Released late last month, Fantagraphics’ massive collection, Newave, has already made a strong case for its place on 2010’s list of most essential reissues. The 892 page CD-sized hardcover captures a moment in comics history largely unfamiliar to those of us who were too young to appreciate such works.
The book frames a moment composed of minicomics that might otherwise be lost to the trash bins and desk drawers of history, that both gave rise to a number of prominent artists and served as a bridge between the UG movement of the 60s and 70s and the alternative books of the 90s.
Newave’s editor, Michael Dowers, was heavily involved in comics both during the newave scene and beyond, having produced his own minis (a number of excerpt from which appear in the pages of Newave), founded his own publishing company, Starhead Comix, and later work for Fantagraphics during its formative years.
How directly were you involved in the newave scene?
I was one of the newavers. That’s kind of how I got into comics. In 1982, I believe, a fellow name Jay Kennedy put out an underground comix price guide. It was there that I discovered minicomics. That’s when I started doing comics. I was very involved. I had my own publishing company called Starhead Comix. Back in the 90s, I actually put out a bunch of full-sized comics books of an underground-type nature. Before then, I was doing mincomics and continued into the 90s. I still make a few today.
Were you a comics fan before that? Did you grow up on any more mainstream stuff like, say, Spider-man?
I had comics when I was a kid. I really liked them a lot, but I never really thought too much about them. I had these older guys in my neighborhood when I was a kid, and they’d just give me boxes of free comics. That was my first introduction to comics. I remember seeing some of the first Marvel Comics. I remember really loving the X-Men when I was a kid. It had just come out.
But it was years later, I remember seeing the first R. Crumb book—Zap Comics. I remember that being a really big deal. I was about 18 years old, and all of my friends were real excited about it. They brought it over and showed it to me. But even then, I hadn’t caught the bug yet.
Probably about eight or ten years later, I was living on an isolated island, off the coast of Washington state [laughs]. It was pretty isolated. Somebody came to visit me, and they had two stacks of Marvel Comics. A lot of Gene Colan and stuff like that. I must have read both of those stacks of comics, probably like five times. There really wasn’t much else to do. I was living on an isolated island, with no electricity or running water. I lived on there probably about five years. It was an incredibly beautiful place to live, but incredibly primitive.
That’s where I caught the comics bug. It was reading those two stacks of Marvel Comics. I don’t know what it was about them, but they just really got me. I was still really more attracted to the underground stuff than the Marvel stuff, but I was having a lot of fun figuring out the Marvel cosmology.
Was the discovery of minis a sign to you that maybe the bar for entry into the medium wasn’t as high as initially suspected?
I thought of it as my ticket in. I’ve always been into art and stuff, so I thought that it would be fun to do. I used to do paintings, I did a bunch of wood carving, I built a few stringed instruments. I was always doing things with my hands. It wasn’t until I discovered minicomics that it just all came together. I never dreamed that, 30 years later, I would be writing a book about this stuff.
There seems to be a feeling that many of these books are—I don’t know if “disposable” is the right word, but you probably don’t expect much of it to research, decades after the fact.
That’s right. Just about everybody in the book has commented on that. nobody ever realized that it would have such a large audience. A lot of this stuff is real personal, people getting their feelings and anger out and all of that kind of thing. They never dreamed that some day the world was going to see this stuff.
Was it difficult for you or any of the other artists involved to look back at this stuff?
For a few, but not for me. I was okay. But there were definitely a few artists I contacted who were a little unsure about showing off their art. Especially some of the people who have done fairly well for themselves. They’re all happy about it now. They were a little skeptical, at first. They see it all together now and they’re proud to be a part of it.
The book really feels like something of a missing link between the works of the 60s and 70s and the work in 90s—The Hernandez Brothers and Dan Clowes, etc.
Yeah. that was the whole purpose of the book, to pull that missing link together. There were a few items here and there that were in larger print, but the real underground was happening with these cartoonists who were just doing it themselves.
Was the issue that they were created for such a small, disposable audience?
I think that, just like punk rock in the 80s, there were definitely people who wanted to see this material, but nobody knew it was going on. The mainstream was focused in different places. I think there’s a direct connection between what happened in alternative rock and roll and what happened in alternative comics. People just started doing it themselves.
I think that computers had a lot to do with that. Even though America wasn’t quite computerized by that time, they were very aware of desktop publishing. So, just that term being thrown around everywhere, people started realizing, “jeez, we can do this on our own.” So now, because of computers, you have do it yourself everything. You have a do it yourself film industry, you have a do it yourself novelists, writers—everyone does it themselves now.
[Concluded in Part Two.]