August 27, 2014

Zine: Happiness Issue #4
Happiness fuses the punk and comic underground. 

If only I could have listened in on the New York Times editorial meeting earlier this month when the paper's editors decided on the August 7th Sunday magazine cover. Yikes. Black-and-white and 80s-inspired, the cover re-appropriated the look of a classic Minor Threat flyer, reading "Major Threat," previewing a feature on potential 2016 libertarian presidential candidate Rand Paul. Whether the allusion was effective or arbitrary or offensive is all up for debate, but regardless, it was further evidence that the visual symbols of punk culture are indeed everywhere around us in 2014, in ways big and small. From aesthetic ripples like the Times mag, to more obvious showcases like the Met's massive 2013 punk fashion show and both of 2012's comically expensive coffee table books, the past few years have seen some version of a 70s and 80s punk art "legacy" both archived and commodified.

Academics, journalists and other cultural categorizers tend to talk about "punk art" like it's a movement of the past, as is the case with all over-academicized subcultures. But in 2014, there is most definitely an underground visual culture that continues to thrive internationally, a network of contemporary DIY-minded illustrators, cartoonists, screen-printers and zinesters working to create inspiring subversive work outside of pretentious white-walled institutions, instead choosing to showcase their work in more accessible spaces: on flyers, album covers, t-shirts and other ephemera inextricably tied to punk. Also, a lot of the time, on Tumblr.

For a startlingly comprehensive document of said contemporary underground visual culture, see Happiness, a punk art anthology created in 2011 by NYC-based cartoonist and illustrator Leah Wishnia. Originally created solely to publish collections of comics, the publication has evolved over the years into a more expansive project. Now on its fourth installment, the current issue is centered around the theme of “art, music & community," with 25 short comics by international alternative cartoonists, essays, a spotlight section on contemporary show flyer art, plus interviews with artists, cartoonists and musicians. The perfectly-bound 192-page anthology includes a CD compilation as well, spanning from political Providence punk (Downtown Boys) to Barcelona hardcore (Las Otras) to UK post-punk (Shopping); all of the musicians included are involved in the contents of the anthology in some way.

Comics are still a focal point of Happiness, and for those not tuned into the indie comics world (much like myself) this seems to be a good primer, showcasing cartoonists based everywhere from Brazil to Berlin to Bowling Green, plus a good number of contributors from Brooklyn and Providence. All of the comics are driven by narratives; they're dark and funny, smart and surreal. There are big, bold, full-page illustrations; meticulous, detailed drawings and scratchier, scrappier doodles. Cops get shit on, punk shows happen in outer space; some of the comics are romantic, some are grotesque. "For me, both punk and underground comics are very much about working together as a community in addition to being in control of one’s own work," Wishnia told Maximum Rock 'n Roll in an April 2014 interview. "While most punk works outside of the mainstream music industry, underground comics work outside of both the extremely exploitive mainstream comics industry and the increasingly elitist, pandering-to-the-rich mainstream art market."

That community connection is explored in the sections of the anthology not solely dedicated to displaying comics. The massive, 33-page feature on contemporary poster and flyer art does a particularly excellent job of connecting the dots between art and music worlds, featuring the work of artists like NYC's Alexander Heir, who recently released a book of his work on Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, and Las Otras bassist Mar Estrama, whose work deals with gender, identity, body issues, sexuality and violence. In conversational interviews and pull-quotes printed side-by-side their re-printed artwork, the featured artists (many of whom also play in bands) draw lines between their musical pursuits and their visual work, like Dunja Jankovic, an artist and comics-maker from Croatia, who writes: "Historically, I've always been a drummer. Rhythm and comics are strongly connected on a basic level: sequencing and juxtaposing can be seen as elements for constructing a rhythm. By abandoning narration and embracing abstraction, the sounds, melodies, rhythm and other musical formers have creeped into my visual work and are now conducting the meaning." Ideas like these speak to the unique strength of a publication like Happiness, which pushes those entrenched in music and art worlds to view their mediums from a new perspective.

"I've always been inspired by the first wave of American punk and the cool newsprint fanzines that come out of it like Punk, Slash, and Search and Destroy and I thought this new punk shit from the Northwest definitely deserved the same treatment," says NYC artist Ben Trogden in his interview, referring to how Olympia bands like Gun Outit and Sex Vid inspired him to start his punk newspaper, Nuts! Indeed, they do, and the artists featured here also deserve Happiness.

Buy your own copy of Happiness Issue #4 here.

Liz Pelly is a writer and editor living in New York. She feels strongly about the radical potential of DIY publishing and house shows. You can usually find her at The Silent Barn. She tumbls & tweets often.