The PopCult Bookshelf
It’s going to be hard for me to write a completely objective review of this book because it fills me with loads of nostalgic glee. As a young comic book reader in the early 1970s, I had a pretty steady diet of mainstream comics–DC, Marvel, Charlton, even Harvey, Archie and Gold Key would do in a pinch. I would read just about anything put in front of me in comic book form.
I also had the benefit of having an older brother, so I was exposed to things like The National Lampoon, which introduced me to some of the Underground Cartoonists who sprang out of the 1960s counter-culture. As cool as the Lampoon was, it was nothing compared to the revelation I experienced when I found the first issue of Comix Book on a magazine rack, in of all places, the Dunbar Kroger.
Comic books were “comics” but “Comix” were “underground” comics, printed and distributed through mysterious and arcane means, with the creators owning their work and keeping odd publishing frequencies that made it difficult to track down consecutive issues of anything–at least here in West Virginia it was like that. Most importantly, comix were uncensored. The characters within could smoke drugs, have the sex and talk about crazy hippie politics. I never expected to find that at Kroger.
There were names I recognized from The National Lampoon, like Trina Robbins and Leslie Cabarga, but there were so many other great cartoonists that I found for the first time. I was introduced to Kim Dietch and Skip Williamson, from whom I would swipe mercilessly for many years. The first issue also contained a strip from Art Spiegelman, “Ace Hole, Midget Detective,” and work by the legendary Basil Wolverton (Mad, Powerhouse Pepper), John Pound, Ted Richards, Howard Cruse and more.
Most bizarre of all was that the book was published by Marvel…sort of. It was a black-and-white magazine that bore Marvel’s “Curtis” imprint, but Stan Lee was listed as “Instigator” and that made it all the more strange and mind-bending.
I haunted the magazine racks as the next two issue came out. The second issue reprinted a three-page story by Spiegelman, “Maus,” which he later expanded into the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel of the same name.
Comix Book ended after three issues. The perils of a shaky magazine market combined with Marvel’s nervousness over ceding control of copyrights to the cartoonists led to an early demise. This was particularly frustrating because Comix Book had been running two serials, which were to have five installments each, “Panthea” by Trina Robbins and “We Fellow Traveleers” by Justin Green.
By this point, I was hooked. I started bumming rides from my brother to go to Budget Tapes and Records, who had a few Underground Comics, and to Pepperland, who carried way more. Before I was old enough to drive, I’d amassed a respectable collection of classic “Comix.” One day in 1976 I popped into Pepperland and discovered that Kitchen Sink, the underground comix publisher who partnered with Marvel to produce Comix Book, had secured the rights to print the two unpublished issues, and they had both of them in stock. It was a rare case of finding satisfying closure in a head shop.
These books have been out of print for decades. Some of the stories have been reprinted or collected, but most have not. It’s a real treat to have a well-made hardcover volume that brings us 150 pages of comix, plus over thirty pages of background information, including words from Stan Lee and Denis Kitchen (the original editor of the series and the publisher of Kitchen Sink), and an historical essay by James Vance.
I believe this book prints almost half of what was contained in those five issues, plus a couple of notable stories that didn’t make it into the original run of Comix Book. There is a story by Trina Robbins (“Wonder Person Gets Knocked Up”) that was intended for the first issue, but rejected by Marvel’s lawyers. We also get a ten-page story drawn by the great Alex Toth that was spiked by Stan Lee because he felt it was “too boring” and didn’t fit the tone of the book.
Also included are the complete serials, Robbins’ “Panthea,” the adventures of a half-woman/half lion who winds up in San Francisco, and Green’s incredible deconstruction of organized religion, “We Fellow Traveleers.”
This book also collects Spiegelman’s original “Maus” story; “Barefootz” by Howard Cruse who later went on to create the “Stuck Rubber Baby” graphic novel and years worth of Bazooka Joe comics; Several strips by Kim Dietch, who is still at the top of his craft producing incredible work (a Kickstarter for a limited edition book of his art just met its goal in a day and a half); John Pound’s “Flip The Bird,” which hints at his later work as the primary artist on Garbage Pail Kids is a load of fun to revisit.
“The Best of Comix Book” is practically a who’s who of underground comix, missing only Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Bill Griffith among its pages. I first encountered Harvey Pekar in an issue of Comix Book, and a comic strip by Skip Williamson was my first exposure to John Prine (sadly, the adaptation of Prine’s song, “Aw, Heck” is not included here). In addition to the cartoonists mentioned earlier, this book contains work by S. Clay Wilson, Joel Beck, Sharon Rudahl, William Stout and Lee Marrs.
So this is a real trip down memory lane for me. There are lines from Comix Book that I have been barking out as non-sequitors during inappropriate times for nearly forty years (“Devilish Lout, I see you chose to disregard my warnings…Even so I admire your spirit!” “I am da king nobody plaes with me”).
However, this collection is also a fantastic snapshot of a time when underground comix were in peril. The distribution model had collapsed when head shops started getting shut down, and unless a cartoonist was a superstar like Crumb, they had to scramble to get paid for their work. Comix Book was a lifeline to many of the top cartoonists of the underground movement, and this is a wonderful cross-section of the talent then in the field.
The book itself is an attractive oversized hardcover with spot color in the introductions. All the comix within were created for black and white reproduction and they are reproduced here with crisp, clean lines. While this is not a book for children or the easily-offended, the “rebellion” on display here seems a little quaint some four decades down the road. That actually adds to the time-capsule quality of the book.
“The Best of Comix Book” is a great collection of top-notch work by some of the best cartoonists working in the 1970s. I’m glad to add this one to my library.