Every week for years, the cartoonist known as Kaz has doled out an Underworld strip to his readers. There was a time when an Underworld collection was the only place to see this little-known strip outside of a few big-city alternative tabloids, but thanks to the Web and the Fantagraphic collections, it is reaching a new audience. The title of Kaz’ latest Underworld collection, Ink Punk, is meant to trumpet the strip’s bad attitude; but while punk has occasionally been a potent cultural force, it is problematic as an artistic muse. Now that the overhyped second wave of punk has fizzled out in the U.S., and flannel-shirted rockers no longer slouch uneasily on the Grammy Awards, it is commonplace to use the term “punk” as shorthand for “rebellious, wild, nasty;” basically, the same thing that “rock” used to. Forgotten in this usage is a key punk tactic: incorporating cultural totems into a nihilist condemnation of the social mainstream. In the same spirit as the Sex Pistols recasting the Queen of England as the useless leader of a malignant state, Kaz takes the familiar visual vernacular of ‘40s and ‘50s gag cartoons and grafts it onto his own rancid vision.
The four panels of an Underworld strip teem with drug addicts, juvenile delinquents, mutants, criminals, predators, whores, etc. as well as some uncategorizable figures (e.g. Zoot Rumpus, Mister Panty Fog). These characters, drawn in archetypal “zany” gag style, eke out their sordid existences amid the hallucinatory tableaux of menacing urban blight. Self-conscious cartoon tropes are used constantly. Absurd objects appear randomly in any available space; characters slathered with stubble emit sweat droplets, exclamation rays, stink lines, and “drunk” bubbles; extravagant onomatopoeia is rendered lovingly in a multitude of goofy typefaces. To parody effectively one must be a good mimic, and Kaz’ gag cartoon mastery is second to none. His panels are so well composed and inked that just skimming the pages of Ink Punk is pleasurable. (They bring to mind the beautiful grotesques of Basil Wolverton ).
Kaz obviously enjoys deconstructing the comic strip (note the ironic cartoons where he shows how to draw the characters), but being “punk,” his philosophy is more nihilist than post-modern. Throughout the Underworld strips, a culturally-enforced dictum of niceness continually struggles with horrid, venal reality. A sickly-sweet little girl (“I spread love and scented decals throughout the land!”) is confronted by a seedy cartoon cat who leers, “Get busy on my erectile tissue, you hot pixy slut!.” Once-lovable cartoon characters “go bad:” the mental breakdown of Drafty Duck (“I swallowed dynamite, the anvils are falling, careful with that mallet, the mice are dancing!”) and wholesome cartoons are tainted by the rotten nature of their creators (see “Famous Cartooning School”). A kindly old lady admires the friendship of two little boys, only to be told “We’re faggots!” Even Santa Claus is revealed to be an abusive, loutish bully.
In this vein, the frequent appearance of Petit Mort is a reminder of the squalor lurking beneath a cuddly veneer. Petit Mort is a composite of “cute” visual cues: huge eyes; round head; a “windowframe” reflection on his forehead; button nose; short, stubby limbs; and a little circle on his belly. Kaz delights in having this fuzzy little fellow say and do revolting things. In the supermarket, Petit Mort responds to an invitation to squeeze a new brand of toilet paper by stuffing the entire roll in his ass, smiling ingratiatingly and saying “It IS soft!” (sound effect: “squeek squeek”); punchline (with bulging buttocks): “I think I’ve got room for another roll!” So much for cuddly.
The problem with a nihilisy, everything-is-sick mindset means that Underworld risks being a one-joke comic strip. Roly-poly cartoon characters shocking the bourgeois with foul antics eventually lose their zing: note the rapidly fading appeal of South Park. Too often an Underworld cartoon is an unfunny gross-out, enlivened only by Kaz’s hyperactive visual imagination. As a long-time Underworld reader, I get frustrated when my excitement at reading the latest strip dissipates with another potty humor installment (“Underworld Prison” is an egregious example). Using the inspired visual gag styles of the past as a vehicle for the most sophomoric humor of today seems like a waste of Kaz’s talent. Furthermore, reviving a classic cartoon mode only to degrade it is ultimately self-devouring, not to mention unoriginal. In the way that punk movements usually peter out, their followers retreating to cozier, if no less vapid, pop norms, the strident nastiness of Underworld may ultimately limits its appeal
That’s too bad, because Underworld at its best offers far more durable satisfactions. I have mentioned the gorgeous artwork, but Kaz’s writing is also noteworthy. When little Nelson lies in bed delirious with fever, his inspired Romantic ravings surpass the prose of many self-consciously literate comics: “Dearest Victoria, is that you? I can hear you calling from far beyond the velvet fogs of Valhalla. Vast fortunes I have gained and lost…” Another example is the right-on parody in Underworld Vol. 1 when the socialist duck spouts perfect cliched rhetoric (“Maybe then someday we can share a cracker as equals!”). And the strip where Snuffy Smith-inspired hillbillies ponder Nietzchean philosophy should be on the refrigerator of every grad student in America. When Kaz sets his sights higher than simply exploding cartoon norms, he actually reinvigorates the ancient four-panel strip format, bringing together top-notch art, elegant writing, and acid satire. When this synthesis occurs, Underworld is memorable black comedy.