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MCLA Gallery 51 : When Comics Went Underground 

"When Comics Went Underground"  is an exhibition of original art from "underground comix," a distinctive phenomenon of the late 60s and 70s counter-culture  co-curated by Denis Kitchen (Kitchen Sink Press) and Howard Cruse (Gay Comix, Wendel).

Artists exhibited include R. Crumb (Mr. Natural, Zap and, recently, Genesis) Art Spiegelman (Maus, Raw), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Trina Robbins (Wimmens Comix), Bill Griffith (Zippy), Kate Worley & Reed Waller (Omaha the Cat Dancer), Spain Rodriguez (Trashman, Che), S. Clay Wilson (Checkered Demon), Gary Hallgren (Air Pirates, National Lampoon), Howard Cruse, and Denis Kitchen.  Also on display are drawings by Bob Armstrong, Joel Beck, Tim Boxell, Harry Buckinx, Don Glassford, Justin Green, Casserine Grenier, J. Michael Leonard, Jim Mitchell, Peter Poplaski, Steve Stiles and Skip Williamson.

Fueled by widespread anti-Vietnam War sentiments, gender politics, civil rights and free speech issues, along with recreational drug use, hundreds of underground comix sprang up, starting during the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco, quickly spreading across America, Canada and Western Europe. Underground comix were viewed by some as nothing more than cheap entertainment for college students and hippies and indeed were condemned as pornographic by many who were horrified by their uncensored sexual imagery and gleeful violation of all conventional taboos. But there was much more to the phenomenon on an aesthetic side.

To the generation coming of age in the late 60s, comic books were an integral part of the culture. Publishers produced funny animal comics for young readers, romance comics for girls, and superheroes, gung-ho war comics and often-gruesome crime and horror comics for an overwhelmingly young male readership. But many parents objected to the unseemly mix and a psychiatrist's best-selling if questionably argued book Seduction of the Innocent alleged a link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, fostering widespread bad press about comics.

Intimidated, the comics industry subjected itself to heavy-handed censorship, starting in the early 50s. The comics that survived, such as Archie, westerns and Disney titles were too often puerile. The young underground cartoonists who witnessed this emasculation of a medium did what their generation did very well: they rebelled.

Scores of cartoonists, scattered across the country began producing "relevant" comic books. Some addressed burning issues of the day. Others were autobiographical or satirical. Some were overtly psychedelic. To deflect accusations that comix were likely to corrupt children, comix carried "Adults Only" warnings and were sold outside of conventional comic book distribution venues. The comix tended to have black and white interiors for cost reasons, but otherwise mimicked the format of traditional comic books. The burgeoning counter-culture, connected by thousands of "head shops" selling drug paraphernalia and lifestyle accouterments, provided perfect outlets for the outrageous new comic books.  Millions sold during the heyday.

The undergrounds eventually died off, but not before revolutionizing the larger comics industry. Mainstream publishers grudgingly began to treat cartoonist more fairly: flat page rates became buttressed with royalties, and more artists were able to gain equity in their creations. Original art, previously kept by publishers, was returned to artists, And, most notable to the average observer, the undergrounds directly inspired Will Eisner, a comics legend from a prior generation (The Spirit, Blackhawk) to create A Contract with God in 1978, an event which spawned the graphic novel, now the fastest-growing genre in American literature.

Many of the underground cartoonists continue to work in the graphic novel format, with some achieving wide acclaim. Art Spiegelman received a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Maus, a graphic novel memoir of his parents' experiences during the Holocaust. Robert Crumb's latest, The Book of Genesis, has been on the New York Times best-seller list the past year, and Harvey Pekar, who died earlier this year, saw his American Splendor adapted into a motion picture.

The three featured panelist have not rested on their laurels either: Howard Cruse's newest Wendel collection is coming shortly from Rizzoli/Universe. Gary Hallgren's illustrations are a regular feature of the best-selling books by Dr. Mehmet Oz (You: The Owner's Manual among others). And The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen was just published by Dark Horse Books.

"When Comics Went Underground"  run through November 28, 2010.