Komix Kountermedia (1969)
The left's mixed reception of komix is an interesting indication of the schism in attitudes toward "cultural" subjects. On the one hand, people (including myself) who believe that the New Left is only part of a much larger but more amorphous New Culture movement are excited to see an intrusion of radical attitudes into "classic" areas of modern cultural mediations, comic strips and comic books. For us it seems to promise another step toward an organic New Left, striking root in society deeper than the level of "politics" (elections, parties, organizers, etc.). On the other hand, plenty of fine, even good-humored radicals are plainly distressed to see the excitement over komix. One extreme tendency is indicated by a dealer in an old, CP1-oriented bookshop who wrote me that all "underground culture" was a new attempt by the ruling class to pervert the revolutionary threat. Another attitude, common among people sympathetic to New Left culturalists, is that komix are interesting but not to be taken seriously in political terms.
A considerable amount of the confusion about komix and the Left is their newness, with their power to irritate or excite. Not that comic strips have been unknown to the Left: […] strips have often been offered in radical newspapers. But komix, as drawn by such creative figures as Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and S. Clay Wilson, are more than simply instruments of the political New Left; they are subversive thrusts at capitalism coming right out of a popular cultural tradition.
More fundamentally the confusion about komix is symptomatic of important misunderstandings about the meanings of culture and art. Bourgeois aesthetics has taught us that these are leisure customs associated with the elites, rather than organic aspects of popular life. But if we accept the anthropological definition of culture as the style and organization of day-to-day life and of art as a more self-conscious aspect of "culture," then content, how popular "culture" and "art" relate to the values of society's rulers, becomes an important political question.
As yet, the New Left does not possess the theoretical tools for a full analysis of modern (hence popular) culture and its art forms (certainly less for comic strips than for America's other two distinctive contributions to twentieth[-]century culture, cinema and jazz) under capitalism in the mass market epoch. Certain critics, like Marshall McLuhan, attempt to deal with the meaning of various communications media in contemporary society; but for me the most heuristic insights were offered by Walter Benjamin over thirty years ago, in his brilliant essay, "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." [End Page 199]
Art, as Benjamin understood, could not remain unchanged in the new era of mass production and consumption: its traditional "aura," its quality of craft refinement, of rarity, could not survive immersion in the "commonness" of the masses and their daily life. Indeed, to have any élan or vitality of its own art had to associate with and give expression to the existence of the people it now reached. Even poor Mona Lisa, reproduced on a half million postcards, simply wasn't enough.
But Benjamin also perceived that the possibilities for new, popular arts were emerging at the very time when bourgeois cultural vitality had long passed even though their nascent forms were subject to the influences of the decay of bourgeois culture. On the other hand, he believed that the threads of art's resurrection nevertheless lay within popular culture, in the essence of their content that commercial forms so thoroughly violated. In one sense, the forms of the future were stretching their fingers into a repression-ridden present; in another, mass art, like politically revolutionary forces, was maturing, as it had to, within the womb of the culture of the old social system.
Drawing on Benjamin's notion of a cultural dialectic, I have noted three rough stages for the emerging modern art form which also describe the growth of twentieth[-]century comic strips: (1) an early, highly experimental period, where the very newness of the form permits the "eccentric" visionaries to practice before internal and external discipline are fully introduced; (2) a period of immense schlock, where glimmerings of a future art are more hidden than earlier, and certainly less immediately political; and (3) the emergence of a new style, which cannot fully develop itself under capitalism, but reaches beyond its limits in a hundred ways, often grasping an alternative (usually non-profit) medium for uncensored expression.
As clearly as in movies, the devolution of the comic strips was inherent in their origins: they developed in America expressly for the mass-marketed twentieth[-]century press owned by barons like Hearst. The Yellow Kid, probably the first important strip, was wildly satirical; it was joined soon by the Katzenjammer Kids (of whom the Captain once said: For them kids reality is nix). Most remembered by cultural critics is probably Little Nemo, the daily dream adventures of a boy in a beautifully drawn art nouveau world which over the years he controlled more and more, and from which he was snatched by the calls of his mother (The Reality Principle).2
But even more important was Krazy Kat, drawn by recluse George Herriman[.] […] The reader is advised to check out the one volume of Krazy Kat strips to genuinely understand their flavor. But their continual absurdity can be in part conveyed: when Ignatz remarks that the "Bird is on the wing," Krazy, after a close study of birds, corrects him: "From rissant obserwation I should say the wing is on the bird."
Tarzan's entry into the strips in 19313 marked a new and distinctive direction in comics. This strip was realistically drawn by the highly talented artist Harold Foster, whose painstakingly sketched figures, jungle scenes, and unobtrusive lettering were testimony to his artistic seriousness. Although "fantasy" in comparison to twentieth[-]century life, it was "fantasy" in a strikingly different fashion from Krazy: here in Tarzan were possibilities [End Page 200] that all civilized life denied. Here was the dream of desublimation, not as a revolutionary vision, but in a dimension where Epic Deeds could be played out by Real Men (and, needless to say, clever conversation was not necessary to get laid by a jungle queen). The graphic realism, then, replaced the truly fantastic (or, as in most strips like Mutt 'n Jeff, the simple joke) with those socially channeled urges shared by artist and reader alike.
With Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, and the succession of detective, cop and military heroes, even the fantasy of the jungle or spaceship was no longer a possibility in the now-regimented lives of most comic strip characters. However, in the wings had been developing the ultimate in fantasy-realism, the comic book superheroes. Comic books were barely born in the mid-1930's, but by the war years, they enjoyed tremendous sales, mostly among young adolescents.
Even more than Tarzan or Prince Valiant, Superman was sexually starved: his infantile toying with lampposts is the only act of possible sexual significance I ever discovered […]. As a grown-up, neither Clark nor Superman gets Lois Lane; Wonder Woman (my childhood ideal) never marries Col. Steve Trevor […].
The outlet for such sexual starvation was, of course, violence. In the early superhero series vengeance-murder by the hero himself was not unknown, but whatever the justification for retribution, it was always directed against the indispensable, perennial outsiders—spies during wartime, later mostly crooks—who seek to disrupt the community or nationstate. [sic] The 1960's run of new comic heroes […] are generally better drawn and more ironic than their predecessors. But in the fight against the Gooks there is no question which side they join, and equally no question about their consternation with a return from their superidentities to everyday life, which they transcend simply to cheerfully defend.
But there was more afoot in the post-New Deal, postwar world of comics[.] […] Mad was—with the college humor magazines that gained new life all across the country—an "irresponsible," sometimes almost political refusal to grant the credibility that American capitalist culture of the 1950's (the return of religious songs like "I Believe," etc.) demanded. The nihilist strips of Mad and the sick humor on the campuses were important signs that America could never return to the Old Days of Faith that many apparently sought: the culture had moved beyond, if as yet not in a positive way, in a decisive negative way.
The partial reawakening of culture, the Innocent Years of rock in the late 1950's, corresponded to a new stirring in the komix community. Indicatively, Gilbert Shelton first drew "Wonder Wart-Hog" in 1959, the same year that Studies on the Left appeared.4 And as Harvey Kurtzman […] made one last attempt to pull together an independent magazine (Help!) he provided a living link with the future by printing the work of Shelton for a national audience.
Over the early 1960's, the future komix artists often turned out "fanzines," little dittoed or mimeoed magazines for their high school friends. The first great breakthrough for the craft came[,] however, with the growth of the underground press, which provided an uncensored forum and an eager audience for a whole group of new artists. The second major development of this period was the achievement of distinct komix books. The first [End Page 201] notable one was ZAP #1, produced scarcely more than a year ago. Its only artist was Robert Crumb, who had been an extremely successful greeting card illustrator.
The quality of the New Culture komix is so varied that any over-all [sic] analysis is difficult to make. Crumb deserves separate consideration because his is the first work to merit a complete book (Head Comix) in the capitalist marketplace, and because so many people identify komix with his work. His main protagonists have been (1) Angelfood McSpade, the repository of all white civilization's repressed desires, a totally sexual and unthinking child of (erotic) nature; (2) Mr. Natural, the guru who is, above all, able to confront the problems of this world because of his enlightened natural harmony with it; and his counterpart in frustration, (3) Flakey Foont, the hopeless city-dweller, sexually starved and embarrassed, continually asking Mr. Natural for a formula to answer his problems.
The suggestion is, of course, that only mythological figures can be free in capitalist America; the rest of us, like Flakey, just squeeze by. In probably his most remarkable strip (ZAP #0), Crumb suggests the "City of the Future" as an outgrowth of the city of the present: a nightmare/paradise of repressed desublimation, where the intestines are removed at birth and excrement is unloaded once a month; where androids are provided for sex without emotional involvement and for working out sadistic desires; and where the Good Life ends on the sixty-fifth birthday with a cyanide pie in the face.5
A close co-worker of Crumb's is S. Clay Wilson, whose drawings have resulted in the first pornography bust of komix and who collaborates with Crumb in Snatch Comix, a unilinear attempt at sexual satire. Wilson is for me a sheer nihilist, a denier of the present whose motorcycle maniacs, pirate perverts and dyke bands violently flaunt all middle[-] class cultural norms. His best strip in this vein is "Meth Freaks Fight the Feds to the Finish" in Radical America Komiks, a strip which has characteristically made readers believe Wilson counts on drug freaks to make the Revolution … a sad misreading indeed.
Fantasy6 komix, from Tony Bell, John Thompson and others, most notably Andy Martin, do offer frequent drug visions, but even at the most head-oriented, drugs are viewed by these artists simply as one way of seeing a new world. Vaughn Bode, Jack Jaxon, Jay Lynch among others, have done excellent narrative strips, which in traditional forms would ideally offer the easiest road to an overtly political message. But even Gilbert Shelton, the finest narrative artist and apparently the most "political," refuses to make total acceptability of his work easy to the political Left. More characteristically, as in Jay Lynch's Nard 'n Pat, the satire on American culture is two-edged, cutting into the mechanistic Left as well as its enemies.
Organizationally, the komix are marking an increasingly rapid pace. At this point there is a komix paper on each coast, sporadic book operations at least in San Francisco and Chicago. There are rumors of local and regional komix in a variety of areas[,] and as the established komix soak into new audiences, these will in turn produce new talent.
At worst, komix will either fail to develop culturally (cease growing in an understanding and pictorial translation of the Death Culture artists live in); or will develop "politically," becoming humorless attempts to put a Left message in palatable terms, writing down to their audience all the way. Both of these are sides of the same coin, an old coin [End Page 202] in American Left culture: the Party (whichever party) mistrusts and vilifies the artists, the artists are forced to dumb submission or driven into isolation, from where they attack revolutionary politics as a false escape.
At this point it appears that komix will grow with great rapidity in the next few years, printing hundreds of thousands of copies rather than just the relatively small runs now, spreading into high schools and junior highs, colleges, the army and other places where Left "politics" in its narrower forms is only beginning to have access. Because the komix are "ours" in a sense that not even an underground newspaper can be, they seem likely to be a potent force whatever their political direction.
Ideologically, a discussion of komix takes on substance only in the larger context of how the Left relates "culture" as a whole to its political perspectives. As David Gross (in the November/December, 1968, Radical America) has argued, in the twentieth century, politics becomes culture (i.e., "culture" in the anthropological sense, a medium which affects each person's daily life). When the agony of World War I did not, in spite of the huge socialist parties on the continent, bring revolution, it became clear to many theorists (among the foremost, Gramsci) that the ascending class had to struggle for cultural hegemony to achieve a socialist revolution. In the postwar debacle these theorists perceived the way the new forces of mechanization, mass production, consumption, education, media, etc., were at work penetrating and subverting the autonomous culture that sustained the political independence of the working class.
In between the wars isolated figures like Wilhelm Reich attempted for a time to work with the Left in bridging sexual and political liberation; isolated artistic movements, particularly Surrealism, attempted to open up Leftists to the power of the unconscious in the making of a revolution. These efforts were to no avail: the Left everywhere abdicated the "cultural field" to the Right, which lost no time in speaking to people's new-found fears, turning the age of mass participation in politics into an age of Mass Affirmation of the Leader. […]
With the Old Left's final decline in the 1950's, "non-political" strains of cultural antipathy to capitalism became evidently more viable than the impotent Left grouplets: Mad inspired more youth rebellion during Eisenhower's ascendancy, quite probably, than all the remaining socialist groups together. In the 1960's Youth Culture has thoroughly transformed the most significant forces in the field. And it seems that while Youth Culture could "survive," albeit in a retrograde political manner, without the New Left, the reverse is not nearly so true.
In an even more striking manner, revolutionary black politics has always been intimately connected with cultural self-recognition of black people. Indeed, the cultural component is so assumed that the phrase "Cultural Nationalism" has come to mean culture without radical goals, while "Revolutionary Nationalism" draws within itself a cultural definition as self-evident. In either black or white movements, the cultural revolt from capitalism is the "sea" in which we, the political guerrillas, are the "fish": it is our medium of nourishment and protection, and without it we would die.
Any political movement today which ignores the cultural aspects of the society or offers a sheep-and-goats provision for the differentiation of "bourgeois" and "proletarian" [End Page 203] culture has in reality failed to break with the cultural norms of the dying social order. And such an abdication means, above all, fighting a political battle on enemy ground, under rules which practically preclude a decisive victory for the Left. While by no means are all struggles (e.g., a factory strike or working class mass action) explicitly cultural, their participants are influenced by the old culture, its familiarity and security, and to that extent are impeded from moving ahead against it.
Thus while it is permissible, even necessary, to criticize the komix for their often linear mentality, for their unwillingness to reach increasingly further into perceptions about American society, it is scarcely advisable to complain bitterly about their "lifestyle" radicalism unless one has a suitable alternative for a cultural attack on the system. Like any potentially subversive cultural mechanism, komix serve at best to destroy an old view of the world and to replace it with a new one. They must provide a means of self- expression for the artist's inner compulsions, or be false—and in a healthy political movement, the artist's attitudes will correspond to the needs of the larger movement, making his self-expression a new way for masses of people to see their own lives. Komix, with all their limitations, have opened up a new arena for struggle for cultural hegemony: let the rest of us hope to do as well.
Paul Buhle's "Komix Kountermedia" was first published in the July-August 1969 edition of Leviathan, an underground newspaper committed to revolutionary politics. Buhle's essay makes a case for the radical potential of comix. In the decades to come, he would have increasing contact with underground comix artists and write widely about their work.
All endnotes have been added for this version. Amendments to the 1969 text are indicated with square brackets, though an acute accent has been silently added to "élan" and apostrophes in decades (e.g. "1930's") have been left as they appear in the original.
1. "CP" = Communist Party.
2. To give these newspaper strips' creators and full titles: Richard F. Outcault, Hogan's Alley (1895–1898), also known as The Yellow Kid; Rudolph Dirks, The Katzenjammer Kids (1897–2006); Winsor McKay, Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–1914, 1924–1926).
3. 1931 was the year Tarzan first appeared as a full-colour, one-page Sunday strip, but the strip debuted in Britain in 1928 and in the United States in 1929.
4. Studies on the Left (1959–1967) was a socialist-leaning academic journal that enjoyed close connections to the American New Left, seen in board members such as Tom Hayden, who were also part of Students for a Democratic Society. However, contradicting Buhle's timing of Wonder Wart-Hog's genesis, Shelton recollects first sketching the character in the fall of 1961; see Patrick Rosenkranz, Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963–1975, 2nd ed. (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008), 27.
5. The theory of repressive desublimation was developed by the Frankfurt School thinker Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse subscribed to the idea that bourgeois society's successful operation depended on the repression and regulation of sexual drives, but that did not mean total repression tout court but the release and channelling of sexual desire in order to better serve the capitalist consumer economy.
6. Despite being italicized, this seems to refer to psychedelic comix in general, not a specific periodical.