A Life Underground: Exploring WSU’s Alternative Comix Collection was an art show I planned, organized, and hosted as part of an independent study (with help from Robert Franklin, a faculty member and fellow comics enthusiast). The purpose of the show was to bring indie/newave comics to WSU Tri-Cities, and to share them with people who might not otherwise get to see them. I also wanted to raise awareness of a valuable resource unique to WSU, and the source of these comics: the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections department (MASC) of the Holland and Terrell Libraries in Pullman, Washington. All the comics featured in the show were prints made from archived publications, located in either the Steve Willis Comix and Small Press Collection or the Lynn R. Hansen Underground Comics Collection.
A year after this show, I published my own indie comic book related to these events: Born Under a Dark Star: The Lynn Hansen Story.
Below are some images from the show’s opening reception on April 6, 2017.
More information and backstory about the show:
My objectives on this project remained the same throughout the process. I wanted to bring underground comics to the Tri-Cities, and show them to people who wouldn’t otherwise get exposure to them. I also wanted to highlight the comics themselves; not just as archives to be hoarded, but as art objects to be viewed and enjoyed. This second goal involved bringing the comics out of MASC, but I would also like to see the audience go into MASC. The archives that the university has are an incredible resource, and one that we all have access to—but we need to seek it out
Proposal for A Life Underground:
The Steve Willis Comix
and Small Press Collection, 1968 – 2014.
A digital and printed-work retrospective exhibition to be held at WSU Tri-Cities, April 1 through 30, 2017.
Designed by Adam Whittier, cartoonist and DTC undergraduate student, and Robert Franklin, Assistant Director of the Hanford History Project.
“A treasure trove—rich in cultural, political, and cartooning history. A truly amazing resource. Comic historians across the country will want to take note.”—James Sturm, Director, The Center for Cartoon Studies
Within the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collection at the Washington State University Library in Pullman is a large and unique collection of underground comics and newsletters, magazines (zines), and other related materials. These were collected by Steve Willis, a longtime WSU librarian and passionate underground cartoonist. Willis was a catalog librarian at WSU for several years in the 1980s, and later worked at Evergreen State College and recently retired as the Program Manager at Washington State Library in Olympia. Throughout his time in the Pullman library, Willis steadily and surreptitiously contributed comics; some were his personal work, but most of them were solicited from other cartoonists of the era. When he left the library, his collection remained; an unsolicited gift to the university of great volume and scope. Many of these self-published works were produced on a very small scale, and so are difficult to find now. As the archive’s website says under its “Scope and Contents” section:
The collection offers an extensive representation of the American underground and counterculture in the 1980s and 1990s, with a broad geographic range, and many materials coinciding with the birth of the underground comix scene…[it] consists almost entirely of published items, primarily commix…[it includes] approximately 3500 individual titles, often with multiple items (sequential issues of comix, magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and zines).
The scope and size of the collection renders it difficult for the casual browser to explore. Its location in the archives further restricts its potential, as only Pullman students can easily access it. Furthermore, Willis’s collection is only one of several underground comics collections at WSU donated by friends and fellow cartoonists. It is the goal of this retrospective to bring Willis’s collection to a new and wider audience. Using the Consolidated Information Center’s The Art Center our intention is to expose students, faculty, and community members to a wide range of underground comics and culture.
We will orchestrate, design, and curate a gallery show featuring selected comics from this archive, titled A Life Underground: The Steve Willis Comix and Small Press Collection, 1968-2014. The show will consist of framed prints, original comics in display cases, and computer kiosks where people can read digitized comics from the archive, page by page. The installation may also feature audio or video interviews with Willis and other comics creators or enthusiasts. We will select specific comics to be scanned and upload into the kiosks; not all the comics archived will be on display, but it is our hope to showcase a wide variety featuring several themes and highlighting many different cartoonists.
We want to bring comics to WSU Tri-Cities, and to share them with people who might not otherwise get to experience comics of this particular nature. Comics are one of the most important, engaging, and inclusive forms of media that we have available to us, as they have a way of bringing people together; of being profound, simple, and beautiful all at the same time. Underground comics of the type in the archives are a snapshot of a peculiar period and worldview preserved for future generations to explore and wonder. the art of that time and place. We have a tremendous resource in the Willis collection, and it would be an affront to the art and creativity of the underground cartoonists not to appreciate and share it.
We are just beginning work on this project, and are seeking funds to help the vision come together. Student services, the College of Arts and Sciences, and other university departments are all sources we will be pursuing. Local businesses or art alliances may also be sources of patronage. We are both contributing (and will continue to contribute) in-kind donations as the year progresses. Selecting and scanning work, designing the gallery space, publicity, interviews, and solicitation all take time, and we are looking forward to delving deep into the underground.
Documentation of Exhibition I:
Comics as a Form of Social Media
Self-published alternative or underground comics (“comix”) are a rich form of social media, and they in many ways laid the groundwork for the electronic social media of our time. Amateur and proficient cartoonists alike traded, distributed, and ripped off each other’s work. Zines, minicomics, and “floppies” all helped to share opinions and bring people with similar interests together. Fanzines especially were an early incarnation of this; for the first time, enthusiasts could write about topics important to them, and it would be shared with everyone who subscribed to that particular zine. Comments, corrections, and arguments were certainly a part of the experience, as fans could share thoughts with each other through time and space. The similarities here to Facebook posts (and the ensuing comments) are almost uncanny. Even though most minicomics are solitary works—imagined, drawn, and often distributed by one—there is a vibrant and diverse community of creators, where the lines between cartooning and socializing blur together.
History is a strange thing. To the armchair historian, it may seem natural to interpret each period of time as a kind of mass worldview; a snapshot in which the common opinion(s) alone prevailed. Textbooks, popular culture, the media, and other chroniclers all share blame in this, because they tend to present history in snippets of absolutism, so that we needn’t get confused by ambiguity. An example is World War II, which is often portrayed as a time of universal patriotism in which the whole country stood united in a crusade for justice. Military servicemen were heralded as national heroes, and they came back from the war eager to pick up where they left off; ready to start the Baby Boom and settle down in Technicolor suburbs, where prosperity awaited.
The reality, of course, is quite different. The war effort had many pacifist opponents, many of whom were jailed for speaking out against it. On the other side were Nazi sympathizers and isolationists, motivated by racism or an understandable reluctance to risk American necks in another European war. Regardless of specific motives or opinions, it should be clear that at that time—much like today—there was not any sort of a consensus.
Looking back, it is extremely easy to hear a prevailing opinion and regard it as belonging to everybody framed within that scene. This isn’t true, but the smaller voices tend to get drowned out; history is written by the victors, and this is only exacerbated by the passage of time, as people forget and primary witnesses grow fewer.
It is for this reason that underground comics and electronic social media are so important: they are accessible to people with such tremendous diversity of opinion that they can serve as a very effective barometer of the times. They represent a record of human thought not always recorded in the news, on television, or in the Library of Congress. Of course, this opens the door to problems. Many underground comix were racist, misogynistic, obscene, violent, or otherwise unpalatable by today’s standards. The visitor will notice that some of these comix are included in the exhibition today. Some art shows may include these elements to offend or provoke, but that is not what we are trying to achieve. Our goal is to present an honest history, warts and all; and we hope that any unpleasantness is outweighed by the thought they stimulate and the creative expression they may inspire. History and the people who inhabit it are sometimes ugly and sometimes beautiful, and knowing both may allow us to look back on our own time with a more objective eye. For this reason, while it may be easy to ignore the crazy relatives on Facebook, I would implore you not to do so. “Outsiders,” self-described or not, are often quite aware that their worldviews do not fit into the popular-opinion puzzle. By listening to them, engaging with them, and acting with humility toward them, understanding may be achieved. There is no guarantee of this, of course; the only guarantee comes with shutting them out, and then the only certainty you’ve got is greater division.
Content aside, electronic social media and comix share another important attribute: technology, and its assimilation and democratization. Machines like the Risograph and photocopier allowed for the production of quick, inexpensive, and uniform comix. A low learning curve and wide availability meant that people from all locations and backgrounds could take advantage of technological progress. Just in the past decade, we can see how electronic social media have followed a similar route. Computers and other digital apparatuses are ubiquitous, and websites like Facebook and Twitter are easy to use (Twitter, it seems, especially preferred by the simple-minded). People of all demographics are spending increasing amounts of time online, sharing all sorts of information. This has been decried as isolating and of furthering loneliness; but the profound impacts on our lives—isolated as they may be—cannot be understated, and our analyses of them are in no way complete.
Comix certainly came before electronic social media, but the former was not driven to extinction by the latter. Though the content changes with the times, comix remain a vibrant, wide-ranging medium, and one that will not be going away any time soon. If you’d like to have greater access to this world (or even begin making comix yourself), there are many resources available. Our own Adventures Underground bookstore hosts many comics-related events, and they have the best selection of indie/alternative comix that I’ve seen outside an art-school library. The Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) in Portland, Oregon is a wonderful place with friendly people. They host workshops and events, and local members have access to their tools, space, and camaraderie. An online search will reveal many excellent cartoonists, who self-publish and distribute comics on a subscription basis. Alec Longstreth (Phase Seven) and John Porcellino (King Cat) are just two examples; many more await you.
Documentation of Exhibition II:
Why I was Interested in the Show
I came to the Tri-Cities in late September of 2014. I arrived sight unseen, after having spent the entirety of my life in New England. I’d lived on the south shore of Massachusetts, in the western lakes region of New Hampshire, and in the soggy, crumbling railroad town of White River Junction, Vermont.
I’d gone to WRJ to attend The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS), a tiny, enigmatic school that offered MFA and certificate programs, graduating roughly 24 students each year. I enrolled in autumn of 2011, as one of the certificate students (I’d dropped out of “normal” college the spring before). My reasons for dropping out were many, some more legitimate than others—but at the heart of the matter, I wanted to focus exclusively on comics, which wasn’t something I could do at my liberal-arts school. CCS has been described by students as a “boot camp,” a “monastery,” and a “tribe,” and all of those descriptions are somewhat true. I spent four semesters eating, breathing, and making comics, and it was certainly overwhelming at times. The workload was intense, and the bar was high. At the same time, being able to devote oneself completely to something beloved, while surrounded by other people who are just as passionate, is one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. Before going to CCS, I worried that cartooning 24/7 would make me hate something I’d once loved; but in fact, the opposite was true. When I graduated from the program in 2013, I was the best cartoonist I’d ever been, and I loved comics more than I ever had before.
Life outside of the “tribe,” however, is a different story. My output of work has drastically decreased, and I might go days or weeks without drawing a thing. Comics are a lot of fun, but they’re also a lot of work—and at the end of a long day filled with work and school, they’re often too much work. This is really nobody’s fault but my own; much like eating right, or exercising more, or drinking less, it’s a common enough complaint. the end result, though, is that comics are not as big a part of my life as they should be.
Deciding to finish my degree at WSU Tri-Cities has been a wonderful opportunity for me, and it’s worked out better than I ever could have imagined. But it should be clear to everybody that art teachers, art students, and the arts themselves often take a back seat to better-publicized or better-funded programs. This is all a very long way of saying that while I was enormously glad to be a part of the WSU-TC community, I also felt starved for art—specifically, comics.
I first learned about the Steve Willis collection in April of 2016. I had traveled to Pullman to be a part of the first Roots of Contemporary Issues conference, in which we would present papers written in a class by the same name. My professor in that class, Dr. Brett Bell, had nominated my paper, and so with his help I found myself on the Pullman campus, which I had never visited. During the conference, I spoke with some of the graduate students who had organized the event, and somehow comics came up. They mentioned the archives in some capacity, and if I’d seen the comics there. Of course, I hadn’t, but I made a note to find out more upon my return to Richland.
Dr. Bell knew of the comics’ existence, but he said that I should really talk to Robert Franklin, who had catalogued the collection during his time in Pullman. Robert now worked on the Hanford History Project here, and so Dr. Bell said he would put me in touch. When I met with Robert, he was very glad that someone had taken an interest in the comics. When I asked if he thought an exhibition might be possible, he was enthusiastic and agreed to help me pull it together.
That all happened in April of last year. It has taken an entire year for the project to go from inception to finished product. It has involved two entire days in MASC, dozens of hours in Photoshop, hundreds of e-mails, and more comics than we could ever possibly count (though I suppose the archives did that for us).
There were several reasons for my interest in the collection. Liking comics, especially alternative or underground comics, was a large part of it. The story behind the collection intrigued me as well, and seemed, in a way, romantic: a renegade cartoonist/librarian, furtively sneaking subversive comics into an archive, institutional preferences be damned! This is exactly the sort of crime (if one can call it that) that a cartoonist would commit. I like cranks, and find they often have a valid story to tell.
In a certain respect, though, my role in this was involuntary. It seemed so wrong that these comics, these wonderful comics, should languish unutilized and unloved. So, inasmuch as my goal here is to expose an audience to the world of comics, there is also another goal: to expose the comics to an audience. Everybody—man, woman, child, and book—should benefit from the interaction.
I believe that comics are one of the most important, engaging, and inclusive forms of media that we have available to us. They have a way of bringing people together; of being profound, simple, and beautiful all at the same time. Underground comics of the type on display here are a snapshot of a peculiar period and worldview, preserved for the exploration and wonderment of people today, and generations to come. WSU has tremendous resource in the Willis collection, and it would be an affront to the art and creativity of the underground cartoonists not to appreciate and share it.