By Fi Stewart-Taylor
Field, Christopher B., et al. “I’m Just a Comic Book Boy”: Essays on the Intersections of Comics and Punk. McFarland, 2019.
Punk, as Christopher B. Field, Keegan Lannon, Michael David MacBride, and Christopher C. Douglass note in their introduction to “I’m Just a Comic Book Boy”, is fraught with contradictions (8). A movement wide enough to include the politics of registered Republican Johnny Ramone and former Green Party presidential candidate Jello Biafra is bound to catch a few contradictions on the way. For that reason, an anthology feels like the right choice to write about “the intersections of comics and punk,” as the book’s subtitle explains about the project. Given these contradictions, the editors have favored defining punk as “a stylized affect” crystallized out of the stylized aesthetics of punk, originally a movement premised on “aggressive confrontation with social mores, a DIY ethos, and a regard for substance over style” (5). Accordingly, they have included chapters on comics that meet one or more of these criteria and expand our concept of what punk comics can be. The editors were particularly interested in projects that introduce readers to new material or new ways of thinking about more familiar material, with the goal of “a more inclusive examination of punk comics” than any “other large-scale study” (11). They have prioritized punk outside of the Anglo-American context or in genres that might not seem punk at first glance. As must always happen with anthologies, the editors note that they have had to leave out some important material to fit in the material most pressing to their goals, and they cite Gary Panter and the Hernandez Brothers as examples of omissions, both “canonical punk comics with punk aesthetics” (11). The volume’s main ambition, then, is to stretch the scope of inquiry for punk and comics rather than to compile a “greatest hits.” In bringing together a wide variety of styles of comics, from superheroes to underground comics, and a global scope that extends beyond the Anglo-American punk scene to include Japan, Turkey, and Spain, the collection succeeds in those aims.
The book is organized into four sections. The first, “Punk Superhero Comics,” addresses superhero texts that arguably coincide with a punk ethos as stories of rebellion, idealism, or independence, all of which are equated with a DIY or “Do It Yourself” attitude. Both essays in this section address work by legendary comics artist Jack Kirby. Christopher Field’s “One Man Artistic Corps: Jack Kirby’s OMAC” has a clever title that puns on its subject, Kirby’s OMAC (One Man Army Corps), and argues that the titular and mohawk-sporting victim of corporate experimentation could be an early punk. His experiences of alienation and his use of violence—employed admittedly on behalf of the United Nations and in the service of world government, not no government—makes him an outsider, like the punk rockers who followed. OMAC’s short mohawk, Field argues, shares with the days of future punks a style that “rejects social conventions” and “shocks” viewers (23). Field identifies OMAC’s latent critique of the capitalist system—which he reads as stripping OMAC of purpose and identity—with Kirby’s own experience of exploitation by both DC and Marvel. Field further argues that this critique is protopunk in its critique of the system as such (25).
Jill Dahlman’s chapter on Captain America as a punk icon is the most surprising in the entire volume, since Captain America more or less represents the lawful benevolence of a patriotic state. This is probably one of the significant advantages of an approach like that of “I’m Just a Comic Book Boy”; if punk can contain the pacifist anarchist collective Chumbawamba and the military base touring Vandals, then one can at least argue for Captain America as an “All-American Punk” (29). Dahlman’s essay is methodologically interesting, as she tries to make sense of Captain America across his lengthy comic book career from Simon and Kirby’s WWII hero to the massive Marvel crossover event “Civil War” (31, 45). Authors working on superhero comics often face the challenge of reconciling a metafictional figure who is instantiated differently by different writers, artists, and periodically animators, cinematographers, and lunch box designers, so they may benefit from using Dahlman’s work to make sense of the character’s ‘core’ through narrative arc in continuity comics. This is a promising contribution to scholars interested in Captain America as a significant figure in the revivified Marvel universe, or in the symbolic construction of a patriotic rejection of the actually existing American government. The argument that Captain America has represented a kind of idealist left wing of patriotism throughout his career, but that the contents of that idealism has varied greatly depending on the state of the contemporary political situation, is an astute one, and offers future researchers the possibility of reading Captain America comics as a kind of barometer of loyal dissent in the American context. The argument that Captain America is therefore “punk” is a bit harder to follow, especially as the “Civil War” arc took place when there was already a thriving punk subculture.
The next section, on “Vertigo Punk Comics,” features chapters on comics which were published after—and arguably influenced by—the first wave of punk and hardcore in the ’70s and ’80s, like Russel Weber’s chapter on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher as cowboy punk. Besides engaging with the legacy of punk rock, two contributors, Spencer Chalifour and Keegan Lannon, directly engage the legacy of that other British invasion, the British comics writers who crashed into the American scene in the ’80s, writing about contemporary adaptations of Alan Moore’s punk exorcist John Constantine and Grant Morrison’s scrappy not-quite-a-superhero team-up, The Invisibles, respectively. These are the chapters that evoke most directly the “conventional” definitions of punk, as in connected with the music, art, and social scene surrounding punk rock. Chalifour writes about Hellblazer, a spinoff series that took Constantine away from his start as Swamp Thing’s sidekick and moved him back to old haunts in England to confront demons and ghosts of punk past, like the ghost of iconic punk rocker and Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious (56). Chalifour traces how two of Alan Moore’s writing successors on the series, Peter Milligan and Jason Aaron, use stories where Constantine visits old punk haunts to examine how the nihilism and idealism of punk has held up 20 years on. Chalifour finds that both authors are “skeptical” of a simple “continuation” of punk into the present, and instead use Constantine to examine how one can “stay true” to the independence of “punk roots” now thoroughly uprooted and do so without “romanticizing” a punk past (60). Like Dahlman’s chapter in part I, Chalifour’s work offers a methodology for reading long running “legacy” comic strips as interpreting and even forming cultural legacies.
Lannon’s essay on Grant Morrison’s use of autobiographical punk elements in The Invisibles offers one of the volume’s first serious considerations of the economic and production conditions of punk comics, thus introducing the important problem of ethics in comic book production. Lannon notes that Morrison is not working in a DIY production context, either visually or economically, but rather producing a “mainstream comic following mainstream comic conventions,” albeit one that was influenced by the author’s experience in punk (80). Morrison’s work is influential, and a study of this quality on an under-considered element of the work is sure to be valuable.
A thornier problem in production ethics is brought up by Jodie Childer’s chapter on Spider Jerusalem as punk antihero in Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan. Reading Childer’s chapter from the vantage point of summer 2020 is complicated by the recent revelation that Warren Ellis has allegedly harassed or manipulated more than 100 women and nonbinary people, according to the whistleblower project So Many of Us. So Many of Us, available at https://www.somanyofus.com/, details accounts from survivors of abuse by Warren Ellis. It addresses the systematic issues around celebrity interaction and abuse of power in online and comics spaces, as well as Ellis’ actions. It is difficult to read about the punk bona fides of an antihero misanthrope created by Warren Ellis without thinking about Ellis’s alleged use of his punk outsider persona to attract vulnerable young people online. Similarly, it is hard to read about the creative reuse of a formerly idealistic burnout punk created by Alan Moore in Chalifour’s chapter without thinking of Moore’s well-documented objections to DC’s use of his characters from Watchmen. DC’s refusal to allow Moore to retain control over his characters contributed to Moore leaving comics entirely and with significant regrets. Field’s chapter on Jack Kirby details the financial exploitation of Kirby by both DC and Marvel, and suggests that this exploitation motivated some of Kirby’s prolific output. It is not a far stretch to analogize this mode to the corporate rock and roll that DIY record labels like Dischord Records protested with an emphasis on independent, ethical, and self-directed labor. The conditions of production in some areas of comics, like in punk, tend to formalize informality, with all the attendant hopes and risks. As in punk, authenticity in the content of the art itself is only the start of the problem. While these observations are outside the scope of the section on Vertigo and certainly should not be read as a critique of either the chapters included or of their projects, it does underscore the problematic relations of production that attend to comics and punk.
Part three of “Just a Comic Book Boy”, “Underground Punk Comics,” is what I consider the standout section of the book, as it offers insight into punk publishing cultures relatively marginal to discussion in both the American punk scene and American comics studies, Turkey and Spain. The chapters included here show how significant an oversight this has been. Louie Dean Valencia-Garcia’s chapter on “Reinventing a Carnivalesque Public Sphere” in 1970s Spain offers a sociological view of the Movida Madrileña or Madrid Scene, a punk culture of “imagine(d) alternatives to the dictatorship” that was supported by “carnivalesque comic books” and contextualized by years of underground publishing and comic book smuggling to avoid fascist censorship (134, 141). This is the first chapter to substantially engage with punk comics as emerging from and in turn informing a punk scene rather than responding to punk influences in the individual author’s life or sharing some traits in common with a punk ethos, so it may be particularly appealing to those whose work focuses on communities or on the intersections of community research and comics studies. Those interested in zine studies may also find this text appealing, as Valencia-Garcia’s approach to describing the relationship between a music and party culture and print and reading culture is deft and valuable. Valencia-Garcia describes the Movida as a “subversive horizontal network,” with “nodes” of counterpublics combined into “an underground network that undermined Francoist values,” in part by publishing and distributing comic anthologies with subversive and satiric material often traded by hand or in countercultural spaces (141).
Those interested in a transnational approach to punk scenes will find Valencia-Garcia’s chapter as well as Can Yalçinkaya’s contribution on “Drawing Istanbul’s Asshole” in Turkish humor magazines particularly interesting, as the influences of Anglo-American work in translation inevitably arises when discussing how punk is imported, exported, and localized. Also included in this section is Michael David MacBride’s chapter on Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, one of the earliest autobiographical underground comics. MacBride’s approach is to focus on representations of the phallus in artwork created in the punk scene and in earlier bootleg comics, contextualizing Justin Green’s use of the phallus in the rock posters, record sleeves, and Tijuana bibles with similar phallic imagery (125). An approach emphasizing continuity with other graphic arts, including commercial design like the Black Flag record sleeves MacBride discusses, is sometimes missing in comics studies, where medium specificity is at a premium despite the significant crosspollination of the worlds of fine art, commercial design, and comics (115-116). MacBride has collected an impressive collection of reference images, and his attention to Raymond Pettibon, creator of the iconic Black Flag logo, is itself a significant and valuable archival project (116-117). One does not, therefore, necessarily need to agree with MacBride’s argument that phallocentrism is a neglected vantage point in discussing Binky Brown in particular to find the chapter valuable.
The final section, “Punk Manga,” was particularly important to the editors, who note in their introduction that neglecting manga, one of the fastest-growing comics industries in the world with a remarkably diverse global readership, would have been a serious omission (8). If I must in turn give it relatively little space within this review, it is not because it is less interesting or well executed than previous sections. Rather, it is because I am much less familiar with the publishing and punk context of Japan, which proves the editors’ point in emphasizing it. Christopher C. Douglas’s chapter on Akira is a valuable piece of transmedia scholarship, comparing the film, released during the bubble economy and affirming a return to social values of togetherness, with the manga, which spanned the bubble economy and its burst and breaks more completely with the traditional social values the film version retreats to. Alice Vernon, writing on women in manga, focuses on how individual characters offer sites for a rebellious reimagining of gender or, despite their flashy tough aesthetics, retreat to a more conservative vision of gender roles. The final chapter, Francesco-Alessio Ursini on “Punk Bodies and the ‘Do It Yourself’ Philosophy,” draws together a wide and sometimes surprising range of texts including fantasy epic Nausicaä and American underdog superhero team-up series Doom Patrol to argue that “body modification” in comics “can be seen as a quintessential application of the DIY principle as a way to assert one’s identity and autonomy” (208).
The editors have made important strides to amend previous exclusions in studies of comics and punk through their focus on international punk scenes and on manga, and no anthology can cover everything. Nevertheless, the omission of more explicitly feminist, antiracist, and anticapitalist tendencies in punk feels significant. The omission of American cartoonists of color working on punk influenced comics in venues both independent and mainstream like Bianca Xunise, Hellen Jo, or Ben Passmore feels like a significant oversight. While the Hernandez Brothers are frequently studied and anthologized, most other punk cartoonists of color are not comparably discussed in academic circles. There is some discussion of themes of gender, specifically the main character’s girlfriend in Weber’s chapter on Preacher and in Alice Vernon’s discussion of gender roles in manga, but little discussion of women cartoonists or creators in punk. Possible subjects might include Sacred Heart and Cyanide Milkshake creator Liz Suburbia, for example, or Jenn Woodall, or any of the cartoonists involved in riot grrrl zines, including Cindy Crabb’s much beloved zine series Doris, or Sarah Dyer’s Action Girl, or work by zine scene stalwart Nicole J. Georges. The profile and influence of the zine movement is increasingly visible, but comics specifically are not always fully considered in zine studies. Comics studies is also still not fully attuned to independent and self-published texts, perhaps because it can be difficult to reliably access these texts, particularly years after they are published.
There is no point in faulting an anthology for what it is not, particularly since it does what it does very well. The picture of punk painted here points out how urgently we need more attention to questions of production and economics and thorough commitments to diversity and representation in comics studies and subculture studies, not least since these are questions which punk praxis has spent forty years trying to answer for itself, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a jagged shout. However, as is the spirit of punk, I think recognizing this gap is an invitation to readers to do it ourselves and to answer the invitation through future research. This is an excellent volume that will be useful to scholars in comics studies and subculture studies, particularly those working at the intersections between those fields.