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The greatest comics of all time don’t appear on bestseller charts or canon lists or big-box bookstore shelves. They are the property of the back issue bins and thrift store crates and convention tables of America, living like the medium itself in the unseen crags and pockets of publishing history…
Light Comitragies, by Greg Irons with an art assist by Sheridan Irons and prose excerpts by Tom Veitch. Cover-dated 1971. Published by Print Mint; a What’s So Funnies production in cooperation with the Overland Vegetable Stagecoach and T.V. Enterprises, Ltd.
How acquired: Every used bookshop in the East San Francisco Bay Area worth its salt has at least one big box of old underground comics sitting atop a pile of cat hair off in some dusty and neglected corner. A few decades back there was a minute where the world’s most aggressively different comics were all created, printed, and distributed in Oakland and Berkeley and S.F., the big difference between then and now being that in those days the best regional alternative comics got print runs in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, and today they’ll maybe top a hundred copies if you’re real lucky. A century from now you’ll still be able to get cheap underground comics in the Bay Area. They left a mark on their birthplace the like of which few comics — hell, few arts scenes in general — have ever been able to. I grabbed this one out of the back of the dilapidated box in the secondhand store down the street from the house where I grew up.
Suggested soundtrack to this comic: Here …
Best single drawing:
I’m just gonna go ahead and nominate this double-page spread for “best single drawing in human history”, if that’s okay with you jerks. Also: getting it tattooed on me.
The history lesson: Even among the weirdos and avant-gardists of the Bay Area’s late-’60s/early ’70s underground comix scene, Greg Irons was something of an outlier: a cartoonist/poster artist/musician who, like his contemporary Victor Moscoso, saw little reason to pin all his hopes to comics and pursue the medium with the same single-minded fervor as some of the movement’s more successful, better-known figures. When Irons did make comics, though, the results were just about always outstanding — and Light is the crown jewel of his enviable oeuvre.
It’s also the most compelling artifact to have emerged from a very strange time for non-mainstream American comics. Irons came to prominence in the San Francisco scene a little late, after the first earth-shaking releases from artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton had opened the floodgates of the medium to a new set of narrative and artistic possibilities. As such, Irons hit his peak as a cartoonist when the first wave of underground comics was at its highest and driest: right when icons like Crumb had succumbed to doing co-opted and substandard work for unbelievable paychecks and licensing deals, right when America’s corporate interests had figured out there was (however fleetingly) bigger money in selling comix to heads than selling comics to kids. Early ’70s underground comics are weird stuff, suddenly aware of their massive commercial audience but unsure of how to pander to it without sacrificing the wild personal expression that made them so popular in the first place. The laser-beam focus drifts from the stories, genre tropes grow more and more prominent, and blown-out psychedelic muraling becomes a popular way to distract from the emptiness of the stories. In a few more years, the original spark of light that powered the movement would shine again in the two main venues for truly “post-underground” comics, RAW and Heavy Metal Magazine; but for a few years before Richard Corben and Art Spiegelman and Vaughn Bode found their true voices, it was Greg Irons who made the most interesting comics to fly beneath the cultural mainstream’s radar.
Why it’s the greatest comic of all time: Irons is peculiar in that what were weaknesses for so many other underground cartoonists were his strengths. His facility with genre storytelling was much stronger than his way with the meandering, druggy narratives that Crumb & company traded in, his hard-psych full page images felt like the legitimate expressions of a visionary rather than filler, and most importantly for this comic’s purposes, he was as comfortable composing illustrations in color as black and white. Light is one of the first color underground comics, and even today it remains a downright eye-searing piece of work, its benday tones screaming off the page with the power of a heavily distorted guitar riff. Irons’s work in the labor-intensive field of poster art had long since familiarized him with the nuts and bolts of how mid-20th century color printing worked (knowledge even the vast majority of superhero artists remained ignorant of), and by 1971, Irons was a master of his craft, cutting intricate webs and sizzling tone flares out of the Rubylith overlays that color comics were assembled from. The color is the first thing you notice about Light (take a look at that cover!): it’s right on the nose, a bravura display of the kind of bold and primally aggressive pop art we all associate with the idea of “comics” but that makes it onto the actual pages so rarely.
The pages themselves are just as unique. After an ominous title page, the comic starts off with a snatch of even-more-ominous prose from future Star Wars comics writer (!) Tom Veitch … which, why, not, I’ll just excerpt it here:
“Somewhere at the core of the universe somebody or something had tripped a mechanism, pulled the plug, set off a chain reaction that could not be stopped …”
Then everything goes silent and we get to see that chain reaction firsthand, in a series of color-burned full-page illustrations that’s still a heavyweight contender for most psychedelic sequence in comics history. A lightning bolt mushrooms out of an alien-looking deity’s head against a white background, quickly transmogrifying into a flame-haired valkyrie, then a half-horse half-dragon creature, then the serpent Ouroboros, the first living thing in the universe. The alien head that birthed it all withers into a skull before transforming into the earth itself, and the serpent becomes a series of ever more sinister Lovecraftian scarab beings that preside over the birth of the first man and woman as the backgrounds move from white to pale blue to wailing purple to pitch black. Just to give you some idea:
It’s one of comics’ all-time great sequences, a dreamlike, apocalyptic piece of pure vision and expert, fluid animation unlike anything else. But that’s just the first half of the comic. The image immediately following the birth of humanity is the state of our species circa 1971, as seen through Irons’ eyes: Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon firing unfathomable doomsday weapons into a seething, undifferentiated mass of rioting demonstrators and nightstick-wielding police shock troops, hemmed in by bleeding strands of cosmic darkness, presided over by the skeletal, mushroom cloud-haloed figure of Death himself. Which is a lot to describe, so here, it looks like this. Feel free to click on this one and really drag your eyeballs over it for a second or two:
The comic’s remaining space is taken up entirely by silent, nightmarish images of war and death, both ominously futuristic and unsettlingly primitive, all of them described in grotesque detail by Irons’ meticulous, knotty pen lines and brought to life by the sickly neon glow of his masterful coloring, finally settling on a black and white image of scattered bones and weaponry with a single red rose growing from within the skull in the foreground. It’s the best post-apocalyptic comic ever by a longshot, its very lack of a continuous narrative what pulls it together into a cohesive story of a world too far gone to make any kind of sense anymore. It’s also a head-on collision of experimental comics with genre, one that basically lays out the blueprint for everything interesting that Heavy Metal ever put out, as well as more than a few of today’s most notable alt-comics. Irons goes Kirby one better as a pure image-maker with his depictions of hulking monsters, brutal clashes between musclebound warriors, and complex war machinery; and the twin tangibility and otherworldliness of the glimpses he gives us into his imagination stands shoulder to shoulder with anything Moebius ever drew. Light more than any other comic provides both a visual survey of what the comics form as a whole was capable of in 1971, and a stunningly accurate road map of what was yet to come. (There’s more than a few shades of Todd McFarlane and even Avatar comics in Irons’ detail-heavy, gored-out creep-fests.)
More than all this, though, it’s a comic that manages to be both so beautiful and terrifying in such equal measure that it’s impossible to think about its historical significance or even its political message while you’re looking at the pictures. Every image in Light takes you away the moment it hits your eyes, reduces the world down to a sheet of paper printed with black lines and colored dots, and until you turn to the next one, nothing else matters.
Cover price: 75 cents. I got mine for double that, which is more than you ought to pay considering how many dollar bins I’ve seen it in over the years since then. Go get it!