Drew Friedman examines
an artistic revolution
‘Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comics’
By Drew Friedman | Foreword by Marc Maron
[216 pages, $34.99]
Interview by Mark Voger | Author, “Groovy”
Is he a cartoonist? A caricaturist? A portrait artist? Drew Friedman could be called all three at various stages of his career, with those disciplines occasionally overlapping. The artist garnered attention in the ’80s with comic strips popularizing celebrities on the fringes, like Shemp Howard, William Frawley, Joe Franklin and Tor Johnson. Over the years, Friedman has matured into a probing portraitist — albeit, still evincing his penchant for the peculiar. Friedman’s book collections include “Old Jewish Comedians” (three volumes), “Heroes of the Comics” (the artists, not the superheroes, in two volumes), and “All the Presidents.” He landed the plumb assignment to illustrate the first New Yorker cover to follow Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, casting the newly minted president as George Washington.
With his latest collection, Friedman again finds himself paying tribute to fellow craftsmen in the realm of ink on paper. For “Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix” (Fantagraphics Books), Friedman has created portraits of 101 artists who produced underground “comix” during the drugs-and-sex-obsessed genre’s golden age beginning in the 1960s. Friedman also wrote bios for each.
Some names may be familiar: Robert Crumb (Zap Comix), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead), Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), Trina Robbins (Wimmen’s Comix), Spain Rodriguez (Trashman), Kim Dietch (All Waldo Comics). But who is Harry Driggs? Or Buckwheat Florida Jr.? Friedman shines a light on the celebrated and the obscure alike in “Maverix and Lunatix,” due out Oct. 18. He dedicates the book to Harvey Kurtzman, the founding Mad artist-editor who was once his instructor at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
A book launch event is planned for Nov. 17 at the Society of Illustrators in the city, during which Friedman will be interviewed by filmmaker Owen Kline (“Funny Pages”). Find more information HERE or at the bottom of this article. I spoke with Friedman by telephone.
Q: In your introduction, you say you cover the “freewheeling” period from 1967 to 1977. It seems there’s room for discussion as to when the movement began, or what the first underground comic book was. Why did you go with 1967? Was there a big bang that year?
FRIEDMAN: There was a big bang in 1967 — Zap. But prior to that, there were a couple of possibilities for what could be the first underground comic. Frank Stack did one of the early prototypes (The Adventures of Jesus, 1964). Vaughn Bodē did one (Das Kampf, 1963). Joel Beck did Lenny of Laredo (1965). There were several, but they weren’t all released as comic books, really. Some were put out as stories or in booklets. A lot of people were working for underground newspapers, Help! magazine. Crumb was releasing stuff before Zap. But Crumb was really the first guy to figure out: “I’m going to put out a comic book for adults.” Zap was really the first official underground comic book. Others had the idea, but he really developed it. Gilbert Shelton resisted it at first; he was not really into comics. But when Zap was so successful, everyone dove in.
A: Why end your focus in 1977? It makes for a clean 10-year period, but does that year have particular significance?
FRIEDMAN: Arcade (The Comics Revue) magazine started in 1975, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. It represented the best of these underground cartoonists, in their opinion. It was sort of like when Harvey Kurtzman decided to leave the world of comics and focus on magazines. That was the mission of Arcade. By this time, underground comix were harder to distribute. The head shops were shutting down. Arcade folded in ’77, so to me, that was the end. Although certainly, underground comix continued to come out. Books like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers didn’t need to rely on head shops. So I like that 10-year period of 1967 to 1977, because it goes from Zap to Arcade, from Z to A.
Q: You drew 101 artists. Some underground artists — Crumb, Spain, Griffith, Trina, S. Clay Wilson — are “musts.” Who were some of your borderline choices, perhaps obscure artists you wished to bring to the world’s attention?
FRIEDMAN: To me, that was more interesting, to pick some artists who were either forgotten or completely unknown. I sort of had a rule not to include anybody who was in less than 10 issues. Jay Kennedy wrote an underground comix price guide in the early ’80s (“The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide”) which had 3,000 artists, many who were never heard of. But I knew a lot of this stuff; I have a large collection of underground comix. In doing research, I learned about some of these other people. In the mid ’70s, Ed Watson did some nice paintings for covers that really stood out. I felt I should include him. He had a day job. A lot of the artists did. Nobody was making much money off this stuff back then.
A: We all know what Robert Crumb looks like; he’s been drawing himself all his life. But for a lot of these artists, your portraits in “Maverix and Lunatix” are the first time we’re seeing the faces behind the artwork. Where did you find reference photos?
FRIEDMAN: Getting good references was really tricky. If you Google-image (search) these artists, nothing comes up. Maybe samples of their work. I have a good team of friends who helped me get photo references. Buckwheat Florida Jr. — whose real name is Lester Conrad Bell, Jr. — I didn’t know anything about him except that he did some trippy psychedelic work which influenced Crumb. Crumb was really responsive to it. But there were no photos of him. A friend named John Wendler has a knack for coming up with these amazing photo references. So thanks to John, he (Bell) is in there.
Q: Your early work reflected a knack for capturing the grotesque. I’m thinking of National Lampoon or your “Old Jewish Comedians” book series. There’s not much grotesquerie here, with the exception of your portrait of Harry Driggs, who resembles, for want of a more polite phrase, a Manson cult member.
FRIEDMAN: Right. There are no liver spots (laughs). I couldn’t go that route. I didn’t want to, anyway. These are younger people, back in the day. Most of them had long hair, which was mandatory. If you wanted be an underground cartoonist, you had to have long hair. Crumb and (Richard) Corben were the only ones who didn’t, though Crumb tried a little. Vaughn Bodē died young. Harry Driggs was another guy. I found this one photo of him, which is the one I used, and I thought, “That’s a pretty demonic-looking character.” But a really talented artist. He did a book in the late ’60s about Cleopatra (The Life and Loves of Cleopatra) that was really pornographic. Somebody got ahold of it and put it out without his permission.
Q: Did you pause at all before deciding to include Harvey Kurtzman? Most of the artists you drew were born in the ’30s through the ’50s, but Kurtzman was born in 1924. He was already a legendary figure by the time the undergrounds came along. You’re careful to point out his related credits, but wasn’t he more of a mentor than an active participant?
FRIEDMAN: There was a slight pause, because he was born in 1924 and wasn’t really considered an underground cartoonist. Most people know Kurtzman for EC (Entertaining Comics) and “Little Annie Fannie” (in Playboy). But he used Crumb and Gilbert Shelton and Skip Williamson. He really pushed their work, as far back as Help! He was so supportive of that world, and he did participate (in Bijou Funnies, Snarf and Nard n’ Pat). I felt he should be included. He was a mentor, an official godfather. Where Crumb was the father of underground comix, Kurtzman was the godfather. I also considered (The Spirit creator) Will Eisner who, I think, begrudgingly did some work in underground comix, but not that much. Eisner seemed to have a condescending attitude toward underground comix. He called Crumb “Bob Crumb,” which was slightly insulting. So it was not a problem leaving Eisner out.
Q: In reading your bios, touchstones of the era emerge: the East Village Other; the migration to San Francisco; EC; Warren; Topps; Zap; the Air Pirates Collective. For you, what are the most significant milestones of the movement?
FRIEDMAN: You summed it up. A lot of people call the underground comix scene a “community” of artists, but I don’t buy it. It was all factions — the San Francisco faction, the New York faction, the Chicago faction. Some of the artists were kind of snobbish. A book came out titled “The Underground Comix Family Album” (1998), which I thought was a weird title. It wasn’t really a “family.” It was factions. Like, the Zap crew — Zap became a closed door, as far as contributors. They didn’t let a new member in for, like, 20 years. Zap was an entity unto itself.
Q: For your “Heroes of the Comics” books, you invented some of the backgrounds for your subjects. You imagined what their home studios would have looked like. In “Maverix and Lunatix,” many of the backgrounds are crowded with what we now call “old media” — books and albums. We didn’t even have VHS tapes in the 1970s. Back then, when you saw a book in a book store with information you needed, you bought it, brought it home and put it on a shelf.
FRIEDMAN: As you and I speak, I’m sitting in the same kind of environment: piles of books, artwork, and my “Jewseum” — my Jewish comedy collection. For most artists, that was their environment: record collections, book collections, the libraries behind the artists. I wanted it to be an interesting mix of realistic offices and some other types of backgrounds. I’ve been up to Art Spiegelman’s studio, so that wasn’t much of a stretch. There is some psychedelic imagery. I tried to capture that era, to capture a moment in that 10-year period. I kind of winged it in a lot of cases. Obviously, Jim Franklin was the armadillo guy, so there are armadillos behind him. I wanted Crumb to be anonymous; not to look heroic; not to look like he’s the most famous one, which he is. I just have him sitting in a cafe, about to draw. His sketchbook is blank. He’s about to draw.
Q: I have a couple of technical questions. You credit Kathy (Bidus, Friedman’s wife) for scanning and cleaning the art. Are the portraits and backgrounds we see in your book identical to the originals? Or did you sometimes draw the portraits and backgrounds separately, and unite them digitally? I mean, you’re one of the last illustrators on Earth not to use a Wacom tablet.
FRIEDMAN: I’m one of last ones on Earth, and I don’t even know what that is. Nothing is manipulated. For all of the 101 main images, that’s what’s on the paper. We clean up things before we scan. That’s basically it. I don’t work on a computer at all. I probably never will.
Q: Is the interior art black ink printed on white paper, or is your printer using what is sometimes called a “CMYK black”? I ask this realizing that not every artist gets involved in, or has a say in, the printing.
FRIEDMAN: It’s black ink on white paper. I chose to draw the portraits in black and white. For “Heroes of the Comics,” I did them in full color, because their work appeared in color. Comic books were colorful back then, but when the underground comix came along, they were in black and white. This seemed weird to me when I first saw them. I was 9 years old, and some of them were pornographic. I thought, “This is not right.” Crumb decided to draw Zap in black and white. That became the standard. It just stuck.
Q: It seems you always bring it back to Crumb which, I suppose, we all do.
FRIEDMAN: I’m still in touch with him. I think he turns 80 next year (on Aug. 30). I asked for a blurb for “Maverix and Lunatic,” and he said, “I don’t really do blurbs.” Then he came up with that one (“Drew Friedman is the Hans Holbein of our time, but, you know, funnier”). I had no idea who that artist was. I had to ask Kathy, and she knew. Then I Googled it.
Book launch event
Drew Friedman in Conversation With Owen Kline
■ Society of Illustrators, 128 East 63rd Street, New York
■ 6:30 pm on Thursday, Nov. 17
■ Admission: $7-$15
■ 212-838-2560 | More information HERE
Since Friedman referenced his Jewseum during our interview, here’s a video of the artist giving a tour of same, in an excerpt from Kevin Dougherty‘s documentary “Drew Friedman: Vermeer of the Borscht Belt.”