It’s a bitter joke in the world of alternative comics that whenever the mainstream press deigns to cover the field, the headline always reads Comic Books Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore! Comics haven’t been ”just for kids” since Robert Crumb sold Zap No. 1 out of a baby carriage during the Summer of Love. In the quarter century since, there has been plenty of good stuff for readers who have outgrown superheroes yet haven’t become full-time print snobs. A proper ”comix” hall of fame would have to include Crumb’s work, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, and two twisted gems just compiled into paperback by Fantagraphics Books, Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and Peter Bagge’s Hey, Buddy! Of the two, Like a Velvet Glove is easier to defend as ”art.” A lot of people have compared Clowes’ 10-chapter story (first serialized in his quarterly Eightball comic) to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. For my money, it’s better — more rigorous in its use of dream logic, and Clowes’ scratchy, warts-and-all drawing style gets to you like a sliver under the skin. The plot follows a sad-faced Candide named Clay as he spirals down through a spare, unsettling wasteland, meeting three-eyed prostitutes, mutant waitresses, angry men with hair plugs, and dogs with secret messages tattooed on their skin. Clowes’ previous books have tended toward the snide, but Velvet Glove is as creepy as the corporate happy-face logo that nags like a toothache throughout the story. It’s a nightmare told with absolute clarity: Little Nemo in Slumberland as rewritten by Samuel Beckett.
For a hilarious wake-up call, read Peter Bagge’s Hey, Buddy!, which collects the first five issues of his quarterly, Hate. Don’t be misled by that title (the allusion is to Mad, I guess) — Hate is actually one of the funnier comix around, and a worthy heir in its way to Gilbert Shelton’s beloved Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers undergrounds of the late ’60s. The stories in Hey, Buddy! are a rowdy cartoon accompaniment to the Seattle grunge-rock scene: Buddy Bradley lives a life of splendid twentysomething squalor while coping with horrid roommates, punk Nirvana-bes, girlfriends who insist he change his flannel shirt once a week, pinhead bosses, and Republican little brothers. In other words, Bagge nails the years between graduation and the eventual acceptance of male adulthood with a precision that’s scary. Or it would be if his drawing style weren’t a riot: Rude, inspired, elastic, cartoony, it tips its hat to comic-strip tradition with every exaggerated bug of an eyeball. If Velvet Glove mesmerizes the reader with dread, Hey, Buddy!’s power is that of a good, healthy gut laugh. A