Classics' at Chazen
Jennifer A. Smith
In the '80s, a much hipper high school friend showed me some issues
of a magazine called Raw. Edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise
Mouly, Raw revealed a side of comics far from the Sunday funnies or
DC and Marvel superheroes. At the time, Raw shook up my sense of what
comics could be with its bold, edgy style.
But before Raw in the '80s, and well before today's acclaimed graphic
novelists like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), were the early pioneers
of underground comics. The Chazen Museum documents their scene in a
new exhibition, "Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics
into Comix" (through July 12).
While names like R. Crumb will be familiar to anyone with an interest
in pop culture, "Underground Classics" also seeks to give its due to
artists who are lesser known today. The show reflects the growing
acceptance of comics as an art form. In 2006, the Milwaukee Art
Museum hosted a similar traveling show called "Masters of American Comics."
Many of the comics on view are presented as large-format original
sketches (not their final, reduced-in-size printed form),
illuminating the artists' creative processes, right down to little
notes in the margins. One can see some of Art Spiegelman's earliest
drawings for Maus, his Pulitzer-winning account of growing up as the
son of Holocaust survivors (strangely, though, the Maus pages are
displayed out of sequence).
The Chazen show is heaviest on material from the '60s and '70s and is
a vibrant, over-the-top slice of the counterculture of its time. As
such, it's heavy on sex and drugs and, unfortunately, some pretty
screwed-up gender attitudes. It's also less overtly political than
one might expect (Steve Stiles' comic about his involvement with the
Wobblies labor union is an exception).
While the culture may have been "counter" in many ways, "Underground
Classics" is a reminder that the same sexism that permeated the
mainstream still tainted alternative culture as well. There's enough
of this -- a woman pushed off a cliff for rejecting sexual advances,
another woman stabbed in the abdomen, yet another offered to a cop as
a sexual bribe -- that it's hard to overlook.
Both the show and the exhibition catalog do offer a nod to female
pioneers like Trina Robbins. But given the overwhelming impression
created by the show, one can imagine how hard it was for women
cartoonists to carve out a space for themselves in this environment.
None of this, of course, is to say that that the Chazen shouldn't
present such a show. On the contrary, "Underground Classics" is a
genuine slice of American pop culture and a reflection of its time.
It has local relevance, too: several of the publications highlighted
were Wisconsin-based (like Radical America and The Bugle).
A companion blog at undergroundclassics.wordpress.com offers further
background and thoughtful interviews with many of the artists.