Smash Pages Q&A | Brian Doherty

The author of ‘Dirty Pictures’ talks about ‘how an underground network of nerds, feminists, misfits, geniuses, bikers, potheads, printers, intellectuals, and art school rebels revolutionized art and invented comix.’

Brian Doherty’s new book Dirty Pictures tells the story of – as the subtitle puts it – “How an underground network of nerds, feminists, misfits, geniuses, bikers, potheads, printers, intellectuals, and art school rebels revolutionized art and invented comix.” The book is simply the best and most comprehensive look at underground comics published to date.

In the book, Doherty tries to capture a wide range of what was happening in underground comix and with the people who were involved. Indeed it was the people, their lives and their stories that fascinated him more than the comics. But more than simply an account of a fascinating group of people and a notable body of work, Doherty wants to argue that comics as we know it today, which is studied in academia and widely read and respected, can be traced back to this deeply transgressive art movement.

To make the book, Doherty talked to, well, just about everyone. It is a fascinating, at times hilarious and sometimes moving account of a generation of artists, the work they made and the changes it wrought.

Doherty is an editor at Reason Magazine and the author of a number of books, including This is Burning Man. He took time out recently to talk about how the pandemic affected research, the people he wasn’t able to interview, and his relationship to underground comix.

What was your first exposure to underground comix?

In 1976 I was seven or eight, and moved to the college town of Gainesville Florida, and one of the stores I bought comics from, my recollection was that the walls were covered with Wilson-esque and Crumb-esque murals – and being really disturbed by it. My initial feeling about the underground was not love or affection – if I had found them when I was 18 maybe it would have been – it was fear. I felt like there was something under the soil about adulthood and sex and all these weird sweaty things that I found it very disturbing. I was a comic book buyer of superheroes and I didn’t buy [underground comix], but I saw them, and it reinforced this feeling that this is disturbing, it’s relating something about adulthood that I’m uncomfortable with. I became a Comics Journal subscriber around 1979-80 and Bill Sherman wrote the underground column and they would occasionally interview underground people. 

My relationship to it continued to be, this is disturbing and weird and gross and I don’t get it. I didn’t become an appreciator until way later. If I had found them at 15 I could have gotten into them with a delight to the exposure to these dark sides of adulthood. I quote Sammy Harkham similarly in the book where he said if you see this stuff when you are too young, it freaks you out. In a sense I almost didn’t become a fan of them until I began researching this book. I became fascinated about them as people and their stories. At 2018 at Comic Con they marked the 50th anniversary of the underground and there was a ton of underground related panels. That made me think, this is an interesting story, and in researching it began to actually love and appreciate the work.

That’s the thing about underground comics. They were intended to be off putting. And they were being made at a certain time in a certain context.

I quote Noah van Sciver on this who said the whole notion of the value of transgressive and boundary pushing work I have always found difficult to intellectual assent. I think you can point to it and say it played an important role. We have to admit that it meets a human need, a political need, an aesthetic need. But if someone is like, this is outrageous and aiming at targets that do not deserve to be aimed at, well, yeah. [laughs] I get it. If you don’t want anything to do with it, I get it. I’m not going to try to argue that you must appreciate this. You don’t have to appreciate it. But at a meta level I hope people can appreciate the concept of button pushing art. 

I was born in 1968, so when I talk to older friends who heard Lenny Bruce or Frank Zappa in the early to mid-1960s when they were teens, it has a meaning and impact that it’s never going to have for me. There is something that blows people’s minds about hearing language you’re not supposed to hear. It’s childish in a way, but it has an appeal that is real, though hard to defend. 

In setting out to make a project like this, where do you start?

As I wrote, I was watching all these panels at San Diego Comic Con with Tom Spurgeon and I began talking about how this would an amazing book. I hadn’t read Patrick Rosencranz’s book, which was doing a lot of the same things that this book does. I read it twice and it’s great, and I relied on it and his other work a lot but I thought that I could add something fresh and new by looking beyond Zap and looking at the more recent decades. I decided to let the market decide, and so I wrote a proposal and I sold it. 

Now I’m going to grouse. I sold the proposal in November 2019. I was not aware of the nature of the world I would have to research the book in. COVID harmed this book a lot. It would have been ideal to do more of these interviews face to face, but the nature of COVID meant that only 13-14 of them were done face to face. The archival research was limited in a way it would not have been. The amount of time and access I had to archival work was not what it would have been. Karen Green at Columbia went above and beyond the call of duty. You reach out to everyone, and I didn’t treat this like I’m an investigative journalist. I didn’t avidly pursue everyone. I’m not uncovering a crime. I reached out to people and I would reach out twice. I think I did okay with hitting the living people. I missed a few.

Patrick Rosencranz’s work is so key and I love the books he’s worked on centered around individual artists, but his big book was very Zap-centric.

Rosencranz’s aesthetic interest was, he liked what Zap did. That made him excited. I would like to think that I widened that approach and gave a lot of aspects deeper attention than he did. I don’t want anything I say to seem like I’m putting down his work, because a project like this could not have existed without everything he’s done. I also took the story to the present day. Also mine has no pictures! [laughs]

How important was it to keep the story going to the present? Because there are lot of places you could have ended this book.

I like to believe that I told a somewhat convincing story, which I don’t think is obvious to everyone, about how much of contemporary comics’ respectability in publishing and the academic world can be traced back to this stuff. For so many reasons we were alluding to earlier – the 1960s and 1970s style transgressions – most of the original undergrounds were not very literary. It’s easy for people to forget these roots. Spiegelman complicates this because you can’t forget Maus, but a lot of people think that Spiegelman’s story started with Maus. I wanted to say, you have to go back to the story about the talking turds. [laughs] That’s where this all began!

It’s wonderful how many people are still alive, but I loved writing those elegiac sections about those who aren’t. There was something emotionally rich about the next to last chapter, which in my mind is the chapter where everyone dies. I hope it’s heart tugging to readers who care. To take it to the present day, I wanted to get into the importance and significance of this story to people in the present day that might not understand why that’s the case.

That notion, this was very transgressive work and in a roundabout way, led to comics being this accepted field, isn’t commonly accepted but it’s very true.

You really did need to break the restrictions of what could be addressed and the way you start doing that is werewolves and blood and shit. I wanted to hit home that point more to those literary minded New Yorker subscribers, I wanted the subtitle to end with something like they dragged comics form the gutter to the museums to hit home that notion. When people say, “I don’t care about comics, why should I care about your book?” Well it’s a modern cultural story of some interest. And obviously the 1960s counterculture stuff has been beaten to death, but I was shocked that the only book about the comics side on this was Patrick’s and ended up being published by Fantagraphics. I was amazed this was the last aspect of 1960s counterculture that had not had a major literary work. That seemed amazing to me. 

And when the undergrounds come up now, it’s often in the context of so-called cancel culture and how that plays out.

Do you think I gave that more weight than it deserves? It’s obviously a topic where some people think it’s a core topic and some people think it’s bullshit. What was your take?

It only shows up briefly in that one chapter. I think it’s bullshit, but one reason why is you show very well how one of the things they were doing with their work and what they edited was having this argument over what comics could be and should be. And so when I see younger artists dismissing Crumb, well, Crumb and his contemporaries tore down and dismissed a lot of artists. So doing it doesn’t bother me and their reasons why don’t bother me.

That’s fair. I think I detailed in the acknowledgements that I’m a staffer at Reason, the libertarian magazine. One editor said, “You’re a comics person,” and it was right after Comic Con and I started with that political angle. I didn’t want the book to feel like it was an expansion of that political angle. I felt like for anyone who is a casual watcher of culture, what they might remember about Crumb was, wasn’t there a controversy about younger people thinking he was horrible racist and sexist? I felt like I had to deal with it. Obviously my libertarian tendencies made me take that more seriously than you or many of my readers will. Hopefully no one feels bludgeoned by that point.

No, you didn’t. It only came up in the last chapter or two. But you make the point that this is a body of work that’s very influential and very transgressive. And how do we deal with that?

I think that I used Noah [van Sciver] as the voice of truth where he said, I find this fascinating as a cartoonist and reader, but I understand that for a million reasons you might think its not worth your attention and I’m not going to convince you that it is. I don’t know that I would have said that myself, so I’m glad that he said it.

You really take a different look and a deeper look than a lot of people have done before. I’m thinking of how you looked at the work and lives of Barbara Mendes and Robert Williams back to back in one chapter.

I’m glad you liked that. Its funny because I interviewed them on the same day or maybe it was the same weekend in January 2020. When Barbara started talking about Robert Williams, I had just talked to Williams so that connection was there. I love the varied fates and how concerned they all still are with each other. I didn’t get to interview the Crumbs in person but I did get to have dinner with them right before I sold the book and they’ll still talk about Trina Robbins. These people are still important to them. Their conflicts with Trina are still on their minds. Not even in an interview context! These people are tied together. I love books like this and I was glad to be able to write about an art community, a gang of friends and enemies and frenemies and colleagues, over the years. That fascinates me. It was delightful to learn how much they’re still on each others minds. There’s a great quote I really loved from Phoebe Gloeckner about the connection she feels to all these people even if I might not have seen them in years, and that’s an emotion I enjoyed contemplating.

And they may not see each other much, they may have fallen out, but they’re constant figures in each others lives because of this shared history.

I loved learning what a gang they were and how intertwined they were. It was surprising because they had so little in common in many ways. I understand that some people do not appreciate the title of the book – and I understand why. They see it as reducing their work. But my excuse is that the only thing that binds the people in this book together is that they all made and distributed what people considered “dirty pictures” at the time. That’s my defense of the title.

You talked to almost everyone for this book. Who did you want to talk to, but they said no or just never replied?

The two big ones were Gilbert Shelton and Victor Moscoco. I was communicating with Shelton’s wife and she gave me his email, and I emailed him twice and he never answered. Victor had an artist website and that didn’t help. I wrote him a paper letter. There are two people I wrote paper letters to – Justin Green and Victor Moscoco – and it worked with Justin but it did not work with Victor. The way it works is that you talk to someone and they introduce you to someone else. Gary Groth said after, “I could have introduced you,” but I didn’t feel close enough to Gary at the time to even ask.

There are people I would have loved to talk to like Guy Colwell and George Metzger. Richard Corben I dawdled too much and then while I was writing he died after being ill. Those were the misses. Luckily, thanks to The Comics Journal, they have been widely interviewed, so I could quote them and get their voices in the book. 

Like I said before, I learned a lot from the book and I really enjoyed reading it. There’s a lot of great stories that I think comics people and non-comics people will love.

I’m doing an event with Ron Turner and Trina Robbins and Jay Kinney at the Cartoon Art Museum. I don’t know exactly how its going to work, but I imagine it will be me interviewing them on stage. Kinney was amazing because he tried to write a book like this in the early eighties and even had a proposal. He was shockingly generous. Jay gave me his proposal and a lot of interview time and let me dig through his files for a day. He was generous above and beyond the call. I have high love for how generous Jay Kinney was.

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