For a brief time in the early 1970s, Stan Lee tried to tap into a market that wasn’t trying to be much of a market at all: the underground comix scene. The Best of Comix Book: When Marvel Went Underground reprints some of the most notable contributions to the short lived Comix Book, featuring some of the most important names in underground comix, including Justin Green, Kim Deitch, Alex Toth and Howard Cruse. So is it good?
The Best of Comix Book: When Marvel Went Underground (Marvel Comics)
Apparently this cover was not popular within the underground scene. Is it weird that I like it?
The Best of Comix Book clocks in at a respectable 185 pages, although there are few actual comix to speak of until around page 35. But that’s just fine. The introduction by Stan Lee, forward by Denis Kitchen, and lengthy, heavily researched essay by James Vance are not only interesting, but provide much needed context for those familiar with the underground comix scene, but especially for readers that are not as well versed.
By sheer virtue of having the Marvel name in its title, I hope this book attracts some superhero devotees that may not otherwise go out of their way to learn about underground comix and their importance to the evolution of the sequential art. Not to downplay the significance of the Silver Age of superhero comics, but it’s at least as important for those that are serious about comics to recognize that during this same “age,” there was an entirely separate scene of cartoonists that didn’t give a damn about popularity, the Comics Code, or the well-meaning mommies and daddies treating their little darlings to the latest issue of Fantastic Four displayed on the spinner rack at the drug store.
Don’t skip this essay. Fascinating stuff.
These first thirty-odd pages do an excellent job of explaining how and why a bunch of avant-garde hippies and anti-establishment punks would come to work for Marvel Comics, which by 1973 was already a corporate powerhouse. With the initial excitement of the underground movement waning, cartoonist and Kitchen Sink founder Denis Kitchen found himself and his fellow comix artists desperately broke. Though never driven by capital gains in the first place, these cartoonists needed to reach out to a larger audience in order to make enough money to feed themselves, otherwise they would have had to quit comics entirely.
Underground comix can be really, really creepy.
Meanwhile, Stan Lee was eager to try something different, and after a series of negotiations by Denis Kitchen, Comix Book was born. Though low-sales and conflicts amongst the artists lead to a mere five-issue run, the idea of some of the most daring, experimental cartoonists in history publishing their work through a major publisher known for its slick house style and mainstream appeal is still a groundbreaking one.
Say what you will about Stan Lee, but the man knows how to write a letter.
“I wanted to produce a magazine that looked like an underground comic and even read somewhat like an underground comic,” Stan Lee says. “(But) wasn’t as totally outrageous or sexy as an underground comic!”
For all the contributors’ talk of compromising with Marvel by toning down their usual raunchiness, Comix Book is still remarkably edgy, and often quite filthy. Nudity, profanity, drug use, sacrilege, and general irreverence abounds. I wish the book revealed more specifics of the artists’ restrictions, because there genuinely does not seem to be any. No penetrative sex? No more than five expletives per page? No detailed instructions on the preparation of LSD?
If comics were movies, and the average underground comic is rated NC-17, Comix Book would still have a hard time convincing the MPAA to give it an R rating.
Behold: underground comix turned mainstream.
True to their underground roots, most of the comics presented here are not merely shocking, but challenging. Gender roles, religion, and the publishing industry (including Marvel as well as the underground scene itself) all get skewered, and it’s not subtle. Forty years later, it still feels remarkably relevant, and even a little dangerous. I like to compare underground comix to punk rock, and Comix Book does little to make me rethink that comparison, even if Marvel Comics is analogous to a major-label record company. It’s energetic, confrontational, and quite often obnoxious, but there’s a point to be made.
Even without comix godfather Robert Crumb (who refused to take part of the project on principle), there’s some Grade A talent on display here from the likes of Trina Robbins, Harvey Pekar, and even Basil Wolverton, who isn’t necessarily known for his involvement with underground comic but still turns in great work. Heck, this collection even features the first appearance of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, over a decade before it evolved into (arguably) the single greatest comic of all time! This being an anthology, your mileage may vary depending on your tastes, but this is still a hell of a volume.
- Fascinating supplementary material
- Diverse selections from some of the most important cartoonists ever.
- Still feels fresh and provocative.
- As hit-or-miss as any anthology..
Is It Good?
The Best of Comix Book: When Marvel Went Underground is not a comprehensive primer for underground comix, but if you have any interest in the art and/or history of the underground movement at all, this is definitely worth a look.