They're called underground comix for a reason

A bit of a firestorm erupted in the comments section of Frank Santoro's most recent Riff Raff column at The Comics Journal. Closing with six pictures from the most recent issue of the self-published series Fukitor #9 by Jason Karns, Santoro praised the book for its use of colors on two different types of paper within the same issue, calling it "one of the most interesting print jobs out there." Indeed, the art is visceral and eye-catching, judging by the photos of Santoro holding the comic.

The sticky part is that three of the images are from a "Special Forces Attack Squad" story that contains what could be considered as racially insensitive. Santoro also described Karns' work as being "almost 'too real' to be part of the contemporary comics conversation." He also said, "Just about everything compared to his work seems 'pretentious.' Karns is not trying to do a throwback style or appropriate 'bad comics' in order to make some sort of art comic. This is the real deal. This shit is SERIOUS!"

I'm not sure what most of that description even means. In what way is his work "too real"? Karns certainly isn't doing journalism comics a la Joe Sacco. Santoro later admitted he could've done a better job of presenting Karns' work, and the ensuing comments to his column appear to have caused him to reassess his appreciation, at least as it pertains to the subject matter. Right off the bat, the first commenter asked whether Fukitor is racist. Karns himself quickly showed up with a strange response that's boils down to, "They're just cartoons." It reads as though he's claiming the comic book form is somehow incapable of depicting racist imagery, which is pretty easily disputed by any cursory survey of World War II-era comics. Karns goes on to dig a rather big hole for himself.

We all eventually have some level of bias and discriminatory thought within us but I'm going to give Karns the benefit of the doubt. I think it would be nice for him to at least acknowledge he uses stereotypes, but in the end the work speaks for itself. In this context, I actually don't care too much about his beliefs, only how they manifest themselves in his comics and the messages they send. The fact is that images hold meaning and send messages, whether intended or not. There is a lot of research in this field; here's just one. This is not mere conjecture. Would a Muslim or someone native to the Middle East region find the terrorists characters disappointing? Probably. Insulting? Possibly.

The story in Fukitor is far from the only piece of fiction to have such limited depictions of a certain segment of people; it has a lot of company. That doesn't mean it gets a pass, however. We take the opportunity to talk about these things when we can. What makes Fukitor a prominent example is its apparently gleeful embrace of its extreme caricatures. The faux-language gibberish used to mimic Arabic dialects might be the most startling element for me. Karns is clearly aware he's found a new level with this, and is embracing any possible offense, judging by his update to this Aug. 8 post, where he writes, "Orders have gone waaayyy up since some people starting bitching about this imagery. Thank you. Please, keep bitching." More evidence in favor of the theory that there's no such thing as bad press, I guess.

Looking at more of Fukitor, I can't help but appreciate the absolute over-the-top absurdity of it. Other stories about alien invasions and depraved bikers focus more on "blood, boobs and bad words," as Karns describes his comic. It's so ridiculously over-the-top '80s action movie mixed with B-movie cheesiness. It delights in stupid simplicity and the visual spectacle of excess, as though he's made a comic for his 13-year-old self. All of the characters are formed with a sledgehammer. They're really not characters, so much as caricatures, whether it be of U.S. military men or Satanic priests. So I don't know how much real identification could be going on. A lot of that is subconscious, though, so it's hard to say. It's also that it's reinforcing an actual belief held by some that all Muslims are terrorists, so I don't know if the lack of identification lets it off the hook. There's also a good deal of sexual violence (bondage, torture, etc.) but I covered that recently, so I won't repeat myself on that topic. While brash, repetitive and at times uncomfortable, Fukitor isn't without redeeming qualities as entertainment. I don't know if I need nine issues of it, but I bet I'd get a laugh out of an issue or two. I tend to give more leeway to creative expression in self-published comics hand-made by the creator than I do to corporate-owned comics. That's probably one of my own biases at work.

There is a long tradition among underground comix to be abrasive, unrestrained, almost pure id, to get all Freudian for a moment. When the only other real options were the sterile Silver Age comics from DC, Marvel, Archie and other family-friendly publishers, and the gentle humor of the Sunday comic strips, these kinds of stories were a real revelation. They were a cathartic and bombastic release, especially when in the hands of R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and others of the era. Granted, those stories tended to have some social-satire element to them beyond simply exaggerating testosterone-driven entertainment from childhood, but even they faced criticism for going too far or being insensitive.

Breaking news, though: Times have changed. The comics field is no longer as limited as it was in the '60s and '70s. Pop culture and entertainment in general have not only diversified but also become more progressive in how to tell stories and being aware of who is consuming those stories. And the makers of the stories come from more diverse backgrounds than ever.

So is there a place anymore for what Karns himself describes as "insane, ultra-violent mayhem"? That's certainly not for me to decide. It's what he wants to create, and enough people are buying it to support more. I think there's a place for underground expression like this, and he certainly has the right to make it. It's just unfortunate Karns truly doesn't seem to realize how his depictions of actual human beings isn't the same as depicting a fictional alien. In time, his tone-deaf response will all but fade away.

Ex-DC President Defends Joker Violence, Distances Herself From Geoff Johns

More in Comics