Newave: The Underground Comix of the 1980s

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Newave: The Underground Comix of the 1980s
Edited by Michael Dowers
Fantagraphics

newwavecoverThe near universality of the Internet in the modern age has granted a strange sense of immortality to contemporary art. There’s a feeling that, no matter how minute or trivial a work is, it will be stored for posterity for far beyond the life of its creator, in some form or another. That’s not to say, of course, that work created in this contemporary context is somehow more worthy of preservation than its predecessors—or even that newly created works are built with staying power in mind (heck, many contemporary artists have happily embraced the concept of the ethereal meme), it’s just that it’s hard to imagine creating a work today that one won’t be able to revisit at some point down the road, should it be deemed worth of re-examination.

It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the approach that drove much of ‘zine and early mini-comix culture. And while the argument can perhaps be made that nearly every artist is—on some level—seeking greater exposure, there’s something romantic in the sense of hyper-specific culture to which such documents cater.  “It makes little difference if fifty or fifty thousand people read them,” Comix World publisher Clay Geerdes writes in 1983’s “The NeWave Manifesto,” reprinted in full in the introduction of this new collection. “Ideas and their expression are the issue, not quantity or quality…Newave is about art, not money.”

With such idealism in mind, it’s easy to understand why the life of so much of this material has proven so finite. In fact, in many respects there seems to be something of a gap in the history of underground comics between the UG revolution of the 60s and 70s the alternative renaissance that really caught fire in the 90s. Newave attempts to plug some of that, and while the book certainly doesn’t claim to be anything approaching a definitive catalog even with its staggering page count (just under 900), the book certainly offers a formidable cross section of the artists who helped define the era.

As one might no doubt suspect from such an undertaking, there’s also a wide variety of quality in these pages, but much as the manifesto would have you believe, there’s little doubt that each creator was brimming with ideas and the desire for expression when they embarked upon their pieces. After all, when money is truly removed from the equation (whether due to idealism or the simple economic realities of such an endeavor), there’s little room anything but passion.

And while a good deal of strips contained herein may not offer specific value for the reader with little context outside these pages, there’s certainly value in the abstract—the package. Taken as a whole, Newave presents a portrait of an era that might otherwise be overlooked as a vital link between, say, Zap and Eightball. For those with little invested in such contextual views of the medium, the book also succeeds as an intriguing little curiosity—the perfect shape and size for the “periodical” section of, say, a Spencers Gifts.

In either case, the book is a veritable treasure trove of material that would otherwise have been lost to the ages. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s a hell of fun read.

–Brian Heater