I’ve been a guest lecturer lately in Marshall Vandruff’s online TAD Genre class giving my “Short History of Comics” presentation. I make it a point to state that I am no historian in these matters and that what I’m presenting is my own biased love of the history of this medium in the hopes that it will spur viewers on to discover the true breadth of the work of so many wonderful talents. It seems to do the trick, which is great. There are huge holes in my presentation, mostly because what I’ve been interested in doesn’t cover the entire history of the medium. Romance comics are absent, though I could easily scan (and have started to) some of the beautiful work of Frank Frazetta and Alex Toth, to name just a couple of artists. So the holes will get filled in eventually, just so it will be a more representative presentation.
I am by nature a pack rat. Always have been. My collection is pretty large and I’ve been doing it for quite a long time now. I love it all, really. Can’t get enough of it. And, though my collecting has slowed considerably, the collection does still grow. Usually in the case of foreign material, which is so hard to find here in the States, but which I load up on when I travel overseas.
Anyway, in the course of presenting this time around I was hit once again by the unusual power of Greg Irons’s work. I was fortunate to have a cousin who was older than myself and one who reveled in introducing me to things I would never have seen otherwise, and probably shouldn’t have seen! My cousin Jake was the wanderer, the experimenter, the loner. He has the greatest sense of humor and an enthusiasm for life that is not lost on me. I lived vicariously through him and his adventures when I was younger. Like when he went on safari through Africa in a van and got lost in the Sahara, evading nomadic tribes on camelback, then had to live on a boat on the Congo for a week until his German friends could air drop him a visa sealed in a tupperware container so that he could safely return home. He could hear battles taking place along the banks of the river; gunshots in the night, screams. It was heady stuff for a young kid and gave me a love of travel, both physically and fictionally. He introduced me to Doc Savage and those incredible James Bama covers! He showed me the Lancer editions of Conan with the Frazetta covers. He collected Creepy and Eerie comics and blew my mind with those too. And he showed me the underground comix. Stuff that I really should not have been looking at, but was so glad to get at that early age. My parents heads would have exploded if they’d known just what he’d handed me. And it was the knowledge of their being forbidden fruit that made the reading of them so much more enjoyable and thrilling.
I was always graphically inclined even as a kid. I was automatically drawn to anything that was printed. I absolutely loved the ben day dots printed on paper. I used to hold paperback covers up close to my eyes and marvel at how that crazy arrangement of colored dots made that image, that painting come alive on the page! I still marvel at it all. It’s still magic of the best kind to me. So this stuff was on an order of magnitude greater than other things I was looking at that were more easily accessible.
I was stunned by the work. Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Jack Jackson (Jaxon), Dave Sheridan, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez and Greg Irons. I loved/love them all. Even though S. Clay Wilson’s Checkered Demon freaked me out, it was like watching a train wreck. I just couldn’t look away! There was a sense of the covert in looking at all that. That I was seeing things from behind enemy lines, adult stuff that wasn’t being told to us. That same feeling of looking at something I shouldn’t have been looking at that I got from reading Creepy and Eerie and even, to a lesser extent, Mad Magazine. I was in the inner circle thanks to my cousin Jake.
I knew that Don Martin in Mad was clean fun, especially when stacked up against Gilbert Shelton and Dave Sheridan. The Freak Brothers and Wonder Warthog were on a different level entirely. Still funny, just in a dirty sort of way that I didn’t truly understand, but still coveted. There was a sense to all the underground material of having been done in a garage. They were hand made and printed on a shoestring, and that made them more real to me than the regular above ground comics that I usually wallowed in. They had that feeling that I got from seeing the original Batman and Superman comics. They lacked polish, but that’s what made them special. Anyway, a long way to point out how Greg Irons work hit me where I lived, and still moves me.
There was something else about Irons’s work that hit a nerve with me. He did have a certain polish that the others lacked. It was like he sort of knew what comics were all about, or what they “could” be, and took them and twisted them around to suit his own needs and he then spit them back out after wringing them through his wonderfully enlightened self. There was a sense of playfulness that crept into his work, but also a sense of the absurd, and a slowly sinking edge of horror to them as well. It walked a razor’s edge between fun and scary, if that makes any sense.
He was taken from us way, way too early. Killed by a bus in Bangkok in 1985. He was only 35 years old! But he left behind a wonderful body of work that you can love up on in Fantagraphics “You Call This Art?!!” by Patrick Rosenkranz. The book has been out now since 2006 and I picked it up the minute it was released. I constantly enjoy revisiting its pages and getting that familiar nostalgic pang when looking through his work. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, certainly. And there’s quite a bit that’s actually hard to look at. The Time Magazine cover “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is a brutal condemnation of the Vietnam War.
He didn’t shy away from showing the underbelly of things. And while it may at times seem gratuitous, it really came from a place where he was confronting what he thought were serious demons in our society. It wasn’t something from within him, but what he was seeing in others. The book gives some great insight into his reasons for creating some of the work.
But the work! THE WORK! It’s beautiful! So lively, so powerful! What a talent! I love his lines, his use of black, his characterizations. It’s just a joy to look at for me. It’s like political cartooning thrown on its head with the blinders totally off. No rose colored glasses here. His scathing exposé on Whaling, “The Honour and Glory of Whaling”, in “Slow Death”. The splash page is remarkable. Just a brilliant piece of work. And the story is so dense with facts and information. I think most people at that time would have been (and probably were) sort of shocked at what was being presented in what most considered ephemera for children. They truly were Comix with a conscience. I’ll have to scan more work because what I’ve got here doesn’t quite do him justice.
These things seriously had an effect on me and others that carries through today. That need to not shy away from the unpleasant, or the ugly. To try and make sense of some of it all and maybe even find the latent beauty that lurks in the shadows.
We need more artists like Greg Irons.
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