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One Panel Is Worth a Thousand Balloons

From the twisted art of R. Crumb to the outrageous creations of Steve Clay Wilson, comics aren’t just for kids anymore

Thought and word balloons

Thought and word balloons.

Paul Gilligan/Getty

Roy Lichtenstein brought the comic strip into art. Now art is coming back to the comics with a zap. Art and the cartoon are fusing together in scores of new combinations that make Lichtenstein and company today seem primitive. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, a new cartoon art has been born.

With the early pop artists, it was mostly a matter of style; the hard black lines, title balloons and Ben Day dots, transferred into dazzling acrylic on huge canvases, produced a predictable, one-shot shock effect in the staid context of the museum or private gallery. Now it is a matter of message, feeling and spirit. The style has become simply one more potential tool of the trade. But it is also becoming perhaps the most important tool for meaningful figurative art – for both fantasy and realism – of our day.

If Hieronymus Bosch and William Hogarth were alive and well, chances are both would be creating cartoons.

There are various reasons which make the cartoon an ideal style for the spirit of the times. Obviously, it is the style best suited for space-age fantasy – inner as well as outer; as for the former, there is plenty of historic precedent in comics such as the old Buck Rogers strip, which in many instances preceded the actual scientific fact. Monsters, nightmares, metamorphoses and transcendental dreams have always been central subjects of cartoon art; new artists are using cartoon styles to portray demons and Gods, and people becoming demons and Gods.

It is also the style of cynicism and outrageousness, as well as irreverent satire and broad farce, lending itself to all the conditions of contemporary life that inspire cynicism and outrage. Mad magazine pioneered this brand of cartooning, but current artists such as the Hairy Who group have achieved totally new levels of outrageousness, in keeping with the escalation of the conditions.

The cartoon is simultaneously super-hot and ultra-cool; it can caricature the most agonizing kind of hell- fire-and-brimstone damnation with graphic explosiveness and an impersonal detachment that makes the “message” seem even more savage. And the cartoon, of course, represents the epitome of the contemporary “anti-art” – or anti-pretentiousness of art – attitude; it is the lowest of the low, commercial, ephemeral, kid-stuff.

The cartoon has had a checkered history, curiously parallel to the history of movies. There was an early “Golden Era” whose major star was Felix the Cat, a comics equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. There followed the long slump that produced most of the dismal kind of cartoon art you see in newspapers now – illustrated soap operas, super-patriot war stories and Dagwood Bumstead domestic situation comedies. It also produced a few of the best, just as Hollywood produced Bogart: the pre-propaganda Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner and all the great super-heroes: Superman, Batman, Plastic Man and Captain Marvel. In the late Fifties, self-consciously “arty” cartoons became fashionable, coincidental with the big era of European “art” films. Everyone read “Gordo” regularly, U.P.A. began making animated cartoons in a style derived largely from Ben Shahn’s paintings, Jules Feiffer produced illustrated discourses on extentialism. And everyone put down Walt Disney and Bugs Bunny, not to mention Superman. People began taking cartoons with some seriousness. But there were Good Cartoons and Bad Cartoons.

In the history of art, the “realism” of one age is usually the romanticism of the next, and the subjects considered “beneath” the art of one generation became the next generation’s “realities.” In the early Sixties, Pop Art challenged the art-for-art’s sake esthetic of abstract expressionism, and soon shelved it alongside the “social realist” art of the depression days. Pop not only brought the cartoon into art, but it specialized in the most lurid and garish features of the old “Bad” cartoons. What Pop art didn’t do, the Camp revival did – it restored Batman to television, the Green Hornet to radio, turned old comic books into valuable collectors items and soon began producing super-heroes of its own.

The Sixties are an era in which the arts are intermingling with one another, as well as with life itself, as never before; at the same time, it’s an age when each art form is seeking its own most characteristic language, often – as in the case of film – by returning to techniques, styles and outlooks of its own less sophisticated, pioneering origins. These ferments have been going on in cartoon art as everywhere else. They have made Saturday mornings the most interesting on television.

The inspiration of cartoon art today is producing some of the strongest figurative painting going; prime examples are the work of Peter Saul, who represents the Vietnam war in a blinding orgy of agony and violence, and Norman Stiegelmeyer, whose paintings mix comic strip and Miro – no slouch of a cartoonist himself – to express transcendental transformations, psychic energy, the universal flow of everything into everything else.

The most interesting new development brings the art-cartoon relationship full circle in a series of new comic strips that make no pretension to being anything else, created by cartoon artists who really are artists of the cartoon. One of the earliest of these was Rick Griffin’s now familiar Family Dog poster, which introduced his version of a metaphysical Mickey Mouse in a series of panels that had no plot, with balloons bearing undecipherable lettering.

Griffin and other artists are now regular contributors to a variety of new comic books which are almost as hard to come by as a June, 1944, issue of “Plastic Man,” although they are just off the press. One of the first is “Yellow Dog,” founded early this year in Berkeley, “published as weekly as possible” and containing cartoons by Griffin, Moscoso, R. Crumb and a grab-bag of other artists.

The best of the new cartoon artists have now been gathered in a journal called Zap Comix, which has recently published its second issue; it includes four of the most original and accomplished cartoon artists in the field, at their most incredibly outlandish.

R. Crumb is probably the heaviest of the new cartoonists. His style sometimes resembles old Popeye cartoons (one “Zap” episode features a slob hooked on hamburgers), sometimes it is closer to Barney Google; and most of the time it is strictly R. Crumb, and extremely versatile. His sequences follow an explicit plot line, but incidental details sometimes form symbolic subplots of their own; they combine outlandish farce, meta-philosophical fantasy and hip satire. One of Crumb’s most incredible creations is “Angel-Food McSpade” – with “de biggest tits in town, fahn big laigs, an’ yo’ awt to trah some o’ mah sweet jellyroll.” Banned by law, daydreamed about by runty Milquetoasts, coollv scrutinized by limp – dicked scientists, she is capable of upsetting the whole social-economic system; she gets right to the nitty-gritty, Freudian basis of American race relations.

Most completely outrageous of the new cartoonists is Steve Clay Wilson, who creates a totally cynical world peopled with “Hog Ridin’ Fools,” horny demons, tatooed bull-dykes and bottles of “Old Piss Beer.” Wilson’s cartoons are obscene caricatures of obscenity, orgiastisc parodies of orgies of brute violence and animal sex, bombastic, venemous portrayals of a world ruled by survival of the fittest, the fittest being the slimiest slob or the raunchiest dyke. Wilson is a kind of post-Mad magazine Hogarth, approaching total Insanity. Like Crumb’s cartoons, Wilson’s cartoons follow a sequential plot line, but they are better when they don’t; recently he had a gallery show of single-panel ink drawings which managed to get the message across full strength, without the distraction of an overly contrived story line. Both Crumb and Wilson are somewhat too hung up on sophomoric shock effects, to my taste, but at their strongest they produce an explosion that carries more meaning than meets the eye.

Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso contribute abstract fantasies which are completely anti-literary cartoons; balloons frame words that belong to no known language, or they are modeled into boulder-like elements of the total graphic design, along with the old “inspirational” light-bulbs. Griffin and Moscoso both feature heroes who are highly individual variants of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and Griffin often adds small, ghostly creatures that resemble the Secret Watchers out of the Herculoids. Griffin usually projects his fantasies in a bold, high-voltage style full of sharp line and angular cross-hatchings, while Moscoco’s are softer, more flowing, shaded by dots and illuminated by moonbeams. Both artists recreate much of the feeling of the old Felix the Cat cartoon, the sense of one-man-against-the-world magnified to become a pilgrimage through the universe.

Like anything new and vital, the cartoon-art scene is changing almost as quickly as the ink dries. Crumb recently designed the cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s album Cheap Thrills. At the other end, I recently visited a gallery which is tentatively planning a full exhibition of cartoon art.

I hope too many more words aren’t devoted to the subject. The new cartoons are, like the cartoons of old, a folk form that combines equal doses of philosophical Freudian “message” with sheer entertainment, while transcending both. It’s become more and more fashionable lately to analyze the piss out of everything from Dick Tracy to Apartment 3-G. But in any really heavy cartoon, one panel is worth a thousand balloons.

In This Article: Comics, Coverwall

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