Comics — the way our grandparents spelled it — were relatively harmless tales of cute, wide-eyed characters birthed from the womb of early 20th century newspapers. Titles such as King Comics, Famous Funnies and Comic Monthly innocently sold themselves for a dime. They eventually evolved into an army of men in tights trying not to trip on their capes as they socked bad guys in the mouth and scooped up swooning ladies. A hundred years later, I sipped on an Abita and admired drawings of chicken in spacesuits. They floated, along with Bobbit’s penis and a dypsomaniacal parrot, inside a Kinkos-printed, underground comic entitled Turd.
Underground comics as we understand them today — comics like Turd, referred to as comix by their creators, and its descendant, the collaborative Dafa Fungus — find their stem cells in the 60s. Artists such as Frank Stack, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and Gilbert Shelton started drawing whatever they damn well pleased. Typically, it was whatever shocked the staid flock of unsophisticated readers and their superhero sensibilities. Introverted explosions of rich neuroses and desires squeezed through the pens of skilled draftsmen and changed a culture’s concept of what could be said and how.
Their rebellion was not unfounded, nor was it completely theirs. Like most revolutions, the match had been whisking against the book for a long gritty while before the conflagration of change erupted.
Beginning in 1952, Harvey Kurtzman tenderized the stiff meat of tradition with the piercing satire of Mad Magazine. Two years later, a psychiatrist by the name of Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent. It decried comics’ desultory influence upon the young. Silly now, but effective then: Wertham, armed with his book, convinced the American government to encourage comic book publishers to censor themselves before Uncle Sam did. They acquiesced and formed the Comics Code Authority, an organization that used draconian censorship to decimate the number of comic books circulating by nearly half — not to mention violently robbing the medium of the creative space it needed to evolve.
The repression backfired.
When the 60s hit, taboos were discarded like roaches. Curiosity overtook the nation’s youth. A network of like-minded fans patronized the head shops sprouting up like weeds in San Francisco and New York. Slowly, disparate insurgents congealed into an audience. Lewd flouting of social mores brought people together faster than a free bag and the smoky rubble of collapsed conventions began to form into an organized, adult comix movement. The much-needed addition of a mature brand of comics was abetted by another unusual accomplishment of this period’s artists: they owned what they drew. Up to that point, artists were paid on a per-page basis and had no control over the uses to which their characters were put, nor access to the proceeds created by these uses. The comix movement added this target to the radar of its rebellion. Underground presses adopted a flat-rate/share-the-profits payment scheme that became entrenched enough to cause the big boys of comics publishers — Marvel and DC — to adopt similar policies by the early 1980s. Given this, cartoonists felt the tingle of art heaven: getting paid for what they wanted to do. Comix exploded and the repercussions reached across the many panels of time and distance to do a little shaking right here in the Big Easy on a hot summer night in 2001.
Turd was the first collaboration between Caesar Meadows, Arthur Teagarden, and Burgin. From its fecund pile of satire and delicious obsessions rose the multi-faceted beast called Dafa Fungus. DA references dadaism and the New Orleanean twist on the word “the”. FA is for free association, and in Burgin’s uptown home on Wednesday nights, this trio brings together local cartoonists and freely associate their asses off.
Like a…a…well, fungus, Dafa grows, penetrates, and playfully coats niches of your mind you thought sealed forevermore by hardened gobs of good ol’ American repression.
There are 12 squares (called “panels”) about two inches wide and long wriggling across each of the 12 pages that make up an issue of Dafa. Every artist gets at least one panel — in good underground tradition — to say and draw whatever he or she wants. However, an artist must let two other artists draw before adding another panel of his or her own. Between goofing around, conversational critiques of contemporary culture, and disciplined drawing, a single, previously empty page gets filled with inky demons and dreams by the end of the night.
The inspiration for the format came to Meadows when he was in school and passing composition books back and forth with a friend. When a third joined the frenzy of creating what could be considered the first Dafa, Meadows experienced a leap in the richness of the work: “2 people didn’t have the same kind of random chaotic factor…which was better.”
Indeed, chaos, partly inspired by the Crescent City’s own peculiar brand of unpredictability, runs through Dafa like blood through a vein. Subject matter jumps from Popeye to severed fingers to talking vegetables.
Meadows explains the flexible methodology: “I hope no one would look at that [Dafa] and think there’s any kind of agenda being pushed… life is pretty ridiculous…the craziness of it all…that’s certainly New Orleans…the Mardi Gras spirit of the city is large part of why it’s got the format it does.”
And he’s right — between the panels, where your brain takes mind-bending journeys as far as the artist can go in the space of a quarter inch, you can hear the clattering of unrestrained revelry and spontaneous whooping of frenzied joy. There is a delectable unhurried wander from panel to panel; I found myself going slow to heighten the thrill of the next surprise, and this tender pace taps to the music of the underground. Comix — underground comics — are not about getting off on the mechanical ascension of a tired plot leading to a superhero’s predictable victories. They are about lingering over wonder, drinking confusion, understanding the nonsensical, and, as a result, exploring what commercial comics do not.
The trenchant lack of urgency that so sweetly defines life hugging the Mississippi shows its influences in other ways; issues of Dafa come out about twice a year, allowing creativity — again, in an undergroundesque manner — to flow forth without the rigid, deadline-driven or editor-as-censor control common to more mainstream comics. The relaxed approach to completion reflects the rhythms of New Orleans which fall in step with the beat of the underground’s heart: comix answer to the artist who created them, and that artist alone. He or she decides not only the what and why of the material, but where, when, and how it is released — a question usually answered by the mainstream pressure of making a buck.
Meadows, putting down his pen and passing the page onto the next artist, tells me, “New Orleans is a really relaxed town..it doesn’t have the same level of urgency…I like that…the fact that there is so many months between issues….it’s not a hurried thing…if the interest is there and the time is there…it flows.”
The flow is not free. Meadows, Teagarden, and Burgin pay hard cash out of their own pockets to publish Dafa. The money is well worth it. An uncompromised, no-boundaries aesthetic integrity motivated by meaning and not the market — a tradition in the community of independent underground artists of all styles and eras — is as apparent in Dafa as the black lines of ink running down its pages.
Dafa’s all-inclusive, creation-for-the-joy-of-creation attitude has brought many other local artists along for the ride. Collectively, they draw a glimpse, panel by panel, into the status of the comix community in New Orleans.
Josh Simmons, creator All About *censored*ing, Ugly *censored* *censored*, and the documentary-style Cirkus New Orleans (about the journeys of the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zidezhow) pushes then shreds the envelope in hardcore wave after hardcore wave of viciously sexual images and words that penetrate your thoughts like a nail into soft wood. Powerfully grotesque executions of scenes from a twisted sexual dystopia move you whether you like it or not — where, how, and why they move you is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself. Equally well executed is his utopian comic entitled Happy. In this world of giggling bunnies and elephants like giant, huggable marshmallows, Simmons assured me that everybody is, well, “always happy.” The eerily bubbly characters inside seem to prove it. Topshelf (www.topshelfcomix.com), a well-respected publisher of underground comix based in Georgia, will be publishing Happy in January, 2002. When I asked Simmons what he takes from the Dafa meetings, he cited what Meadows mentioned as one of its best characteristics: an inspiring sense of community with other artists.
Robert Tritthardt, commiserates: “It really felt like a sense of community, even though it was small. It’s nice to have people to bounce ideas off of.” His own title, Writhe and Shine (www.writheandshine.com), is a sophisticated, witty exploration of the New Orleans Gothic subculture done in dramatic chiaroscuro that look as impressive and vigorous as woodcut prints.
Dafa Fungus is much more than a comic book. It is a home and a haven. It is comix. Once a week, playfully radical ideas that might otherwise wander unseen in the caves of the underground are given a 4 inch square platform upon which to perform. The array of style and subject matter hits every facet of rebellion in a box : scatological quips, cynical social commentary, maniacal joy, and bare sexuality.
Whether you like the tune or not, Dafa Fungus is an important member of the comix choir. It inspires and delivers. Meadows said it could move me, change my life, and it did — I drew a panel at the last meeting, and even though it lacked the skill of the others, I felt the same sizzle: ideas were popping up, big zinging what-ifs and why-don’t-wes. It was, as Caesar said, the excitement of a medium that has “the complexity of prose combined with immediacy of visual imagery.” It is an art that can inspire your heart and your head, as long as it’s not getting ripped out or chopped off by a scythe-wielding peace sign.
Visit Caesar Meadow’s online, comic book archive: www.geocities.com/jigsawjct
E-mail Josh Simmons at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Where Y’at published this article in November 2001.