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Underground Comics on Exhibit at Washington State University

Historians at Washington State University recently discovered a treasure trove of underground culture publications hidden in the school’s archive. The accidental finding consists of comix, as alternative comic books are known, pamphlets and paperback books dating back to the days when the counterculture revolution swept across the United States after World War II.


Adam Whittier was attending a conference at WSU when he learned about the extensive collection of comix and independent counterculture publications kept by the school. Since these are materials that do not conform to the Dewey decimal system of classification, librarians kept the publications in a separate section that is not easily found by the public.


Whittier enlisted the help of a historian to organize the materials into an exhibit named A Life Underground, which will run for three weeks in April. Whittier is a student majoring in WSU’s Digital Technology and Culture program and a fan of comix; he was surprised at the breadth of the collection held by his own school, and his discovery also surprised university historians.


Since the 1980s, two comix collectors have been donating material to WSU: Lynn Hansen, a reviewer of independent press publications, and Steve Willis, a cartoonist. Willis was responsible for introducing comix to the WSU library system, and he initially had to do it in an underground fashion.


Historian Robert Franklin explained that the American counterculture movement was greatly advanced by the U.S. Postal Service and the availability of photocopiers. Many of the topics handled by underground cartoonists were politically subversive and taboo, which meant that traditional publishers would not touch them for fear that of running into censorship or damaging their reputations.


The exhibit of comix and other underground publications aims to motivate WSU students and the public to learn more about this amazing collection and how authors circumvented the government and the establishment to publish and distribute works that would have been subject to censorship. These days, underground authors can easily reach audiences through the internet; this exhibit offers a glimpse at how the counterculture revolution inspired authors to create and distribute thought-provoking materials.


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