- Introduction:The Counterpublics of Underground Comics
THIS ISSUE urges the application of feminist praxis to how we tell the history of comics in comics studies. In feminist anthologies, introductions have traditionally provided a fertile space for highlighting the structural conditions that exclude certain populations from the historical narrative.1 Sometimes, these introductions precede retrospective recuperatory research, but often they preface work that deliberately creates space for new conversations. That is, this tactic is necessary both for looking back and for creating new paths forward. These manifestos identify practical methods that future feminists can adopt to address and incrementally improve current conditions. A practice of feminist historiography involves looking at things differently and questioning the accepted methods that reproduce the same narratives, which exclude by building a lineage through dominant forces, through straight, white, cis men rather than through another route. We suggest such an approach to comics studies through the history of underground comics provided here.
These new accounts are vital because underground comics provides a foundation upon which both comics and comics studies have been built, as encapsulated in the title of Hillary Chute's recent monograph, Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere (2017).2 Though scholars, such as Chute and Charles Hatfield, recognize a wider expanse of the underground that includes marginalized perspectives, they identify RAW and Weirdo as torchbearers that ensure the future of the underground ethos.3 This focus centers straight white men, such as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, excusing their misogyny, heterosexism, and racism by framing it as a celebration of breaking taboos as comics addressed more adult subjects. Even so, underground comics from outside this standard San Francisco-based male narrative used that new adult focus, particularly its engagement with sex, to critique the objectification that pervaded these now-canonical underground comics and dominant culture in general. When we view the comics of Crumb and his cohort in light of the critiques that emerge from the margins, they don't seem so radical, because they merely perpetuate an exaggerated version of the heterosexism of mainstream media, such as television and film. However, the broken taboos of the underground did open up new spaces where marginalized creators could explore their identities and their relationships to the mainstream media that largely excluded them. This issue as a whole argues that we should frame our narrative of underground comics through those comics [End Page 1] instead, which allows us to trace a different genealogy that centers those often relegated to the margins.
We create this new frame through the lens of the counterpublic. A concept that comes out of Nancy Fraser's feminist critique of Habermas's discussion of the public sphere, a counterpublic is an open space for the marginalized to "formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs."4 Robert Asen refines Fraser's definition to apply specifically to public discussions of identity that might change depending on context. In the wake of post-structuralism, identity constantly shifts, becoming a poor ground for building solidarity, and Asen's conception of counterpublics acknowledges them as "a dispersed ephemeral phenomenon" that "manifests in moments of social dialogue and discursive engagement among and across constructed boundaries of social, cultural, and political affiliation."5 This conception of the counterpublic takes into account the inter-sectional approach to identity first theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw and promoted by women of color feminism, where a black woman might use her discussion of race to engage with one counterpublic and her gender to engage with another.6 Building on Asen's definition of counterpublics, Michael Warner applies the concept to queer culture, paying particular attention to how the distribution and circulation of print materials can foster identification with a counterpublic.7 The essays in this volume draw on the counterpublic to theorize how marginalized print spaces allowed creators and readers to speak back to the dominant discourses of mainstream media and underground comics alike.
Underground culture opened a new space for marginalized creators to explore their identities in published print form. With underground comics, copyright resided with cartoonists rather than being held by publishers as was the case in commercial comics, so creators had...