Comics historian Jon B. Cooke has whipped up a Please Kill Me-like oral history of underground comix of the late 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, he tells the history of Robert Crumb’s brainchild, Weirdo, through the voices of all those who contributed to making it the most wonderfully low-brow magazine of its day and a launch pad for young artists like Joe Sacco, Carol Tyler, Mary Fleener, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Gary Panter and Phoebe Gloeckner. PKM talks with Cooke about who, how and, most importantly, WHY?
“I had a vision of Weirdo which was inspired by the punk movement. Different from the old ‘psychedelic’ craziness. I was attracted by the punk graphics, and even the records and music. With punk, this whole thing about being politically correct, or being beautiful, or anything: this was all challenged.”-Robert Crumb, quoted in The Book of Weirdo by Jon B. Cooke (Last Gasp Publishing)
After the initial burst of 1960s underground comix had passed, carrying over into the 1970s, the pickings kind of thinned out—or, more accurately, spread out. That is, fan zines, self-published mini-comics and “mail art” proliferated but no major publications were really serving as anchors for underground comix or pushing them forward in any coherent manner. Graphic novels, inspired by the work of old-guard figures like Will Eisner, were struggling to find a foothold in mainstream publishing circles, but the serial madness of a ZAP, Bijou Funnies or Wimmen’s Comix was hard to find.
Partly to fill that vacuum, two different publications came along in the early 1980s, peopled by some of the same cartoonists who were part of the first underground comix wave. These were RAW and Weirdo. Of the two, RAW had its collective eye on the prize of respectability, being published in a trade paperback format and wandering dangerously close to fine arts. Weirdo, on the other hand, had no such delusions of grandeur. It was begun by underground comix icon Robert Crumb out of his house in northern California just to have something fun to do, and to enlist other kindred spirits to join in the fun with him.
The subtitle of Weirdo was “the magazine for modern misfits” and it was far more like MAD magazine (of the early, Harvey Kurtzman era) than, say, Harvard Lampoon. In all, 27 issues of Weirdo were published between the years 1981 and 1990, and the editorship was split roughly in thirds, between Robert Crumb (who began it), Peter Bagge (who took over after Issue # 9) and, finally, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who guided it through its final run, at which point the Crumb family decamped to the South of France and had other fish to fry.
Never more than 10,000 copies of each issue were printed by its publisher, Ron Turner of Last Gasp, but each of those copies was likely shared by 10,000 different sets of eyes. Weirdo had also become a family affair, with Maxon Crumb (Robert’s little brother) becoming a contributor, as was Aline Kominsky-Crumb (who became editor) and even daughter Sophie Crumb.
Comics historian Jon B. Cooke has now done the world a big favor by meticulously documenting the story of this seminal, influential publication. One thing even diehard fans might be surprised to learn was how complex the world of underground comix was in the 1980s. It was a pre-Internet time that sparked the same D.I.Y. creativity in zines and mini-comics that one saw in the rise of punk rock. It’s little wonder, then, that someone like John Holmstrom, co-founder (with Legs McNeil) of Punk Magazine, would gravitate to the Ramones, who kind of lent themselves to cartoon imagery (e.g. “Hey Ho Let’s Go, Gabba Gabba Hey,” etc.). Holmstrom was a contributor to Weirdo and was part of the crowd that J.D. King and Peter Bagge hung around with in the New York area. In fact, the third issue of Weirdo has been unofficially known as the “punk issue.” And Issue # 16 (Spring 1986) featured “Punk Magazine Revisited,” a retrospective by Bruce Carleton and John Holmstrom, among others who contributed to Punk.
Cooke’s book uncovers an amazingly rich motherlode of the bizarre and obsessive in the 1980s comix scene, with its quotidian visions of people like Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and Pete Jordan (Dishwasher zine). But there were others, even further under the radar, than Pekar and Dishwasher Pete—including Clay Geerdes and Bruce N. Duncan, the equivalent of outsider artists peddling their amateurish but earnest wares on the streets of Berkeley. Crumb took renewed inspiration from these sorts of people.
Drew Friedman, a Weirdo contributor over the years, celebrated the publication of The Book of Weirdo by creating its remarkable front cover art (ringed by portraits of kindred spirits like Holmstrom, Pekar, Kaz, Bagge and Dori Seda) and writing the introduction. In it, he hailed Weirdo as “a magazine by weirdos, for weirdos” and praised Cooke for having “finally exhumed” the “perverted, rotting, fly-ridden, but somehow still good-looking corpse of Weirdo.” Friedman’s raucous intro sets the tone for the pungent 288 pages that follow.
Cooke begins proceedings with an excellent overview of the magazine’s history, profusely illustrated with examples of the art under discussion, and then turns it over to the voices of the participants: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Ron Turner, Peter Bagge, and then every one of the myriad contributors that he could track down who would go on the record with him about their own remembrances of Weirdo. It makes for a fascinating read, one that allows you to immerse yourself completely in that world. It was a far rawer world but also a far simpler one than what we currently occupy.
Cooke is the former editor of the five-time Eisner Award-winning Comic Book Artist magazine, has written and co-produced a documentary film on Will Eisner (Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist) and co-edited a book about Jack Kirby, among other comics-related projects. He spoke to us from his home in Rhode Island.
PKM: Your other work, prior to this monumental book on Weirdo, was more, uh, I don’t want to say mainstream but more about traditional comics art icons like Will Eisner, the godfather of the graphic novel, and Jack Kirby, the Marvel superhero artist. What drew you to this off-the-beaten-path project? Were you, all along, a closet ZAP, TwistedSisters, MAD, Arcade and Weirdo reader?
Jon B. Cooke: Never been closeted. I’ve devoted issues of my magazine COMIC BOOK CREATOR to undie/alt guys Howard Cruse, Peter Bagge, and Denis Kitchen in recent years, and did a nice retrospective of ARCADE back in the day [ed: ARCADE was a “Comics Revue” created by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman that ran for only 7 issues in 1975-76] , as well as a focus on Kitchen’s COMIX BOOK, and lots more outré stuff (if you will). Verily, I love all comics, am passionate about the form, and a devotee of its history.
PKM: Was the excellent interview of Robert Crumb that you conducted for The Book of Weirdo done in person, or over the phone? If the latter, have you ever met Crumb in person?
Jon B. Cooke: Yes, just in the beginning of March, we had lunch together in Manhattan, joined by my filmmaker brother and BOOK OF WEIRDO cover artist Drew Friedman. It was a great time and he was an absolute hoot. My interviews with him have been over the phone. Did you hear my recent podcast interview?
PKM: Robert Crumb can reportedly be a mercurial, sometimes difficult guy, but he was pleased as punch with how The Book of Weirdo turned out, wasn’t he? What was your relationship like with him?
Jon B. Cooke: I’m still that annoying fellow he simply calls “Cooke”! You’ll hear what he has to say at the beginning of the podcast about not suffering fools. I’d characterize my relationship with him as quite good and certainly friendly. He’s invited me to visit in France and has told others he’s enjoyed our company when we had lunch.
PKM: When Crumb started Weirdo, his psychedelic Bay Area days were behind him. He was married, living quietly in northern California and keeping a low-profile, seemingly “normal” existence. What do you think motivated him to jump back into the regularly published comic book game? I mean, he had his hands full just getting ZAP out every other year or so…how did he think he could manage a regularly published, subscription-based comic book?
Jon B. Cooke: You’ll hear in the podcast his difficulties in making ZAP regular, and he was also frustrated with the closed aspect of the ZAP collective. He wanted to do something frequent and open to anybody deemed good enough to be in the pages of WEIRDO. I am pretty certain subscriptions were unavailable for WEIRDO. I believe his motivations were numerous, but mostly it came to him in a flash while meditating one day. I think the onslaught of the Reagan years had something to do with it, admiration for the punk comics coming from New York and L.A., as well as the street comix of Berkeley, plus he had just had some production experience working on an environmental tabloid… His publisher, Last Gasp, was only 70 miles away from his Winters home… plus his interest in mini-comix played some role.
PKM: In some ways, Weirdo was just Crumb getting back to a time in his own life when he did comics for the fun of it, back when brothers Maxon and Charles and he made bizarre comic books for each other’s entertainment—as described in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 Crumb documentary. Wasn’t that kind of what drew him back? Because ZAP just wasn’t “fun” for him anymore?
Jon B. Cooke: Well, if Crumb was expecting fun, he sure didn’t get it during his editorial tenure… well, not much as he was mired down in the logistics of being an editor, someone who approved and rejected those who hoped to contribute. I don’t think there’s any correlation between the brother jams and the WEIRDO work, other than in both instances he was a compulsive maker of comics. I asked if he was too hypersensitive to the constant critiques he would get from readers who bitched and moaned about what they didn’t like in WEIRDO and what they wanted to see more of, he said, yeah, probably.
PKM: Around the same time Weirdo began printing, Art Spiegelman and his wife Francoise Mouly started RAW. Although other comics publications existed, these were the two that continued the spirit of the original underground comix. They also featured some of the original artists, as well as giving space to new artists. I never saw Weirdo and RAW as being “in competition.” I was glad both venues were out there and available to those of us who grew up with MAD, ZAP, Twisted Sisters, Arcade and the like. But that’s not exactly how the players at RAW and Weirdo saw it, is it?
Jon B. Cooke: Well, both contributed to each other’s mags, though Art only did one thing, a jam with Charles Burns for WEIRDO. There was a sort of competition. Crumb was hurt when Spiegelman referred to WEIRDO as a piece of shit and that still bugs him. Art is much more measured and seems to think much better of the magazine. They have a certain personality dynamic… not frenemies, exactly, as they are friends, certainly, but still might look at each other as pains in a certain way…
PKM: Was it as simple as “low brow” Weirdo versus “high brow” artsy RAW? Crumb is quoted as saying that RAW was “much more serious, more precious about the work”. Is that a fair statement?
Jon B. Cooke: Yeah, sure. WEIRDO was from the lower echelons of culture, to be sure. More proletarian than elite. They were both of great importance to the 1980s comix scene. RAW, with its serialization of MAUS, most definitely scored victory if there was any contest. WEIRDO is a loser. Always has been. Always will be. That’s the key to its charm: it is a comics anthology by losers for losers.
PKM: It came down to Art Spiegelman on the RAW side versus Robert Crumb on the Weirdo side. They kind of played up that feud, like pro wrestlers, but there really was some kind of tension there, wasn’t there? “Art” versus, what, unrestrained gutter humor? Pretension versus prurience?
Jon B. Cooke: There’s a nice sidebar in the book on Art remembering that Crumb wanted them both to engage in a Jack Benny/Fred Allen kind of mock feud and, when I asked Crumb about it, he said that was bullshit…
PKM: Because Weirdo was more raw and less precious than RAW, I think that’s why the punk crowd gravitated more toward Weirdo. It was kind of the same thing that happened in music—big arena pretensions and stage shows versus DIY-garage band back-to-basics expression. Can you talk a bit about how the punk attitude fit into theWeirdo universe?
Jon B. Cooke: Crumb loved the handwritten punk aesthetic, the bombastic graphics of the scene. I should ask him if he had any admiration for the graffiti art of that period… Bagge thought Crumb was directly influenced by Holmstrom’s handwritten articles to produce WEIRDO‘s hand-lettered editorial/letters pages, but Crumb sez maybe a little (listen to the podcast if I’m misremembering)
PKM: John Holmstrom, who started Punk Magazine with Legs McNeil (this website’s co-founder), was, like Crumb, mentored by Harvey Kurtzman, who was also revered by the RAW crowd. So there was some real overlap in the comics art world, wasn’t there?
Jon B. Cooke: I did not know that! Inneressin… Y’mean Kurtzman influences both schools of cartooning…? Kurtzman had influence on the entirety of American culture. He was HUGE, if you ask me.
PKM: Right. I think the elephant in the room of The Book of Weirdo is, in fact, Harvey Kurtzman, who made MAD magazine the great inspiration it was to an entire generation of cartoonists, and then created Jungle Book, Trump, Humbug, Help! and the like. So many of the artists who contributed to Weirdo revered Kurtzman, didn’t they? Were there other earlier influences that seemed to bind all these disparate artists? Maybe Ed “Big Daddy” Roth?
Jon B. Cooke: Absolutely. Kurtzman = God. I think, though some would be loath to admit it, they were also massively influenced by the other ZAP cohorts, particularly S. Clay Wilson (who sadly is entering hospice after a decade of ailments). Certainly Big Daddy and the whole SoCal hot-rod culture influenced Bagge, Kaz, J.D. King, Holmstrom and the NYC crew. I could go on and on about how E.C. Comics and its two branches, Kurtzman and his books, Feldstein and Gaines and their books, are the progenitors of the whole underground scene. I could be wrong but mebbe not…
PKM: Because this book was a sort of clash of hundreds of different personalities—and must have taken years to compile—was there a point at which you thought, “Oh, lordy, what have I got myself into here”?
Jon B. Cooke: Nah. I love this shit. I was just astonished I had a publisher who let me do my thing. It’s still not a perfect book. If I could’ve weaseled 16 or 32 more pages, I would have included detailed biographical essays on every single contributor. I’m sick like that…
PKM: You are working on a book about Last Gasp, the publisher of The Book of Weirdo. It dawned on me what a big part that Ron Turner, Last Gasp’s founder, played in underground comix history. Can you talk a bit about that? And what’s the status of that project?
Jon B. Cooke: It gets into that E.C. Comics thing I touched upon. Ron was a tiny bit late to the game, but he was a revolutionary publisher, a righteous believer in freedom of expression. Not only did he corner the “underground horror” scene, but he published the vitally important WIMMEN’S COMIX and, the most essential release of the whole era beyond ZAP #1, Justin Brown’s BINKY BROWN MEETS THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY, the first modern confessional comic book which lead to the whole graphic novel milieu of today…
I’m really starting the book when I visit San Francisco come August. It’ll be a gas!
The Book of Weirdo, and other similarly righteous stuff, is available at Last Gasp: