There are two contexts in which one could read “Comics and Stories that Will Make You BLAB! Volume 1,” the latest anthology edited by Monte Beauchamp. Despite the Volume 1 moniker, BLAB! Is a long-running anthology, first published in 1988, born as a fanzine, but which evolved into a storied anthology. One could read the new “BLAB” in the context of the old, comparing what Beauchamp and his contributors were doing before this revival. If you’re a millennial with only secondhand experience with the underground comix and zine culture of the eighties and nineties, you might instead approach this collection completely fresh, maybe lightly armed with the big names, such as Chris Ware, that “BLAB!” previously published.
For the uninitiated, “BLAB! Volume 1” makes “BLAB”’s mission quite clear. “BLAB” is a comics anthology concerned with comics itself: presenting, preserving, and commenting on the history of the medium. The meat to this collection is comics about comics and comics-adjacent creators, these nonfiction works taking up half the collection. But there is also Beauchamp as preservationist, providing examples of both vintage comics and ads from those comics. The appearance of a four-color pulp advert on glossy paper aesthetically gives “BLAB!” an anachronistic quality, something as much of a product of the 1950s as it is the 1990s or 2020s.
That aesthetic is carried through the comics themselves. A comic about the lives of Superman creators Siegel and Shuster, for instance, has a panel layout similar to a golden age comic, but Ryan Heksha’s art is as modern as it is vintage. Similarly, “The Death of Comics,” which follows the rise and fall of “Crime Does Not Pay,” a crime comics magazine, is positioned as a crime comic itself, tracing the true-crime arc of one of its key artists. It’s clear that a directive of Beauchamp’s is that form must meet subject matter, and each of his artists rises to that occasion.
While the comics are treated as the main attraction, Beauchamp also includes a small number of illustrated essays. One essay written by Beauchamp gives us a pictorial history of gorillas in film and comics; another is a believer’s guide to UFO sightings. The most incendiary work included here is a reproduction, as cartoonist and essayist Watson Heston’s 1890 “the Freethinkers Pictorial Text-Book” is a vintage example of a fiery criticism of organized religion that feels more virulent than any modern equivalent. The inclusion of this writing serves to offer us the kitchen-sink ethos that marked the zine era’s put-together feel.
How authentic this recreation of an underground comix staple might feel to “BLAB!” veterans isn’t something I feel qualified to judge. However, as someone whose experience with this era has always been its ruins, “BLAB! Volume 1” approximates a visit to a literary Parthenon. It is not lost on me that “BLAB!”’s founding is about as distant to us as the heyday of EC Comics, the publisher of so many horror and crime comic anthologies, was to “BLAB!”’s founding. And just like the horror comics that were such an inspiration to those working in that era, the aesthetics and forms of “BLAB!”’s era are also in dire need of preservation. “BLAB! Volume 1” feels as much like preservation as the homages to the forties and fifties’ comics contained within.
“Comics and Stories that Will Make You BLAB!: Volume 1”
Edited by Monte Beauchamp
Dark Horse Books, 112 pages, $19.99