Here’s a neat little curiosity from the “Palmer’s Picks” archives: an unpublished article! This one was written for How To Collect Comics, an obscure Wizard publication from 1994, produced in partnership with retailer Toys R Us and sold exclusively at their stores nationwide. Like its name implies, the magazine was meant to be an introduction to the wonderful world of comics. Articles ranged from “How To Store Your Comics” and “Grading Your Comics,” to “The Evolution of Comics: A Whirlwind Tour of Superhero History” and “Influential Creators.”
Since I was the go-to guy for small press and indy comics, I was asked to prepare an article about the alternative comics scene of the time period, and to pick out a group of key creators to profile with short bios explaining their signature comics and creations. My records show that I wrote this in early 1994, roughly around the time I was writing my regular column for issue 35 or 36 of the monthly Wizard magazine, and right in the middle of my sophomore year of college.
The whole thing was fairly easy to put together since it was just a matter of going through the old “Palmer’s Picks” I had already written and choosing what I felt was worthy. This also gave me the chance to write about some artists I hadn’t covered in the monthly column yet, like Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco, Julie Doucet, Harvey Pekar, and Joe Matt. I wrote some introductory text to give a brief summary of how the alternative comics of the ’90s evolved from the undergrounds and independent comics of the previous decades, and then sent the whole thing off to my editor.
And then I waited. And waited. When you’re freelancing, sometimes it feels like you’re working inside a vacuum. I didn’t get any response after I sent the article in, so I assumed everything was fine. I even wrote a brief update on a few artists I wrote about to make sure the article had the most current information possible. And I still heard nothing.
Naturally, when the magazine eventually popped up in Toys R Us stores, my article was nowhere to be found. I’m not sure the exact reason why this piece never ran, but it’s pretty easy to figure it out. I mean, could you imagine a magazine in Toys R Us discussing the underground work of Robert Crumb? Or Bitchy Bitch, star of Roberta Gregory’s Naughty Bits? Even if the content of what I wrote wasn’t a problem, there’s a good chance that it was cut because there simply wasn’t enough room. At the end of the day, the real reasons why don’t really matter. I still got paid, so all of my work wasn’t completely wasted!
And now, through the magic of desktop publishing, I’ve recreated what it might have looked like if my original article made it into the magazine. If you happen to have a copy of How To Collect Comics, feel free to print out these pages and staple ’em into your magazine:
An Intro To The Comics: Alternative Comics
By Tom Palmer Jr.
When a typical comic book reader thinks of alternative comics, he or she pictures a cheaply produced black and white comic that comes out once a year.
On the contrary, alternative comics are not limited by any format, and are produced by some of the most daring and exciting artists in the industry who are pushing the boundaries of what the art form of comics is capable of. Because of their diversity and skill, these creators transcend the limits of their format, be it the pulpy newsprint of a black and white comic or the slick pages of a glossy art magazine. The current crop of alternative comics grew out of the underground comics of the ’60s and the early independent comics from the beginning of the direct market in the late ’70s.
The underground comics were a part of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, but they were inspired by many different sources, most notably the EC Comics of the 1950s (especially their horror line and Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad). Now-legendary creators like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Spain, Vaughn Bodé, Gilbert Shelton, Jack Jackson (aka Jaxon), Kim Deitch, and Richard Corben challenged society’s norms, as well as what was acceptable in comic books in comics like Zap!, Slow Death, Wimmen’s Comix, Snarf, and Bizarre Sex. The stories these artists told had a distinctly personal nature that set them apart from the typical comics of the time. The artists stretched what the artform could achieve by experimenting with different styles of writing and cartooning. The undergrounds had virtually no editorial restrictions placed on them since they were not sold through the usual channels for comic books. Instead, they were distributed mainly through head shops, but when the government began closing these stores, the underground movement lost a lot of its momentum.
The independent comics of the late ’70s sprang up at the beginning of the direct-sales market. Mainstream comics were floundering, and the establishment of the direct sales system allowed for a different way for comics to be distributed. It also gave smaller companies a chance to try their hand against the larger companies (mainly Marvel and DC). These comics were called “middleground” comics, since they were not as radical as the undergrounds, and not as conventional as the mainstream comics. The initial offerings of these small companies included Mike Friedrich’s Star*Reach anthology, Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest, and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. These creators were soon followed by the first of the larger independent companies, including Eclipse, Pacific, and First, which were the precursors to the major competitors of the “Big Two” today, like Malibu, Valiant, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics.
The direct market also gave rise to companies like Fantagraphics Books, Drawn & Quarterly, and Slave Labor Graphics, who offered creative freedom and creator ownership to artists with daring and experimental material. Artists could also take the choice of self-publishing, an option that gives them total control of all aspects of their comic book. Creators of alternative comics have taken these options to create a thriving group of comics that function simultaneously as art, critiques of society and popular culture, and a source of entertainment.
What follows is a sampling of some of the more important artists of the alternative scene and the comics they make (in no particular order):
Zap Comics, Hup
For over twenty-five years, the legendary creator of Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat has been cartooning and commenting on life in America, with bitter, sexually-charged, and hilarious comics. Crumb was an important figure in the underground movement as the originator of Zap Comix, considered to be one of the earliest and most influential of the underground comics, and the creator of some of the most memorable characters and comics from the ’60s. He also played a significant role in the independent scene of the early ’80s as the founder of Weirdo, the premiere alternative anthology of the time. His work is being systematically reprinted in The Complete Crumb Comics and he is as prolific as ever, with Hup, his own solo comic.
An important part of the underground comix scene, Spiegelman is the author of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a critically-acclaimed graphic novel that recounts both the horrors of the Holocaust endured by Spiegelman’s father, and Spiegelman’s strained relationship with his father. Spiegelman, along with his wife Francoise Mouly, is also the editor of Raw, one of the best anthologies of postmodern comics.
With his partner, Gerhard, Dave Sim chronicles the life story of Cerebus, an anthropomorphic aardvark with an attitude. Sim has committed himself to writing, drawing and publishing 300 issues of Cerebus on a monthly schedule, until the series concludes in March of 2004. This very ambitious series has explored just about every facet of life, including power, religion, death, and love. To make it easy to jump-in during the middle of the story, Sim has kept every issue in print in phone-book size reprint volumes. Sim is also a vocal supporter of creator-rights, advising others to self-publish.
Through his character Buddy Bradley, Peter Bagge is the leading chronicler of the slacker generation. Buddy is an irascible, but nonetheless likable character who struggles through the tortures of modern life. Just like everybody else, he has problems with disgusting and strange roommates, crazy girlfriends, and go-nowhere jobs. Bagge recently concluded the first volume of Hate, and is set to begin the series again.
Understanding Comics, Zot!
McCloud is the author of the first comic published about the art form of comics, Understanding Comics. His book examines the particulars of comics as a means of communication, naming the processes between panels that we oftentimes take for granted. McCloud is also the originator of the Bill of Rights for Comics Creators, a twelve-point document that outlines the basic rights a creator has to his or her creations. Aside from being a brilliant theorist and inventor, McCloud is the creator behind Zot!, one of the best black and white comics of the ’80s.
In Madman Comics, Michael Allred breathes new life into the superhero genre, creating a wacky protagonist in a series that revels in the junk culture of the ’60s and ’70s. Allred’s work is instantly recognizable, with a bouncy writing style and slick, polished art.
Pekar is the master of the autobiographical comic, with his long-running American Splendor series. Pekar writes stories of his day-to-day life in Cleveland, Ohio, which are illustrated by such artists as Robert Crumb, Frank Stack, and Jim Woodring. Pekar is also a reluctant celebrity, mostly due to his controversial and combative appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. Along with his wife, Joyce Brabner, Pekar is preparing Our Cancer Year, an account of his recent bout with the disease.
After collaborating with Alan Moore and John Tottleben on a celebrated run of Swamp Thing, Bissette decided to try his hand at self-publishing. His first attempt was Taboo, one of the premiere horror anthologies of the ’80s, which featured many challenging and disturbing stories. His work on Image’s 1963 has allowed Bissette to finally publish his own work with Tyrant, a 60-issue series that follows a T. rex from infancy to death.
Following a brief career in animation, Jeff Smith entered the comic field with Bone, a delightful series that throws three simply-drawn cartoon characters into a rich fantasy world full of dragons, evil rat creatures, and adventure. Smith has rapidly grown into one of the most respected and universally admired cartoonists in the industry. With its beautiful art and engrossing and hilarious story, Bone is one of the few comics published today that can appeal equally to both adults and children.
Eightball, by Dan Clowes, is one of the leading alternative comics being published today. Each new issue shows a creator at the top of his form, telling stories that range from autobiography to off-the-wall rants. One of the highlights of the series is “Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” an experimental, dream-like narrative that was serialized in the first ten issues. Currently, the main story in Eightball is “Ghost World,” an examination of the day-to-day lives of two teenage girls.
Bratpack, Rare Bit Fiends
After one of his stories for Swamp Thing was denied publication, Rick Veitch decided to self-publish his work. He created the King Hell Heroica, a series of interconnecting graphic novels, including Bratpack and The Maximortal, that explore the underside of the superhero myth. After his work on Image’s 1963 series, his most recent series is Rare Bit Fiends, a collection of stories inspired by the dreams of Veitch and other comic creators.
British writer Alan Moore’s work has ranged from superheroes and horror to historical fiction and erotica. After working on Swamp Thing and Watchmen, he left mainstream comics to concentrate on a body of creator-owned work, the most popular and respected of which is From Hell, a story that is both a systematic recounting of the Jack the Ripper murders and a scathing indictment of Victorian culture. Whatever project Moore is working on is packed with a high level of detail and accuracy to enrich the reading experience.
Yummy Fur, Underwater
Constantly reinventing himself, Chester Brown has taken his work from stream-of-conscious narratives to brutally honest autobiography, with a few stops in between. His comic Yummy Fur has featured stories like the surreal and outrageous “Ed the Happy Clown,” the confessional “Playboy,” and faithful adaptations of the Bible. Brown has recently canceled Yummy Fur to start Underwater, a new series of fictional stories.
A Distant Soil
After numerous legal battles to gain control of her creations, Colleen Doran decided to self-publish A Distant Soil, a series that deftly balances elements of fantasy, science-fiction and adventure. To support her self-publishing, Doran also does freelance work for mainstream companies on Sandman, Shade the Changing Man, and Valor.
Jim Woodring’s simply-titled comic Jim presents the outpourings of a truly warped imagination. Most of his stories are autobiographical in the sense that they are drawn from Woodring’s dreams and subconscious. His most recognizable creation is Frank, an unidentifiable anthropomorphic animal who wanders around a fertile dreamscape thwarting the bizarre schemes of his nemesis, Manhog in beautifully painted full-color or richly textured black and white adventures.
In a distinctive primitive and expressionistic style, Julie Doucet delineates stories that deal frankly with feminine concerns and issues. The action in her comics is governed by the distorted logic of dreams, making for a warped and disturbing experience. Her comic series Dirty Plotte has recently changed to an anthology format to accommodate the work of some of her favorite cartoonists.
Atomic City Tales
Perfectly capturing the fun spirit of old-time superhero comic books and combining it with a ’90s bite, Jason Stephens’ Atomic City Tales is one of the most bizarre comics on the stands. Stephens has dropped the series of comics within comics that was a trademark of his earlier Sin Comics in favor of a loose superhero comic that showcases Stephens’ off-beat humor.
After completing six issues of Yahoo, cartoonist Joe Sacco launched Palestine, an intriguing investigation of the forces at work in the Occupied Territories. Sacco has created a unique form of comics journalism with his precise, masterful drawings and accurate, insightful text. Palestine is one of the very few comics that broadens the medium as both an artform and as a means of communication.
Hepcats, the comic featuring Martin Wagner’s anthropomorphic characters, originally began as a cartoon in the University of Texas’ Daily Texan. After ending the college strip, Wagner self-published Hepcats and began writing more true-to-life stories. His current serialized novel, Snowblind, is a gripping tale of the horrors of dysfunctional families and child abuse.
While he is best known for his work illustrating Alan Moore’s From Hell, Eddie Campbell is also an accomplished writer, as evident in his Deadface and Alec comics. With Deadface, Campbell tells modern-day stories of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, and in Alec, he tries his hand at autobiography. Campbell brings both of these stories to different companies, ranging from Dark Horse to Fantagraphics.
In the autobiographical Peep Show, Joe Matt presents himself as neurotic, cheap, and self-absorbed. Somehow he makes the whole thing fascinating and hilarious. His autobiographical comics originally appeared in various anthologies as one page strips packed with numerous minuscule panels. With the regular Peep Show comic book series, Matt has expanded his artwork to larger panels with fluid and expressive characters.
After getting her start in the undergrounds during the ’70s, Roberta Gregory has become one of the leading female cartoonists in the field today. Her current comic, Naughty Bits, features her opinions on pornography, abortion rights, and the challenges of women in the workplace through her character Bitchy Bitch. With a knack for sharp criticism and shocking honesty, Gregory’s comics will definitely open your mind.
When a car accident almost ruined his career as an artist, James Owen vowed to recover and continue his Starchild comic. He has surprised the industry by coming back with one of the surprise hits of the past few years. Owen’s beautiful pen and ink drawings mesh perfectly with his gothic fantasy story of the Higgins’ family.
Los Bros Hernandez
Love and Rockets
Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez continually produce some of the finest narratives in comics today. In Love and Rockets, the comic the brothers share, Gilbert tells stories of the inhabitants of a fictional South American town called Palomar, while Jaime chronicles the lifestyles of the post-punk generation. Both have a natural ability to create believable characters and tell enthralling stories.
Terry LaBan made his mark with his first series, Unsupervised Existence, but has won a reputation as one of the most daring of the new cartoonists with his new series, Cud. He has developed a looser cartooning style and a sharp sense of satire to create hilariously brutal stories that feature Bob the performance artist, parodies of cultural icons, and LaBan himself.
Along with Jim Woodring, Mark Martin is the creator of Tantalizing Stories, a short-lived, but highly acclaimed series that featured Woodring’s Frank and Martin’s hilarious Montgomery Wart. As the editor of the humor anthology Hyena, he has assembled a diverse sampling of some of the most warped artists in the field. Martin is also an expert cartoonist, infusing his characters with a whimsical sense of fun and humor.
Tom Palmer Jr. is a freelance writer and full-time college student who frequently travels between New Jersey and Virginia.