Starting in the 1960s, a maverick band of young cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Trina Robbins, and Gilbert Shelton starting churning out comic books the likes of which had never seen before. These "undergound" works definitely weren't aimed at kids and they didn't follow the exploits of costumed do-gooders or anodyne high schoolers like Riverdale High's Archie, Betty, and Veronica.
Drawing inspiration from Mad magazine and horror comics that had been subjected to congressional scrutiny in the 1950s, the new "comix" were filled with sex, drugs, and violence; ruthlessly satirized mass culture; and drew the ire of crusaders against obscenity and cultural decline. Yet within a decade, underground comix had become recognized as a vital artistic force in America whose influence is still massive and growing in art, music, movies, design, and more.
Brian Doherty's Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix, is the definitive history of this vital yet underappreciated aspect of American popular culture. The artists Doherty writes about—many of whom whom went on to win Pulitzer Prizes, MacArthur "genius" grants, and both mass and critical acclaim—shook up popular culture and the high art world while fighting for radical, creative expression in an age of censorship. The lessons from their struggles are particularly prescient for a contemporary world beseiged by cancel culture and all manner of attempts to shut down speech deemed offensive, triggering, or morally suspect.
Doherty is a Reason senior editor and the author of books such as the This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, and Ron Paul's rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired. Nick Gillespie interviews him about comix, their enduring relevance, and the surprising connections between alternative art and political movements such as libertarianism.
This interview was taped live on Monday, June 20, 2022, as part of the Reason Speakeasy series, held monthly in New York City. Go here for podcast and video versions of past events.