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Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & PiratesReview - Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates
by Bob Levin
Fantagraphics, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Aug 24th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 34)

These essays by Bob Levin, previously published in The Comics Journal, examine the value and meaning of comics.  The first autobiographical essay sets the scene, telling how Levin started reading Mad magazine when he was 10 with his friends, and how it influenced his thinking.  The themes of horror and sex appealed to him, despite the fact that his parents forbad him from reading scary comics.  He and his friends formed an official EC Fan-Addict Club and they even traveled to New York City to visit the offices of EC Comics.  Other of the 17 essays examine topics such as the work of Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Chester Brown, Dori Seda, B.N. Duncan, Justin Green, Maxon Crumb, Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar, Ben Katchor, Roy Lichtenstein, Jack Katz, and Rory Hayes.  In many of the essays, Levin consults with his wife Adele Levin, who he often refers to as "Ruth Delhi, psychoanalytic social critic," who brings a strong psychological perspective.  Occasionally, Levin interviews his subjects, but mostly his discussion weaves together his thoughts while he meditates on a topic, the thoughts of other people he consults, and some tangential stories.  There are footnotes, but for the most part the tone of these essays is relatively informal and approachable. Helpfully, there are plates featuring work by many of the artists under discussion, to help the reader get a better sense of what Levin is referring to. 

Reading through Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates, one gets a sense of the history of underground comics and the main players.  However, Levin's main preoccupation is the place of comics in society, especially underground comics.  He is concerned to defend free speech and to examine the value of this relatively new form of creativity.  He occasionally refers to art history and literary theory, but he does not go far into academic territory.   For example, he argues that for Chester Brown's work to move from good to great, the artist will have to move beyond writing just about himself, to wider themes.  He tells of his attempt to get an interview with the uncooperative Justin Green, and discusses why Green's recent work has not gained the same recognition as his early work.  He admires Our Cancer Year by Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar, although he also points out the limitations of the work.  He questions why Roy Lichtenstein's work is valued so much more than the original comic book art on which it is based, and comes up with some tentative answers, along with the insight that "value is weird shit." 

Readers might tire of 17 essays read consecutively, and might find them more rewarding if rationed out over a period of time.  Levin's arguments are not rigorously laid out, but his writing is irreverent and thoughtful, and these essays are some of the only attempts to seriously examine the place of comic art in modern forms of creativity.  Levin is still as much a fan now as when he was a teenager, but he applies a critical eye, and this book serves as a model for other critics and reviewers of comics and cartoons.

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

Link: Fantagraphics

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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