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Comics Under a Microscope

Dan Raeburn's "Imp"



By Nick Green

Dan Raeburn's obsession began when he discovered a stack of underground comics as a fourth-grader in Iowa City. Inspired by the drug-obsessed, sex-crazed visions of R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, among others, and the social criticism of Harvey Kurtzman, Raeburn and his next-door neighbor began writing and illustrating their own comics--with underground-sounding titles like Barf, Puke, and Vomit--and peddling them to other kids at school.

Only a few of their classmates took pity and purchased copies, but one comic somehow made its way into the hands of the principal. And one strip in particular--"Attack of the School Lunches," an EC Comics-inspired horror story in which cafeteria food came to life and started eating students--raised her ire. "She was absolutely outraged," says Raeburn. "As punishment, she forbade me to draw any new comics and sat next to me in the lunchroom every day for a week to make sure that I didn't make any disparaging comments about the food on my plate."

Now creator of the Imp--a zine devoted exclusively to the exploration of comic books as a serious artistic medium--Raeburn admits that "prolonged exposure to comics, particularly the works of Robert Crumb, has probably warped me for life. I'm pretty much living proof that Frederick Wertham's theories about the absolute need for keeping violent, sexual comics out of the hands of young children weren't too far off base."

By the mid-70s, when Raeburn entered elementary school, Wertham's suggestion in a 1954 Reader's Digest article that comic books would result in the delinquency of America's youth had been largely dismissed as overzealous crackpot theorizing. But if Raeburn had been born a generation earlier, he might well have suffered the fate of thousands of kids no different from himself: comics collections were burned, ripped apart, and destroyed before children's very eyes in the cold war era's second biggest witch-hunt.

A few years after "Attack of the School Lunches" Raeburn managed to sneak a two-page strip--about a pair of alcoholic superheroes who gained their powers from a bottle of radioactive liquor--into his school paper, but by then he'd pretty much lost interest in making his own comics, getting involved in more typical adolescent pursuits like girls and rock and roll. During his college years--in his hometown, at the University of Iowa--Raeburn's only contact with comics was reading Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Scott Dikkers's "Jim's Journal" in the university paper.

After graduating from college Raeburn went to London--where he'd spent his junior year as an exchange student--on a work-study program. Disgusted by the gulf war fervor then sweeping the United States, he decided to apply for British citizenship (his mother had been born in England). But the British government rejected his application and gave him a week's notice to leave the country, so Raeburn moved back to Iowa City. Faced with the distasteful prospect of a lifetime trapped in his parents' basement, he picked up and moved to Chicago, which he soon discovered was in the midst of a comics renaissance. "My first roommate in Chicago was a regular at Halley's Comix, so I started tagging along and buying everything I could get my hands on, all of the independent titles and the Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics stuff. My interest in comics skyrocketed again.

"When I moved here in 1993, a lot of the best comics were being done right here in Chicago: Chris Ware was just starting 'The Acme Novelty Library,' Dan Clowes was hitting his stride with Eightball, and Terry LaBan was working on Cud--probably one of the most underrated comics of the past decade. Soon after, Archer Prewitt, Ivan Brunetti, and Jessica Abel all began self-publishing their work. The amazing thing is that all of these artists were entirely accessible--I suspect it was as big a kick for them to meet their fans as it was for us to meet them. After a while, I wondered why no one was writing about them seriously, so I decided that if nobody else was going to do it, I would."

At first Raeburn thought he'd try his hand at a general-interest zine, but after visiting Clowes--who'd moved to Berkeley--in the spring of 1997, Raeburn went back to the original plan, devoting his publication entirely to comics. "I walked away from that interview with material for a 27-page piece. And for a 32-page zine, that meant I had everything but the cover and the copyright information. So I kind of stumbled inadvertently on the idea of making each issue self-contained and exploring the work of one artist or one topic."

Six months later the Imp was born. Raeburn explained the title in his introduction to the first issue: "Comic books were intended for kids...[but] are still clearly the work of the devil." He wrote, designed, marketed, and distributed the issue all by himself--standard practice among zine makers but nerve-racking nonetheless--and financed the first issue with his life savings, a thousand dollars he had squirreled away in his bank account.

Raeburn's essay addressed the violence, sexism, racism, and satanism in Clowes's comics, focusing on the artist's more ambitious work, like Lloyd Llewellyn and the realistic "Ghost World" and the surrealistic "Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron" serials from Eightball. For his part Clowes was extremely grateful for Raeburn's exhaustive examination--Clowes wrote a letter, published in the second issue of the Imp that read: "In a way, it's my dream come true, critical-response-wise."

Raeburn spent another six months logging 60-hour weeks at various temp jobs to pay bills and generate enough of a cushion to take some time off and work on the Imp number two. This time he settled on an object of fascination he shared with Clowes, the racist, homophobic tracts of Jack Chick, whose violent depictions of sinners and damnation can often be found on car windshields. "I picked Jack Chick because there wasn't much out there on him at the time," Raeburn says. "And he's the one cartoonist--next to Spiegel- man, Crumb, or Charles Schulz--that everyone knows about. I agree with almost nothing Jack Chick has to say about religion or the human condition, and yet I'm completely fascinated by his work. Those tracts always manage to induce a feeling of utter terror every time I pick one up."

The second issue of the Imp was twice as long as the first--and twice as thorough. Designed in the style of Chick's tracts, it included not only Raeburn's 30-page essay--which both recognized Chick's uniqueness and criticized his rantings--but a 25-page dictionary of common themes and elements in the dozens of tracts and comics Chick has produced. Raeburn funneled what little profit he'd made from the first issue into color for the cover, and Clowes agreed to contribute the artwork.

For the third issue of the Imp Raeburn sat down with Chris Ware to discuss his highly detailed full-page strip in New City, "The Acme Novelty Library." The result--a 20-page issue that mimicked the style of an 1899 Chicago Tribune--hit comics specialty shops and bookstores last summer. In addition to Raeburn's insightful commentary, it also included a full-color Sunday-comics-style insert, where four of Raeburn's favorite local artists--Brunetti, LaBan, Prewitt, and Abel--paid tribute to Ware's distinctive cartooning style.

With the issue on Ware, Raeburn broadened the scope of his criticism by writing articles on the 1900 Sears catalog and surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, two undeniable influences on Ware's comics. But it was hard to present a complete context for Ware's complex work. "It was particularly difficult trying to write about the compiled version of 'The Acme Novelty Library' that Ware was putting together at the time, especially since the third issue of the Imp came out before the book was even published," Raeburn says. "Even though Ware was incredibly kind and patient with me, no one likes to talk about works in progress. I don't want to make the Imp into an excuse for torturing working artists."

Later this year Raeburn will begin work on the Imp number four, which promises an extended look at historietas, mass-produced, mildly pornographic comics that regularly outsell newspapers in Mexico. Raeburn is especially interested in the sleazier titles, which resemble Chick's work: "The combination of pornography and moral pontification is extremely potent." He's also reprinted the first two issues of the Imp, which will be out in a few weeks (the Ware issue is still available at Quimby's and Chicago Comics). Ideas for future issues--including an exploration of his childhood obsession with Crumb and a much needed reexamination of Frederick Wertham's theories--continue to circle in his head.

"It's much harder to write about something you really love than to attack something--at least it comes frighteningly easy to me. Maybe my emphasis on stuff I really love is based on the fact that there aren't a whole lot of outlets for comics criticism. When people begin to engage comics more intelligently, I might have to start tearing things down."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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