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Komiks from the Underground: the Radicalism of Gilbert Shelton

By a happy coincidence, I received a review copy of “Radical America Komiks” from PM Press on the very day my review of Allen Young’s autobiography appeared on CounterPunch. Allen Young worked for Liberation News Service (LNS), a radical version of the Associated Press that forwarded articles to SDS chapters around the country, while Radical America was an official SDS publication launched by Paul Buhle meant to raise awareness on the left about the long history of anti-capitalist resistance in the USA. Unlike the old left, LNS and Radical America absorbed the counter-culture of the period. The one-off publication of Radical America Komiks in 1969 was arguably the most fully developed expression of this cross-fertilization and as such we are grateful to PM Press for publishing a replica of the ground-breaking comic book.

Back in 1967, about a month or so after joining the quintessentially old-left Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, fellow New School Graduate philosophy Ph.D. student Arthur Maglin who had recruited me to the sect, was showing me around the bookstore at party headquarters near Union Square. He picked up a copy of Radical America and described it as great reading. Just a decade later, something like Radical America would never be found in an SWP bookstore and recommending it might have gotten you expelled. When I got on the Internet in 1991, it did not take long for me to establish a connection with Paul Buhle whose vision of left unity coincided with my own as a refugee from sectarianism. I only wish that I could have gotten into a time-machine and returned to 1967 to help write for Radical America. I once asked Peter Camejo if he could have turned back the clock, when he would have made the decision to quit the SWP—knowing what he then knew. Without skipping a beat, he replied the week after he joined.

For those curious about Radical America, I urge you to check out the archives at Brown University where Paul taught for many years alongside his wife Mari Jo Buhle. The September-October 1967 issue, which is likely the one that Arthur Maglin held up for my perusal, had two articles on the IWW. In 2005, I reviewed “Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World”, co-edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. This was the first comic book that Paul put out ever since 1967 and one that reflected the same identification with American radical traditions. (I could be wrong about this being the first given his considerable output of 55 books over the years.)

In his introduction to the PM book, Paul ties together the two strands:

My own participation in Radical America Komiks was modest, in that I made it happened financially and played a part in distribution, without actually drawing or script-writing. Jay Kinney [who wrote the foreword] has called this “packaging,” a term that belongs properly to the comic book industry of the 1940s and the practice of turning over the entire production of certain lines to a subproducer like Eisner-Eiger. Kinney extends “packaging” to my pro-duction of comics from 2005 onward, and if not terribly precise, it is useful in that it lets me say more about that way things ended and how that connects to the underground era, Radical America Komiks in particular.

After a curious thirty-five-year absence (marked by intermittent interviews with comic artists and my reviews of their work in the Village Voice and the Nation, as well as other places), I came back to comics production as it became possible to enter another phase of comic art. Not to make any special claims, WOBBLIES! (2005) brought together the eldest of the underground generation, Spain Rodriquez, with artists more than thirty years younger, a group of them gathered around the annual publication World War 3 Illustrated, in New York.

Turning to the actual work in Komiks, you will find much of it a lot rawer than what you might have expected in a comic book put out by the Trotskyists or the CP (not that these sects would have ever thought outside the box.) The old left esthetic was very much in the agitprop vein, with clearly delineated heroes and villains—the working class on one side of the barricades and the bosses on the other.

None of this crops up in Komics, especially the work of Gilbert Shelton who was the editor and best known radical comic strip author of the 1960s and 70s. Shelton created The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat, and Wonder Wart-Hog, comic strips that bear more than a casual resemblance to R. Crumb. Crumb was the ultimate iconoclast who has been condemned for stereotyping Blacks and women but his defenders make the case that the images were more of a commentary on a decadent society than a projection of its values.

Shelton, who spent time in Cleveland in 1964 and 1965 trying to land a job at the same greeting card company as R. Crumb, encapsulates the same dark view of American reality in “Smiling Sergeant Death and His Merciless Mayhem” that depicts a raid on “Red China” using Cold War clichés turned upside down. Sergeant Death is a John Wayne type he-man who recruits a bunch of fearless fighters after the fashion of Lee Marvin in “The Dirty Dozen” There’s a Black GI named Watermelon Jones and a Jew named Iggy Schwartz who looks like something out of Der Stürmer. Schwartz asks his squad if they’ve ever tried chicken soup and Dexedrine. It’s an old Jewish recipe, he tells them. Compared to Gilbert Shelton, Chapo Trap House is Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. Paul comments on how the old left reacted to Shelton’s piece:

Gilbert Shelton’s “Smiling Sergeant Death and His Merciless Mayhem Patrol,” the true lead piece, is both funny and daring, a combination of antimilitary satire and riffs on comics superheroes. In the Black Power era, the character “Watermelon Jones” was considered so insulting that the Communist Party bookstore in Los Angeles sold the comic under the counter! (The local CPish “Che-Lumumba Club,” under the influence of Angela Davis and Dorothy Healy, was more than receptive, but the old comrades were nervous.)

LNS and Radical America were part and parcel of a cultural revolution in the USA that the Trotskyists and Stalinists viewed as a nuisance (kudos to Angela Davis and Dorothy Healy for being more advanced than us.) Sometimes the hippie/druggie sensibility clashed with the radical movement to the breaking point. LNS founders Marshall Bloom and Ray Mungo, who were oriented more to the cultural pole, found that they could not abide by the SDS radicals and pulled off a palace coup.

Like the Internet today, a technological revolution made print publications like LNS and Radical America possible. Allen Young makes the point that offset printing gave LNS the power that was formerly in the hands of much wealthier publishers. As A.J. Liebling pointed out, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Offset press was the next best thing to owning one as Allen writes:

Shifts in both technology and political awareness fomented the underground press. Offset printing, which was an adaptation of the old printing technique of lithography, was the key component. The printing method allowed the preparation of a newspaper without the use of the complex and huge Linotype machine and molten lead that was essential to the printing of newspapers for most of the twentieth century. With offset printing, the pages could be prepared by typing text on two different typewriter models manufactured by International Business Machines (IBM). One was the Selectric model, which used a little ball containing all of the characters and allowed super-fast typing. The other, the Executive, accommodated different space for different letters — for example, more space for an m than for an /. so the end result looked like traditional typesetting. The whole process was much less expensive.

This technology enabled a vast outpouring of underground newspapers to appear around the country, often mixing radical politics with counter-cultural advice on how to grow marijuana or where to buy really groovy bell-bottom jeans. To pay their expenses, the newspapers took ads from a wide variety of enterprises, from local massage parlors to real estate brokers. That’s how the Village Voice kept afloat for many years. All that is gone with the dust as a result of the triumph of web-based publishing, even forcing the major newspaper in city after city to either go electronic or stop publishing altogether.

In some ways, I am nostalgic for the underground press in the same way I am nostalgic for a period in American history in which the possibility of revolution was palpable. Who knows? At the rate things are going, we might be in store for some hot times that will make the sixties look tame by comparison.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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