The Daily Heller: The Faces Behind Underground Comix, by Drew Friedman

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Who better than Drew (an apt name for an artist) Friedman to draw all the Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix and collect them in a book of the same name?

Loosely an A to Z of the greats—from R. Crumb (godfather of the form, with Harvey Kurtzman being its grandfather) to S. Clay Wilson—the book features many of my comix heroes, quite a few unknowns (to me), and, a special treat, a cadre of artists I worked with a lot back in the day. What amazes as it saddens me is how many of this number have departed for comix heaven—many who were born a decade or more before me, and a handful of those born in my birth year.

Friedman is a master portraitist, precise yet with a smidge of caricature, who finds the right pose to capture and facial expression to focus on. He is a classic detail man, too—so don’t just glance, really study his pictures for full impact

I am always happy when a new Friedman collection comes out, comix being the closest to my heart. The book publishes in October, but I could not wait to talk to Friedman about it now.

R. Crumb

You are renowned for your detailed portraits that capture the essences of comedians (gone but not forgotten) and comic book masters and early pioneers. Now you’ve focused on my generation’s underground comix artists. You’ve captured them in their primes. First of all, it is shocking to see them frozen in time like this. Why did you choose this cohort, and are any forgotten?
Right, I wanted to draw images of all the artists frozen in that time, a moment, or I suppose an entire movement captured. The decade of 1967–1977 more or less was the height of the underground comix revolution, from ZAP to ARCADE, so depicting them in that era, as they looked then—almost every one of them had really long hair; I think that was mandatory—was the way to go. I wanted to create a mix; formal portraits of the U.G. cartoonists connecting to the viewer, but also some depicted randomly, anonymously walking down the street, in a field, in a car. I drew Robert Crumb alone, sitting in a cafe, about to draw in his ever-present sketchbook. I thought about including a drawing by him in progress; I even picked something out from one of his sketchbooks from 1975, the year that image is supposed to take place, but decided a blank page might be more intriguing: What will he be drawing? I showed the finished Crumb illustration to Art Spiegelman early on, just before COVID hit, and he commented “Heroes of underground comix?” His implication being that I wasn’t drawing Crumb heroically, just a subdued, low-key private moment captured in time.

There are indeed artists who I thought would have been lost (Richard “Grass” Green, Yossarian, Ned Sonntag, etc.). In your estimation, are these the best of the best or a representative selection on a qualitative scale?
My late friend Jay Kennedy included a list of over 3,000 artists who created work for the U.G.s in his book The Underground Comix Price Guide. I narrowed that list down to an essential 101, the most celebrated, some that were pretty popular and some who made small but relevant contributions, but are mostly forgotten today. Aside from the obvious choices—Crumb, Wilson, Shelton, Williams, Spain, Deitch, Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Bobby London—I also included quite a few of the lesser-known or forgotten artists, like Andy Martin, Harry Driggs, Nancy Burton and Yossarian. Yes, there were levels on the scale ranging from great notoriety to relative obscurity, from the masterful to the mediocre. It was actually more challenging for me to draw the ones lost in time. Buckwheat Florida Jr., for example. I always dug his nom de plume, and the little work he created for U.G.s was basically for the late-’60s YELLOW DOG tabloid and his one trippy Print Mint comic book, SUDS. That was about it. I didn’t have any biographical info, his real name or what he even looked like. Even comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz who wrote the afterword for my book, drew a blank on Buckwheat. But he was a pioneering U.G. artist and his work even had a big influence on Crumb, who drew him as a character in one of his comics. So I dug in, finally tracked down some bio info, and with the help of my friend John Wendler, who has an almost magical knack for coming up with obscure photos and info, I was able to craft a portrait and short biography. Everyone I felt worthy to be in the book ultimately was included … as well as some whose work didn’t especially appeal to me.

Early in 2019 I had lunch with R. Crumb in New York and mentioned I was considering creating a book of portraits of underground cartoonists, my only hesitation being that I didn’t love the work of some of the artists. He responded, “so what, you don’t have to love everyone you draw.” Which of course made perfect sense. Jesus Christ, I’ve drawn Donald Trump multiple times over the years, beginning way back with SPY.

Buckwheat Florida Jr.

You caught Justin Green just in time. How do you feel, being more or less a contemporary of so many who have died?
Yeah, losing Justin Green was sad. He was one of the giants. I had corresponded with him for a few years, later on Facebook, and my hope was that he was going to be around for the publication of my book, maybe even join me for a signing. We were able to update his death status for his short bio in the book before it went to the printers. I’d guess maybe 50% of the subjects have shed their mortal coil … I haven’t done a specific count. Since I finished the book, Justin, Simon Deitch and Tom Veitch have passed, all of whom are included in the book. So I say a daily prayer for everyone else who’s still kicking. My hope is that as many as possible can hopefully see and enjoy the book—and are happy with their portraits—and can just hold out til October’s book release [laughs]. Most of the surviving U.G. cartoonists are in their 70s or 80s now … which no longer sounds that old to me. For what it’s worth, the oldest U.G. cartoonist was George “Hak” Vogrin, born in 1920, and the youngest, Leslie Cabarga, born in 1954.

S. Clay Wilson

Where does your passion for comedy, comic books and comic art come from?
The best education I received growing up came from MAD magazine and from my un-color television. I reluctantly went to school, to camp, participated in sports … but it was within the confines of my bedroom, along with my guinea pig, surrounded by all my cherished swag, that I would obsessively devour old black-and-white movies, particularly horror and comedy films, and shorts, and old TV sitcoms—The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, the Bowery Boys, Our Gang, Popeye, Jerry Lewis, Shari Lewis, Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker, The Jack Benny Program, Car 54, Where are You?, The Honeymooners and The Joe Franklin Show. What a glorious childhood education! I also collected paperbacks and comic books—any type of comic book: superheroes, funny animals, romance. I loved the look, the feel, even the smell of them. As I got a little older I began to discern the ones that stood out, mainly the EC comics.

I started accumulating U.G. comix when I was 9. I discuss my startling discovery of the U.G.s in the book, and I had a private stash hidden away in my bedroom closet, always terrified that our housekeeper, Mrs. Sullivan, would discover them and turn me in to my parents. But the U.G.s knocked me out; they were forbidden fruit, it was illegal that I even owned them … Adults Only! Which added to the thrill. And the weirdness of the U.G. comics being much more expensive then regular comic books—25 cents!—and, aside from the covers, in black and white! Comic books were supposed to be all in color for a dime! That’s the main reason I painted all the portraits in the book in black and white. My earlier two books of portraits of mainstream Heroes of the Comics were painted in full color, but the black-and-white approach for the U.G. artists just made more sense, more in keeping with the comics they created.

Art Spiegelman

Your drawings are so detailed and your oeuvre is so large, but to me you’re not old enough to be so prolific. Do you continually work, work, work?
I suppose it might seem that way but I’m actually very disciplined as far as my work schedule. I don’t begin working until about 9:30 a.m., periodically take a peek at my MacBook, take a lunch break midday for a half hour or so, then work till 4 p.m., and that’s basically it. I rejoin my wife, Kathy, and our beagle, Dela, and I don’t even think about drawing. But I am obsessive about whatever my current project is, be it a single drawing or assignment or an entire book of illustrations. This U.G. book of portraits was my pandemic book, which for selfish reasons was a good thing. Since I barely left the house for almost two years, aside from shopping for food, I had even more time to put into this book, doing research, rereading my entire collection of U.G. comix for inspiration, and drawing … and redrawing.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb

Again, with such a detailed method, perfection is key. Am I right?
Well, sure, I like to think I strive for perfection. If something is off in a drawing, it nags at me until I can figure out what the problem is. I have a folder of pencil sketches and even a few finished pieces created for this book that I finally rejected because something was off, even something pretty minor, like an expression just not working out. I drew Robert Williams three times, two of them completed paintings, before I landed on the version in the book. Leonard Rifas also took three attempts, his Jew-fro was just not cooperating! I’m pretty tough on myself, which I think is a good thing. 

Undergrounds evolved into graphic novels (and such). I can’t keep up. Can you?
[Laughs.] No, not really. By the early ’70s underground comix were a mandatory accoutrement to hippie pads across the country but began to fade a couple of years later; distribution became more difficult, head-shops were shutting down, and so many sub-mediocre comix were coming out that the good ones got lost in the shuffle. Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith saw the writing on the wall and founded ARCADE magazine in 1975, featuring the best of the U.G. cartoonists. It was a noble experiment but didn’t last. The exception of course was Robert Crumb, who kept on releasing new solo U.G. titles like Best Buy Comics and HUP, sort of like Chaplin continuing to make silent films after the talkies came in. But aside from Crumb and a few other exceptions, among them the latest ZAP, Freak Brothers, Zippy and Cherry Poptart, the novelty was over. U.G. comix were essentially kaput. Then jump a few years to RAW and WEIRDO, and beyond that, yeah, I couldn’t keep up either. At that point I just followed the individual work of my favorite artists.

Spain Rodriguez

So, what is next? Is there a particular popular art you want to address? Gag cartoons? European cartoonists? 
Those are both really good ideas. I have a list of possible topics; some have been suggested to me, like Old Black Comedians and Old Italian Comedians. A few other ideas I’ve considered include Great Jewish Comedy Writers, Great Cartoon Directors and Old Horror Movie Actors, but … I dunno. Stephen Kroninger and I have held several live presentations of Forgotten Caricaturists Remembered at the Society of Illustrators and SVA. We’d still like to compile a book covering that topic, but I’ve also considered doing a book of portraits, Caricaturing the Caricaturists … which could still happen, unless someone reads this and steals the idea [laughs]. Over the last couple of years, aside from the U.G. portraits, I’ve still been drawn to rendering portraits of comedians of the past, mainly forgotten ones and not all of them Jewish. I’ve drawn Gene Baylos, Timmie Rogers, Danny Rio, Jack Wakefield, Guy Marks, Selma Diamond, Menasha Skulnik, Herkie Styles, the comedy team Jewel & Warriss, as well as Buster Keaton, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Elaine May and Brother Theodore. These and many other new images that I’ve stockpiled will be included in my next book collection, which actually already has a title, SCHTICK FIGURES, and a cover image featuring my late pal Gilbert Gottfried, possibly out by next year. Stay tuned.