A handful of renowned underground comic-book artists have local roots
The running pop-culture narrative tells us that intense creativity tends to flower in places where we expect creative people to congregate—lower Manhattan and adjacent Brooklyn, or parts of Los Angeles, or London. It doesn’t tell us that, occasionally, concentrations of talent will pop up in places where you might not expect them.
Consider Yolo County, the verdant agrarian paradise to the west of Sacramento. Between the 1970s and the early 1990s, at least five artists from the underground “comix” school of comic-book publishing lived and worked in Yolo County, or just across the Solano County line in the cow town turned bedroom community of Dixon.
For a brief time in the early 1990s, Carol Tyler and her husband, Justin Green, lived on Maryland Avenue in West Sacramento, in a leafy postwar suburb just east of the Port of Sacramento. Later, they moved to an address in East Sacramento. Tyler we won’t go into here, but Green we will: His 1972 comic book Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary is a classic work, perhaps the finest delineation of obsessive-compulsive disorder ever committed to the comic-book form. By the time Green lived in West Sacramento, he was working as a professional sign painter. He even had a whimsically conceived sign-painting booth on Jefferson Boulevard. Green also was drawing two separate serial comics: one titled Sign Game for a trade publication called Signs of the Time; the other, a set of collaborative one-page biographies titled Musical Legends, ran in Tower Records’ Pulse! magazine (where I worked as an editor and writer). Also an adept guitarist, Green was writing and playing original blues and ragtime compositions in his spare time.
Green left the area and moved to Cincinnati after Tyler moved there with their daughter, Julia. At the time, Green said that Tyler insisted on moving to a Midwestern city with a National League baseball team, and after ruling out St. Louis and Green’s native Chicago, she had settled on the chili capital on the Ohio River.
Another local comic talent, Robert Armstrong, lived in Dixon, where he moved in the 1970s. Pasadena native Armstrong is best known as the creator of Mickey Rat and the person who coined the term “couch potato,” but his curriculum vitae (which can be accessed at www.armst.net/robert) goes much deeper. He’s an illustrator, educator, musician and all-around cool cat. The other thing Armstrong is best known for is his musical sideline, specifically as a member of R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders. This breezy acoustical combo embodied the Yolo cartoonists’ preoccupation with a repertoire from the 78-rpm era, specifically old blues, folk and novelty numbers, along with Hawaiian and Cuban hotel-orchestra tunes from the 1920s. Today Armstrong lives in Winters, where he paints guitars and plays in several small ensembles, including the El Rado Scufflers and the soon-to-be-renamed Barking Spiders.
Finally, there’s Robert Crumb, who moved to the Dixon-Winters area in the 1970s with his comic-artist wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb. They left Winters and moved to France in the late 1980s, which was documented in director (and sometime Cheap Suit Serenader) Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary, Crumb.
Episodes of the Crumb family’s life in west Yolo, both from Crumb’s and Kominsky-Crumb’s perspective, can be found in old issues of Weirdo magazine, and later in volumes of the Fantagraphics Books anthology The Complete Crumb Comics. Yolo County scenes pop up in a number of Crumb’s comic panels: character Flakey Foont’s house in suburban Davis, and family scenes in Winters. Careful readers can spot Sacramento scenes, too, like the flying-saucer water tower on Interstate 5 near the town of Freeport, or then-futuristic-looking 1950s businesses along Del Paso Boulevard, or Fulton Avenue before it got beautified by palm trees. Crumb, who doesn’t drive, would be chauffeured around town by his pal Justin Green, and he would quickly sketch backgrounds for later use. It’s somehow fitting that the man who many feel is America’s greatest comic artist would immortalize Yolo County scenes in his work.