Exploring Roger Brown’s Comic Book Collection

Thursday, April 27th, 2017 » By James Connolly » See more posts from Blogging the Archive

A small stack of comic books from the Roger Brown Study Collection’s archive reveals narratives of aesthetic inspiration during the Silver Age of comics.

 

A small collection of 57 comic books is part of RBSC’s archive, including publications mainly from the ‘50-’60s with a rather interesting variety of genres.

Many volumes come from the well known world of mainstream comic books, featuring superheroes – like Superman or Batman – or famous characters that are part of the popular iconography – many would probably remember Marge’s Little Lulu and Carl Anderson’s Henry. Some of them are part of less well-known productions, as for example The World Around Us a series of illustrated documentary books on various topics, published by Gilberton World-Wide Publications (1958-1961).

 

Comic books from Roger Brown’s collection

 

The mainstream comics collected by Roger Brown were all part of what is commonly defined the Silver Age of comic books, going from the mid ‘50s to early ‘70s. In this period, American mainstream comics achieved a great success, especially in the superheros genre that determined the success of publishing companies such as DC Comics and Marvel.

Interestingly, many of the volumes in the collection reveal missing parts of pages, that Roger Brown had cut out to collect images of characters or individual panels. Probably, Roger was experimenting with this medium by following the example of Ray Yoshida, who produced a Comic Book Specimen Series in 1968-69, where he collected parts of comic strips and assembled them in collages.

 

Ray Yoshida, Comic Book Specimen #3 – Backs (1968). Collage on paper

 

During the ‘90s, Yoshida returned on comic books specimens, which remained part of his practice until the end of his career. Similarly, Roger Brown’s sketchbooks include many pages of comic books specimens – imitating the practice began many years earlier by his teacher at the School of the Art Institute.

 


Roger Brown, Sketchbook 02: 1966 & 1968-1969, Side Two: 1968-1969, pp. 24-25

Comic books have certainly informed Roger Brown’s artistic practice, as well as many other Chicago Imagists. While pop art was appropriating iconographies and existing characters from the mainstream comic book scene, the Chicago Imagists were influenced by this same aesthetic but developing their own imagery.

However, what this group of artists were mostly inspired by are the so call underground comix. The genre refers to small-press or self-published comics, featuring contents that at the time were not approved by the Comics Code Authority – such as drug use, sexuality, violence and socially relevant issues. The X at the end of the word comix was indeed meant to indicate the presence of adult content and the affinity to the genre.

One of the most famous underground comix artists is certainly Robert Crumb, of whom Roger Brown collected many different volumes – the collection includes one issue of Big Ass Comics, Despair and Motor City Comics, but also the first four issues of Zap Comix.

 

Robert Crumb, Zap Comix, issues no.0-no.3 (1967-1968)

Self-published are also the artists’ comic books part of Roger’s collection: Slapstic by Bruce Thorn (1978) and the Hairy Who series in four issues produced by the Hairy Who collective.

Hairy Who was a group of six Chicago Imagists – Jim Falconer, Jim Nutt, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Sullen Rocca and Karl Wirsum – who collectively exhibited at the Hyde Park Center in Chicago (1966-1969) and later other venues in US. The group was formed in 1966 responding to the need of these young artists to distance themselves from collective exhibitions that would feature very different styles, in order to create a space where their works – with similar aesthetics – could coexist as individual projects.

For their first exhibition in 1966, in the absence of funds for a catalogue, the group decided to self-produce a publication that would include hand-drawn reproductions of the works exhibited. Each artist worked independently on the allocated space, based on the agreement that contents would mimic and somehow parody mainstream comic books.

Experimenting with different styles, color combinations and printing techniques, the group produced one comic/catalogue for each of the four consecutive exhibitions.

 

Hairy Who (1968), offset lithography.

 

The aesthetic appropriation operated by the Chicago Imagists is evident in many of their works. Some of them, as for instance Karl Wirsum, explicitly referred to comic books as sources of inspiration – Wirsum in particular began his fine art studies with the intent of becoming a cartoonist. Even though, as Jim Nut declared later, the interest of the group was never to create underground comix, the influence of Crumb and other artists of this genre is evident while looking at Roger Brown’s comics collection as a whole.

The first clear correspondence that it is highlighted by comparing the different volumes, is the aesthetic resonance between Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix and the Hairy Who series. Even though there are no explicit references between the two volumes, it is interesting to consider how in the same years both Crumb and the Hairy Who artists shared similar solutions in terms of both imagery and editorial choices. Indeed, after the first two issues, Zap Comix began to be drawn by a group of artists under the name of Zap Collective. Similarly to Hairy Who, each cartoonist was contributing to the issue by adding their panels to the comic book, independently from other members of the collective, without the intent of creating a common narrative. Interestingly, issue no. 3 of both Hairy Who and Zap Comix (both published in 1968) feature two front covers, with contents turned of 180 degrees in the middle. Even though this may be a coincidence, it is evident how much underground comix and artists’ comic books in that moment were – more or less consciously – exercising mutual influence on their artists, who were lending on similar languages at the same time.



Karl Wirsum, Draw Dick Tracy the Hard Way (1978), offset lithograph.

 

Roger Brown’s archive also includes four prints by Karl Wirsum titled Draw Dick Tracy the Hard Way (1978). Roger’s comics collection includes one issue of Dick Tracy, which however dates 1960. The question about the existence of actual connections between these documents remains of course open. On the comic book’s cover, the name Jim has been handwritten with a pencil. Did Roger loan the comic book from – possibly – Jim Nuty? Once he collected Wirsum’s prints, was he looking for any Dick Tracy’s comic to study the original imagery? Or did Roger just buy the comic book himself many years before Wirsum’s prints?

Even though many of these questions will probably never be answered, Roger Brown’s comic book collection naturally raises many interesting considerations about the artist’s relationship with comics and their imagery. Roger’s comics collection represents a small introduction to the complex topic of influences that this medium had on the Chicago Imagists group during probably one of the most productive periods in the American comic books history. It is rather intriguing to explore possible connections and histories behind each of these volumes. As much as some conclusions remain speculative, new correspondences may be revealed while researching Roger Brown’s archives with this small collection of comics in mind.  

 

If you would like to explore the comic book collection in person, please email (rbsc@saic.edu) or call (773.929.2452) to schedule an appointment. You can also request the comic books listing via email.

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Fabiola Tosi is a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Arts

Administration and Policy (MAAAP) program. With a multidisciplinary interest in arts and economics, Fabiola is a versatile Arts Administrator with experience in project management, development, evaluation and administration for art organizations both in the non-profit and for-profit areas. Always working with an international perspective, she collaborated with many world-class institutions, among which the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo in Milan, EXPO CHICAGO and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Originally from Italy, Fabiola received her Bachelor Degree in Economics and Management for Fine and Performing Arts at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan (2014).

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