Perhaps the oddest Marvel release of 1974 was a magazine-sized comic that didn’t carry the Marvel Comics banner. Comix Book was the surprising result of a three year courtship by Stan Lee of underground comix publisher Denis Kitchen.
Similar to the way he pursued Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Tom Stoppard and other prominent comics and literary figures during this period, Lee had been after Kitchen for several years to launch a kind of "ground-level" book to be published through Marvel’s auspices. Kitchen owned Krupp Comic Works, a company that included Kitchen Sink Press. At Kitchen Sink, Denis Kitchen published some of the most prominent underground cartoonists of the era, including R. Crumb, Skip Williamson and Trina Robbins. Kitchen believed that Lee courted him because Marvel was always looking to expand their line into popular genres and styles: "we had something that he needed, which was fresh blood, fresh perspective. He’d seen all these genres go; it was cyclical, and here was a new generation, doing these newfangled underground comix, and he wanted a piece of it."
By 1974, however, the comix industry was fading. The stores that still sold undergrounds were selling fewer of them because they were swamped with substandard books. Furthermore, the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California established a rule for determining obscenity that helped drive head shops out of business. Under Miller, cities could apply a standard that was specific for their community in order to determine if content was obscene under the law. That community standards rule was frequently used against adult movie theatres and bookstores in cities across the United States. Miller was also specifically used to justify the targeting of head shops that sold sexually explicit material. Therefore, stores often stopped selling underground comix, forcing publishers to scramble in order to survive. In 1970 undergrounds were a hot commodity; in the wake of Miller, by 1974, comix were marginalized. As Kitchen remembered, in the light of the Miller decision, "Overnight, a lot of our head shop customers literally stopped buying underground comics, and that cut out a good part of our mainstay."
Lee had offered Kitchen’s business a lifeline at precisely the moment Kitchen needed help the most. In fact, not only did Marvel help subsidize Krupp during a lean period, Lee also offered Denis Kitchen an unprecedented amount of latitude to create his new magazine and recruit creators for it.
Perhaps most significantly, Lee agreed to Kitchen’s strictly non-negotiable condition that all original art produced for Comix Book be returned to its creators. This was a unique arrangement for Marvel Comics to enter into. In fact, at this point, of all the major comic book publishers, only Warren Publications had instituted a policy of returning original art to its creators. This initial crack in the wall of publisher unanimity would later lead to major reforms from both Marvel and DC.
Also exceptional in the agreement was the fact that Marvel did not own the copyright to the characters that were published in Comix Book. Rather, Marvel only signed to receive "First North American Serial Rights," which was the standard policy in the book and magazine publishing industries but virtually unprecedented in comics outside of the undergrounds. In addition, Kitchen remembered being allowed to include "swear words, but not the ‘ultimate’ swear words," along with mild nudity, a positive approach to drug use and other ideological positions (disrespect for the police, mistrust of traditional family values) that never would be allowed by the Comics Code. Finally, Marvel paid the extremely high rate of $100 per page for completed comics pages that would run in Comix Book.
The premiere issue of Comix Book, dated December 1974, featured material by such luminaries as Justin Green, Art Spiegelman, Skip Williamson and Howard Cruse. The magazine-sized comic carried a cover slug that read "Curtis" rather than "Marvel." This was the case with other Marvel Magazines of the era, so that wasn’t unusual. What was unusual, however, was Stan Lee’s masthead title on the project: "Instigator." With that title, Stan wouldn’t be blamed if the book failed, but if Comix Book succeeded, he could get credit for "instigating" the project.
Unfortunately for Lee and Kitchen, the former occurred: The ambitious union of underground comix and Marvel Comics was ultimately unsuccessful. Comix Book sold approximately 30% of its 200,000-250,000 copy print run – a very low number for its time.
Ultimately, Comix Book only lasted three issues at Marvel. Kitchen was producing Comix Book #3, with issues #4 and #5 partially finished, when the magazine was cancelled by Marvel’s executives, so Kitchen decided to complete the run of Comix Book at his own publishing house. All five issues include stories and art by some of the most acclaimed underground cartoonists of the mid-1970s.
Thankfully, Dark Horse Comics and Denis Kitchen have united to produce a glorious collection of The Best of Comix Book, a 180-page collection of nearly every story from the magazine, as well as a handful of stories that didn't appear in the original Comix Book. The book is a wonderful curio, a fascinating time capsule of the kind of content that was considered to be cutting edge when it appeared forty years ago.
Looking at this stuff now, the charm of the stories remains but many of them appear painfully hand-created and oddly half-baked, often apparently improvised on the drawing table or in dialog with aspects of society that is barely half-remembered now – the Black Panthers, second-rate vintage cartoons, the all-pervasive lust for weed and pussy among the young people of the day are all key concerns that the artists explore.
A few stories stand out as particularly great. Sharon Rudahl's four-page piece about sexism, immigration and the horrors of the past is shockingly real and confrontational and benefits tremendously by the kind of rough-hewn creativity that simply wouldn't exist in a comic created these days.
Kim Deitch has several short strips scattered throughout the book, all drawn in his characteristic stiff style that somehow feels very real and poignant. One piece, a profile of the cartoon-creating Fleisher Brothers, stands out among the stories in this book because it's really about something and effectively tells an interesting story in just a few pages.
Alex Toth's work is always a highlight in any book in which it appears. His glorious story "39/74" is the highlight of this book, a gorgeous tutorial on the use of Craftint and contrasting lines. The story he tells is heartfelt, but the real highlight is his luminous art that almost seems to glow with its brilliantly bold style. Ironically, this piece never actually appeared in Comix Book because Stan Lee felt it was dull (Toth was paid a kill fee for the piece and was able to publish the story through a French publisher; this book is the first time the story has appeared in English).
A lot of other comics and comix legends appear in this book, many of whom have undeservedly had their names pass into limbo. Skip Williamson delivers several of his typically breezy contrasts between hippies and the real world; Justin Green, of the famous Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, presents an almost incomprehensible strip; Trina Robbins delivers a smart and fun feminist piece with "Pantha"; Art Spiegelman’s early three-page underground version of his acclaimed "Maus" was printed in issue #2, early exposure for a breakout talent and is reprinted in the book; Harvey Pekar, Lee Marrs, John Pound, Mike Ploog and even S. Clay Wilson show up in the pages of this book.
Denis Kitchen credits the ultimate cancellation of Comix Book not to low sales or the controversial nature of some of its stories, but to the resentment and frustration that many Marvel freelancers felt about the greater freedoms granted to the writers and artists for Comix Book. Marvel’s creative staffers groused that the underground upstarts were receiving better treatment than the creators who were putting together Marvel’s most popular series. The project had a kind of "Pandora's Box Effect," as Kitchen called it. "I still don't know if Comix Book was killed because of sales alone, or if the political issues were causing so much trouble that [Lee] just had to cut it."
As for the book, it's a wonderful slice of comics history by a large group of uninhibited and thoroughly creative artists. This stuff is pretty great, but it's definitely of its time.