Comics: Underground and Alternative Comics in the United States

First Things First...

This lesson plan covers underground and alternative comics in the United States from the 1960s to the present. Underground and alternative comics are the closest of any American comics to high culture and the avant-garde and could usefully be compared to art house, New Wave, or independent film as occupying a midway point between the avant-garde and mass culture. “Underground comix” were an integral part of the youth counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s and were succeeded in the 1980s and 1990s by “alternative comics” that were loosely connected to the indie/alternative subculture of that era. Despite their closeness to high culture, underground and alternative comics have not been considered worthy of incorporation into the field of art history, a prime example of the privileging of high culture over mass or popular culture. This is a hierarchy that has been interrogated and debunked for the past three decades but that nevertheless still remains in effect, albeit in attenuated form. Despite this continuing lack of recognition, underground and alternative comics have aesthetic values of their own that are worth exploring, are significant parts of contemporary visual culture, and can be used to illuminate aspects of society and culture not generally accessible to high art.

Instructors should modify this lesson plan to suit their needs. You can choose to use just a few slides or to mix and match material from this lesson plan with examples from newspaper comics and mainstream comics. There is no standard way of teaching comics in an art history curriculum (or really any curriculum at this point), so go ahead and experiment.

Background Readings

Trina Robbins, cover of It Ain’t Me Babe, July 1970


The best survey of underground comix is Patrick Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963–1975 (2002): a heavily illustrated historical survey with many first-person accounts that is admittedly a bit light on analysis. Unfortunately, there is no deeper scholarly study of underground comix at this point. For alternative comics, see Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005), which is a more analytic academic study but doesn’t provide a full historical survey of alternative comics. Shorter summaries of underground and alternative comics can be found in Roger Sabin’s Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels (1996). On gender in underground and alternative comics, see Hilary Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (2010). Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik’s catalogue for the 1990 MoMA exhibition High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture also contains an excellent section on underground comix and some material on alternative comics, which were still in a germinal stage at the time of the exhibition. While the exhibition installation privileged high art over their low counterparts, the extensive catalogue essays provide illuminating histories of the “low” mediums and their interactions with modern art.

Web Resources:

Online sources on underground and alternative comics are fairly plentiful. For a general history of underground comix, see “Underground comix and the Transformation of the American Comic Book”. On sexism in the work of Robert Crumb, see “No Girls Allowed! Crumb and the Comix Counterculture”. On feminist underground comix, see “Wimmen’s Comix (1970–1991)”. For a short overview of gender differences across newspaper, mainstream, underground, and alternative comcs, see “Gender Differences in Comics”.

For an overview of alternative comics, see “Alternative Comics Defined”. On Harvey Pekar and American Splendor, see “Harvey Pekar, ‘American Splendor’ creator, dies at 70”. For an overview of Maus, see “Bleeding History: Examining Art Spiegelman’s Maus”. On the use of mice as characters in Maus, see “Why Mice?” On Love and Rockets, see “‘There’s Nothing Like It In Comics’…How Love and Rockets Broke the Rules”. And for a good short article on Alison Bechdel, see “Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Countered Dad’s Secrecy By Being Out and Open”.

Content Suggestions

Key themes and aesthetic concerns in the early history of newspaper comics can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples, including:

  • Gilbert Shelton, cover of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #1, 1971
  • Kim Deitch, cover of The East Village Other, October 11, 1968
  • Clay Wilson, “The Flyin’ Fuckin’ A Heads Stop For Lunch During Their Cross-Country Run,” S. Clay Wilson 20 Drawings, 1967
  • Victor Moscoso, concert poster for the Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, 1967
  • Victor Moscoso, “Luna Toon,” Zap Comix #2, 1968
  • Poster for Man Ray exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1966
  • Yayoi Kusama, Anti-War Naked Happening and Flag Burning, 1968
  • Robert Crumb, “Whiteman,” Zap #1, February 1968
  • Robert Crumb, “Cubist Be Bop Comics,” XYZ Comics, June 1972
  • Robert Crumb, cover of Gothic Blimp Works Ltd. #2, comics insert in the East Village Other, 1969
  • Trina Robbins, cover of It Ain’t Me Babe, July 1970
  • Willie Mendes, “Oma,” in It Ain’t Me Babe, July 1970
  • Robert Crumb, “A Word to You Feminist Women,” Big Ass Comics #2, 1971
  • Aline Kominsky-Crumb, cover of Twisted Sisters Comics, 1976
  • Harvey Pekar (script) and Val Mayerik (art), American Splendor #10, 1985
  • Harvey Pekar (script) and Robert Crumb (art), “The Young Crumb Story,” American Splendor #4, 1979
  • Dan Clowes, cover of Eightball #11, June 1993
  • Dan Clowes, Act Three, “Crime and Judy,” in David Boring, 2000, originally published in Eightball #21, February 2000
  • Gary Panter, cover of Raw vol. 2, #1, 1989
  • Art Spiegelman, Chapter 2, “Auschwitz (Time Flies),” in Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began, first published in Raw vol. 2, #1, July 1989
  • Jaime Hernandez, cover of Love and Rockets #1, 1982
  • Jaime Hernandez, “Ninety-Three Million Miles from the Sun…and Counting,” Love and Rockets #30, July 1989
  • Alison Bechdel, two-page spread from Fun Home, 2006


Comic book: A comic book is a self-contained pamphlet containing comics and is distinguished from the much shorter comic strip, which is usually limited to at most one full page, and the much longer graphic novel, which is typically at least 100 pages. American comic books are staple-bound and pamphlet-sized, with 24–32 pages being standard, but they may be as short as a few pages or as long as 64 pages.

Comics: The exact definition of what makes something a comic has been a matter of some dispute among comics scholars. A rough definition is that comics use a combination of words and images in sequential panels to tell a story. Comics are differentiated from illustrations, in which the narrative is conveyed primarily through the text and the text and images are visually separated; comics interweave text and images and rely equally on both. Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels are all examples of comics.

Creator-Owned: Creator-owned comics are comics whose copyright belongs to the artist who made them, allowing the artist to profit off of their comics’ success. Creator-owned comics may be self-published or published by a publishing company. Underground and alternative comics are typically creator-owned, whereas mainstream comics are typically work-for-hire.

Graphic novel: A graphic novel is a lengthy, book-sized comic. Most graphic novels are originally published as comic books and then collected into anthologies (sometimes known as trade paperbacks).

Gutter: The gutter is the space between panels. In Understanding Comics, a classic analysis of the comics medium, Scott McCloud argues that the gutter is the most distinctive aspect of the comics medium and is essential to its semiotic and aesthetic operation.

Panel: The panel is the basic unit of organization of the comics page. Panels are typically rectangular, framed by an outline, and arranged in a grid, but other types of panel and panel organization can be used to alter the pace, mood, or aesthetics of the page. Panels can have irregular or unusual shapes, can lack borders on some or all sizes, can have colored or textured outlines, and more free-form structures can be substituted for the grid.

Self-Published: Self-published comics are published by the artist who creates them rather than by a publishing company. Self-publishing has been used by some underground or alternative cartoonists but not by mainstream cartoonists.

Jaime Hernandez, cover of Love and Rockets #1, 1982.

Underground Comix (c. 1964–76)

Underground comix, spelled with an “x” as a sign of their illicit content, were closely tied to the youth counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Precursors to underground comix appeared in various venues in the mid-1960s, but the movement really got underway when Robert Crumb published Zap Comix #1 in San Francisco in 1968, famously hawking copies out of a baby carriage on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. From that point forward, underground comix were a staple of the youth counterculture, sold primarily out of head shops rather than the usual comics venues of newsstands and drugstores, which would not carry the underground offerings.

Underground comix were almost always anthologies, typically one to eight pages each, of short stories by different cartoonists. Zap, the unofficial flagship of the undergrounds, became an anthology with the second issue. The Zap roster fluctuated over time, with generally four to seven cartoonists contributing to each issue. Aside from Zap, few underground titles lasted more than two or three issues, and many were one-shots, creating a vibrant but unstable commercial infrastructure. The staple genre of the undergrounds was humor, consisting primarily of satire and physical comedy with sex and drugs by far the most popular topics. Mockery of middle-class mores and the police were common themes, but underground cartoonists were also generally suspicious of radical politics and political groups, and aligned more closely with the hippy lifestyle of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll than the activist movements of the day.

Gilbert Shelton’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was a typical example of underground humor comix and one of the longest-running and best-selling underground titles. The series followed the misadventures of three brothers in their perennial quest to score dope. The example shown here is the cover of the first full issue of the series, although the strip had appeared previously in anthologies. On the cover the brothers are shown gripping their respective drug paraphernalia of choice, pursued in the distance by a gang of stampeding cops à la Benny Hill. While the comic relies mostly on rather crude physical humor, there is a general anti-establishment orientation to it and criticisms of mainstream America are peppered in periodically. For instance, a sign on the building in the foreground reads, “America: Love It Or Leave It,” an implicit criticism of jingoistic patriotism, while the grimy, litter-strewn housing project they are racing through alludes to the poverty of America’s inner cities. But these social criticisms are secondary to the main purpose of the narrative, an amusing shaggy-dog story that pokes fun at both the hippies and the police.

Underground comix reached their audience through a number of channels in addition to comic books, especially through concert posters and illustrations for underground newspapers and magazines. To take one example, a drawing by underground cartoonist Kim Deitch was used to announce the 1968 Central Park Be-In on the cover of The East Village Other, which, like other underground newspapers, was a central media organ of the counterculture. The Be-In was a gathering of tens of thousands of people modeled on the January 1967 event of the same name that had served as a prologue to the Summer of Love. The cover shows the influence of Mad magazine, which had a similar manic, absurd energy in its heyday. Virtually all of the underground cartoonists had grown up reading Mad when it was a comic book published by the legendary EC Comics in the 1950s. Mad’s irreverent satire of American culture and society sowed the seeds of the underground cartoonists’ future work, which can justifiably be described as Mad plus sex and drugs.

While Deitch’s Be-In cover displays the peace and love side of the counterculture and underground comix, S. Clay Wilson’s “The Flyin’ Fuckin’ A Heads Stop For Lunch During Their Cross-Country Run” displays their dark flipside. This image is from a portfolio rather than a comic strip or book, but stylistically, iconographically, and sociologically, it belongs to the underground. The counterculture in its early years nurtured a fondness for motorcycle gangs, especially the Hell’s Angels, who were seen as kindred free spirits and rebels against establishment conformity—at least until the Angels killed an audience member while providing security for a free rock concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969, an event that was widely seen as heralding the end of the hippy counterculture’s utopian period. This drawing perfectly captures this romanticized image of biker gangs. Along the same lines, Wilson’s other favorite subject was pirates.

Another way in which underground cartoonists were highly visible was as some of the most prominent creators of psychedelic concert posters, such as Victor Moscoso’s 1967 poster for a concert at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Psychedelic posters combined influences from Op Art, Surrealism, folk art, and Art Nouveau to produce a perfect counterpart to the hard-edged acid rock of San Francisco. Moscoso began as a poster artist and only started doing comics after seeing the possibilities opened up by Crumb in Zap #1. The comic by Moscoso shown here demonstrates how his background in posters continued to shape his comics work, as it relies primarily on its visual impact as a single graphic image rather than on a narrative communicated through individual and separate panels.

Underground comix had a complicated relationship with the avant-garde and showed little awareness of or interest in the contemporary avant-garde. One avant-garde movement that did pop up repeatedly in underground comix was Surrealism, which is not surprising given their shared interest in the hallucinatory and the extrasensory. One of the most frequently referenced Surrealist motifs was Man Ray’s image of disembodied lips floating over Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory. This image had been used as the poster for the 1966 Man Ray retrospective at LACMA, which was timed perfectly to make a strong impression on the nascent underground movement, as seen here in Victor Moscoso’s “Luna Toon” from Zap Comix #2. Many of the trends in the contemporary avant-garde were at odds with the spirit of underground comix, especially the cool, distanced, anti-expressive stance of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. But underground comix and the counterculture as a whole did share some territory with happenings, Pop, and performance art. While their styles and mediums are quite different, Kim Deitch’s cover for the Central Park Be-In participated in the same cultural field as Yayoi Kusama’s 1968 Anti-War Naked Happening and Flag Burning, with both works seeking a radical liberation of the body and sexuality.

The above types of material were the bread and butter of most underground comix, but the most popular underground cartoonist, and also the most talented, original, and problematic, was Robert Crumb. His forte was a particularly scathing form of satire whose targets included not only the expected middle class and police but also the rest of the counterculture, including self-serving, hypocritical New Age gurus (Mr. Wonderful), their gullible disciple (Flakey Foont), womanizing hippy Casanovas (Fritz the Cat), and many more. One of Crumb’s sharpest critiques of the middle-class establishment was the story “Whiteman” from Zap Comix #1, which depicts a middle-aged white man in the midst of a nervous breakdown. When a respectable older woman approaches, he pulls himself together to disguise his inner turmoil, but after she departs, he confesses that inside he is just a raving beast craving sex. It communicates the idea that the white establishment was sexually repressed, but also that their façade of propriety was just that: a façade that hid inner selves just as primal and amoral as the hippies they despised.

Crumb rejected the sexual repression of his parents’ generation, but he didn’t escape its sexism or racism. Some of Crumb’s imagery of women and African-Americans is quite over-the-top and offensive. I have selected examples that raise the key issues relating to racism and sexism in his work but which are (believe it or not) relatively mild. Nevertheless, instructors may want to warn the class before discussing this material and allow students to opt out if they wish, with a short homework assignment to compensate for the missed lecture. A page from “Cubist Be Bop Comics,” a montage of music-themed scenes, provides an example of Crumb’s depictions of African-Americans. In the top left corner, a black trumpeter with bare feet and wearing threadbare country clothes leaps above a crowd of grinning blacks, all of whom have highly stereotyped features such as bouncy round eyes and big, rubbery lips. A caption describes them as “crazy negroes,” which was intended ironically and affectionately but is nevertheless (or therefore) quite condescending. This imagery of black people as foolish but enthusiastic country bumpkins is straight out of blackface minstrelsy, which had still been a presence in American popular culture in the 1950s, the decade of Crumb’s youth, for example in the television program Amos ‘n’ Andy.

While racist images such as this appeared repeatedly in Crumb’s work, they were far outnumbered by his many comics depicting violence towards women. Sexism was a general feature of the 1960s counterculture, affecting hippy culture, the anti-war movement, and the Black Power movement. In fact, one of the factors that helped prompt second-wave feminism was the struggle to be seen as equals in these male-dominated movements. Even against this general backdrop of sexism, however, the level of sexism in underground comix is quite shocking. The cover of Crumb’s Gothic Blimp Works Ltd. #2, for instance, depicts a dirty, leering bum of 1930s vintage assaulting a young woman who is attempting to flee from him, as beads of sweat erupt from her face, and the bum pulls down the hem of her dress. Beyond the disturbing violence of the image, there is a clear element of voyeurism here, as the presumably male viewer receives a view of an exposed, sexualized female body courtesy of her assailant, thereby placing him in collusion with the latter.

The sexist imagery of Crumb and other underground cartoonists did not pass uncontested. It was criticized by a number of feminist cartoonists, led by Trina Robbins, who responded by launching the first all-female underground comic, It Ain’t Me Babe, in 1970. Robbins’s cover depicts five recognizable characters from comics history, Olive Oyl, Wonder Woman, Mary Marvel, Little Lulu, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and Elsie the Cow, marching forward with fists raised, liberating themselves from the sexist patriarchy. The comics inside are heavily dominated by New Age fantasy scenarios and feature female characters depicted in very heroic, romanticized terms, often drawing on Great Goddess imagery. Unfortunately, these comics’ feminism is often framed against a racist backdrop, as in the page shown here, in which the home of Oma, a western pioneer, is attacked by Indians, her husband murdered, and her baby kidnapped; the caption announces that “What they did to it is best not pictured.” Oma then endures a number of supernatural trials which she endures by virtue of her strength and resolve, for which she is eventually awarded by being reunited with her husband. Beyond the fact that her ultimate reward is to be returned to her man, the comic perpetuates stereotypes about Native Americans as brutal savages and in fact makes this savagery the obstacle that must be overcome for Oma to emerge as a feminist hero.

Crumb’s response to the feminist critique of his comics was that he was exploring the admittedly disturbing contents of his unconscious and that he didn’t necessarily endorse the images that emerged from it. He also argued that these images were so over the top and outrageous that they were clearly not meant to be taken seriously, and in fact constituted a critique of racism and sexism by depicting these attitudes in all their unsanitized repulsiveness. However, this rationalization does not reckon with the fact that venting such negative imagery of historically oppressed groups without any overt critique only perpetuates racist and sexist discourses that are already hegemonic in our society. In any event, Crumb responded directly to his critics in a characteristically contradictory and incendiary manner in a one-page 1971 comic entitled “A Word to You Feminist Women” that is one of his most interesting and revealing works. The text is densely layered and defies easy summary, so I will quote it in its entirety:

Title:     And Now, A Word to You Feminist Women

Crumb:     Lemme at ‘em!

Caption:     From that ol’ male-chauvinist pig, R. Crumb himself!!

Crumb:    Hi girls! R. Crumb here! I’d like to talk for a few minutes to all you chicks…er, I mean women (heh heh) in the Women’s Lib movement! I think it’s time I addressed you directly, because there’s a few things I’d like to get off my chest!! First, let me just say right now that I’m all for Women’s Lib, believe it or not! Heh heh…And I would like to be your friend…R. Crumb is friend of all people! But, th’ thing is, I’ve been recieving [sic] a heck of a lot of negative feedback from some of you women about my comic book features, and this is a source of anxiety to me…it really is!! Now please understand me!! I don’t deny that my cartoons contain a great deal of hostile and oft times brutal acts against women! I’m well aware of this dark side of my ego! Call me a “sexual criminal” if you like…a “pimp”, a “sexist pervert” if it please you…call me anything you want! You’re probably right!! But don’t get me wrong, ladies! I’m not advocating that men should do these bad things to women! I’m not portraying this antagonism as something to be admired! Something heroic!! Far from it! I think it’s an oversimplification to say that a picture or drawing is promoting something just because it portrays it! Like a female being beaten up, let’s say…And, by the same token, to insist that an artist stifle his (or her) own instincts and draw only that which is prescribed by some movement or cause…why, that’s pure totalitarianism! Dictatorship! And sheer stupidity to boot!! I mean, look…let’s get it straight! I’m not a propagandist for anybody’s god-damn movement and I never intend to be! I’m not a politician! I’m an artist! I’m not trying to defend myself as a person…God knows I’m as fucked up as the next guy…All I’m defending is freedom of expression…Would you deprive me of this God-given right? If I was to try to gear my comics to your cause or anybody’s cause, I would no longer be true to myself…I would become a liar! Is that what you want? Would you like me to stop venting my rage on paper? Is that what you’d like me to do, all you self-righteous, indignant females? All you poor persecuted down-trodden booshwah cunts? Would you rather I went out and raped twelve-year-old girls? Would that be an improvement? Well, listen, you dumb-assed broads, I’m gonna draw what I fucking-well please to draw, and if you don’t like it FUCK YOU!!

Gnomish marginal figure: “Chauv” it up yer ass, gurls! That’s tellin’ ‘em Bob! Tee hee[.] Right on!

The strip reveals Crumb’s hostility towards his feminist critics but also the flimsiness of his rationalizations and the anger lurking beneath them. In the second panel, for instance, Crumb refers to his readers as “chicks,” then, acceding to feminist demands for respect from men, corrects himself, muttering, “er, I mean women,” but then chuckles to himself with a “heh heh.” That “heh heh” is an admission that Crumb’s display of respect is a mere show, an acknowledgement of hypocrisy that hardly casts him in a good light. The fact that the “heh heh” sounds so much like something a comic-book villain would say further implies that Crumb acknowledges his own sexism, at least on some level. Crumb’s explosion in the final panel is also revealing. It closely echoes the final image from “Whiteman,” revealing an unexpected convergence between the countercultural Crumb and the establishment straights to whom he was supposedly the antithesis. In doing all of this, he is following through on his claim that his comics laid bare his own unconscious, but ironically this is done much more intelligently, perceptively, and revealingly here, when he is responding to his critics, than in the comics to which his critics objected in the first place. Here, he actually plumbs his multiple and contradictory motivations and impulses rather than merely indulging in his dark sexual fantasies, which don’t in and of themselves ask any hard questions about his inner life. Finally, one has to keep in mind that all of this has been consciously constructed by Crumb. These are not accidental slips on his part, they have been deliberately presented to the viewer, meaning that Crumb is aware of all of these contradictions within himself.

The case of Crumb’s sexism is further complicated by his long-term relationship with and eventual marriage to Aline Kominsky-Crumb, a feminist underground cartoonist. Kominsky-Crumb rejects the view of Crumb as misogynistic, as does the feminist literary scholar Hillary Chute, arguing that Crumb’s depictions of full-bodied women provided a positive image for women who do not conform to the social ideal of the unnaturally thin female body. Unlike the comics of Trina Robbins, which strive to present a heroic female image, Kominsky-Crumb’s comics dwell on her emotional troubles and her dysfunctional family, especially her materialistic, cold, hypercritical suburban mother. She frequently documented her struggles with body image, as in the cover of Twisted Sister Comics, in which she examines her face in a mirror while sitting on the toilet and thinking, “I look like a 50 yr. old businessman! What if someone comes while I’m making?? How many calories in a cheese enchilada?” From a circular inset on the left, the blonde, well-groomed Didi Glitz looks on scornfully as a grunt emerges from Kominsky-Crumb’s backside. Such blunt, unflattering images of the female body did not sit well with other feminist cartoonists, nor did her marriage to Crumb, which they saw as evidence of internalized misogynism and self-hatred. Kominsky-Crumb responded that her work did not reveal any hatred of herself or her body but rather represented a frank and even joyful acceptance of the messy reality of the body, with which those criticizing her were actually uncomfortable.

These explorations were cut short in 1974, as underground comix suffered a precipitous downturn resulting from a combination of factors: the waning of the counterculture, a Supreme Court ruling that handed over censorship decisions to local jurisdictions, and a spike in the cost of paper. Underground titles continued to straggle on in small numbers, but the movement was clearly on the ebb. Underground comix were succeeded by a new brand of non-mainstream comic, dubbed alternative comics, which first appeared in the mid-1970s, grew in numbers in the 1980s, began to break through into the mainstream in the 1990s, and achieved widespread recognition in the 2000s.


Alternative Comics (c. 1976–present)

Alternative comics constructed longer narratives than underground comix, with more complex characters, fully developed personalities, and sophisticated themes. This makes it harder to teach these comics in an art history class, because there is too much information required about the comic in order to discuss it coherently. Newspaper comics can easily be discussed as single images because the entire comic can be displayed and viewed at once. Underground comix can’t be seen in their entirety in one view, but they are short enough that a minimal level of explanation is sufficient to understand them. And most humor, superhero, and adventure comics are repetitive enough that, even if their characters have lengthy backstories, only a little information is necessary to understand them. Many alternative comics, on the other hand, are more like novels, whose intricacies can only be appreciated through a thorough reading. In order to overcome this difficulty, I have chosen to represent alternative comics either with cover images or interior pages that distill the essentials of a narrative or style into a single image, as a promotional poster does for a movie. It should be understood that these images are meant as synecdoches for the larger narrative of which they are part and do not encapsulate the full complexity of that narrative. It’s like teaching a novel in a literature class by using a single page to stand for the whole.

Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor was launched in 1976 and can be considered the first alternative comic. Pekar was a serious collector of jazz records and sometime jazz critic who worked a day job as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital. He had met and befriended Robert Crumb when the latter was working in Cleveland for the American Greetings company from 1962 to 1964. Crumb had followed the siren call of the counterculture to San Francisco, but Pekar had stayed put and only dabbled in the fringes of the counterculture. However, underground comix piqued his interest, and he conceived the idea of a comic series that would chronicle the everyday victories and defeats of ordinary people living ordinary lives, with himself as protagonist. As he explains in the story illustrated here:

“For a couple of years I had been thinking I could write comic book stories that were different from anything being done by both straight cartoonists and underground cartoonists like Crumb. …The guys who do that animal comic an’ super-hero stuff for straight comics are really limited because they gotta try t’appeal to kids. Th’ guys who do underground comics have really opened things up, but there are still plenty more things that can be done with ‘em. They got great potential. You c’n do as much with comics as the novel or movies or plays or anything. Comics are words an’ pictures; you c’n do anything with words and pictures!”

Pekar’s work established the realist memoir as a key genre for alternative comics, in contrast to the more expressive style of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work, which are also exclusively autobiographical.

Pekar was a writer, not an artist, and he worked with many different artists over the long history of American Splendor, the best of which was undoubtedly Crumb. The art in this page provides a good example of Crumb’s unidealized depiction of Pekar’s life, as well as a great example of the understated artistry of Crumb’s work. Note how he begins and ends of the page with single images surrounded by totally black negative space, effectively bracketing the page. He further unifies the page by using the letter in the first panel to direct the viewer’s eye down and to the right, towards the center of the page, creating an axis that continues to the lone figure of Pekar in the final panel. In between, Crumb changes the scene and moves the reader’s point of view around to turn a long monologue into a visually engaging series of images, a difficult feat that many cartoonists would struggle with.

Besides memoir, another key genre for alternative comics was a rather scathing form of humor that descended from the underground tradition. Not quite socially relevant enough to be called satire, it might be described as mockery or, to use an antiquated term, charivari: the ritual humiliation of newlywed couples in early modern France. One of its leading practitioners was Daniel Clowes, who used this mode extensively in his one-man anthology, Eightball, which ran from 1989 to 2004. The cover of Eightball #11 (June 1993) displays a typical roster of Clowes weirdos. Some of the characters are vaguely recognizable as semi-identifiable stereotypes, but at his best Clowes only deploys stereotypes in order to undermine them. He creates a character who you think you understand, then makes them do something that does not fit that profile, then something that fits neither the original stereotype nor the previous unexplained action, and so on and so on. Over time, the number of short spoofs in Eightball declined and the number of ongoing storylines increased, giving him greater room to create complex storylines and characters, as in the stories Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and David Boring, which were then collected and published as graphic novels.

In David Boring (1998–2000), Clowes plays with the conventions of the comics medium and its genres in a very postmodern way that is reminiscent of the novels of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. In the page shown here, David is looking at The Yellow Streak, a comic book drawn by his father, a failed cartoonist who left his wife and son when David was a boy. The comic, once whole, has been reduced to fragments over the course of the narrative, but this doesn’t stop David from sifting through them in an unending but vain search for meaning. As he explains, “I didn’t really care about what happened to my dad (he really is dead, by the way — I checked), but I can’t shake my fascination with the Yellow Streak.” The panels of The Yellow Streak intermingle with the panels of David Boring, sometimes merging seamlessly with them, sometimes slightly askew within them. These variations draw attention to the competing first-order and second-order frames, blurring the boundaries between the reality of the comic and the comic-inside-the-comic. The events in the meta-textual Yellow Streak comics also function as oblique comments on David’s life. The page shown here includes a panel of the comic showing a ghostly Yellow Streak who has been transported into the “second dimension” by his sidekick, Testor, using a “2-D ray.” (But since these characters are already two-dimensional, where have they been transported to?) Later in the same page, a comic book collector who David visits for more information about his father tells him that his father mostly worked as a “ghost,” i.e., an uncredited artist, further connecting David’s father to the ghostly Yellow Streak. The Yellow Streak’s name can then be read as a reference to the cowardice of David’s father’s abandonment of his family, while his ghostliness testifies to his ineffectiveness as a paternal figure. Testor, the Yellow Streak’s sidekick, thus becomes a stand-in for David, an association that is heightened by the fact that David is very much a “tester,” constantly probing the people and world around him. Finally, the Hag can be read as any one of several women with whom David had been involved. Watching Testor follow the Hag through a spooky, darkly lit building, the Yellow Streak comments “Poor Testor! He doesn’t stand a chance!”, which can be read as a comment on David’s many romantic misfortunes.

Another alternative comic that explored the stranger, more uncanny side of alternative comics was Raw, an anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. Spiegelman had been an underground cartoonist, albeit a rather marginal and atypical one, producing carefully crafted, cerebral comics that explored the formal limits of the medium. Raw focused on two rather different kinds of comics, both of which had few if any other outlets in American comics at the time: experimental comics in an avant-garde, absurdist vein, and genre-inflected literary fiction. The cover of Raw vol. 2, #1, by Gary Panter, is an example of the former. It combines the most recognizable features of three iconic cartoon characters, Nancy, Popeye, and Donald Duck, creating a fragmented head seen from multiple angles that echoes the serpentine, fragmented figuration used by Picasso throughout his career, such as the Bather of 1909 and the Three Dancers of 1925. Picasso is known for his appropriation of low-culture motifs, a process that Panter reverses here, using Picasso’s signature distortions to depict cartoon characters.

Spiegelman’s Maus represented the other side of Raw’s style, genre-inflected literary fiction. Raw tells the story of Spiegelman’s father during the Holocaust, a subject that had often been considered to be beyond representation. Spiegelman’s story depicts the humans as anthropomorphic animals, a technique that has been credited with creating enough distance from the historical reality of the story to blunt its overwhelming trauma and render it comprehensible. The use of animal characters also references the familiar trope of animal comics and cartoons in which dogs, cats, and mice attempt to outfight and outwit each other, with the Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, and Americans as dogs, reflecting the relative military strength of the three groups. The anthropomorphism further refers to the Nazis’ frequent descriptions of Jews as vermin and rats, and to Nazi denunciations of Mickey Mouse and other Disney animal characters. Finally, it is also a reference to the racism found in many early Disney cartoons, in which animal characters appear much like blackface minstrel characters, thereby connecting the racism of the Nazis to that of American pop culture. The use of animal characters in the series is thus highly determined, drawing from multiple sources to create a complex meditation on the nature and persistence of racist imagery.

The series Love and Rockets by the brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, with occasional work by their other brother Mario, was also based on the merging of different genres, principally teen/romance comics (the “love” in the title) and science fiction (the “rockets”). The cover of the first issue of the series graphically depicts this hybridity and has become an iconic image in alternative comics. Five women are shown standing in what appears to be a police lineup, but could be interpreted as a stage or the outside of a building. Four of the women appear to have stepped out of a science fiction or superhero comic, but are they superheroes, or entertainers, or club-goers dressed up for a night of fantasy and partying? Are the red splotches on the wall blood spatters or rotten tomatoes thrown by an angry audience? In the middle of the group, is a much shorter woman—who is clearly out of place—wearing a bathrobe and hair curlers and facing a different direction than the other women. What she is doing there is unclear, and this question is never answered, because this scene does not actually take place in the comic. What this cover does do very effectively is to suggest the ingredients that the Hernandez brothers were playing with in the series.

As the series progressed, the Hernandez brothers gradually reduced (but never completely eliminated) the science-fiction elements, eventually settling into two long, branching storylines: one centered on the small Mexican village of Palomar and the other on a group of young women in Los Angeles who are white and Chicana, bisexual and straight. Many of them are involved in the L.A. punk scene, which the Hernandez brothers were part of themselves, but the punk-tinged milieu of the series is somewhat at odds with its style, which, as this page demonstrates, includes healthy doses of Archie and The Adventures of Tintin, two of the Hernandez brothers’ favorite comics. Signs of the former include the besotted expressions of the girls in the final panels, while the walking scene and idiosyncratic hairstyles in the first panels echo familiar motifs of Tintin. All of the women have complex lives and relationships to one another, and they both sustain, challenge, and agonize each other. The page shown here depicts Maggie, one of the main characters in the series, on her way to visit her old friend Penny in the hospital. The two have not seen each other for some time, and their lives have taken them in different directions. In one of the legacies of the series’ sci-fi origins, Penny is married to a billionaire named H.R. Costigan, who has a pair of small, nubby horns protruding from his head whose origins are never explained.

Like mainstream and underground comics, alternative comics were heavily male-dominated, a situation that has eased somewhat but has not disappeared in the twenty-first century. Alison Bechdel, one of the most critically acclaimed cartoonists of the last few decades, established her reputation with Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008), a newspaper comic that appeared in gay and lesbian newspapers. She later published two autobiographical graphic novels, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), which won widespread critical acclaim, and its sequel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (2012). Fun Home is a memoir of Bechdel’s childhood and college years in which the main topic is her father’s closeted homosexuality. Bechdel reflects on how his closeted homosexuality affected her as a child, the possibility that his death was a suicide, and how Bechdel came to terms with her own sexuality. The two-page spread depicted here shows Bechdel holding a photograph taken by her father of her family’s former babysitter and yardwork assistant, a young man named Roy. The text boxes on the page note that “It appears to have been taken on a vacation when I was eight, a trip on which Roy accompanied my father, my brothers, and me to the Jersey Shore while my mother visited her old roommate in New York City. I remember the hotel room. My brothers and I slept in one adjoining it.” Bechdel analyzes the aesthetics of the photo, noting that “The blurriness of the photo gives it an ethereal, painterly quality,” and also notes her lack of shock, wondering if she would have the same reaction if it had been a seventeen-year-old girl rather than a boy. She found the photo in an envelope with the word “family” written on it, and, in a passage typical of Fun Home, she points out that the year printed on the right margin of the photo has been written over: “It’s a curiously ineffectual attempt at censorship. Why cross out the year and not the month? Why, for that matter, leave the photo in the envelope at all? In an act of prestidigitation typical of the way my father juggled his public appearance and private reality, the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed.” This layering of memories is one of the primary themes of Fun Home and is visually reflected in the image in the presence of Bechdel’s own hand (drawn in fact by her actual hand) in the frame, holding the photo, which is a drawn version of what is (presumably) an actual photograph taken by her father, while fictionalized versions of her actual thoughts and memories are layered on top of the image. Reality and art, image and text, the subtly diverging truths of life, of art, and of memory all interpenetrate one another inextricably, denying the possibility of any reality outside the forest of signs, any objective truth. The only truth is from the inside, absolute truth is unknowable and unattainable, and all that is left is the play of memory and desire.

At the End of Class...

The end of class is a good time to ask students to reflect on the relation between comics and high art and on their own experiences with comics. You could pose the following questions:

  • Do they relate to comics more easily than to high art?
  • How are the cultural spaces of comics and high art different from each other?
  • Do cultural hierarchies continue to privilege high art over comics?

Doug Singsen (author) is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, specializing in modern and contemporary art, intercultural influences and interactions from the ancient world to the present, art and social justice, and the interaction of mass culture and the avant-garde.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.