Weirdos: Seattle’s Alternative Comics Culture in the Context of R. Crumb’s Underground

Seattle has a long established fondness for comics, which has given birth to a remarkable number of native illustrators and cartoonists. The reasons for the preponderance of comics artists here are many and varied. Recent residents of Seattle may be unaware that well into the 1960s, the weather reports on our nightly newscasts were delivered not by meteorologists, but by cartoonists. It’s true. My hand to God. As youngsters, our after school entertainment was provided by a disheveled clown and his demented drag queen companion living in a decrepit shack in the city garbage dump. We just adored J. P. Patches and Gertrude. No wonder we turned out weird. In other areas of the country during the Cold War, comic books were considered the root cause of social deviance and juvenile delinquency – disposable pulp unworthy of proper society. Not here. Cartoons were not only tolerated, they were fully embraced by the redneck ruffians of the Northwest. Maybe Sir Thomas Beecham was right when he famously dismissed Seattle as a cultural dustbin. Add to this the 11 months of dreary weather we experience annually, together with the historic hostility to anything resembling an active nightlife. What else to do? Might as well stay home and draw pictures. And until the relatively recent arrival of Microsoft millionaires and caffeine induced upward mobility, Seattle enjoyed a low cost of living. We were once able to eke out a creative Bohemian existence, essentially living on air. Rent was a meager $150, $200 a month and our social lives revolved around hosted bars and hors d’oeuvre trays.

As we examine the evolution of alternative comics in Seattle over the past 30 years, and R. Crumb’s contributions to these developments, I’ll attempt to present this work in a chronological framework. However, history often unfolds existentially, so you’ll have to forgive the inevitable digressions. Hopefully my thesis will reveal itself by the end of the discussion, after which I’ll be happy to provide evasive answers to any questions you may pose. On with the show…

{product_snapshot:id=134,true,false,true,right}Together with my future wife Tracey Rowland, I was fortunate enough to open my first Pioneer Square gallery, Rosco Louie, in 1978 at the same moment that a trio of extremely gifted cartoonists graduated from the Evergreen State College: Lynda Barry [slide], Matt Groening [slide] and Charles Burns [slide]. We regularly exhibited these artists’ work. This was the dawning of a neo-Dada punk aesthetic, and we made no distinction between fine art, comics, illustration, graphics, dissonant music and emerging media. Barry and Burns designed several posters for our events, and Burns even operated the soundboard on occasion at punk rock shows. It was through our association with them that we were later able to feature work by artists like Gary Panter, Mark Beyer and Art Spiegleman. All of these artists were heavily influenced by Robert Crumb, rendering their subjective experiences, and commenting on contemporary society.

At about the same time in New York City, a group of misfit cartoonists gathered around the School of Visual Art. SVA was founded by classic comic strip cartoonist Burne Hogarth, and at the time boasted a faculty that included Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Art Spiegelman. Attending classes at SVA were artists like Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Mark Newgarden, Keith Haring, Kaz and Daniel Clowes, among others. While Friedman now describes SVA as “one step above clown college,” this was a pretty amazing collection of outcast artists. Pictured here is Peter Bagge’s self published tabloid Comical Funnies [slide], with a classic cover of the Ramones by John Holmstrom. Holmstrom and Legs McNeil produced the seminal fanzine Punk, and together coined the term “punk rock.” You should read their delightful oral history of the era, Please Kill Me. Bagge will figure prominently in Seattle a bit later.

{product_snapshot:id=741,true,false,true,left}Also during this period, in Los Angeles, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez self published the first issue of their groundbreaking comic book Love and Rockets. I recall the moment I first gazed upon this comic book at Forbidden Planet in midtown Manhattan. There among the superhero comic books, these lovely women beckoned from the cover [slide], and inside I found stories that spoke directly to me – multicultural punk presented a relevant, entertaining, and intelligent fashion. The Hernandez brothers sent a review copy of Love and Rockets to fanzine editor Gary Groth at The Comics Journal, published by his fledgling enterprise Fantagraphics Books, thus launching an empire.

Back in Seattle, the Rocket began monthly publication. This wonderful magazine nurtured the talents of countless young writers, illustrators, cartoonists, photographers and graphics designers. To list a few: writers Ann Powers, Carrie Jacobs, and Robert Ferriegno, illustrators Mark Zingraelli and Ed Fotheringham, graphic designers Mark Michaelson, Helene Silverman, and the incomparable Art Chantry, photographers Charles Peterson and Kristine Larsen, and dozens of notable cartoonists, not to mention launching the careers of countless musicians. An immensely underappreciated civic asset, which sadly remains poorly archived.

Allow me the indulgence of a brief anecdote related to this cover by the Hernandez Brothers [slide]. In 1967, Seattle psychedelic rock combo the Daily Flash scored a regional hit with a pop-folk number “The French Girl.” As a result they landed an appearance on an episode of a short-lived prime time T. V. series called The Girl from UNCLE – a spin off the popular espionage series The Man From UNCLE. They performed the French Girl in a ski chalet scene, and composed this totally retarded song specifically for the Cold War spy concept of the show. “Oi Oi Oi Oi, My Bulgarian Baby.” Right up there with James Brown and the Clash. Freakin’ awesome!

Ashleigh Roffloer (aka Triangle Slash) [slide]. Mad magazine master Don Martin [slide], Scott McDougal’s homage to the late Rick Griffin [slide]. For those few of you may not know, Griffin was an unheralded creative genius, whose untimely death as a result of a motorcycle accident was largely ignored by mainstream media. But not the Rocket. Griffin collaborator Victor Moscoso’s tribute to his friend in Zap #13 [slide]. I want to show just a few interior pages from a single issue of the Rocket. Cover by Lynda Barry [slide]. Inside, Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar [slide], Charles Burns [slide], Gary Panter, Michael Dougan, Matt Groening [slide]. Just so you get the picture.

A more direct relationship between Seattle and Robert Crumb commenced when Peter Bagge relocated to Seattle from Hoboken, New Jersey in 1984. He moved here with his wife Joanne quite by accident, primarily because his brother in law, Mike Tice, was drafted out of the University of Maryland as a tight end by the Seattle Seahawks. Bagge had by then assumed the editorship of R. Crumb’s Weirdo [slide], which he directed for 9 issues between 1983 and 1986. Peter was tasked with the transition of Weirdo from an anthology of anachronistic underground comics to a venue for emerging artists more closely associated with the punk milieu. Bagge concedes that this transformation was difficult at times, forcing him to reject the irrelevant hippie themed comics of an older generation in favor of the work of his less celebrated, but more compelling, peers. In allowing Bagge creative control over his anthology, Crumb was acknowledging that a new generation of cartoonists had arrived. And with increasing frequency, they were arriving in Seattle.

In 1989, Bagge’s publisher Fantagraphics Books followed him in relocating to Seattle from Southern California. In my capacity then as program director at the Center on Contemporay Art (COCA), I began a relentless campaign to convince co-publishers Gary Groth and Kim Thompson to organize an exhibition on comic art. After months of my incessant torment, they consented, and the resulting exhibition was nothing short of cathartic. Opening in 1991, “Misfit Lit” featured over 50 of the most notorious cartoonists in North America, and was emblematic of a cultural phenomena that was taking form in Seattle, which would subsequently have an indelible impact on global popular culture. Following its run in Seattle, the show was presented in Vancouver, B. C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Portugal and was greeted by enthusiastic audiences and massive media attention at every turn. Pictured here [slide] is a cover of the Rocket by Peter Bagge at the time of the show, featuring an interview of Crumb by cartoonist Michael Dougan.