Drew Friedman goes underground
The illustrator's newest book spotlights 101 of the world's top cartoonists
In his new book, Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix, Drew Friedman, the renowned illustrator and portrait artist, gives readers an intimately rendered look at 101 of the most influential cartoonists associated with the transgressive underground comics (or comix) movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
The list includes such well-known figures as Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Harvey Kurtzman in addition to cult artists like Nancy Burton, George DiCaprio, Jay Lynch and Diane Noomin, who died shortly after the book was published last month by Fantagraphics.
Friedman, 64, was too young to participate directly in the movement itself but views the era as a sort of creative guidestone. “The whole aesthetic really appealed to me, like these people who just put anything down, no matter how over-the-top it was,” he told Jewish Insider in a recent interview, adding: “That’s the direction I wanted to go in with my work.”
Friedman, a former longtime contributor to The New York Observer, has written and illustrated a number of books, including Jewish Comedians, All the Presidents and Heroes Of The Comics: Portraits Of The Pioneering Legends Of Comic Books. But Maverix and Lunatix may be his most personal yet.
“Drew is at a point now where he is no longer a ‘cartoonist’ but an astute master of portraiture,” the comedian and podcaster Marc Maron writes in the book’s foreword. “Each painting reveals the soul and grit and humor of the subject with just a hint of the grotesque humanness that defines us all.”
Friedman discussed with JI his illustrations and how he whittled the list of artists down from a pool of about 3,000 possible subjects, among other things.
The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Jewish Insider: I’m by no means even an amateur expert on this topic, but I have to say I didn’t know, like, three-quarters of the people in this book. Not that I didn’t find them interesting! How did you put this group of artists together? You mention in the intro that one particularly exhaustive tome ‘lists over 3,000 artists who contributed to underground comix.’ It must have been difficult to whittle it down to 101.
Drew Friedman: You mentioned that you weren’t familiar with a lot of the people in the book. I actually wasn’t either. I mean, there’s about 10 or 15% of people who either I hadn’t heard of or I was vaguely aware of, but I just rediscovered them, or their work, at least — most of them were forgotten. I rediscovered their work and realized, like, there’s some really good quality and this stuff should be at least reexamined or rediscovered. So I wanted to include some of those people, and there’s a few names like Harry Driggs and Andy Martin and Buckwheat Florida, Jr. — can’t get a better name than that — and people who didn’t do a lot of work for underground comics, but the quality of the work just really stood out to me. The other thing was, people who I wasn’t crazy about years ago when I was younger — either I was indifferent to it or I just didn’t like it — I reexamined a lot of that and discovered I do like it now. I really see the talent there, and even if the subject matter maybe is a little too drug-related or sex-related just because that’s what everybody was doing, the quality of the artwork stands out in a lot of cases. So it was like a discovery process for me, especially with the obscure people, and that was more interesting for me to include those people rather than the obvious choices like, you know, Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman.
There was a list of 3,000 artists, and I wanted to whittle that down to 100, which I did, and I think I included everybody who was pretty essential to that movement. Then the list grew to 101 when I discovered one artist really late in the game who I thought I needed to include.
JI: What was his name?
Friedman: Jim Evans. He didn’t do a lot of work, but he did some essential things, and used some really good artists in some of his stuff. Then he just stopped doing comics altogether and switched gears.
JI: If I’m not mistaken, you wrote and illustrated this book throughout the beginning couple of years of the pandemic?
Friedman: Basically, the whole thing was my lockdown book. I started like a half a year before COVID, but then when the lockdown hit, all I basically worked on was this book. My wife and I didn’t go anywhere, we didn’t visit anybody, we didn’t socialize, we didn’t travel to New York. In a selfish way, that was a good thing, where I could just really concentrate on this book and give it extra detail, which, hopefully, you can see in many of the portraits where I really go intense into the backgrounds on some of them — just to try to capture that era of the late ’60s, early ’70s, just to give people a sense of what it was like and what it looked like aside from just the people.
JI: What does this book mean to you personally? You’ve done collections on Jewish comedians, American presidents and other early comic book visionaries.
Friedman: I did the two books of people who worked in the comic book business in the ’30s and ’40s, when that business started booming and Superman went through the roof and all these young artists joined in. They were looking for artists back then — all these young, mostly Jewish artists in the New York area. There was this new industry built up, and I wanted to celebrate that era. Then after that, the comics become less interesting to me until the underground comix start. The thing is, when I discovered them, I was only nine years old, and they were for adults only, so I was breaking the law, essentially. But they were just thrilling to me when I first discovered them, especially the work of Robert Crumb, in Zap Comix, and certain other artists. They just blew me away. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, and I wasn’t prepared for them either. I was in love with Mad Magazine and things like that in the ’60s, when I was a kid, and that was kind of risqué and kind of dangerous, I thought, at the time. But the underground comix just blew the lid off of everything and just set me on a different career track as far as where I wanted my artwork to wind up.
JI: So this material is more directly related to your profession.
Friedman: Yeah, well, the whole aesthetic really appealed to me, like these people who just put anything down, no matter how over-the-top it was — and a lot of it was overly sexual or misogynist, some of it was racist, and even artists admit that. But I just liked the free-spirited, over-the-top, it’s like, whatever they have in their mind, they put it on paper, and a lot of it was really lousy, a lot of it was pretty good, and some of it was just great and stands the test of time. That just really appealed to me, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in with my work, with the comics I did early on and then my work in general, where I just want to, like, baby-step over the line sometimes, though not as much as I used to. I wanted to be part of that world.
JI: As you mentioned, a lot of the early comic book artists were Jewish. Do you have a sense of the Jewish ratio, for lack of a better phrase, in the underground comix world?
Friedman: I tend to do counts of things, and I actually did a count of all the Jewish people in the book. There’s a dozen altogether. Some of them are famous, like Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb’s wife, Aline Kominsky. There’s a few others, but most of them are kind of obscure. But it was a very welcoming environment, underground. It’s like, if you wanted to contribute to them, you did. People weren’t in it for the money. There wasn’t a lot of money being made then, maybe later on when people could sell their artwork. It was just an egalitarian movement where people were just welcome to take part. There were some Black contributors, there were Spanish contributors. There were a bunch of women. I think the important thing was that all the men had to have long hair… But one of the things I got tired of was just drawing, like, OK, I’m starting a new one, and this one has not only long hair, but a long beard. I want my next book, whatever it is, just to be bald men. I want to take a break from that.
JI: Well there are some very distinguished bald men. I’m sure you’d have lots of subjects to choose from.
Friedman: I’ve drawn many of them over the years.
JI: Diane Noomin, who’s in your book, was Jewish, right?
Friedman: She was Jewish. She just died recently. Bill Griffiths’ wife. That was very sad. She was super talented. She was one of the more talented female underground comix artists and one of my favorites. She had a great, great sense of humor and she was terrific. Actually, since I finished this book, four of the people in the book have died and about six others died as I was working on it. At one point, I got paralyzed. Am I responsible for these people dropping dead? I don’t know why I would be, but it dawned on me. I thought about that.
JI: Was your dad — the author Bruce Jay Friedman, who died two years ago — a fan of these artists?
Friedman: I don’t think he was much aware. I mean, he was aware of Robert Crumb’s work only because the media picked up on it in the late ’60s. My brothers and I collected comic books, and he didn’t take much of an interest in that. He was happy that we were interested in certain things, but I don’t think he really focused on that stuff too much. He didn’t really watch the same TV shows I watched or anything like that. He was in his own world, mostly working on what he was writing at the time. But like I say in the book, when I was nine years old and discovered these comics in the back of a bookstore in Manhattan, I was just trying to figure out how to purchase them because you had to be 21 to buy them. That was tricky, plus I had no money anyway. So I just made a little pile of them and stuck them in the books that my dad was purchasing that day, and he bought them assuming they were just comic books, which they were, and that’s how I started my obsession — my collection.
JI: Did you show these illustrations to any of the subjects themselves?
Friedman: No, not really. I went to Art Spiegelman’s apartment in early 2020, right before COVID hit. I wanted to show him the progress of the book, so I brought a couple of the original pieces in, including Crumb, and his take on the Crumb was he looked at it and said, ‘Heroes of the underground comics.’ I took that to mean I wasn’t drawing Crumb heroically at all. I was just drawing him low-key. He’s not even connecting to the viewer. He’s just sketching or about to sketch into his sketchbook. In the books I did earlier, I portrayed some of these guys heroically because that’s what they did, they drew heroic superheroes.
JI: What were you going for with this book?
Friedman: I wanted to really capture what they look like. People refer to me as a caricaturist. I don’t see that; there’s some slight exaggeration going on, I know that. But I didn’t want to poke fun in any way, and I wanted to present that world during that era. So there was no sarcasm, and I actually put as much time into the artists whose work I didn’t like as much as the artists whose work I really love. I spent a week on the Robert Crumb portrait, but I also spent a week on several other portraits of artists who I’m not going to name.
JI: Have you heard from any of the artists since the book was released?
Friedman: I’ve heard from several of the people I drew, and they’re really very happy with the way I drew them, especially Trina Robbins. She wrote me an email after she saw the book and said, ‘You know, when I heard you were doing this book, I was really nervous that you were going to make me look ugly, you were going to make me look old and wrinkly, and you made me look beautiful.’ She wanted to buy the artwork, which was sold, but I was really happy to hear that kind of thing.
JI: Did you work from photographs?
Friedman: Photographs are pretty important. I’ll assemble photographs of these people and then rearrange them and create my own background, change bodies, all that stuff. But some of the photographs are really hard to come by because a lot of these people were just not photographed very much, if at all. And there’s one artist I had to leave out of the book altogether, because I just couldn’t come up with anything. But a guy like Buckwheat Florida Jr. — his real name is Bucklee Bell — he lives in Thailand, he’s still around, he’s in his 80s. I’ve actually been in touch with him a little bit, because he’s also thrilled with the book and that he was included. He thought he was forgotten, and there he is in the book. He’s delighted by that. I’ve heard from some family members, too, of some of the deceased people saying, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you included my dad, it’s so great.’ But yeah, photo references are really hard to come by in a lot of cases. I really had to do a lot of digging, and in some cases, I had to contact family members, which I don’t normally like to do. Occasionally in the past people have been like, ‘Oh, Drew Friedman, you’re the guy who draws those liver spots and things.’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, but I’m not gonna be a wise guy this time. I promise you, I want to be respectful.’
When I was about to do this, my reservation was that I didn’t love all the artists’ work. So I had lunch with Robert Crumb in 2019 and I mentioned that to him, that dilemma I was having. He says, ‘So what, you don’t have to love everybody you draw.’ And that made perfect sense, because God knows, I’ve drawn Donald Trump many, many times since the ’80s, for Spy magazine, before anybody in New York even knew who he was. So that’s when I finally committed to doing the book.
JI: Are you still doing work for newspapers and magazines?
Friedman: Very rarely. I’m not opposed to it. But it just doesn’t really appeal to me working with an art director, and I really want to concentrate on what I want to work on the most. I’ve been doing these books for the last two years, and it’s hard for me to go back.
JI: What else are you working on?
Friedman: I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but that’s hard for me because I get restless after a day or two of not working. I just released a Kurt Vonnegut print, and I have a bucket list of people I want to get to, and that’s what I’m doing now. I did a new portrait of Weird Al Yankovic, which is about to come out as a book cover early next month.
JI: More long hair.
Friedman: Not only long hair, but braided. I don’t know how he does it. That hair was just over the top. I think that hair took me longer to do than the rest of the cover. It took like two days. I also have a new anthology coming out with Gilbert Gottfried on the cover, sort of my mini-tribute to Gilbert, who was a pretty good friend. If it was possible to be friends with Gilbert Gottfried, somehow I was his friend for a number of years. I’ve drawn him a few times. I honestly don’t even know if Gilbert was aware of what I did, aside from the drawings of him, because I used to go on his podcast, and he’d say, ‘My favorite artist Drew Friedman is here.’ I honestly don’t think he really knew what I did aside from the five drawings I did of him, which is fine by me.
JI: To jump back to the subject at hand, do you think there’s anything readers can draw from the underground comix movement today?
Friedman: Most of the stuff that came out during that era, I don’t think could see the light of day today. There’s this whole cancel culture thing going on, and Robert Crumb has been a target of it. In some cases, I could kind of see where they’re coming from, but in my mind, his work is just so brilliant. Not all of it, and he freely admits he went over the top and went too far in so many cases, but he stands by his work. It’s like, he had these thoughts in his head, he was going to put them on paper, and he wasn’t going to edit it himself or hold back, and I really respect that. I can’t do the same. I don’t see a lot of that stuff — it could still come out, I suppose — but I don’t see that whole underground comix movement having any traction these days. You know, I’d be surprised.