Though we may currently be living in an age where comics are taken more seriously as a legitimate artistic medium, they are still perceived by many as “kids stuff.” This was particularly true in the 1960s, when the target audience for graphic storytelling was under the age of 15. But in 1966, comics legend Wally Wood began publication of an underground comics anthology aimed at giving those in the industry a creative outlet – with complete creator control and ownership – other than the grind of mainstream superhero books or newspaper strips. That comic was witzend, and for 13 glorious issues published between 1966 and 1985, some of the comic industry’s most influential creators were able to put pen to paper and produce magic. While not a complete collection like the now out-of-print deluxe edition from 2014, The Best of witzend is a wonderful collection curated by the zine’s longtime publisher, Bill Pearson.
This collection opens with a great, one-page introduction by Pearson which discusses the founding of witzend, and its history from the first issue to the last. From there, book does not hesitate to dive into material from the first issue with a wonderful story from Wally Wood. Beyond this tale, readers are engrossed by the works of comic legends unleashed from the shackles of the Comics Code Authority. Jim Steranko injects the book his wonderful graphic design work that made his SHIELD run legendary. Some of Bernie Wrightson’s unknown works is wonderfully represented here, as are the works of Don Martin, Mike Zeck, and, well before his seminal Maus, Art Spiegelman. And, of course, its difficult to mention witzend without bringing up Steve Ditko, who would debut his most personal creation, Mr. A, in the zine’s third issue.
It really comes as no surprise that Ditko, who recently passed away this year at age 90, gets star treatment here. Though other celebrated names take advantage of the zine’s freedom by crafting stories featuring busty, scantily clad women that would not fly under the Comics Code Authority, Ditko’s works showcase his craft. He understands that comics can be more than just a fun escape, as he uses Mr. A to explore and push his budding Randian philosophies (which, ironically, aren’t as Randian as one might expect).
Ditko is not the only artist that uses witzend to produce a truly personal work. Frank Frazetta and Gail Smith produce a beautiful retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The City in the Sea.” The master of controversy, Howard Chaykin, delivers a wonderful 3-page story. These and many others are beautifully reproduced in a wonderful, oversized hardcover edition. This is a wonderful addition to anyone’s library, especially those with an appreciation for the evolution of the comics medium.