The underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s have always fascinated me for their rule-breaking, ground-breaking attitudes and counterculture artistic sensibilities. I've read more than a few of them over the years, although tracking them down, and understanding their context 20 to 30 years after their publication, has never been as easy task.
That's partly why this oversized book from James Danky and Denis Kitchen is so welcome. It not only presents samples of the best underground art but also gives us a series of informative essays that put the whole underground comix scene in its historical context. With the art and text combined, the book shows how important these publications were in establishing comic books as a legitimate art form.
Underground Classics the book actually got its start as an art exhibit assembled by Danky and Kitchen for the Chazen Museum of Art. As such, the bulk of this book is made up of gorgeous reproductions of original artwork by Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, Howard Cruse, Gilbert Shelton, and dozens of other artists from the period. Each plate is accompanied by a paragraph of text that presents the history of the piece, the artist, the publication it came from, or the impact the strip had on the broader cultural movement.
The essays—including an introduction by Jay Lynch, a retrospective by the editors, and an essay about the "wimmen's comix" movement by Trina Robbins—put the artwork in further perspective. We see how the movement got its start, how the artists struggled to fulfill their artistic visions in the broader context of the drug-fueled, peace and free-love ’70s, and how the undergrounds had both an enormous impact and a limited legacy (they essentially burned themselves out on by 1980).
As a historical document and an art book, Underground Classics is worth a look for any serious lover of the comic arts.
Reviewed by John R. Platt on May 1, 2009
Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix