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Preludium: Crumb, Barks, and Noomin: Re-Considering the Aesthetics of Underground Comics

By Donald Ault

Note: The following is extracted, expanded, and revised from essays originally appearing in What’s Up Underground, 1996, 33-36 and Occident #1 (second Series), 1973, 86-87)

The “auteur” theory, originally referring to the stylistic signature of film directors and based on an analogy with figures such as Chaplin, who wrote, produced, directed, starred in, and owned the studio and controlled the distribution of his films is now somewhat passé because of the subsequent critical acknowledgement of the necessary teamwork involved in producing most films. In most mainstream comics, the “auteur” designation is simply misleading because of the assembly line production of comic book texts, with separate writers, plotters, editors, pencillers, inkers, and colorists. The artists who had the greatest influence on Underground comix, such as Carl Barks, Harvey Kurtzman, and Basil Wolverton, tended to be “auteurs” in the pure sense. Perhaps one of the reasons Underground comics have come to be considered legitimate art is due to the fact that the work of these artists more truly embodies what much of the public believes is true of newspaper strips—that they are written and drawn (i.e., authentically signed by) a single person. In fact, many newspaper strips involve ghost inking (Doonesbury, for example), writing, and even pencilling (L’il Abner for instance), while some newspaper strips acknowledge (sometimes misleading) dual authorship and only a few in recent years have actually been produced by a single person (most notably Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks, and three strips no longer in production—Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, Gary Larsen’s The Far Side, and the late Charles Schulz’s Peanuts). While the bizarre nature of Kurtzman’s and Wolverton’s comics is an obvious source for the Undergrounds, Carl Barks (Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics) was the most prolific of the mainstream comic book auteurs, and his work has been highly influential across the entire spectrum of comics despite the fact that, on the surface, his major work bears little resemblance to most Underground comics.

Barks’ pivotal role in the emergence of Underground comics relates to the way Barks’ stories involve the overlapping and interconstitution of the everyday and the fantastic—realistically grounded plots shooting off into absurd, frustrating, and even grotesque situations. In a 1973 interview, Barks noted in response to my question concerning his influence on Underground comics,

The thing I consider most important about my work is this: I told it like it is. I told my readers that the bad guys have a little bit of good in them, and the good guys have a lot of bad in them, and that you can’t depend on anything much; nothing is always going to turn out roses…When Donald got buffeted around, I tried to put it over in such a way that kids would see it could happen to them. Unlike the superhero comics, my stories had parallels in human experience. This meant the Ducks had to be human enough to die.

This strain of realism, of the romance of the everyday, continually bumped up against the imaginative places and events the Ducks encountered (the land of Plain Awful in “Lost in the Andes,” the hidden world of the Terries and Fermies from “Land Beneath the Ground,” or the “Golden Helmet” that determined the ownership of North America by mere possession). Barks’ work is a hybrid form of storytelling in which he puts his readers simultaneously inside the situation (always constructed by social conventions) and allows readers to observe from the outside the hypocrisy and fetishism of the power-driven capitalist culture. The formal and technical features of Barks’ work–like that of the Underground artists—allow his work to transcend the category of social satire by subordinating explicit political allegory and elevating the functioning of “gag,” “story,” and “narrative” to a central role while making subliminal use of medium-reflexive possibilities of comics.

Figure 1. Originally unpublished opening half-page splash panel for “Trick or Treat” © Disney

Barks’ work is transparent—you see through the eyes of the panels, and this is true even when Barks condenses a narrative sequence into the illusion of a single event—as in the originally unpublished opening half-page splash panel for “Trick or Treat” (see below). Similarly Underground comic artists constantly searched for common grounds of ordinary experience, including violence, sex, and, on its periphery, dreams and hallucinations, that would allow readers both to identify with the plot and to stand outside the culture and see its inner workings. Most of Harvey Kurtzman’s work, but especially his pseudo-realistic yet cartoony style in the context of anti-war comics such as Frontline Combat, paved the way for Underground artists. From this perspective, Underground comics work as a cultural critique (analysis from the perspective of the oppressed) through the technical hybridization of the realistic and the fantastic.

Figure 2. Most of Harvey Kurtzman’s work, but especially his pseudo-realistic yet cartoony style in the context of anti-war comics such as Frontline Combat, paved the way for Underground artists. © 1952 Harvey Kurtzman


Figure 3. © 1940 Basil Wolverton
Figure 4. © 1973 Basil Wolverton

Robert Crumb’s work constantly incorporates this hybridity by techniques that play off the tension between “characters” such as the letters in his balloons and titles and “characters” like Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont, the apparent beings who are also created out of ink and paper and are thus physically continuous with the alphabetical letters. In the opening panel of “Workaday World” Flakey and Mr. Natural are sticking their heads out of apparent holes in the (paper) sky: and on the second page, panel five, the word “BONG!” is shaded in exactly the same way as Mr. Natural and Flakey. Crumb thus insists on the flatness and cartoony qualities of his drawings and yet draws them as if they are genuine, rounded beings whose ongoing worlds we are periodically glimpsing. This tension penetrates to the minutest details of the pages. Note that Flakey is never shown gathering hay until Mr. Natural has given him the pitchfork. Though the “perspectives” on Flakey change and often reverse his position relative to the viewer, these shifts actually emphasize the way he appears frozen in one spot until the motion lines of Mr. Natural intervene. Note that the sun seems to stay in the same place in relation to Flakey until Mr. Natural appears; then it hides for two panels behind Flakey’s lettered thoughts and words, until finally the sun disappears from the story as such when Flakey is shown pitchforking—just at the moment when the rays of the sun migrate into radiations of happiness from Flakey’s head, replacing the sweat that had been emanating from Flakey until Mr. Natural presented him with the pitchfork. The absence of linear bounding lines around the first and last panels removes these events from being a purely linear sequence. In one sense the entire “lesson” of the story could almost be inferred from these first and last panels, as if the intervening panels are packets of humorous interference, postponing readers’ completion of their traversal from beginning to end of the story.

Figure 5. © 1970 R. Crumb


Figure 6. © 1970 R. Crumb

The absence of border outlines in the opening panel of “Workaday World” suggests peripherally that there’s no precise limit to the time that is “passing” in the panel. The intense feeling of flatness, despite the ostensible shading of the characters, fortifies this impression of temporal extensiveness. We’ve got all the time in the world, the narrator implies: “Let’s look in on Flakey Foont and see how he’s doing….” By contrast, the sharp edges of Barks’ “Trick or Treat” panel and its imitation of Renaissance perspective, with stable and heavy objects in the foreground, the division of the panel into thirds by the wisp of cloud and the hill that separates the graveyard from the town, and the church steeple jutting upward, off-center, invite our perception to move from the general point of perspective (the graveyard) to the witch who flies across the moon toward the steeple. The feeling of absolute stasis before this moment of action, embodied by the graveyard and the absence of anything alive, is shattered by the witches trail with it’s alphabetical “characters” “ZOOM,” which are the only figures existing inside the world of the drawing that seem to have no “sides” (do not participate in shading and silhouetting the way the rest of the “realistic” objects in the panel do). If the witch and her technically static trail signifying motion are taken out of the drawing, what’s left is a rather quaint scene of houses and a graveyard at night lit by impossible lighting. Add the witch the way Barks has, and stasis is transformed into a flash of immediacy, and death arises to life. (The fact that this panel was adapted by Barks from storyboards of the animated cartoon of the same name does not undermine these observations. Barks’ compression of time and insistence on the “nowness” of this singular moment compensates and exceeds the technologically mimetic illusion of actual motion that informs the opening of the animated cartoon.)

Crumb’s lighting stretches out imaginations a bit: the shadows aren’t quite right. But this has to do with the fact that Crumb’s “sun” is not really the source of light, just as the choppy lines don’t really signify roundness. Barks’ lighting doesn’t make sense physically, but this is not the result of any technical deficiency on Barks’ part. He uses weird lighting effects to force our imaginations to a crisis–a crisis that is verbally intensified by the narrator’s (apparently) sudden realization, “Look! There goes one now!” Barks’s world is one that is totally transfigured by the imagination. It is like a dream we flash on for a moment. And the feeling of a flash, like the photograph of a dream, is precisely the effect Barks is striving for in this panel. It is a glimpse not of a “workaday world” but of a world that exists only at certain moments of perception. Barks can make us believe in this world simply because he makes us see the fantastic so clearly. Spatial depth here imitates real perceptual depth. The temporal intensiveness is like the vanishing present. Barks thus takes an imaginative moment and makes us experience it as reality. Crumb takes a moment of reality and makes us experience it as imagination.

Figure 7. Unlike Crumb, Noomin refuses to indicate where and how this space exists representationally in relation to the figures who also appear as actors in the plot on the left side of the panel. © 1991 Diane Noomin

By contrast to both of these techniques, Diane Noomin’s artistic choices in “I Married a Hypochondriac” enact technical hybridity by drawing attention to the flatness of the page in a different way from Crumb and blur the distinction—more than Barks’ and Crumb’s drawings do—between “character” as a two-dimensional alphabetical signifier and as an independent three-dimensional being moving through a world independent of the drawings on the page. This tendency also constructs an ambiguity between figure and ground—effectively articulated through Noomin’s scratchboard technique of drawing. All of these technical choices materialize most evidently at the bottom right panel of page one, where Noomin creates a genuine optical illusion in which figure and ground constantly shift and intensify the reader’s awareness of the characters’ two-dimensionality. In Noomin’s opening panel, as in the first panel of Crumb’s piece, there are no enclosing and temporally stabilizing borders, and the main characters’ heads appear suspended in space. But unlike Crumb, Noomin refuses to indicate where and how this space exists representationally in relation to the figures who also appear as actors in the plot on the left side of the panel. Rather than breaking up the continuity of a representational sky, as Crumb’s drawing does, Noomin’s images insist that the white of the page itself interrupts the black “backgrounds” that enclose the two very different versions of the “characters.” The right-hand images appear as medallion-like, almost pasted onto the nonrepresentational background, and simultaneously as viewers of the action in the left-hand side of the panel. Between these two appearances of the “characters” float iconographic symbols—hearts, bubbles, and champagne glasses—that almost seem to be thinking the right-hand image of DiDi Glitz. Drastic gaps exist between the panels in Noomin’s story, and abrupt shifts in perspective and style prevent readers from easily constituting a realistic underlying world.

Some time ago, French psychoanalytic film theorists posited the term “suture” as a way of describing how contiguous scenes in a film are bound up together in perception. In comics the situation is both simpler and more complex. On the one hand, our minds do not have to clear away all the nonessential details of a photographed scene in order to grasp the next scene; on the other hand, comic panels crack open the visible body of the page, making it seem as if the viewer is fragmented in a mosaic mirror. Gaps between panels work to heal the illusion of temporal collapse but in turn produce a cut into the spatial field that is potentially as threatening to the ego as is bodily dismemberment. The Underground artists and their predecessors, as well as more recent alternative comic artists, have been able to marshal these conflicting aspects to bring to the surface of our awareness the realistic and the fantastic, the potentially violent and comforting discontinuities of ordinary life that often slip by our perception in a blink of the eye—sleeping and waking, dying and living again.

Posted in Volume 1, Issue 2