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When Comix Ruled

“Fan Free Funnies” kept the freak flag flying.

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During the spring semester of 1973 the student newspaper at Virginia Commonwealth University published three tabloid supplements that were inspired by the irreverent, sometimes-naughty underground comix of that age.

The timing was perfect for Fan Free Funnies, created at the zenith of the hippie era in the Fan District. That's where a group of young, mostly VCU-trained artists produced paintings and prints in a style reminiscent of old animated cartoons and then-current underground funny books. Some made short films in Super 8 and 16 mm.

This writer was caught up in it. Fan Free Funnies”published my first Rebus strip. Rebus was influenced by Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural, and before he even had a name he had been appearing in my flyers touting midnight shows at the Biograph Theatre, which I managed at the time. I went to school on how Crumb used Mr. Natural as a spokesman, sometimes like a carnival barker.  But Rebus wasn't a holy man, he was an everyman and schlemiel with a dog's head.

Not long after Fan Free Funnies came out, my 3-year-old daughter, Katey, asked me a question. “Is Rebus real?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

She said, “Like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck.”

“Sure,” I said, “Rebus is real. But only the cool people know about him.”

The inspirational Crumb was the most celebrated of the underground artists in the days when cartoonists bitterly lampooning the tastes and values of middle class America were having a noticeable impact on popular culture. Spontaneously, he launched the movement in 1968, selling his “Zap Comix No. 1” out of a baby carriage on San Francisco sidewalks.

In 1973, in spite of the cultural changes that had been in the air for years, mainstream pop was still offering up plenty of safe schmaltz and accessible nostalgia: Billboard's top single of the year was “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ƒ?~Round the Ole Oak Tree.” The Oscar for best picture went to “American Graffiti.” The word “underground,” associated with art, film and music, still had a yet-to-be-fully exploited edge to it.

Perhaps the best known of the Fan Free Funnies cartoonists was Phil Trumbo (VCU 1972). “Ed Slipek, the editor of VCU's student newspaper, Commonwealth Times, approached me to help create an underground, comix-style supplement,” Trumbo remembers. “I suppose he contacted me because I had done some independent comics and was exhibiting paintings influenced by comics imagery.”

Each invited artist was instructed to create a full page, drawn to proportion, in black and white. Some submitted a page of images set within traditional comic strip frames; others wandered into loose, more avant-garde styles. The three issues of Richmond underground comics can now be seen online at the VCU Libraries Digital Collection.

“The journalism department at VCU didn't see that this was journalism,” recalls Slipek (who is, today, Style's senior contributing writer). “The media [advisory] board questioned the fact that we were doing this, but it was very well-received with the students. I'm proud of it because the Commonwealth Times continued to have comics of some sort — it's a lasting tradition that started with us.”

Phil Trumbo left town in 1984 to pursue a career in animation, which eventually led him to the West Coast and his current position as an art director at Hidden City Games. Along the way he picked up an Emmy Award for his work on “Pee Wee's Playhouse” and has been the art director of more than 100 video games, including “Lord of the Rings” and “Spider-Man.” A noted musician, Trumbo recently returned home to play a reunion show with the Orthotonics, the influential Richmond band that he played with during his time here.

Charles Vess (VCU 1974) was another award-winning illustrator who contributed to Fan Free Funnies. Vess' art has since appeared in “Heavy Metal” and “National Lampoon”; he's a World Fantasy Award-winner who has worked for comic book publishers such as Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Epic. Other notable contributors included Eric Bowman, Michael Cody, Bill Nelson and Ragan Reaves.

“Fan Free Funnies was a really diverse collection, representing vastly different graphic styles and inventive, experimental approaches to sequential storytelling,” Trumbo remembers. “We were all influenced by the amazing work of ƒ?~60s underground cartoonists, like Robert Crumb, Rick Griffith, S. Clay Wilson and Trina Robbins and the rest.” S

Issues of the Fan Free Funnies can be found at http://dig.library.vcu.edu.

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