FOR GROWN-UPS IN THE 20TH and 21ST CENTURIES :: Part 2
by Borin Van Loon
they walked out the door, Gertrude handed Picasso ... the comics
section from one of the American Sunday papers: the painter was
an avid follower of the Katzenjammer Kids and of Little Jimmy. Picasso
beamed and thanked her."
In this country we have tended to think of the comic as something
you take from an errant child in order to steer them towards more
improving reading. But comics have so much more to offer...
An extraordinary, turn-of-the-century favourite of mine is Gustave
Verbeek's 'The Upside Downs Of Little Lady Lovekins And Old Man
Muffaroo', surely the longest strip title in history and in subject,
scripting and design, unique. Appearing for only a year and a half,
it seems to hinge on the artist's feeling that the six frames allocated
to him were not enough; he needed twelve. So after the first six,
he turned the page upside down and used the same frames in the opposite
direction to finish his tale. So, as he worked on the first frame
'the right way up' he had in his mind the correct combinations of
characters and settings to finish the adventure when turned upside
down. Similarly, as he approached the fulcrum of the piece: the
sixth frame, it had to read correctly in one direction, only to
be turned upside down with the same configuration of shapes progressing
the story towards its conclusion. You have to see the work to grasp
the Einsteinian scale of such a venture: not only had his characters
to be invertible, but his settings and props, too (1).
of the horror comics in the first part of this article, reminds
me that they have left us a great legacy of talent. Some of the
finest comics artists, such as Wallace Wood, seem to have worked
on EC horror comics and were to transfer to MAD Magazine and create
some of the funniest self referential comic pastiches in the fifties
and sixties (2). On the subject of 'forbidden' comics, the little
oddities known as Tijuana Bibles (because they were said to have
been printed in Mexico and smuggled over the border inside bibles!)
were genuine underground pornographic 8-pagers from the Depression
of the 30s onwards. Several of them are witty, scurrilous pastiches
of mainstream strips of the period such as a dirty version of Blondie
and Dagwood (3). As a struggling young artist, Will Eisner himself
was approached to draw some of these by mobster types for good money
and had to wrestle with his conscience before refusing.
Comics for grown-ups are not, of course, limited to those with sexually
explicit or violent content; I mean by the phrase that such a combination
of scripting and visuals can operate at several levels at once and
explore sophisticated themes. 'Adult comics' seems not to have been
a contradiction in terms on the continent. French titles such as
'A Suivre' and 'Metal Hurlant' (which became the U.S. published
'Heavy Metal') were vehicles for great artists such as Moebius and
The same is true of the Manga genre of comics in Japan, aimed squarely
at teenagers and adults with their mixture of action, sexuality
and violence (particularly towards women). Interestingly the 'censored'
areas of the graphics seem to emphasise the very pornographic elements
which they are designed to cover up. When visiting Tokyo in 1987,
I bought a clutch of these from a grocery shop and confess to being
quite shocked at the sado-masochistic content. Also of stylistic
note is the essential facial characteristic of all Manga characters:
huge eyes. Just one of the many cultural contradictions of the notably-not-huge-eyed
Japanese. Manga as a ubiquitous style of publishing and merchandising
has now invaded children's reading and viewing, often linked to
campaigns such as 'Pokemon'.
The 'head' comics which poured out of San Francisco in the sixties
represent the great burgeoning of the genre. Whole books have been
devoted to this huge subject. Suffice to say that one of the most
infamous comics creators from this period (infamous particularly
amongst feminists), Robert Crumb, is still in financial exile in
France and has since produced a fine documentary comic book about
Franz Kafka (4). Modesty forbids me from saying too much about this
particular sub-genre, as I've produced eleven such titles over the
years, but the 'Introducing' series is a remarkably rich, diverse
way of exploring abstruse, difficult topics; invented by the Mexican
artist, Rius, and developed to its current eclectic incarnation
by series editor, Richard Appignanesi.
The influence of the U.S. underground in this country was initially
seen in the reprinting of American sex-drugs-and-violence strips
by Gilbert Shelton, Greg Irons and Robert Crumb in COZmic Comics,
published by H. Bunch Associates (named after Crumb's heroine character,
Honeybunch Kaminski) from 1972. Soon it encouraged British comix
artists to take up the pen and through the seventies and eighties
all sorts of imports and home produced comix such as those produced
by Hunt Emerson's 'Street Comix' from the Arts Lab Press in Birmingham
were available in headshops and alternative outlets. Thus was my
own apprenticeship served.
Gilbert Shelton has himself become one of the enduring phenomena
of modern comics. The orange covered 'The Further Adventures of
Those Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' for which I paid through the
nose when I bought it as an import from Compendium Books near Camden
Lock in 1972, was merely part 2 of what became a multi-part opus
which was being sold at The Last Barsham Fayre in 1976 and is still
on sale in its Home Grown Comix UK guise at The Last Chance Saloon
in Lower Marsh, Waterloo in 2000. (Although the UK version leaves
out the little 'adverts and throw away jokes in the margins.)
This last-named emporium is surely the successor to the alternative
headshops of the seventies (those that haven't become wholefood
or crystal/mysticism centres). There's something altogether more
fun and hard-edged about The Last Chance Saloon with its expensive
agitprop tee-shirts and outré fashions, Fantagraphics imports
from the US, community press publications and odd little art shows.
It's next door to the rubber/domination boutique and opposite the
pet shop, not far from The Old Vic. It was at this shop that I bought
an interesting piece of revolutionary plagiarism called 'The adventures
of TinTin: breaking free', where Hergˇ's characters are commandeered,
swear horribly and are transplanted to a housing estate in South
London in the eighties (5).
Shelton's Fat Freddy (one of the Freak Brothers) has a Cat who went
on to star in his own comic books, but it's not that particular
anthropomorphic animal which is my own Shelton favourite, it's Wonder
Wart-Hog: the Hog of Steel. To the world he is mild mannered, pince-nez
wearing Philbert Desanex, but his secret identity is ("rip-rip-rip-rip:
CHANGE!") Wonder Wart-Hog who defeats The International Order
Of Bomb-Flinging Fiends and sets up a concession stand (among other
Such was the outpouring of these underground comics, so classic
the series such as 'Zap', and so burgeoning and various the talent,
that it encouraged many others around the world to publish their
own comix. Of course, it wasn't all brilliant. But comics fanzines
such as "Workin' Class Superhero" with its wicked pastiches
of famous strip artists like Moebius had a great deal of zip.
After a definite lull, the success of 'Viz' magazine in the late
eighties encouraged a number of adult comics to fill the racks of
newsagents and I joined the regulars at 'Brain Damage' Š later 'The
Damage' Š then 'Talking Turkey' and in the nineties 'Sun Zoom Spark'
(a music and culture fanzine). Just time to mention two fantastic
examples of the comic strip form for children and adults: Shirley
Hughes' dazzling draughtsmanship in the text-free fantasy 'Up and
up' and Raymond Briggs' apocalyptic classic, the darkly funny 'When
the wind blows'.
'Biff' drawn by Chris Garratt (another 'Introducing' books illustrator)
and written by Mick Kidd started in the re-revived 'International
Times / Maya News' in the late seventies, produced small comic books
and graduated towards a regular spot in the Saturday 'Guardian'
which still continues. Relying on a lumpy forties/fifties 'pop'
style with content including jargonistic Sociology-speak, bathos
and punctured pomposity, the early work in particular served as
an inspiration to me.
'Martin Minton' and 'The Relationship' by cartoonist Ken Pyne were
two ground breaking novels published with considerable vision by
Sphere. Composed wholly of a succession of single frame cartoon
panels which also had to operate singly, they are a magnificent
Comics have appeared in Situationist publications, the community
press, political tracts, fanzines, football magazines and mainstream
publishing. They can subvert, titillate, disturb, amuse and move
you. Drawing on inspirations as various as the exploits of Tom Merry
and Co. of St Jim's, Max Wall, the surrealist collage novels of
Max Ernst (7), the worldview of Captain Beefheart and the explorations
of René Magritte, I continue to try to push these boundaries.
If you want to deconstruct comics and get to know what really makes
them tick - from semiotics to the concepts of time and existence
- you can do just that with Scott McCloud's 'Understanding Comics'
and it's recent follow up 'Reinventing Comics' which awaits U.K.
distribution (8). An excellent history of comics has recently been
published by Roger Sabin (9), while veteran feminist comix artist,
Trina Robbins fills in the gaps regarding U.S. comics for women
(1) 'The incredible upside-downs of Gustave Verbeek' Nostalgia Press
1976 (obscure, but a web search yields some good examples)
(2) I recommend compilations: 'The bedside MAD' and 'The MAD reader'
(3) 'Tijuana bibles' (introduction by Art Speigleman) Simon and
(4) Mairowitz, David Zane & Robert Crumb 'Introducing Kafka' Icon
(5) Daniels, J. 'The adventures of Tintin: breaking free' Attack
(6) Pyne, Ken 'The relationship' 1981; 'Martin Minton' 1982, both
(7) Ernst, Max 'Une semaine de bonté' Dover 1976
(8) McCloud 'Understanding Comics' Kitchen Sink Press 1993
(9) Sabin, Roger 'Comics, comix and graphic novels: a history of
comic art' Phaidon 1996
(10) Robbins, Trina 'From Girls to Grrrlz: a history of female comics
from teens to zines' Chronicle Books 1999
(These articles are based on a recent talk given to Freelance members:
a strictly personal overview of comics by Borin
Go to Part 1.
September's meeting Borin Van Loon (below), freelance Illustrator,
Writer, Painter, and our Chairman, talked about comics and brought
along some of his vast collection.