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The Irritating Genius of witzend

By: Michael Taube
October 3, 2019

here have been many great stories and personalities in the annals of comics. Few have been as intriguing, irritating, spellbinding, and magical as those in witzend.

This left-wing, underground, and countercultural magazine was founded in 1966 by comic book artist Wallace Wood, whose work had appeared in Marvel Comics’s Daredevil and EC Comics’ Mad. Many of its contributors opposed the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, which allowed publishers to self-regulate the industry. They wanted to create outlets that supported artistic creativity and free expression. Witzend was one of those vehicles.

Witzend’s thirteen independently published issues (1966-1985) broke all the rules, challenged societal norms, and promoted artistic freedom. But over time, memories of its unique influence and impact have gradually disappeared.

Bill Pearson and J. Michael Catron’s Best of witzend should inject new life into one a unique experiment in comic strip history. Pearson is a novelist, artist, and comic book scripter/letterer who took over from Wood as the magazine’s second (and final) publisher. Catron is senior editor and co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, the highly respected comic publisher who took on this project. Together, they’ve collected some memorable stories and artwork from well-known comic book artists like Vaughn BodÄ“, Art Spiegelman, Reed Crandall, and Steve Ditko.

Conservative and libertarian readers will find some objectionable components in witzend, but they’ll hopefully respect the magazine’s opposition to the restrictive Comics Code, and its promotion of free speech and choice for consumers. Most cartoonists and comic book artists haven’t been right-leaning, but that shouldn’t restrict the ability to think critically and enjoy things that don’t perfectly fit within a particular worldview.

The talented, eccentric Wood was witzend’s guiding light.

When asked by cartoonist/writer Bhob Stewart “What made you decide to go into self-publishing?” Wood’s response was point blank: “I got tired of seeing my work turned into shit.” In Patrick Rosenkranz’s chapter, “An Oral History,” which reproduces several interviews with witzend figures, Wood is quoted as arguing that “[m]ost American comics are the work of slaves who take orders from publishers. There are two big companies, Marvel and DC. Both of them are fascist states, and I’ve been trying to escape from them all my life.” Pearson described his friend “Wally” in a separate book chapter as a “complicated man, not always easy to be with.” Yet he also emphasized that “the brilliance of his talent has scarcely dimmed in the decades since he burst into a supernova and left the scene.”

This is evident in reproductions of Wood’s legendary stories in Best of witzend. His superb fantasy comic strip Pipsqueak Papers, which has a Pogo-esque feel to it (but is nothing like Walt Kelly’s magical creation), remains as fresh and amusing as it was decades ago. The same goes for the futuristic Animan—a wonderful tribute to Golden Age comics wrapped in the genres of science fiction and superheroes.

The work of his witzend friends and fellow comic artists is equally superb.

Ditko, an incredibly talented artist who worked for Marvel (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange) and DC (Creeper, The Question), was one of witzend’s few non-left-wing contributors. His Mr. A was inspired by a belief in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. BodÄ“, the genius behind the comic strip character Cheech Wizard, has his work profiled in an original story, The Junkwaffel Invasion of Kruppenny Island, and a reprinted version of his classic tale, Cobalt 60. Spiegelman, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel series Maus, has a unique entry in his bizarre but amusing A Very Strange Comic Strip

Best of witzend also contains some astonishing artwork. The detail and realism in Crandall’s Portfolio of Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of Tarzan and John Carter) and other illustrations is stunning. Frank Frazetta’s drawings perfectly complement Edgar Allan Poe’s The City in the Sea, as do John Adkins Richardson’s pen-and-ink depictions of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark

How did Wood and Pearson get their hands on all this great art and comic stories, and keep this independent publication alive for so many years? Their business model turned out to be rather simple—and not all that profitable.

Witzend never paid for contributions,” Pearson admitted; “the original art was returned to the creator after a single printing, along with all rights.” The magazine was an open forum for free expression from start to finish. It had no official publishing schedule, and only produced 13 issues in 19 years. A few thousand copies of each issue were printed, far less than Marvel and DC’s monthly titles. Yet, as Person notes, “despite not having to pay for material, with such a small subscribing readership, no distribution beyond word of mouth, and no paid advertising, both Woody and I lost money on every issue.”

Wood was apparently a “lousy businessman” who spent “every dime of his subscription money” after only four issues. He sold witzend to Pearson for the less-than-princely sum of $1.00. Pearson proceeded to prove he was “just as lousy at business.” The only issue that didn’t lose money was the thirteenth and final one because, as Pearson wrote, comics distributor Bud Plant “kept reordering it for his growing bookselling business until every copy I’d printed was gone.”

Witzend was a money-losing labor of love. Its raison d’être was to defy the Comics Code and prove that great comics could be created in an open and unrestricted environment. Its publishers and contributors were proud to have accomplished this goal, and a great deal more.

There’s a certain irony to this situation, however. The Comics Code was dropped by Marvel in 2001. The final three publishers who adhered to it, Bongo, Archie, and DC, abandoned the de facto censor between 2010-2011. This means alternative publications like witzend could have potentially survived, thrived, and become profitable. Alas, they were too far ahead of their time—but at least Best of witzend ensures they won’t just fade away.