By: Warren Greenwood
They were only teenagers when they invented a new American art form.
I'm referring, of course, to the cartoonists who created underground
comics. In early e-mail conversations with seminal American
underground cartoonist Jay Lynch, he complained about movies like
Crumb and American Splendor portraying underground cartoonists as
bitter, cranky old guys. "Where are the car chases and the kung fu
action in these things?" he said.
Lynch suggested that someone should make a film portraying the Jack
Kerouac- Neil Cassidy wildness of the underground comics scene in the
'60s. I suggested that Lynch write the screenplay himself.
Although Lynch demurred, he does have a comic strip record of the era
- written and designed by Lynch, and drawn by cartoonist Ed Piskor.
(It can be viewed at www.edpiskor.com.)
Inn conversation at his home studio, Lynch told me that he and Robert
Crumb (Zap), Art Spielgelman (Maus), Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous
Furry Freak Bros.), and Skip Williamson (Snappy Sammy Smoot), all
knew each other as teenagers. Indeed, they were all about 14-16 years
old when they started inventing the new art form of underground comics.
Home, sweet home
On a spring evening, and in the company of the brilliant young
cartoonist Jim Garmhausen, I drove down from Ithaca to visit Lynch
and his wife Carol's home in Candor.
The route was green, bucolic and beautiful, but Jim and I didn't pay
as much attention to the scenic beauty as we might. Candor is a
pretty little Norman Rockwell town. The Lynchs' live on Main Street.
Lynch met us at the door - looking dangerously close to a cranky old
guy himself - white-haired and bearded like an electric Hemingway,
his voice craggy and deep from cigarettes. Casa Lynch was homey and
cluttered, home to Jay and Carol and Fido the Dog and a cat or two.
As Jay applied meds to the eye of a new kitten, Jim and I admired his
paintings - these sort of Roy Lichtentstein meets Rick Griffin
cartoon paintings - all dirigible cartoon noses and popping ping-pong
ball eyes and craggy Basil Wolverton teeth - hand-painted with a
technique as slick as an airbrushed Kelly/Mouse Grateful Dead album cover.
(And Jay's wife Carol's paintings were equally impressive. I admired
a painting of a small town art deco movie theatre...painted with an
equally perfect technique.)
And then we retired upstairs to Jay's studio, where I slapped a
cassette into my works-occasionally-when-it-feels-like-it GE tape
recorder, and Jay regaled Jim and me with stories of the wild Jack
Kerouac years, and showed us artwork from a lifetime of world-class cartooning.
Our conversation rambled all over the place, as unstuck in time as
Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, but here is an overview, a sort
of Greatest Hits of Jay Lynch.
A history lesson
First some comics history: In 1952, Mad came into existence. (Jay
argued that, "The ten cent Mad was the first underground comic," and
pointed out, "The title itself, Mad, not only meant 'insane'...it
also meant angry!")
Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993), seminal Mad creator-editor and great
American cartoonist, left Mad in 1956 and launched Trump, a neo-Mad
humor magazine published by Playboy editor-publisher Hugh Hefner.
Trump folded. And Kurtzman went on to launch Humbug, which ran from
1958-1960. This was followed by Help, which ran from 1960-1965.
Trump and Humbug included the work of some of the cartoonist-titans
of the era like Arnold Roth, Jack Davis, Al Jaffe, Will Elder and
Wallace Wood. And (turning the corner into the '60s) Help featured
some of the first work of the young cartoonists who would launch the
underground: Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Skip Williamson and Jay
Lynch. (As well as a young cartoonist named Terry Gilliam, who would
later become the animator of Monty Python and the astounding director
of films like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and The Fisher King.)
Help also featured fumetti (photo-illustrated comics) starring such
actors as Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Dick Van Dyke, Milton Berle,
and Sid Caesar. Lynch also told me that not only did a young Robert
Crumb appear in the fumetti, but that the future Pythons, Terry
Gilliam and John Cleese, actually met while appearing in a Help fumetti.
Mad, Trump, Humbug, and Help were arguably proto-underground comics.
Help was a harmonic convergence of some of the most important
cartoonists, comedians, and film directors of the second half of the
20th century, a flashpoint of a new Euro-American humor. As Lynch
said, "Kurtzman was the main influence on post WWII American satire."
A revolution in American cartooning was brewing.
Kurtzman eventually left Help in 1965 to create Little Annie Fanny,
with Will Elder and Frank Frazetta and Russ Heath and Co., again for
Hefner and Playboy.
A young Jay Lynch went on to write and design for Mad-clone Cracked
in 1963. He also wrote and designed for Mad-clone Sick in 1967,
working for editor Joe Simon, (co-creator, with uber-cartoonist Jack
Kirby, of Captain America in the 1940s). And, curiously, one year Jay
wrote the licensing kit for Mad.
And then, in the Technicolor '60s, Crumb, Spiegelman, Shelton, Lynch,
Williamson, and Gilliam, teenagers all (okay, actually Gilbert
Shelton was a few years older), met through fanzines, began
communicating by mail, and published their first 'zines, graduating
to Help-influenced college humor magazines. (This cabal of young
revolutionary cartoonists and humorists also included a young Harry
Shearer, who later went on to star in movies like This is Spinal Tap,
voice characters for The Simpsons, and create the long-running
political-comedy radio show Le' Show.)
And then, in the acid-peak year of 1968, Robert Crumb published Zap
Comix, the first American underground book. The revolution was underway.
The effects of Zap Comix are still felt today. Here in the Zero Years
of the 21st Century, "comics" have morphed into "graphic novels," are
largely marketed to adults rather than children, and are sold in
proper bookstores or in comic book stores. They appear on best novel
lists, win major literary awards, and have their own Dewey Decimal
section in the public libraries - all absolutely unthinkable in my
youth, and all a direct result of the underground comics revolution.
Jay Lynch published Bijou Funnies in 1968, tying for the second
American underground comic with Gilbert Shelton's Feds & Heads. Jay's
work also appeared in the men's magazine Cavalier along with
groundbreaking cartoonists Vaughn Bode and Jeff Jones.
For bread and butter work, Jay worked for Topps, the Brooklyn-based
trading card company, from 1966 to the present, (as did many
underground cartoonists like R.Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch,
Spain, Trina, and Bill Griffith), working on The Garbage Pail Kids,
Wacky Packs, Mars Attacks, Dinosaurs Attack and so on.
Speaking of the Wacky Packs, which parodied American corporate
products (i.e. Crust toothpaste, Grave Train dog food), Jay said,
"They change the DNA. They teach kids not to put trust in corporate America."
Jay interviewed cartoonist-poet Shel Silverstein in 1963, drew covers
for the Chicago Tribune Magazine in the '70s, wrote and drew the
comic strip Phoebe and the Pigeon People with cartoonist Gary Whitney
for the Chicago Reader in the late '70s and '80s, and wrote and drew
the feature "Give 'em An Inch by Jay Lynch" (a sort of erotic version
of cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo's "They'll Do It Every Time") for Playboy,
again, in the late '70s and '80s.
Now and then
But... did we come here to talk about the past? Well, yes, actually
we did. But let us talk about now. At the present time, Jay Lynch is
undertaking a bewildering and unlikely set of projects including:
Writing and designing for Nickelodeon's Nick Magazine.
Producing art with his cartoon characters Nard & Pat for a skateboard
art show in Australia. (Some artisan Down Under burns the art into
Writing lyrics for The Boogers - a punk band for kids. (One can hear
the music at www.meet-the-boogers.com).
Drawing a Hulk cover... for Marvel! This may seem improbable, but the
story is that Marvel has been hiring neo-punk artists like Gary
Panter and underground cartoonists like Lynch to draw weird Hulk
features to increase sales.
And recently, Jay drew a comic strip version of Harlan Ellison's
short story "Djinn, No Chaser" for Ellison's 2007 comics collection
Not just for adults
All impressive stuff, yes, but what we are really here for is to talk
about Lynch's just-published children's book: Otto's Orange Day.
The book is a collaboration with Frank Cammuso, the award-winning
editorial cartoonist of the Syracuse Post-Standard and author of the
Max Hamm: Fairy Tale Detective series. Lynch wrote and designed the
book and Frank drew it and digitally-colored it.
The book is a pretty thing. Frank Cammuso's art is delightfully
appealing. The story concerns Otto, a cat who loves the color orange.
And when Otto's Aunt Sally sends him a lamp with a genie in it, Otto
wishes the entire world orange. Contretemps follow.
Otto's Orange Day was released in April and is currently in all the
bookstores. It is #177,037 at Amazon.com. ("Climbing the charts,
though," Jay tells me.) The book has been garnering ecstatic reviews.
Otto's Orange Day is published by TOON Books, a NYC-based company
founded by Françoise Mouly, the Art Editor of The New Yorker (and Art
Spiegelman's significant other). The curious reader can see a preview
of the book at www.toon-books.com.
Lynch characterized Otto's Orange Day as "a book to teach kids how to
read disguised as a comic book." Thus we find Lynch's life arc
leading from the sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll of underground comics to
caring for very young children.
And for the future?
Jay's next book (again for TOON Books) will be MO and JO: Fighting
Together Forever, a collaboration with artist Dean Haspiel,
concerning the adventures of two twin kid superheroes, and is due out
in September of this year.
Enough. Or pretty damn near. Anything else important?
The late and much-missed Kurt Vonnegut once said, "The function of
the artist is to make people like life better than they have before."
Well, Jay's work certainly made me like life a little better than before.
And Garrison Keillor said, "Nothing done for children is ever
wasted." I suspect that Otto's Orange Day will make a lot of kids
like life better than before, too.