I've been a comic book fan since I was a kid, but after an early fascination with super hero and horror titles had begun to wane in my teen years, I discovered underground comix from the 1960s and '70s, and never really cared about super beings in spandex suits again. Artists like Robert Crumb, Vaughn Bod?, Gilbert Shelton, and countless others opened my eyes to irreverent humor that resonated with me more strongly than the tales from Marvel or DC that I'd previously thought defined what comic books were all about.
While most of the early underground titles captured the zeitgeist of the time they were created, and by the mid '80s many of those counterculture tales of sex and drugs were beginning to seem a little dated, they inspired a new wave of people to create independent comics in the 1980s and '90s. In 1990 I worked in a Houston comic shop, and was one of the guys in charge of ordering the "weird stuff" (According to our boss), which further exposed me to newer alternative comics and increased my love of them.
There are far too many titles and talented artists to mention in one or two articles about independent comics from those two decades, but let's look at some of the cream of the crop, beginning with comics that appeared in the '80s.
7. Love And Rockets
One of the first alternative comics appearing in the '80s, Love and Rockets introduced the world to the work of the Hernandez Brothers: Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario. The first self-published issue was released in 1981, and the series has covered tales of punk rock life in Los Angeles, a fictional Mexican village, and many other subjects over the title's lengthy history. Love and Rockets features amazing art and was a breath of fresh air in the '80s.
6. American Splendor
Harvey Pekar loved comics, but hated the formulaic genre titles that were the industry's bread and butter. In the early '70s Pekar decided he wanted to write his own autobiographical comics, and a chance meeting with Robert Crumb resulted in it happening. The first issue appeared in 1976, making it a little early for this list, but the series ran until 2008 in one format or another, featuring art by Crumb and many other alternative comic artists active throughout the '80s and '90s. The brilliant slice-of-life stories celebrate the quirky beauty to be found in our real life experiences. The autobiographical approach would also be hugely influential on many other comic creators, and in 2003 a biopic was made about Pekar and American Splendor.
5. Weirdo and Raw Magazine
Robert Crumb kept busy even after the initial wave of '60s era underground comics which had made him famous had run their course. In 1981 Crumb launched Weirdo, a magazine format anthology featuring his work and that of other alternative artists. Weirdo was Crumb's "lowbrow" reaction to the artsier Raw, another alternative comic anthology magazine which began publishing in 1980. Raw was seen as more "intellectual" than Weirdo, but both featured groundbreaking work by artists who would shape the alternative comics scene of the '80s and beyond. Both anthologies are brilliant, and should be considered mandatory reading for anyone interested in alternative comics of the era.
4. Yummy Fur
Canadian artist Chester Brown began an odd series of self published mini comics titles Yummy Fur in 1983, with Vortex Comics releasing a standard format comic version beginning in 1986. Brown's work ranges from the grotesque and weird, to the deeply personal, covering subject matter that ranges in autobiographical material to absurd fantasy, and even a retelling of Biblical gospel stories. His comics are off beat, and are must reads for fans of unconventional alternative materials.
Mixing autobiographical elements with abstract and dreamlike imagery, Jim Woodring's comic explored territory not many other artists did, or could. He self published his comics in a zine format beginning in 1980, before Fantagraphics Books started releasing them in 1987.
Woodring's artistic style is beautiful and suited to the strange subconscious worlds that Jim often introduced its readers too. Not for everyone perhaps, but his work is excellent and one of a kind.
2. Lloyd Llewelyn
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While Daniel Clowes became better know for Eightball and later work like Ghost World (Which will be covered in the next installment of this list),he'd been working on comics throughout the '80s, including a stint working for Cracked magazine. In 1986 Fantagraphics published the first issue of Lloyd Llewelyn, Clowes' lowbrow take on noir crime stories and lounge culture. The series lasted six issues, and introduced the artist's unique artistic and narrative style to people who might've missed his earlier work. It's worth seeking out as a prelude to Eightball, and stands up as a classic and very funny '80s comic.
Running from 1985 to '89 for 15 issues, Neat Stuff was Peter Bagge's first solo comic, introducing many of us to his strange and hilarious view our world. It was also the first appearance of "The Bradley family", including malcontent ne'r do well teenage son Buddy, who Bagge would later make the focus of his '90s comic epic Hate. Neat Stuff is consistently sarcastic, funny, and the art is excellent. It holds up well, and is really only eclipsed by Hate, because the later title's perfect take on '90s slacker culture is one of the funniest and most accurate works capturing that era.