Is Wally Wood's 'Witzend' a lost treasure or a noble failure?

It seems like the stuff of legend: Wally Wood – the Wally Wood, of EC and MAD fame, fed up with being creatively and financially stifled by the oppressive corporate comics business model, discovers the then-nascent world of fanzines, and inspiration strikes. "Maybe I could create one of these fanzines for me and my friends," Wood thinks. "We could publish any sort of work we wanted, with no editorial restrictions or code to worry about! Best of all, we'd own it!"

Bear in mind, this was 1966, a good two years or so before the first issue of Zap Comix set the still-budding world of underground comics on fire. The mere notion of comics as any sort of medium for self-expression at the time must have been something that drew wide-eyed stares. But while Wood was certainly no hippie, there's little doubt he saw this as an opportunity to produce work that he and his friends really cared about.

And what a list of friends. Throughout its run, Witzend collected an impressive roster that included creators like Jim Steranko, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, Art Spiegelman (some of his first published work), Don Martin (yes, that Don Martin), Alex Toth, P. Craig Russell, Mike Zeck and Joe Staton.

To those who have heard of but not seen the result, Witzend must seem like a lost treasure chest filled with wonderful gems. But reality has a way of throwing cold water on our imagination, and Witzend, is, to put it charitably, a decidedly uneven affair, the considerably good rarely overtaking the awkwardly bad or the just plain dull. At best it's a failed, noble and occasionally captivating experiment rolled into two slipcased volumes.

A word or two should be said about the packaging. Fantagraphics pulled out all the stops in collecting these 13 issues (ranging from 1966 to 1985). Handsomely designed, featuring an essay by editor Bill Pearson (who took over those chores from Wood after the fourth issue), an oral history by Patrick Rosencrantz and running a total of 656 pages, this thing isn't a brick -- it's a small building.

Strangely enough, although Wood remained the locus of the series even after he handed over the reins to Pearson, he's not the star of the series. His initial efforts, slightly off-kilter pulp oddities like Animan and The Rejects, lack the swagger and wildness of Cannon or Sally Forth. And work like The Wizard King seem too indebted to its influences. It's as though Wood knew what direction he wanted to go in, but couldn't quite break free of genre trappings.

No, if there's a star turn in Witzend, it's clearly Steve Ditko. Although didactic, there's no denying the sheer cartooning power on display in works like Mr. A and Avenging World,  the most dynamic and thrilling contributions to the entire run of the series, on par with Winsor McCay's editorial cartoons in  conveying a sense of grandeur and importance. You might not agree with Ditko's political stance (I certainly don't), but you can't dismiss the power of his images and storytelling capabilities. Sadly, Pearson didn't care much for Ditko's Randian screeds, and Ditko is more or less out of Witzend halfway through the run (Pearson even parodies Mr. A – rather poorly – in a later issue).

There are other highlights. Jaf – a sort of minimalist Moomin with a bit more surreality – by James Frankfort is wonderfully odd. Alien by Pearson and Jeff Jones is a beautiful study of black-and-white contrasts. Vaughn Bode always delights, and his few offerings here, including an early Cobalt 60 tale, are no exception (to say nothing of the astoundingly gory cover). Morrow's The Journey is a lush, erotic painted story that could have found a home in one of the better issues of Heavy Metal. Archie Goodwin's Sinner makes you wish he had spent a little less time editing and a little more time cartooning. Frank Frazetta's adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's City by the Sea might just be the finest thing he's ever done in comics, and Jr Blevins and Dennis Janke's Stargazer has a genuine otherworldy feel; you wouldn't be surprised to find it a modern-day anthology.

But for every story like those there are awkward reworkings of leftovers from the EC days, but with new dialogue added (at one point, there's even a "remix" of Al Feldstein's classic "Spawn of Venus"). Or a warmed-over fantasy or sci-fi genre tale. Or an attempt to be funny or topical that falls embarrassingly flat on its face.

Then there's the issue of sexism. As you might imagine, for many of these cartoonists the notion of adult material equaled showing as much female nudity as possible. Thus, Witzend runs rampant with as many large, buoyant breasts as possible, to the point where the final issue, dubbed "the good girl" issue, is just a hodgepodge of nude drawings and sketches taken or solicited from various sources. To its credit, Witzend overall displays little of the sort of juvenile leering that many of its followers seem to enjoy. Indeed the focus seems to be more on accurately rendering the body than in engaging in any sort of adolescent smuttiness.

As the years go on, what there is of Witzend's cutting edge dulls considerably. The magazine never seems to be able to rise above its fannish roots, and Pearson seems progressively more interested in detailing his own interests and obsessions, so that one later issues is designed as a tribute to W.C Fields, with no comics content at all.

Ultimately, Witzend is more notable for its historical value – as a place that fostered young artists and encouraged established ones to take chances – than for any actual aesthetic merits. In attempting to avoid the tight editorial grip of publishing world, Witzend ended up having virtually no editorial control at all, and it shows. The issues are filled with vanity projects (Wood's doggerel poetry, for example) and self-indulgent stories. Even with all the fancy packaging and kind words, Witzend comes off as something of a mess. I'm thankful for its existence, grateful for the opportunity to have read it, and disappointed that it didn't live up to its legend more.

Witzend by Wallace Wood and various other artists, Fantagraphics Books, 656 pages, $125.

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