Humor that severed the jugular vein

In the spring of 1981, the first issue of Weirdo rolled off the Last Gasp presses. The brainchild of R. Crumb, its editor for the first nine of its 27 quarterly issues, Weirdo was an attempt to revive the graphic/comic humor style of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine and similar publications of the 1950s and 1960s. Until 1990 (and a special, final issue in 1993), Weirdo published and distributed the later work of the groundbreaking underground cartoonists of the previous few decades and the early work of the newly burgeoning alternative comics movement. It was a long and successful run for a humor magazine in that period; National Lampoon‘s heyday ended about the time its founding editors departed in 1975, after only five years; Spy magazine similarly foundered after the first five years of its debut. Weirdo managed to struggle on through almost a decade, and it was fondly remembered after it closed up shop. Now Jon B. Cooke has collected those fond memories and others in The Book of Weirdo, a history of the magazine, published by Last Gasp. It’s not a cautionary tale, exactly, but it does define the history of a certain kind of American comics, humor, and satire of the late 20th century, and it’s one of the very few books that does so. Maybe there’s a lesson in it, but I doubt that.

By the time the early 1980s rolled around, the first wave of underground comics had crashed into the beach and its influence was slowly receding from view. Crumb’s decision to launch Weirdo was practical: He wanted a regular outlet for his work, but the work of his colleagues and friends needed a regular outlet too. It may also have been political, a response to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the increasing moral and ethical miasma into which America was sinking with the increasing influence of advertising, mass media, and corporate money in the American experience. (Harvey Kurtzman had launched MAD in 1952, when the American experience was facing a similar onslaught of garbage.) It was also personal, Crumb’s nostalgic look back at the magazines and comics that had inspired him in his youth, leading him to his first successes in the 1960s and 1970s with the animal-comic parody Fritz the Cat and his satire of Culture-of-Narcissism faux-mysticism in Mr. Natural. So Crumb published, alongside comics by himself and others, exhibitions of peculiar Americana and photo-funnies or “fumetti” that were popular in adult magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. (National Lampoon, too, occasionally ran a similar feature.) As Cooke reports, these photo-funnies were a target of considerable hostility, and they were found more and more rarely in Weirdo‘s pages as new cartoonists sought Crumb out and Crumb accepted their work for publication.

As the years went by, however, the magazine evolved, perhaps one of the secrets of whatever success it achieved, and its subsequent editors put their own stamp on the magazine. Crumb’s successor, Peter Bagge, assimilated a crew of younger, punk-influenced cartoonists into the Weirdo stable; in 1986, Aline Kominsky-Crumb took the reins, and her seemingly-crude-and-artless-but-not-really style, as well as her own generosity, encouraged and attracted a generation of brilliant female artists like Dori Seda and Mary Fleener, and the percentage of work by female artists in the magazine increased exponentially. While Crumb was contractually obligated to produce covers and stories for Weirdo, both Bagge and Kominsky-Crumb were responsible for taking the magazine to places Crumb hadn’t imagined when he established it.

Weirdo‘s wasn’t the only game in town; at about the same time Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly were publishing the large format RAW, an attempt to claim comics as a high art. They undoubtedly succeeded, and Spiegelman’s Maus, originally published in RAW as a serial, deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. Cooke describes the occasional tensions between the magazines, not least because a number of artists (including Crumb and Spiegelman) appeared in both. Weirdo and RAW weren’t serious competitors. Instead, they complemented each other. RAW aimed high, for the citadels of modernism; Crumb and Weirdo aimed much lower — in a variety of senses — and Crumb never lost sight of the comic in “comics.”

I collected Weirdo magazines as they were published in the 1980s and was always astonished by the extraordinary variety of individual art and styles of the comics, the exquisite craftsmanship and daring graphic innovation that expanded the idea of what constituted true comic art. But what is easily lost in contemplating the art of Weirdo is the brilliance of the verbal humor and the writing that appeared in Weirdo. The magazine’s artists seemed to me most indebted to the great black humor writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced primarily by the likes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Nathanael West, these writers parsed the difficulty of maintaining one’s sanity, individual integrity, and even security as one was buffeted by what seemed to be arbitrary, absurd, and malignant cultural and political powers, as well as their own very personal weaknesses, prejudices, and idiocy. The greatest of the black humorists of the 1960s, such as Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Paul Krassner, located their satiric vision in a revealing, subversive dissection of the individual under the pressure of the modern world; dismissing standard-issue American realism as inadequate to capture the anxiety of postwar America, these writers corralled both stylistic innovation and a brooding sense of the grotesque and the ridiculous in the service of their frequently nihilistic visions. Whether or not the Weirdo artists were knowingly influenced by these writers, they carried the black humorists’ spirit from the 1960s, when they flourished, to the 1990s, when they were all but forgotten. (It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Drew Friedman, a regular contributor to Weirdo, is the son of Bruce Jay Friedman; Drew also wrote the introduction and drew the cover for The Book of Weirdo.)

Jon Cooke’s history is excellent and often entertainingly informative when digging deep into the history of the magazine and the biographies of its editors and contributors (his interviews, as well as his extensive bibliographical work, will serve as indispensable sources for any future researchers), and it leaves one hungry for an anthology of Weirdo itself. My only quibble with the book is that too little of it is represented here. Crumb’s work for Weirdo — the best of his mid-career, as he became more autobiographical and, at the same time, extended his talent to new projects, including contemplations of Philip K. Dick, Sir James Boswell, and Psychopathia Sexualis — has already been collected in another volume. (Crumb has continued to develop and mature as an artist, his art becoming increasingly textured, subversively ironic, and interestingly hermetic in publications like Art & Beauty Magazine as well as the excellent and highly recommended Mineshaft.) Until that anthology appears, however, Jon Cooke’s The Book of Weirdo is a reminder that American humor and satire was a far more innovative and exciting art form than the endless news program and newspaper parodies that seem to make up that form today; as delightful as they occasionally are, they lack the sheer imagination and daring of the artists of Weirdo.

A toast to … two American artists

This week I considered my responses to a recent visit to the home of Mark Twain and looked forward to an October event celebrating Weirdo, the 1980s comics magazine founded by R. Crumb.

I raise my glass to these two gentlemen today, and in closing the week observe that the work of both of these artists has been reviled and censored in the past — Huckleberry Finn since the time of its publication in 1884/5, R. Crumb’s comics rather more recently. I don’t here want to equate the differing achievements of these two individuals, but offer up a few recent defenses of their work.

Toni Morrison, who left us only recently, examined Huckleberry Finn for the Oxford Mark Twain edition edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin in 1996. “In the early eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools,” she wrote. “These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term ‘nigger’ would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.”

Along with T.S. Eliot’s essay about the book, Morrison’s essay is one of the most sensitive readings of Huck Finn since the novel’s publication; you can read the entire essay here. It concludes:

The source of my unease reading this amazing, troubling book now seems clear: an imperfect coming to terms with three matters Twain addresses — Huck Finn’s estrangement, soleness and morbidity as an outcast child; the disproportionate sadness at the center of Jim’s and his relationship; and the secrecy in which Huck’s engagement with (rather than escape from) a racist society is necessarily conducted. It is also clear that the rewards of my effort to come to terms have been abundant. My alarm, aroused by Twain’s precise rendering of childhood’s fear of death and abandonment, remains — as it should. It has been extremely worthwhile slogging through Jim’s shame and humiliation to recognize the sadness, the tragic implications at the center of his relationship with Huck. My fury at the maze of deceit, the risk of personal harm that a white child is forced to negotiate in a race-inflected society, is dissipated by the exquisite uses to which Twain puts that maze, that risk.

Yet the larger question, the danger that sifts from the novel’s last page, is whether Huck, minus Jim, will be able to stay those three monsters as he enters the “territory.” Will that undefined space, so falsely imagined as “open,” be free of social chaos, personal morbidity, and further moral complications embedded in adulthood and citizenship? Will it be free not only of nightmare fathers but of dream fathers too? …

For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.

The jury of course is still out on the endurance of Crumb’s art, but a few months ago Brian Doherty described and discussed in Reason magazine the increasing controversy in the alternative comics community around Crumb. To nobody’s surprise, his work has given rise to accusations of racism (like Twain’s) and sexism (also like Twain’s, but rather less vociferously). Doherty writes:

One of the many reasons humans have art is to understand, play with, portray, question, and explore the human condition. Which, as Crumb firmly believes, includes a lot of awful, unacceptable thoughts and behavior. …

Many people understand that art is for expressing and exploring the human mind and soul — and the human mind and soul contain darkness, sexual mania, racism, hostility, and any number of awful truths. To force those things out of the conversation is to unreasonably limit the whole project, they say. Art is a treasured aspect of the healthy human condition, even if what the art says is unhealthy on various dimensions. Many others consider that tradeoff worth it in the name of protecting the status and feelings of previously excluded or oppressed groups.

Crumb’s attempt to open comics to a vast range of human expression was victorious: Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, those working in the field today are his descendants. Like all children and grandchildren, they can choose whether or not to understand their patriarch, whether to emulate him or tell him to fuck off. Their choices may not always be kind or wise, but such is human freedom.

Remembering Weirdo

R. Crumb’s 1982 house ad for Weirdo magazine.

UPDATE (November 5, 2019): I reviewed The Book of Weirdo here.


So long as we’re on the subject of disillusionment and satire, I bring to your attention an upcoming event at Columbia University: a celebration of the great comic book Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Comics from 1981 to 1993 and created by Robert Crumb. Crumb and his co-editors Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Peter Bagge, along with long-time Weirdo contributor Drew Friedman (who drew the book’s cover art and wrote its foreword), will join Jon B. Cooke, the editor of The Book of Weirdo, at Columbia’s Butler Library on Monday, October 28, at 6:00 p.m. for a panel discussion and reception. You can register for the event here.

Along with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s more high-toned and expensive Raw (in which early chapters of Spiegelman’s Maus first appeared), Weirdo constituted something of a high point in alternative comics. Unlike Raw, however, which in many ways considered the magazine itself an art object, Weirdo was unashamedly outsider — a rougher, more scurrilous, grown-up version of MAD magazine in more ways than one. Drawing its contributor base from both long-established and new underground comics artists, Weirdo resembled neither Raw nor Crumb’s earlier Zap Comix comics publication as much as it did the MAD of the Harvey Kurtzman era. Its glossy covers featured the only color in the otherwise black-and-white and grayscale production, and even its trim size resembled MAD‘s more than Raw or Zap (slightly larger than the DC and Marvel comic books, not nearly as large as the tabloid-sized Raw). Weirdo was the scabrous, downtown punk to Raw‘s cooler, uptown MoMA gentility; Crumb was also responsible for disseminating the revolutionary comics work of women like Kominsky-Crumb, Dori Seda, and Julie Doucet, themselves outsiders from the outsider-comix scene.

Mark Twain and other Southwestern humorists like Petroleum V. Nasby subverted the popular culture vehicles of the newspaper column and the novel to their own satiric ends; Weirdo and MAD did the same for the popular culture vehicles of the comic book and comic strip. Most of the Weirdo artists expressed a seething Swiftian anger and contempt towards the America of the Reagan era, as Twain did for the America of the post-Civil War era, and the best of this work shades into a comic (in both senses of the word) misanthropy, the deliberate artfulness (and, in some cases, artlessness) of the work paradoxically exhibiting the joy of unbridled, uncensored personal expression.

I understand that the Columbia University event is currently overbooked, but a waiting list has been started. With luck (your luck, not mine; I’ve already confirmed), I’ll see you there. In the meantime, The Book of Weirdo is now available from Last Gasp Comics. Crumb’s own contributions to the magazine have been collected in a separate volume, The Weirdo Years: 1981-’93.