Hey, look — as a longtime (nearly lifelong, sad truth be told) comics reader, I’m not complaining (much) about the current state of the medium. Sure, “The Big Two” suck, by and large — but they’ve always sucked, by and large, and there are more independent titles out there than at any point since the pre-implosion days of the early 1990s to satisfy the discerning reader’s need for something well-done, intelligent, and different than the capes-and-tights fare being peddled to an ever-dwindling audience at ever-increasing prices by Marvel and DC. Creator-owned books are “where it’s at” these days, and the burgeoning web comics “scene” is providing an outlet (even if it is, in almost all cases, a non-paying one) for up-and-coming cartoonists to get their material out there to the public without having to pound the pavement looking for a publisher willing to stick their neck out and take a big financial risk on unknown and untested talent. There’s a lot for fans to be thankful for — apart from ridiculously high cover prices across the board — in the current comic book landscape.
One thing constantly gnaws at the back of my mind though — whatever happened to honest-to-goodness underground comix?
I know, I know — the just-mentioned wave of web comics has given rise to a new generation of storytellers, many of whom are definitely carrying the ethos, if not the format, of old-school undergrounds into a new digital era, while most of the top creators from the last big underground wave of about 20 years ago have graduated to doing “respectable” efforts that are presented in high-quality hardback volumes and discussed in the New York Times book review section. And while I’m honestly happy that folks like Dan Clowes, Seth, Chester Brown, Peter Bagge, and the like are seeing their work getting the recognition it deserves, what about some of the genuinely idiosyncratic and “out there” cartoonists from their era that were producing challenging and highly unconventional fare before seemingly dropping off the map altogether?
What about, say — Al Frank?
If you don’t recognize the name, don’t worry — his five-issue black-and-white series The Adventures Of Tad Martin, published by the short-lived Caliber Press’ even shorter-lived Iconografix imprint, only lasted a sum total of five issues between 1991 and 1993, but it certainly left an impression on those of us who read it, even if our numbers were few. Tad was a rather bog-standard “too cool for school” late-teen/early-“twentysomething” character who started life as something of a hipper, punker, younger, more nihilistic take on the likes of Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn, but as the book snaked its way along he increasingly functioned more and more as a painfully obvious stand-in for the creator himself and his unique brand of , for lack of a better term, “deadpan neurotic.” There seemed to be no real coherent philosophy behind it all except for no philosophy, and one got the impression that Frank was probably churning this material out because he needed to for his own mental well-being, but that he wanted us to believe he was simply doing it because, hey, he could. Tad Martin, as well as the man behind him, probably felt like giving the world a great, big, well-deserved “fuck you,” but ya know what? Even that would be too much hassle.
And then, like everything else that was holding onto its publishing survival by the tippie-tips of its fingernails in a then-grotesquely-oversaturated marketplace, the book simply went away.
Life went on for Al Frank, though, as the just-released sixth issue (numbered “sicksicksix” and priced at $6.66) painfully documents. He — err, “Tad” — found himself trapped in a shit marriage with an emotionally unstable speed freak wife that sent him spiraling down into a dark hole of prescription drug addiction and rapidly-deteriorating mental and physical health that ultimately strained his already-tenuous relationship with reality to the breaking point. And he documented the whole thing. Anywhere he could.
Most of the material that forms the contents of The Adventures Of Tad Martin #sicksicksix was scrawled in notebooks and Moleskines during slow periods at his job as a barely-above-minimum-wage security guard, but some of it was committed immediately to paper by any means handy, including restaurant guest checks and prescription labels. You know what they say, friends — when it’s in you, sometimes it’s just gotta come out. And it comes pouring out here.
Obviously, this isn’t gonna win any sort of accolades as the “feel-good” comic of the year, but if painfully honest art that comes from a place of desperation that hopefully most of us will never know sounds like your cup of tea, well — you’re not going to do much better than this. And if my word’s not good enough to get you to fork over your cash for this book, the back-cover endorsements from the likes of Robert Crumb and Henry Rollins might just qualify as strong second opinions. But you know what? When Frank — who’s now adopted the nom de plume of Casanova Frankenstein — started slapping his more recent material up on the internet some years back, they were hardly the first to notice.
Indeed, as related in the darkly fascinating backmatter at the end of this comic (which, by the way, is printed the way all self-respected undergrounds should be — in cruddy b&w on cheap newsprint that rubs off on your fingers), Frank(enstein) started posting these chaotically-rendered-and-scripted images up online around 2006 on formerly-popular social media sites like myspace and flickr and, lo and behold, many of his old fans came crawling out of the woodwork and took notice. One of them, Tim Goodyear (who has published this collection, along with Frank himself, under the auspices of a sure-to-be-one-off pairing labeled “Teenage Dinosaur” and “Profanity Hill,” with distribution through Diamond being handled by Fantagraphics Books), even teamed up with the late, great Dylan Williams to sell and distribute it directly to eager readers. Admittedly, it took some time for Frank to work it all out of system, to be sure — but lo and behold, here we all are, nine years after the first hints that he was even working on anything again, with the complete, 64-page, sixth issue of a comic series that no one thought we’d ever see . And while the journey of this book from pen to publication is staggering enough, trust and believe that the contents of the work itself are doubly so, at the very least. Having read it through from cover-to-cover twice now, all I can say is — I’m not even sure how Al Frank managed to survive the the 22-year period since the publication of the last issue of Tad Martin, let alone resurrect his genuinely obscure comic from the dead. I’m just very grateful that he did both.