Weirdos: Seattle’s Alternative Comics Culture in the Context of R. Crumb’s Underground

This slide lecture was originally presented on Thursday, April 17, 2008 at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle in conjunction with the exhibit "R. Crumb's Underground."

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"Wild Peoples" by Lynda Barry, <i>The Rocket</i>, July 1983 A <i>Life in Hell</i> strip by Matt Groening, 1987 <i>Black Hole</i> by Charles Burns, 2002 <i>Comical Funnies</i> by Peter Bagge (front cover by John Holmstrom), 1980 <i>Music for Mechanics</i>, a <i>Love and Rockets</i> collection, cover by Jaime Hernandez <i>The Rocket</i>, August 1986, cover by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez <i>The Rocket</i>, January 1990, cover by Ashleigh Roffloer (aka Triangle Slash) <i>The Rocket</i>, January 1991, cover by Don Martin <i>The Rocket</i>, February 1992, cover by Scott McDougal <i>Zap</i> #13, front cover by Victor Moscoso, 1994 <i>The Rocket</i>, July 1983, cover by Lynda Barry "The Last Supper" by Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb, untitled strip by Ron Hauge, <i>The Rocket</i>, July 1983 "Sammy the Household Horror" by Charles Burns, <i>The Rocket</i>, July 1983 "Foyce" by Gary Panter, "Why... it's... the 'Emerald City' Streets" by Payton Williamson, "Jo Bell and Isabelle" by Michael Dougan, and "So You Want to Be a New Wave Cartoonist" by Matt Groening, <i>The Rocket</i>, July 1983 <i>Weirdo</i> #15, front cover by R. Crumb, 1985 <i>The Rocket</i>, March 1991, cover by Peter Bagge <i>Misfit Lit</i> exhibition catalog, cover by Daniel Clowes, 1991 <i>Hate</i> #8 by Peter Bagge, 1992 <i>Jim</i> Vol. II #1 by Jim Woodring, 1993 <i>The Stranger</i>, November 8, 2007, cover by Jim Woodring <i>Weirdo</i> #28 ("Verre D'Eau"), front cover by R. Crumb, 1993

Thank you all for coming tonight. I promise this will be worth the price of admission. And not a penny more.

I also want to thank Mary Jane for reading the flattering introduction I provided her. Very convincing. As she mentioned, I serve as curator and events coordinator at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, which is a lofty title I assigned myself for my current position as a clerk in a comic book shop. Actually, the label curator implies a level of sophistication that I’ve never possessed. Incorrigible ingrate maybe, or impertinent miscreant. Once, in the course of a dismissive review, former Stranger art critic Eric Fredericksen referred to me as a malcontent curator. Blissfully unaware that this wasn’t intended as a compliment, I had business cards printed: Larry Reid, Malcontent Curator. Following an extended period of unemployment, I reverted back to curator… or comic shop clerk, as the case may be.

Enough about me. The topic of conversation tonight is Weirdos. No not me…

By now you’ve all seen the exhibition "R. Crumb’s Underground." I want to thank the Frye Art Museum for hosting this comprehensive survey by what is arguably among the most accomplished and important artists of the last half of the 20th century. It’s our rare pleasure to be able to experience this astonishing body of work. Tonight I hope to demonstrate a direct correlation between Crumb’s legacy and the internationally recognized alternative comics and graphics of the Pacific Northwest. As we will see, the relationship between Crumb’s cartooning and Seattle’s comics is both conceptual and tangible. Beyond the obvious influence that Crumb conveyed on contemporary comic art, his presence in Seattle is profoundly felt.

Seattle has a long established fondness for comics, which has given birth to a remarkable number of native illustrators and cartoonists. The reasons for the preponderance of comics artists here are many and varied. Recent residents of Seattle may be unaware that well into the 1960s, the weather reports on our nightly newscasts were delivered not by meteorologists, but by cartoonists. It’s true. My hand to God. As youngsters, our after school entertainment was provided by a disheveled clown and his demented drag queen companion living in a decrepit shack in the city garbage dump. We just adored J. P. Patches and Gertrude. No wonder we turned out weird. In other areas of the country during the Cold War, comic books were considered the root cause of social deviance and juvenile delinquency - disposable pulp unworthy of proper society. Not here. Cartoons were not only tolerated, they were fully embraced by the redneck ruffians of the Northwest. Maybe Sir Thomas Beecham was right when he famously dismissed Seattle as a cultural dustbin. Add to this the 11 months of dreary weather we experience annually, together with the historic hostility to anything resembling an active nightlife. What else to do? Might as well stay home and draw pictures. And until the relatively recent arrival of Microsoft millionaires and caffeine induced upward mobility, Seattle enjoyed a low cost of living. We were once able to eke out a creative Bohemian existence, essentially living on air. Rent was a meager $150, $200 a month and our social lives revolved around hosted bars and hors d’oeuvre trays.

As we examine the evolution of alternative comics in Seattle over the past 30 years, and R. Crumb’s contributions to these developments, I’ll attempt to present this work in a chronological framework. However, history often unfolds existentially, so you’ll have to forgive the inevitable digressions. Hopefully my thesis will reveal itself by the end of the discussion, after which I’ll be happy to provide evasive answers to any questions you may pose. On with the show…

Black Hole #2 [Sold Out]
Black Hole #2 [Sold Out]
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Together with my future wife Tracey Rowland, I was fortunate enough to open my first Pioneer Square gallery, Rosco Louie, in 1978 at the same moment that a trio of extremely gifted cartoonists graduated from the Evergreen State College: Lynda Barry [slide], Matt Groening [slide] and Charles Burns [slide]. We regularly exhibited these artists' work. This was the dawning of a neo-Dada punk aesthetic, and we made no distinction between fine art, comics, illustration, graphics, dissonant music and emerging media. Barry and Burns designed several posters for our events, and Burns even operated the soundboard on occasion at punk rock shows. It was through our association with them that we were later able to feature work by artists like Gary Panter, Mark Beyer and Art Spiegleman. All of these artists were heavily influenced by Robert Crumb, rendering their subjective experiences, and commenting on contemporary society.

At about the same time in New York City, a group of misfit cartoonists gathered around the School of Visual Art. SVA was founded by classic comic strip cartoonist Burne Hogarth, and at the time boasted a faculty that included Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Art Spiegelman. Attending classes at SVA were artists like Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Mark Newgarden, Keith Haring, Kaz and Daniel Clowes, among others. While Friedman now describes SVA as “one step above clown college,” this was a pretty amazing collection of outcast artists. Pictured here is Peter Bagge’s self published tabloid Comical Funnies [slide], with a classic cover of the Ramones by John Holmstrom. Holmstrom and Legs McNeil produced the seminal fanzine Punk, and together coined the term “punk rock.” You should read their delightful oral history of the era, Please Kill Me. Bagge will figure prominently in Seattle a bit later.

Love and Rockets #1 [Sold Out]
Love and Rockets #1 [Sold Out]
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Also during this period, in Los Angeles, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez self published the first issue of their groundbreaking comic book Love and Rockets. I recall the moment I first gazed upon this comic book at Forbidden Planet in midtown Manhattan. There among the superhero comic books, these lovely women beckoned from the cover [slide], and inside I found stories that spoke directly to me – multicultural punk presented a relevant, entertaining, and intelligent fashion. The Hernandez brothers sent a review copy of Love and Rockets to fanzine editor Gary Groth at The Comics Journal, published by his fledgling enterprise Fantagraphics Books, thus launching an empire.

Back in Seattle, the Rocket began monthly publication. This wonderful magazine nurtured the talents of countless young writers, illustrators, cartoonists, photographers and graphics designers. To list a few: writers Ann Powers, Carrie Jacobs, and Robert Ferriegno, illustrators Mark Zingraelli and Ed Fotheringham, graphic designers Mark Michaelson, Helene Silverman, and the incomparable Art Chantry, photographers Charles Peterson and Kristine Larsen, and dozens of notable cartoonists, not to mention launching the careers of countless musicians. An immensely underappreciated civic asset, which sadly remains poorly archived.

Allow me the indulgence of a brief anecdote related to this cover by the Hernandez Brothers [slide]. In 1967, Seattle psychedelic rock combo the Daily Flash scored a regional hit with a pop-folk number “The French Girl.” As a result they landed an appearance on an episode of a short-lived prime time T. V. series called The Girl from UNCLE – a spin off the popular espionage series The Man From UNCLE. They performed the French Girl in a ski chalet scene, and composed this totally retarded song specifically for the Cold War spy concept of the show. “Oi Oi Oi Oi, My Bulgarian Baby.” Right up there with James Brown and the Clash. Freakin’ awesome!

Ashleigh Roffloer (aka Triangle Slash) [slide]. Mad magazine master Don Martin [slide], Scott McDougal’s homage to the late Rick Griffin [slide]. For those few of you may not know, Griffin was an unheralded creative genius, whose untimely death as a result of a motorcycle accident was largely ignored by mainstream media. But not the Rocket. Griffin collaborator Victor Moscoso’s tribute to his friend in Zap #13 [slide]. I want to show just a few interior pages from a single issue of the Rocket. Cover by Lynda Barry [slide]. Inside, Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar [slide], Charles Burns [slide], Gary Panter, Michael Dougan, Matt Groening [slide]. Just so you get the picture.

A more direct relationship between Seattle and Robert Crumb commenced when Peter Bagge relocated to Seattle from Hoboken, New Jersey in 1984. He moved here with his wife Joanne quite by accident, primarily because his brother in law, Mike Tice, was drafted out of the University of Maryland as a tight end by the Seattle Seahawks. Bagge had by then assumed the editorship of R. Crumb’s Weirdo [slide], which he directed for 9 issues between 1983 and 1986. Peter was tasked with the transition of Weirdo from an anthology of anachronistic underground comics to a venue for emerging artists more closely associated with the punk milieu. Bagge concedes that this transformation was difficult at times, forcing him to reject the irrelevant hippie themed comics of an older generation in favor of the work of his less celebrated, but more compelling, peers. In allowing Bagge creative control over his anthology, Crumb was acknowledging that a new generation of cartoonists had arrived. And with increasing frequency, they were arriving in Seattle.

In 1989, Bagge’s publisher Fantagraphics Books followed him in relocating to Seattle from Southern California. In my capacity then as program director at the Center on Contemporay Art (COCA), I began a relentless campaign to convince co-publishers Gary Groth and Kim Thompson to organize an exhibition on comic art. After months of my incessant torment, they consented, and the resulting exhibition was nothing short of cathartic. Opening in 1991, “Misfit Lit” featured over 50 of the most notorious cartoonists in North America, and was emblematic of a cultural phenomena that was taking form in Seattle, which would subsequently have an indelible impact on global popular culture. Following its run in Seattle, the show was presented in Vancouver, B. C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Portugal and was greeted by enthusiastic audiences and massive media attention at every turn. Pictured here [slide] is a cover of the Rocket by Peter Bagge at the time of the show, featuring an interview of Crumb by cartoonist Michael Dougan.

Misfit Lit Catalog [Sold Out]
Misfit Lit Catalog [Sold Out]
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This is the cover of the catalogue by Daniel Clowes [slide]. “Misfit Lit” marked the last public appearance by Crumb in Seattle. A brief aside: Robert and Aline Crumb then lived in Northern California, but were preparing to move to a villa in France that Robert acquired in trade for a few of his sketchbooks. When I thanked them for taking time out of their busy schedule to attend, Bob and Aline explained that they were only too happy to escape what they described as an insane stalker that was following their every move with a movie camera. Based on their account, I pictured a crazed paparazzi perched in a tree across from their house with a telephoto lens. Years later, I finally saw the documentary Crumb by Terry Zwigoff, and it became abundantly clear that he had their full cooperation in the project. Having spent much time with Crumb in several cities across the country, the film captures this artist perfectly.

Crumb was joined in Seattle for “Misfit Lit” by an extraordinary array of his colleagues including Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Roberta Gregory, Jim Woodring, Paul Mavrides and Burne Hogarth. A panel discussion with these artists, moderated by Gary Groth, was monumental. It almost defies description. At one point, just for comic relief, Crumb purposefully tipped over in his chair, falling head over heels on the stage. Given the clarity of hindsight, this event represented a symbolic passing of the torch to a new generation of underground cartoonists.

It’s worth noting that “Misfit Lit” gave rise to the term “alternative comics.” In preparing to market this exhibition, I entered into a discussion with Peter Bagge in an effort to draw a distinction between the underground comix of a previous generation and the new breed of comics being published by Fantagraphics Books. After much thought, Bagge suggested that the new form of energetic music beginning to take hold in Seattle was being labeled “alternative rock.” I’m not sure if it was myself or Peter that first uttered the phrase “alternative comics,” but that became the term I used to describe “Misfit Lit,” and that’s how the title became associated with this new genre of comics. Within a year, “alternative comics” entered the cultural lexicon and came to include everything from sword wielding anteaters to the pseudo-superhero books of DC’s Vertigo line – but it was Bagge’s invention, and Fantagraphics Books was the primary purveyor of these compelling comics.

Buddy Does Seattle: The Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from "Hate" Comics Vol. 1 (1990-'94)
Buddy Does Seattle: The Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from
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Peter Bagge’s Hate [slide]. In my considered opinion this is the most fully conceived and executed comic book series ever published. At the risk of sounding cliché, this is essential reading. Hate chronicles the exploits of hapless Buddy Bradley and his crew of lovable losers through Seattle's grunge era. If you were there, you'll recognize yourself. At once hilarious and poignant, this work goes beyond satire. Bagge's comics of this period helped define both the aesthetics and attitudes of our city's only significant indigenous youth movement. As was the case with Crumb’s work in the 60s, Bagge was not simply a casual observer of this counterculture, but an active participant as well. A contemporary review of the comic series by Bruce Barcott in the Seattle Weekly explained, "Twenty years from now, when people want to know what it was like to young in 1990s Seattle, the only record we'll have is Peter Bagge's Hate." This series became an international phenomenon, routinely outselling popular superhero comics like Spider-Man and Superman. I might add that I make several cameo appearances in Hate as “Leonard the Love God.” Yes, I was hot! The first 15 issues of Hate have recently been collected in the graphic novel Buddy Does Seattle.

Jim Vol. II #1 [Sold Out]
Jim Vol. II #1 [Sold Out]
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Jim Woodring [slide]. Another local disciple of Robert Crumb. Jim is one of a handful of cartoonists that have gained currency in the realm of fine art, and tonight I’m initiating a movement to persuade the Frye Art Museum to mount a substantial exhibition of his work. You can assist in this endeavor by pestering curator Robin Held: That’s rheld at fryemuseum.org. Thank you.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Stranger’s contributions to Seattle cartooning. Here’s a recent cover by Woodring [slide], and inside regularly you’ll find work by Ellen Forney, Tony Millionaire, and others. Unfortunately, of late, the Stranger seems to have lost interest in promoting low brow counterculture.

As we like to say in the biz… th- th- that’s all folks. Thank you.

 

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