witzend by Wallace Wood Review

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<i>witzend</i> by Wallace Wood Review

Writers & Artists: Wallace Wood and others
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: June 24, 2014

It’s no great leap to say that Fantagraphics is, as a publisher, the foremost chronicler of comics history. Its devotion to providing high-quality reprints of newspaper strips and early series from Disney, EC and much smaller companies has provided a tremendous resource for scholarship, reproducing works that would be inaccessible otherwise. The Seattle imprint’s new slipcovered, two-volume hardbound compilation of the 13 issues that comprise witzend, Wally Wood’s shaggy critter of a magazine, fits emphatically in that curatorial tradition.

Disappointed in and frustrated by the strictures of the comics industry, Wood founded witzend in 1966 as a forum that theoretically lacked editorial control, serving to publish work by Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Art Spiegelman, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, Angelo Torres and others. Predating the underground comics magazines that would commence a few years later, witzend possesses some commonalities with their philosophies, but it doesn’t overlap neatly. These pages hold a similar preoccupation with psychedelia, nudity and a general pushing of the envelope (just as in many other media of the time, including film, literature and music), but the grab bag aspect of witzend makes it stranger and spikier than its followers.

The question the title raises is whether the abandonment of the editorial role created quality, differentiated content or was merely a necessary overcorrection to compensate for an industry that suffered from tight control. Issues fall all over the place, often using existing art drawn for other projects to supply visuals for new stories (collage-style) or, sometimes, paired with pre-existing texts, like Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” The anarchy of Art Spiegelman’s early efforts sits alongside Steve Ditko’s Ayn Randian “Mr. A,” a vigilante superhero who doesn’t believe in moral gray areas. Almost every issue includes a page or two of rather bad and dated original poetry. Issue #9 is a fanzine devoted to W.C. Fields that doesn’t include one comic. Produced erratically and ever transparent about its lack of a schedule, vision, uniformity and so on, witzend is a mess, even viewed generously.

That said, there is value in this reprint. The presence of work like Ditko’s, weird and off-putting as it often is, makes for a more interesting anthology. The visuals are strong throughout, although a bit heavy on the Frazetta school of buoyant bosoms and well-muscled thighs. witzend’s commitment to experimentation is likewise laudable, even though it often resulted in failure. The book may be more important historically than from a pure aesthetic perspective, but history has its own value, and this reproduction of witzend serves, on the whole, as an important record of the first flowerings of a more robust, independent comics scene.