Even amongst comic collectors, the name Frank Stack doesn’t elicit the same manner of recognition as contemporaries like Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb. Still, should you have the opportunity to approach Shelton, and ask him for the name of the first underground comic title, he’ll no doubt point to his long-time friend Stack’s flagship series, The New Adventures of Jesus.
The lack of immediate recognition on the part of younger readers no doubt has much to do with the fact that, while Shelton, Crumb, and their ilk maintained a tremendous rate of output, both artistic and commercial, Stack began an on-again, off-again stint as a professor of art at the University of Missouri-Columbia that would last the better part of four decades. Still, between his own books and high profile collaborations with writers like Harvey Pekar (including the much critically lauded, Our Cancer Year), Stack’s output is easily placed among the decade’s most influential. Launched in 1962, The New Adventures of Jesus (written under the nom de plume, Foolbert Sturgeon) set the tone for the brash and uninhibited satire that would later define the world of UG comix.
Second Coming, the new anthology released by Fantagraphics, represents the first time that some 40 years worth of the comic have been anthologized. In honor of the release, we sat down with Stack to discuss the new book, the state of satire, and fellow Texan, George W. Bush.
You’re a professor at University of Missouri?
I’m a retired professor—a professor emeritus since 2002.
Do you ever feel like you’re living a bit of a dual-lifestyle?
I guess you could say that. I was a cartoonist before I took art seriously. But I didn’t tell the University much about it when I started teaching.
Do you still actively cartoon?
Yeah, the last story in the book, The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming is a new one that I did, just before the book went to press.
That was created specifically with the intention of going in the new book?
Yeah. I’ve also been doing some contributing, off and on, to various parts of The Comics Journal. I would have done more comics, if I’d had the opportunity to publish what I wanted to publish. Usually people ask me to change things if I want them published, but I never took well to that.
Did you actively self-publish in your early days?
I gave also of the things that I did to Gilbert Shelton, and he did [the publishing]. A lot of the early stuff was published in a magazine called The Austin Iconoclastic Newsletter.
So there weren’t really any outlets for your work at the time?
The assumption was when I was drawing those things was that they just couldn’t be published. But later, when there were more adventurous enterprises, it was more that they couldn’t be distributed [laughs].
Gilbert has been famously quoted as saying that Jesus was the first underground comic. Do you tend to agree with that assertion?
I imagine that there was a lot of stuff going around before, but if you connect it with the underground comic movement, yeah, it was probably the earliest thing. We were all trying to turn cartooning magazines into something that would be commercially viable. [Shelton] tried it several times, with The Charlatan, which was first published in Austin. They were all failures as commercial enterprises. I was convinced that such a thing was not possible in Texas. A bunch of us were in Texas—Gilbert, Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson—some went to California—San Francisco. What amazes me is that they were able to be distributed.
It seems that, of all of the subject matter to attempt to distribute in Texas, The New Adventures of Jesus is one of the more potentially overtly offensive.
I’m a Texan, and so is Gilbert—and I feel like I understand Texas pretty well. There’s a part of it that I like a lot: a somewhat ferocious intellectual independence, which has pretty much only one center, and that’s Austin. Of course we always hated Dallas and Midland—any of those places that were really…violent. Any time that I asked my mother why Texas executed more people than the whole rest of the country put together, she said, demurely, ‘maybe we’re meaner than any other place.’ I think there is a perverse kind of sentimentality—a killer sentimentality in Texas, and it’s absolutely despicable. In a way I loved to despise them. I also knew that it was dangerous to live amongst them. Those are my own relatives I’m talking about [laughs]. Gilbert felt your life wasn’t nothin’ if you stayed in Texas. That’s just what I felt, all right.
Does the current administration effectively encapsulate all of your feelings toward Texas?
Way overachieving. No matter what your expectations of cocky, foolish, dumb ass, and arrogant behavior—they far exceeded it [laughs].
What originally possessed you to choose the second coming of Jesus Christ as the subject matter for your book?
I was just drawing things that I knew would piss those people off. It was partly—the idea of satire is that, if you hold a mirror up to foolishness, that some people looking in the mirror will recognize the foolishness. I though their attitudes toward religion were just about the most vulnerable parts of this thoughtless philosophy. I was not trying to mock the gospels themselves so much what people thought of them.
[Continued in Part Two].