The Upshot: An anarchic ride for sure, and a must-read (see?) for any fan of underground art.
BY FRED MILLS
By way of full disclosure: From around 1992 – 1997 I was the books/magazines buyer for an indie record store in Tucson, Arizona, and if you have a sharp memory of that time, you’ll know that the aforementioned period was what I’ll tentatively peg as “alternative lifestyles in ascendancy” for the book biz. Not only did I sell boatloads of tattoo/piercing books, straight-up rock bios, and (cough) The Anarchist Cookbook (ask me sometime about the grilling I got one afternoon from a couple of Tucson detectives looking into the presumably illegal escapades of a local punk “subversive”), the underground art milieu was in full bloom, along with its printed chroniclers.
Fantagraphics was not only one of the distributors we ordered from, it was a cultural force of nature in its own right, playing host/den-mother to its own stable of urban guerillas. So thumbing through this recent hard-cover volume from the publishing house, which collects, per the subtitle, native Texan/subsequent Northwest underground artist Jim Blanchard, I’m immediately struck by how delightfully right the guy’s work seems—and by that I don’t mean “for that era,” but instead, for the enduring underground aesthetic.
By way of additional disclosure: Somewhere in my attic is a sizable collection of old underground comics, hippie-era artifacts containing ground zero epistles from the likes of Crumb, Rodriguez, Griffin, Wilson et al. If you were born at the right time, it was a no-brainer to graduate from Mad and Cracked to Zap and its printed peers; and then, sometime later, after punk hit, to the sometimes realistic/sometimes impressionistic/always outrageous work of folks like Blanchard.
Visual Abuse is a flashback, for sure, stuffed with psychedelic skeletons, colliding craniums, bouncing breasts, exploding eyeballs, morphing mutants, and even the stray construction worker (?). More to the point, this handsomely appointed 200-page volume serves up a buffet of twisted brilliance that neatly presents an artist evolving alongside the culture he was chronicling and/or commenting on. Early in the game, Blanchard is found publishing his fanzine Blatch, duly inspired by punk and hardcore and soon dispensing photocopied word of wisdom alongside vivid pen-and-ink depictions of the likes of Black Flag, T.S.O.L., etc. Within a couple of years he’s doing concert posters and handbills, and with a relocation to Seattle in 1987, Blanchard, along with similar talents such as Charles Burns, crafting delicate (ahem) visual come-ons for potential attendees of upcoming shows by Skin Yard, the Fluid, Killdozer, Mentors, Butthole Surfers, and some three-piece called Nirvana.
In addition to reproductions of gig posters, the book includes Blanchard’s album art: Coffin Break sleeves for Sub Pop and C/Z, New Bomb Turks, Italy’s Raw Power, Mooseheart Faith (apparently a fave of Blanchard’s—and mine, too, with 1991’s Magic Square of the Sun a psychedelic gem as masterful as any of the Fillmore-era artists), and others.
Blanchard would digress into pure fantasy, both drug-induced and sexual in thrust; on occasion his sketches of females may border on sexism, but most of the images portray them as coming from a position of strength or power, such as the faux-Blaxploitation poster starring a giant Afro hair-do, and one for a “Patty Hearst is Tania” film. Here and there the book also displays some relatively straightforward narrative comic strips, like the chilling nine-panel “An abbreviated picto-history of bad crime in these United States,” about a pair of “big time hoods” who turned out to be just another pair of fuck-ups.
It’s an anarchic ride for sure, and a must-read for any fan of underground art, particularly those who came of age alongside Blanchard. As fellow artist Daniel Clowes testifies, in Blanchard’s honor, “A treasure trove of fucked-up shit from the dare end-times of a lost civilization.” You got that right. Now, more than ever.