A transatlantic husband-and-wife team — he’s from New York City, she’s from France — Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly founded Raw 10 years ago as a showcase for abnormal cartoons. Each year, they have brought out a lavish collection of stories and drawings by an international group of artists, who prefer the punkish, eclectic look of the word ”commix” to the old-fashioned ”comics” label.
One might say, with some truth but little justice, that they are gentrifiers of the 1960’s underground cartoons. Whereas the first issue of R. Crumb’s ZAP, dated 1967, bore a price of 35 cents, the latest issue of Raw — now published in yuppieback format by Penguin Books — costs $14.95. But the distance between ZAP and Raw can be measured only in part by the thickness of the readers’ wallets. By the time Raw began publishing, the brief morning of hippie zeal was waning toward a long, Reaganite afternoon. Commix had attained that level of self-consciousness at which the artists and the cartoonists’ avant-garde had become international. Unlike the ZAP group, these people spoke of acid only in reference to satirical vitriol and the stuff that was eating away at their stomachs. Raw might have been the first cartoon coffee-table book; but its sophistication, high ambitions, and air of cosmopolitan culture also made it a landmark publication of the 1960s.
Now Raw emerges in the ’90s, and to judge from the latest volume, success has not spoiled it one bit. One of the highlights, as always, is the new installment of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, his much-praised documentary novel of the Holocaust, in which the Nazis are drawn as cats and the Jews as mice. The current episode takes Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, from Auschwitz to Dachau: ”And here my troubles began…” In a somewhat similar vein, ”Oba’s Electroplate Factory,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge, is a grim proletarian drama, realized as starkly as one of Akira Kurosawa’s early films. ”Sneaking Out,” by Lynda Barry, is eight pages of unforgettable family angst, complete with alcoholism, teen sex, and class envy, by a writer-illustrator who seems to get stronger by the year.
These are among the best stories in Raw, but much of my favorite work here is non-narrative. David Sandlin’s ”The Seven Seas of Sin” is a series of biliously colored spreads in which the artists jumbles Freudian horrors and sleazy pitchmen’s enticements into dreamlike landscapes. ”Cowboy Henk,” by Kamagurka and Herr Seele, is perhaps the funniest page in the book — theater of the absurd masquerading as comic-book panels.
Perhaps the outstanding feature of this year’s Raw is a portfolio of drawings by Henry Darger (1892-1973), a self-taught artists who for most of his life was a janitor in Chicago. When Darger was incapacitated and had to move from his apartment, his landlord discovered a 19,000-page fantasy novel accompanied by 87 wall-size illustrations. Three are reproduced here as fold-out pages along with details from a fourth panel; the portfolio also includes excerpts from Darger’s handwritten autobiography. His artistic method was to trace and then color the sweetest-looking figures out of children’s books, combining them into crowded, irrational compositions, full of obsessively repeated violence within bizarre, fairy-tale settings. These images convey a quality that’s almost never found in comic books, or for that matter in American fiction and painting. It’s a bottomless sadness, which seems able to call out of itself entire worlds of invention. You might feel that quality as well in Maus, in Barry’s stories, in Sandlin’s motel nightmare, with their odor of stale booze and disinfectant. Welcome to the adult world of commix. A