught us
As a teenager in the mid-1970s I felt it my duty to obtain every single copy of Zap comix at the local head shop. (Remember head shops, those purveyors of bongs, black lights, tee shirts and incense?) That first generation of underground comics was uncouth and rude, and contained endless scenes of hippies having sex and/or getting stoned.
The second generation of comix arrived in the 1980s after some of the first-gen artists took a breather and then came back with refreshed vision. This second generation was far better in artistic and narrative scope. Titles included Weirdo, Hate, Love and Rockets, Deadeye, Unsupervised Existence, Concrete, Frank, and others too numerous to cite. These new comix raised the art form to a much higher level.
I’ve still got a bin of those battered and yellowing first-generation comix today in my basement. Most of whatever charm they ever had has vanished with the years, but I retain them out of historic interest. Many of my 1980s titles are neatly lined up in my bookcase, for that was the decade that saw the birth of the graphic novel, bound like a large format paperback.
Graphic novels became serious when Maus won the Pulitzer Prize, and the art form exploded in every direction, advancing by leaps and bounds to push the boundaries of conventional narrative and artistic vision. The best graphic novels have affected me — as a reader — as deeply as conventional novels have, but in a slightly different manner: they lack expository prose, and they possess images. So a graphic novel strokes and piques a slightly different area of the brain than a bookstore novel would. One can also say of a graphic novel that its art affects the viewer just as profoundly as “real” art in a gallery would, although the individual images are smaller and there are blocks of text involved. It’s definitely real art, there’s no question. And it’s accompanied by real narratives.
Graphic novels have become so mainstream that all Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores offer a big selection. Every city has comic book stores that specialize in regular comic books and graphic novels. There are web sites, journals, blogs and YouTube videos about graphic novels. Dozens of movies have been made of many of these graphic novels, including American Splendour, V for Vendetta and Watchmen. Graphic novels have changed our notions of what art can be, and what a story is. And it all blossomed forth from those first 1960s underground comix at the head shops, because those early artists were the first to open up their minds, step past the limits of conventional taste and and begin exploring.