Below Critical Radar (Fanzines and alternative Comics from 1976 to now)

By David Thompson, 10 September 2001

David Thompson reviews new book that critiques modern culture

Below Critical Radar, which borrows its title from Maus creator Art Spiegelman’s comment on the comic-book’s subcultural status, attempts to document twenty-five years of fringe publishing, from the psychedelic underground to contemporary web sites. Fantagraphics founder Gary Groth provides by far the most engaging of the book’s five essays, with a historical overview spanning the immigrant artists of the 1940s and the gravitational economics of today’s global media corporations. Perversely, for an account of primarily visual media, the images presented are often ill-chosen and poorly reproduced. Chris Ware’s tragicomic masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan is acknowledged, albeit briefly, for its ‘intricate, painstaking artwork’ and eminently ‘inspectable’ quality’, yet the one extract offered is rendered all but impotent by postage stamp resizing.

Such disregard for the artists’ work suggests many of the contributors share a narrowly theoretical interest in the subject which effaces its specific content and aesthetic forms. Much reference is made throughout to counter-cultural subversion and ‘identity politics’, yet evidence to support such claims is difficult to detect, underlining a failure to discriminate between medium and message. This desire to mythologise home-made publication as inherently radical and subversive, irrespective of its content, is most evident in Miriam Rivett’s superficial essay on electronic publishing. Despite the repetition of fashionably associated ideas and a peppering of unnecessary jargon (‘the web ring concretises the networking practices identified with zine culture…’), the lack of technical understanding and poverty of analysis are remarkable. Again, evidence of delight in any particular use of web technology is notably absent.

In his essay addressing the mainstream assimilation of underground techniques, Steven Heller opens with the sweeping assertion: “Commercial culture depends on the theft of intellectual property for its livelihood…” Though few would argue that theft of intellectual property is frequent and ownership of artistic work is increasingly uncertain, Heller’s pronouncement reflects the book’s broader lack of rigour and sloganeering tone. Similarly, the omission of titles by commercial publishing concerns seems entirely driven by ideological assumptions. The super-hero genre favoured by mainstream publishers is ignored, apparently on principal, despite the fact that many of the comic-book’s finest artistic moments reinvent this genre’s form and content. (Alan Moore’s Watchmen, published by DC in 1986, dwarfed all expectation of the medium, famously attracting the critical radar of Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone.) Ironically, the authors of Below Critical Radar too often seem preoccupied by the carrier and indifferent to its content, mirroring precisely the mainstream publishing they deride.

David Thompson <david.thompson AT> is a journalist and author. As part of record label Emit, he talked to Hari Kunzru in issue 9 of Mute.