Sure, you might know about comics, but how much do you know about underground COMIX? Comic Book History of Comics #6 is here to set you straight on a movement, and to highlight the reluctant legend at the center. Can you dig it? Is it good?
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Ryan Dunlavey
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Before the current ubiquity of comic culture, the whole medium was looked down on by most of the mainstream. Ask anyone over 30.
The elites held special disdain for comics, and really, any kind of pop culture. In the 1960s and ’70s, they gratefully consumed the works of pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, even though the creators insisted the criticisms their followers saw in the art was not actually there.
Nevertheless, as counter-culture grew, a true rejection of the "garbage receptacle of mass media images," as described by R. Crumb, would take shape. He was speaking of his own head after taking then-legal LSD and being horrified at the soup of corporate characters therein.
Crumb’s most famous characters were actually born during a six-month-long acid freakout, before returning to his less-than-free-spirited job at a greeting card company. Needless to say, that regression to the mean didn’t take, and Crumb escaped to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, where he’d shape a movement — but refuse to be shaped by it.
Crumb grew to hate the hippies as much as the corporate overlords, who bullied him into signing off on a Fritz the Cat film that offensively strayed from the character’s original concept. As American culture course-corrected and free love lost its luster, Crumb found out the winners remain the same when the studio continued on with Fritz even after his creator killed him off.
Writer Fred Van Lente strays from the usual four-color subject matter in Comic Book History of Comics #6, and drops some knowledge on readers they probably weren’t expecting, especially as the original version of this mini-series ended with issue #6. One can hope this revamped edition will continue, as R. Crumb lamenting both Hollywood and the comix industry that buoyed him would be a strange way to end things.
It’s also strange because Van Lente’s own feelings and stances are more apparent in Comic Book History of Comics #6 than in any other issue, rather than the facts just telling the story. There have been previous little glimpses of Van Lente’s biases, such as in the description of the origin and content Wonder Woman comics, but now you can almost see the characters standing on soapboxes, as he defends comics against the condescending, establishment gaze.
Really, it’s only slightly surprising that artist Ryan Dunlavey didn’t draw in actual soapboxes. He’s usually a master of creatively communicating through imagery, but there’s a lot more "hitting you over the head" than usual in Comic Book History of Comics #6. Aside from a few gems like an evolutionary chart of Batman, dialogue tends to substitute for artistic subtlety.
Colorist Adam Guzowski has fun with the psychedelic settings, but not as much as you might think. That’s probably a good thing, though, as his uniformity actually ties the entire series together as a single reference, rather than lending undue importance to chapter breaks.
Comic Book History of Comics #6 is probably a departure from what many followers of the series expected, but writer Fred Van Lente is a true student of the genre and won’t skirt the subjects he thinks are important — in this issue going so far as to reemphasize them in the narration. The art team continues to offer a consistent style, but the individual images are blunter and less nuanced than in previous issues. If this truly is the book’s final installment, it’s an unusual and less-than-satisfying finale.