Dirty Pictures is a riveting look at the raunchy history of underground comix

The full title of Brian Doherty's new pseudo-art-history book is a mouthful; it's also a perfect microcosm for the author's popping prose style, while telling you everything you really need to know about the book. Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix explores the comic book counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on the revolutionary works of creators such as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robbins, Spain Rodriguez, Harvey Pekar, and Howard Cruse. Though many of these names are considered pretty radical and revolutionary today — even in the contemporary cultural landscape outside of the comic book industry — their works weren't always so celebrated, let alone accepted. But they kept at it anyway, because comics — or comix, as it were — were the cheapest, most accessible, and most powerful way to let their imaginations run wild for others to experience. In this book, Doherty weaves the stories of their lives together into an almost novel-esque narrative, with plenty of interpersonal drama and other complications. The ultimate result is a tapestry of an important counter-cultural scene — the good, bad, and ugly parts — long before they had any kind of clout or respect.

Part of the fun Dirty Pictures — outside of Doherty's scintillating (albeit occasionally overwhelming, like this) prose — is the way the book reflect on the value of shock and vulgarity. These were outside artists, working at a time when American culture was much more broadly conservative, and when even academia, for all of its lofty progressive aspirations, was still pretty stuffy and elitist. Doherty expertly explores the ways that things like an overly-sexualized cartoon cat were in fact direct responses to the rigid stratification of the mainstream institutions of the time. Some of these comix — especially in the earlier parts of these artists' careers — were belligerently offensive. They weren't deliberately subversive in a way that's been overly-intellectualized; they were subversive in a "fuck you!" way, befitting of the proto-punk scene. In this way, the medium was the message, too — photocopied illustrations were an accessible outlet for the artist and the audience, the easiest way to circumvent the gatekeepers of industry. The thrill of distribution and DIY ethos just enhanced the overall experience. The comix were raunchy because they could be. People read them not because they were craven, but because they were craving something different, something that pushed the limits beyond what the cultural gatekeepers of the time had already approved.

On its own, Dirty Pictures is a neat narrative art history book that shows the seedier side of an industry that has since become quite mainstream (not unlike Alex Segura's recent novel Secret Identity, which I also adored). But Doherty — who has written books on Burning Man and the history of radical Libertarian capitalism as well — also uses this history to hold a subtle mirror up to the modern world. The issue of "offensiveness" in art is still a hot topic in the world, but I think Dirty Pictures indirectly illustrates an important difference between a sexually graphic DIY comic from the 70s, and whatever Edgelord memes might make the rounds today. Who are you trying to shock and offend, and why? (Even Art Spiegelman — a major character in this book! — discussed that distinction recently.)

I think the book's opening scene (excerpted over at Reason, where Doherty also serves as a Senior Editor) actually sums it up pretty well:

Zap No. 4 is an anthology with stories and drawings by seven different cartoonists: Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, and Gilbert Shelton. Their tales include everything from sexual torture to an anthropomorphic clitoris, but the star of the lurid show, the most unmistakably offensive and troublesome story—so far beyond what anyone might call "problematic" today—is "Joe Blow," written and drawn by Crumb. We see a father watching a blank TV, musing that he "can think up better shows than the ones that are on," who then stumbles upon his masturbating daughter. From there, things degenerate into an incestuous orgy, with the characters drawn to seem more toylike than human. In the end, after the dad declares "I never realized how much fun you could have with your children," the strip shifts into a mock-socialist propaganda mode. The kids, we are told, are "to build a better world!!" "Yes, youth holds the promise of the future!"

The New York Times asked Crumb about this comic in 1972: "What was your intention?"

"I don't know. I think I was just being a punk."

If you're into counter-culture, especially the 60s/70s underground art scene, you should check out Dirty Pictures (and maybe some actual dirty pictures, too, if you're into that).

Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix [Brian Doherty / Abrams Books]