Underground Station – Column

Underground Station

by Bruce Sweeney

Here’s some news that made me want to spend the entire month alone in bed: Kitchen Sink, one of the primary and initial publishers of underground comics (UGs), officially sank, to coin an unfortunate pun. The Comics Journal explored their demise in detail and concluded that it was due to a combination of a contracting comics market and internal management strife. At any rate, one of the oldest and best of the underground comics publishers is gone and Bizarre Sex, Death Rattle, and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs will be seen no more.

Among the independent comic publishers, Joe Chiappetta is a one-of-a-kind inventor. Here’s a guy, married, nearing mid-life, and lost in middle-America who, like Harvey Pekar, draws on a mundane existence to tell his story of angst, confusion, and introspection. In Silly Daddy #20 ($3 postage paid from Joe Chiapetta, 2209 Northgate Avenue, N. Riverside, IL 60546) Joe starts with the story of Jesus’ arrest and transitions into an autobiographical sketch. Jesus and Joe both between the same covers, at last.

Joe – who conveniently has the initials J.C. – goes out on a limb here as a Christian. Not a born-again Christian, not a bible-beater – just a man who has extracted much of what makes sense in the Bible as a romantic. In other words, a feeling, sweet Christian with a sense of real commitment. If only I had this fortitude and insulation I could dispense with much of my cynicism and fashionable doubt. I can’t, but Joe’s point of view is too rich in this application to berate.

Word Play Publications (1 Sutter St. San Francisco, CA 94104) is releasing their second of S. Clay Wilson’s books in January 2000. Ex-biker Wilson is the king of bad-boy underground comics. His contributions to Zap Comics were the most detailed and most deranged in early underground comics. His illustrations of wild mayhem gang wars between outlaw bikers and extra-terrestrial lesbian warriors were sheer excesses that have never been duplicated. He could cram more carnage and guts into one violent page than anyone prior or since. But more important than excess, Wilson brought real style to his creations. In addition to the intricate detail in his depictions of sex and violence, his crazy humor bled through it all with harnessed indulgence. The Wilson original I own shows two intergalactic lesbians blasting away at a space alien with gruesome tentacles.

The new Wilson’s Grimm, which follows Wilson’s Andersen, is Wilson’s interpretation of the witches, giants, and dwarfs of the brothers Grimm in seven “ageless children’s tales.” There’s a paperback for $17.95, a signed, numbered hard cover for $45 and a signed, lettered A-Z hard cover for $150. To date, S. Clay Wilson has finished about half of this series.

I received a couple of copies of The Last Days of Hollywood ($3, Mark Tompkins, 407 Clayton St. #5, San Francisco, CA 94117) and it’s an interesting tidbit. The book centers on rock enthusiasts in the L.A. area. It wanders in and out of an almost-story. I’d recommend reading the whole series in order, because the titles don’t really work independently, although the style and narrative are engaging.

Last Gasp (777 Florida St., San Francisco, CA 94110) is another of the original underground comix publishers who have expanded beyond publishing into an oddball mail order business of oddity publications. They feature books on art, music, film, body modification, and comics and magazines. Their latest hot comics include a new American Splendor, The Bradley’s #2 by Peter Bagge, and Bughouse #6.

Loompanics Unlimited (PO Box 1197, Port Townsend, WA 98368) is the purveyor of the most odd and controversial titles. I strongly recommend their work. My first love is the undergrounds, of course, but I’d guess the Loompanics line is about as right-on for the Lollipop crowd as that of any publisher I know. Mary Fleener’s artwork adorned an article in their summer supplement. If you’re looking for books on changing your identity, perpetrating credit card fraud, or gourmet cannabis cookery, this is the bus stop for you.

NBM (185 Madison Ave. #1504 New York, NY 10016) can be a tad too well-behaved and European for my taste. They focus on emerging European comic artists, especially Italian and French, that have an off-beat and often Latin flavor to their graphic novels.

A Night in a Moorish Harem, Vol. #1, on the other hand, may be a sight to see. It consists of illustrated stories of an adventurer from the Victorian days loose in a harem. These stories are illustrated spicily by such independent comic artists as England’s Eddie Campbell and California’s Mark Bode.

NBM is also producing some fine work by Rick Geary, who has followed up his interpretations of Jack the Ripper and the Lizzie Borden murder crime story with a book on the assassination of President Garfield titled The Fatal Bullet. This is 80 pages of black& white illustrations for $8.95. I have yet to get a copy but am optimistic, since Rick, a San Diego artist, is very consistent in quality.

Fantagraphics (7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115) typically has more crap that I absolutely need than I have money in my pocket. It drives me crazy how prolific this publisher is. They have, for example, the new R. Crumb Sketchbook Vol. 7 for anywhere from $19.96 for the soft cover to $75 for the (essential) signed hard cover. A man of my integrity with a puny soft cover? Surely you shit me… It’s difficult to focus on so broad a cornucopia as the Fantagraphics product line. Should I recommend what looks good to me or focus on what I think you’ll like? Isn’t that always one and the same, gang? There’s the Peter Bagge Buddy’s Got Three Moms! , volume 5 of the collected Hate #21-25. This runs 128 pp. for $16.95, and Bagge really gets our suburban morass down to a T. Art Speigelman’s From Maus to Now (104 pp for $40) was created to go with a traveling European Speigelman show. A friend told me that he’d seen something in the Boston Globe about Artie mounting an opera. Huh?

Finally, absolutely fresh in from Top Shelf (PO Box 1282 Marietta, GA 30061) are two new titles, The Perfect Planet & Other Stories by James Kochalka and Goodbye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson, both for $14.95. Now, I’ll warn you all: both of these titles border on being terminally cute. Goodbye, Chunky Rice is the heart-warming tale of a small orphaned turtle being cut adrift from his home and loved ones. The story develops into a sea adventure. This is one to put under your girlfriend’s pillow just to show her that you can do sweet as well as you do rowdy. Top Shelf never ceases to amaze me with the breadth of their titles; there’s pretty much something for everyone in their supply bin.

An interesting diversion for those interested in comics and their development was the appearance in Boston on Sep 23, 1999 of Neil Gaiman, one of the heavier post-modern writers. Gaiman hosted a screening of his BBC mini-series Neverwhere, which is based on his very successful dark fantasy book. His reading was a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which was set back by the collapse of Denis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Publishing, an enormous supporter. I missed Gaiman’s appearance but only because I waited too long; not out of nonchalance. Watch for Gaiman’s translation of Princess Monanoke, which allegedly took the Telluride Film Festival by storm.

I did get to speak with another original undergrounder, Jaxon, who is now back in Austin, Texas. A local publisher, Mojo Press, will be publishing Jaxon’s comic, Indian Lover. Jack claims to be up to his ears in projects. One ‘biggie’ due out is Shooting the Sun, an 11 x 15″ book with a limited run of only about 350 copies, and reputed to be nearly worth its hefty price tag. It came out in October from the Book Club of Texas; I should have more specific information from Jaxon himself for my next column. 

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