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Awesome Men Throughout History: Richard “Grass” Green

It may surprise some of you to learn that comics and comix are two very different things. It certainly surprised me, and I take pride in knowing about weird trivia like this.

grass1The distinction is that comics are the mainstream titles published by Marvel and DC, and in newspapers when they can afford it, and comix are the weird, underground/self-published stuff that deals with explicit or experimental content. To put it another way, Jack Kirby is comics. Robert Crumb is comix.

But we’re not here to talk about either of them. Instead, we’re going to look at the first black underground comix artist, Richard “Grass” Green, as this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History.

Richard Green was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1939, but didn’t get into comix until 1967; he’d been a talented amateur musician before then, and had even appeared on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. Green broke into the comix world by publishing in fan-made magazines, most notably Star Studded Comics, which also featured work by George R.R. Martin.

From there, Green published work non-stop in a variety of different underground publications, which were well-suited for the themes in Green’s work. Without a Comics Code Authority to determine what they could and could not draw, underground comix were notorious for incorporating sex, violence, and hot-button social topics (especially drugs and racial issues) in sometimes crude or exploitative ways.

Green certainly talked about race and bigotry a lot in his work—and unfortunately, it would have been difficult for a black comic artist to publish anywhere mainstream at that time—but he was more clever and less obscene than a lot of his contemporaries. His visual work had that early-1950s, Harvey Kurtzman zaniness to it, and he never let the freedom of underground comix (what Art Spiegelman would later describe as “sex, dope, and cheap thrills”) overtake his message.

For example, a story of his from Super Soul Comix #1 is about a guy who goes from Vietnam vet to urban superhero when, as Prof. William H. Foster III describes it, a scientist “conveniently in the neighborhood picks him up and gives him superpowers.” Not only does it send up the usual superhero origin story, but it lends some humor to the proceedings. Green’s characters Wildman and Rubberroy and Xal-Kor the Human Cat were his most popular offerings, and while they weren’t as outrageous as his more underground work, that sense of subversion is still there.

Green was a pioneer, really. He was the first black contributor to the underground comix scene, and the sheer volume of his publications inspired other black artists to get involved. According to his wife, he was also a greatly respected figure in the comix community. “This was definitely his world,” she said after seeing him work the room at a convention. “When people came into his presence there was an awe and respect for him…I came to realize that this man, my husband was a giant and a pioneer for all African Americans that were about to enter this world of comic book writing.”

For more about Richard “Grass” Green, check out the Museum of Uncut Funk’s retrospective on his life and work.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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