The counterculture revolution of the 1960s is synonymous with many things, including hippies, Civil Rights, and the sexual revolution. There were also large changes in popular media as the film industry became less restrictive, television became more ingrained in households, and music became a vehicle for social change. The comic book industry was also affected with the debut of underground comics. Often scandalous in nature and deemed inappropriate by the Comics Code Authority, underground comics were smaller in scale and theoretically more socially relevant. Debuting in 1966, witzend showcased the works of many writers and artists. Best of witzend from Fantagraphics Books is a selection from the comic’s thirteen issue run.
Best of witzend is definitely a product of its generation. Though there are many different artists, there is a sameness to the book. The panels are filled with the heavy lines and the depictions of characters are gritty and realistic. With the exception of hair color and clothing, characters do not look much different. witzend looks like the pulp comics people talk about.
The writing in witzend also a sign of its time. Most of the stories are set in either futuristic or prehistoric settings — and in some cases are a combination of both. Many of the tales deal with humanity’s ignorance in the greater scheme of the universe. Almost all stories conclude with the moral of man being the real monster. While this is has no bearing on the quality of the writing, it does make the collection repetitive.
Since witzend is a product of a bygone era there are ideas and depictions that seem downright silly in 2018. These stories were created during a time when “men were men and women were less” so the reader is introduced to alpha males who are so filled with machismo it is comical and sometimes villainous. Meanwhile, females are obviously there to be seen and not heard. One of the common narratives of the 1960s counterculture is how forward thinking it was. This is certainly not the case with many stories in witzend.
That being said, the amount of sex, nudity, and graphic violence is comparatively little next to the likes of Fritz the Cat and other more famous underground comics of the day. witzend had its fair share of naked and scantily clad women, but it is never over the top, if superfluous. Grotesque violence is almost nonexistent as the comic seems most concerned with telling its pulpy stories.
There are exceptions, with the recently deceased Steve Ditko providing the best example. ‘Mr. A’ is a reflection of Ditko’s belief in author Ayn Rand’s philosophy of moral absolutism. ‘Mr. A’ presents a straight comic story that clearly defines good and evil without having any grey area. The art is quintessential Ditko and looks like something from DC or Marvel. It is a welcome change of pace.
Best of witzend is a fascinating look at an underground comic of the 1960s. Along with the collected stories and art from names such as Ditko, Art Spiegelman, and Walt Simonson there is an oral history of the publication. There is nothing groundbreaking, but witzend will take the reader to a different time in American history.