Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Brief History of British Underground Comix

Underground (or alternative) comix are often thought of as an exclusively American 1960s west coast phenomenon, growing out of the underground press of that time, and best represented by the likes of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman. This is fair enough, as the explosion of American underground comix (around 1967-68) pre-dated the UK scene, which at that time was still centred around one newspaper (International Times) and one mag (OZ).

One of the first British underground comix was Nasty Tales, an International Times spin-off edited by Mick Farren, who wasn’t just a magazine publisher but a real renaissance man, playing blues-based psychedelic rock with his band The Social Deviants, before moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s to write science fiction novels. While Britain had a thriving psychedelic music scene, it took longer for strong artistic talent to emerge, so a fair bit of the content of Nasty Tales was reprinted from American underground comix.

The most well-known early UK underground comic was Brainstorm Comix (Alchemy Press, 1975), which was published by Lee Harris, the proprietor of the Alchemy head shop on Portobello Road (which is still there, but now sells mainly clothes), to showcase the work of Bryan Talbot, who had contributed comic strips to Harris’ dope mag Home Grown.

Brainstorm effectively launched Talbot’s career in comics, running for 6 issues and featuring his character Chester P. Hackenbush, the Psychedelic Alchemist, and sold quite well, by counter-cultural standards.

Other stuff had been going on at that time in Birmingham, centred around the Birmingham Arts Lab. One of the Arts Lab’s leading lights was Hunt Emerson, who produced one of the earliest home-grown underground comix in the form of Large Cow Comix (Ar:Zak, 1974), which set the tone for his later surrealistic excursions for Knockabout Comics, Fiesta, Fortean Times and the Beano.

Funded at one point by an Arts Council grant, the Birmingham Arts Lab would launch a number of different comics, including the anthology title Street Comix (1977-78) and Heroine, the first all-girl UK underground comic. It also launched careers, with future Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell contributing to Street Comix.

Another underground cartoonist who would go on to become a popular illustrator for the Guardian was Clifford Harper. While the work of Talbot and Emerson drew inspiration from science fiction and the surrealism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, giving it a modern 70s twist by adding sex and drugs to the mix, Harper brought radical left politics to the world of comics with his self-published Class War Comix (originally published in 1974, before getting picked up by the US underground comics publisher and distributor Kitchen Sink Press in 1978). He still describes himself as a “militant anarchist” and in 1987 created an illustrated book on the subject for Camden Press. When not creating his beautiful faux woodcut illustrations for mainstream journals like the Guardian or Radio Times he has helped to organize the London Anarchist Book Fair.

During the 1980s the main publisher of alternative comics (and underground reprints) was Tony and Carol Bennett’s Knockabout Comics, which is still based on Acklam Road, just up the road from where I grew up in Notting Hill. Publishing libertarian literature by Crumb, Shelton and Emerson at the height of Thatcherite repression, Knockabout had the misfortune of being busted for obscenity on a number of occasions, notably for distributing American cartoonist Melinda Gebbie’s semi-autobiographical comic Frezca Zizis. The book was found to be obscene by the UK authorities, and all copies seized and burned, an experience Ms Gebbie made wry and poetic reference to in a 4 page comic strip published in Anarchy Comics #4 (Last Gasp 1987).

By the end of the decade, with the startling popularity of VIZ (the comic that spawned a thousand imitators, all trying to cash in on the trend for toilet humour), the Scots weighed in with their own bawdy offering when Dave Alexander, Frank Quitely and a few others got together to publish the first issue of Electric Soup in 1989. The comic ran for about three years, even securing distribution from VIZ’s own publisher John Brown at one point, before the bubble burst. Quitely has subsequently gone on to become a successful comics illustrator, producing work for 2000ad and DC/Vertigo. Alexander has stayed in the underground, continuing to draw the MacBam Brothers for the stoner comic Northern Lightz (1999-2005) and new adult humour mag’ Wasted.

Which is more or less where I entered the story. Well, better late than never!

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