Those underground comix artists of the 1960s may have been renegade outlaws, but they didn’t escape the “90% of everything is crud” law. Even at the peak of their popularity, I’d flip through most pages of their comic books and simply see a bunch of bland, uninspired visuals blurring into a background of crosshatching chicken-scratchings with little or no sense of design. Only about a dozen stood out, but ah, what a dozen.
There were Crumb and Spiegelman, naturally. And of course, the psychedelic poster crossovers Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso. And Air Pirates Dan O’Neill, Shary Flenniken and Bobby London. Denis Kitchen, Howard Cruse and Trina Robbins were exceptional among the cartoonists published by the Midwest’s Kitchen Sink Press. And Kitchen Sink was inspired by—and later adopted—the pioneering Bijou Funnies, launched by Skip Williamson and Jay Lynch, two other outstanding artistic talents. Our world lost both Skip and Jay to illnesses just within the past few weeks, even though they’d yet to stop producing clever, entertaining, high-spirited cartoons more than a half-century after they’d begun.
It seems natural to speak of Skip and Jay together, as they were colleagues throughout most of their lives. They were born within six months of each other in the mid-1940s, and they both funneled their shared childhood passion for comics into creating fanzines. They first received national exposure way back in pre-underground early-’60s, in the “Public Gallery” pages of Harvey Kurtzman’s Help!, the pioneering humor magazine that also helped launch the careers of Crumb and Terry Gilliam. “Public Gallery” would introduce up-and-comers to Help!’s mixed bag of contents, which deserves mention for some of its other contributors. From 1960 to ’65 its covers would feature Mort Sahl, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, and Jackie Gleason. There was text by Steve Allen, Sid Caesar and Ray Bradbury and fumetto acted out by Woody Allen, Dick Van Dyke, and John Cleese. Other cartoonists included Will Elder—naturally—and Will Eisner, Shel Silverstein, and Gahan Wilson. Kurtzman would also devote six or more pages each to blasts from the past like Thomas Nast, Charles Dana Gibson, and Percy Crosby, whose Skippy was the principal precursor to kids’ strips such as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac. It was among these associations that Skip and Jay spent their formative years. And it shows.
Skip—Crosby’s Skippy was actually the source of the troublemaking child’s nickname—was the first of the duo to appear in Help! He was a mere 16 in 1961 when Gloria Steinem, the Assistant Editor at the time, bought a one-panel drawing of two “Help Keep New Orleans Clean” sidewalk garbage cans, one labeled “White Trash,” the other “Negro Trash.” It was his first published work. Skip and Jay each showed up five times after that, with their political and social leanings already in evidence. They thrived and developed in their home base of Chicago, removed from the introspective navel-gazing that preoccupied the brain cells—and diminished the funny bones – of so many of their funny page peers on both coasts. Still in the 1960s, they were both illustrating for Paul Krassner’s The Realist, Help!’s satirical big brother. And most famously, in 1968 they re-tooled their underground newspaper The Chicago Mirror into Bijou Funnies, one of the very first underground comix, with an able assist from Crumb shortly after he’d published his own Zap #1.
The decade also brought Skip’s art snippets of secondhand tee-vee exposure from stand-up activist-comedian Dick Gregory showing his trash cans cartoon on the Tonight Show to Carl Reiner dressing up as Snappy Sammy Smoot, Skip’s most well-known character, on Laugh-In. And Jay began at Topps, hired by Spiegelman to design characters for Wacky Packages and later, Garbage Pail Kids, trading cards which sneakily subverted new, post-Kurtzman generations of innocent tykes.
By the end of the 1960s they’d fully developed into the Mad comic book artists of the underground. Jay’s work had the folksy charm of Jack Davis and the detailed grotesquerie of Basil Wolverton. Skip’s had Wally Wood‘s slick intensity and Bernie Krigstein’s graphic sophistication. And while Skip had Kurtzman’s casual refinement, Jay had Billl Elder’s Milt Gross/Bill Holman-like screwball aesthetic.
Skip entered the 1970s by illustrating Steal This Book for Yippie Abbie Hoffman, which led to him spearheading Conspiracy Capers, a fundraiser comic book for Abbie’s Chicago Eight trial defense, which featured Art Spiegelman and Jay Lynch. Skip then moved into art directing porn mags, which led to Chicago-based Playboy hiring him in 1976. And so he again he found himself working at the same publication as Harvey Kurtzman, who’d started Little Annie Fanny in 1962 while still producing Help! While there, Skip created the “Playboy Funnies” section which showcased Art and Jay, and Bobby London and Howard Cruse, and even Kurtzman, in a collaboration with artist Sarah Downs, which brought his career full circle.
Skip’s and Jay’s many other worthy accomplishments go on and on. Personally, I’ve always been most impressed when their creative sensibilities connected with and reflected their roots. Their art beamed most brilliantly in their spectacular, Kurtzman-inspired meta-humor and their irreverent parodies and lampoons of politics, mass media, and the very counterculture in which they were entrenched. Fittingly, the entire last issue of their Bijou Funnies was a tribute to ol’ Harv.
Here’s just a small sampling of that work, in respectful recognition of two very large talents.