Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood by Kaz

Everything declines and falls; everything takes ship for the West and its inevitable end. But sometimes things can be reborn, as the Age of Gold turns to the Age of Silver. So underground comics died, as their audience aged out or grew up or got real jobs or got embarrassed or just went somewhere else. But much of the same energy and subject matter and style came back in comics that ran in the burst of weekly free newspapers that sprang up in the late '80s and flourished in the '90s.

(And some of that, in turn, went into webcomics when those weeklies, in their turn, were strangled by market forces.)

One of the most aggressively underground of the strips in those papers was Kaz's Underworld -- a weekly strip with no continuity, just a collection of grotesque lowlifes who swore and killed each other and did drugs and parodied themselves and older comics. (Kaz is the working name of a cartoonist with the jaw-buster moniker Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis; if I had a name like that, I'd want to work under something shorter as well.) And that strip apparently is still running, though I can't imagine where -- those free weeklies are pretty much all gone.

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood collects what seems to be the full run of the strip, incorporating six earlier books that chronicled the strip from 1992 through 2008 and three sections (also originally separate books?) titled "Underworld USA" from the years since then. The strip might have been re-launched, in the same venues or somewhere else, in 2009 as "Underworld USA" -- the book isn't entirely clear there. (There are also a few strips that are repeated; I suspect because they got accidentally duplicated in the original books and this new compilation didn't go back to the original strips.)

Underworld is a wallow in the gutter, deliberately. The characters are lovably horrible people, murderers and drug addicts and sex fiends and creeps and scumbags. That's the point. And they inhabit something like the world of classic comics or early black-and-white cartoons, where anything can happen for a gag and it all goes back to the way it was for the next installment. So the strip is remarkably consistent over the twenty-plus years collected here -- Kaz's art got somewhat more expressive and precise along the way, but that's the main difference -- as the characters do the same things in the same ways, for mostly humorous purposes.

I read Underworld, on and off, throughout the '90s in the New York Press, more or less its home paper. So I have some nostalgia -- nostalgie de la boue, I suppose -- for Kaz and his creations. But three hundred pages of the same thing is a bit wearying; I don't know if anyone who doesn't already like and remember these characters will make it through to the end. Frankly, I think the smaller books are a better format for a strip like this -- some things just aren't made to be entombed in a giant hardcover slab.

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