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Parallel & Simultaneous: Death Defier Comics Enters Middle Age
by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

The latest issue of Death Defier Comics summarizes its thirty-year history as an outlandish, outsider, outlier, outspoken, genre-bending comic. Full disclosure: We contributed the preface to the issue. When asked, we were initially excited, having been fans of the comic since we first learned about it however many decades ago. Excitement fermented into bewilderment when we realized that the task of summarizing such a wide-ranging chameleon of a publication would take us down difficult and strange avenues that only the most agile tour guides are prepared to venture into. We ventured. Judge our agility for yourselves. Personally, I think we stepped in a pothole somewhere around the Einstein quote because our socks feel wet, but imperfections will be left in—they accentuate the problem of creation. Using diligent research and (where that failed) facts conveniently made up by us, we put together the following introductory text that will appear when the comic is released this October:

For thirty years, Death Defier Comics has melded art criticism, interviews, murder mysteries, biographies, figurative and abstract pornography, and superhero fantasy adventures (almost always involving artists with bizarre superpowers: Dali can melt things with his mind, Dan Graham can mentally summon a pavilion-forcefield, and Rauschenberg can fly). In short, it has functioned as a playground for wonderful, experimental, comedic and sometimes half-baked ideas to be realized in cartoonish overstatement by an incredible roster of contributing artists.

DDC emerged out as an attenuated and meandering extension of New York Pop Art (early issues were devoted to Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol, and Wesselman) as well as less canonized strains of the movement typified by Philip Guston and Chicago’s defiant and divergent Hairy Who. Early inspiration came in Douglas Huebler’s Crocodile Tears comic and Harry Gamboa Jr.’s “Mexican Murder Comix” (1971) among others, as well as all of the wild-eyed dreams that course through our heads daily.

While much narrative ground and many genres have been covered, DDC will likely be remembered most for its recurring series of (old and new) artist-on-artist interviews translated into graphic form by a contemporary artist’s hand. Issues in this series ran in small, now-much-coveted runs of two hundred copies and regularly brought together such epic trios as Alfred Stieglitz-Francis Picabia-David Hockney and Jeff Koons-Charles Ray-Raymond Pettibon. Other contributors over the years (sometimes credited, sometimes uncredited) have included Mary Heilmann, Ger Van Elk, Yayoi Kusama, Elizabeth Peyton, Robert Overby, Vija Celmins, Gilbert and George, and Sister Corita. The artist-illustrator’s role was interpreted according to their wildly different personalities. In every aspect, the series proves a resource for artists’ ideas on their work.

Each issue had permission to take drastically new form and direction. The publication has been sporadic and sometimes quite hard to find; sometimes undergoing year-long gaps; sometimes hardcover and deliriously thick; sometimes floppy, black-and-white and anemically thin; often straightforward and coherent but just as often causing confusion and making the reader question if what they are looking at is for real or a fraudulent knock off. (One issue was in Yiddish, while another in Spanish took the form of a tropical fish catalogue.) As Artforum said, “Death Defier Comics follows the logic of a daydream processed by a robot programmed by a self-taught, cloud-headed scientist who is probably a teenager.”

Looking through our personal collection, it is striking how much tone and format varies. One heated interview (Issue #27: Elizabeth Murray in conversation with Ray Johnson, illustrated by Keith Haring) is followed two months later by a surreal slapstick episode starring superheroes Picasso, Hokusai, Ruscha and Kandinsky who bumble through a gruesome fight with a giant snail that exercises mind-control over Ronald Reagan (Issue #28). An issue dedicated to the drawn out minutiae of Van Gogh mixing pigment into oil paint (Issue #63) is followed by a typical, pulpy retelling of a scene from the 1995 porno Sorority Sluts IV (Issue #64) which was edited by Rodney Graham and includes drawings by Ian Wallace and photos by Jeff Wall.

Ask any reader what their favorite issue is and among the slew of answers will often be a few votes for Issue #7: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret of the Stolen Soup which takes place at Warhol’s Factory. Holmes tries to figure out who pulled off the almost perfect crime: was it Lou Reed, Candy Darling, Brigid Berlin, Edie Sedgwick, David Bowie or the shifty-eyed butler!? At one point the ghost of Sammy Davis Jr. materializes (which was prophetic considering when the comic was first published Davis Jr. was alive and kicking), to which Lou Reed mumbles “far out” from behind his impenetrable black glasses. Dr. Watson spends the entire issue on the floor, having consumed too much brown acid—his eyes are stunning burnt swirls. It doesn’t matter if the crime was actually solved; it’s the lure of intrigue that we remember.

Whether overtly or subtly, Death Defier always embraces the mystery. It asks rather than answers. At its heights, every word casts a spell, every frame can be as simple and profound as a note passed during homeroom, containing all you’ve ever needed to know since. That it freely blends science-fiction, art criticism, tragedy and comedy in the same book—and, in so doing, articulates the tenor of the times, the insights you vaguely intuited—confirms its superhumanity. If one were to describe any unifying “house style” it would be the willingness to linger in grey areas, in foggy no-man’s land where the unexpected abounds. Einstein’s quote, included in the fine print below the masthead puts it in so many words: “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.”

Having just scratched the surface, we conclude our awkward yearbook snapshot of a publication that has gone from oddball satellite to vague critical darling to occasional collector’s item to drifting drug-addled delinquent, to finally becoming the beacon of independence and longevity it represents in today’s fringe publishing world. Death Defier Comics is increasingly recognized as having been a formative force that enriched the tradition of the graphic novel yet remains at heart no more than a subcultural secret whispered along the American frontier where art surfs the tide of pop culture. Consider this a hushed addition to the din, an incantation for another thirty years of spells.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, an artist, curator and writer living in Los Angeles.

Posted by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on 9/6/11

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