Comics History


Raw issues #1 and #2.

Raw marked a special and unique moment in comics history: an entire magazine devoted to innovative and experimental cartoonists. Even though it ran annually and for less than a decade (1980-1984, 1986, 1989-1991), its impact cannot be understated. Chief editor Françoise Mouly and her husband Art Spiegelman encouraged artists to completely do their own thing. In return they presented their challenging and often controversial work in the best possible way. High quality paper, professional printing,... artwork dictated the lay-out rather than the other way around. Raw offered room to many artists who otherwise might never had a chance to get published. It also introduced a worldwide audience to cartoonists from the U.S. alternative scene, European comics and/or Japanese manga. In little over a decade it expanded thousands of readers' minds before passing into legend...

Early beginnings
Raw was the brainchild of Françoise Mouly and her husband Art Spiegelman. In the late 1970s Spiegelman was still an obscure underground cartoonist, making experimental comics which barely sold. In 1975 he and Bill Griffith had launched their first magazine, Arcade, but it lasted only seven issues. Spiegelman earned his income as a teacher (1976-1987) at the New York School of Visual Arts, while Mouly was a colorist at Marvel. Before the end of the decade the underground comix scene gradually petered out, mutating into the alternative comics scene. Since Mouly was French, Spiegelman was aware that many magazines in France were devoted to adult comics, including L'Écho des Savanes, Fluide Glacial and (Á Suivre). Yet in the USA there was no counterpart. The closest was Heavy Metal, in itself an English-language sister magazine of the French Métal Hurlant and mostly publishing fantasy and science fiction comics. In the U.S. alternative comics were scattered about in dozens of obscure publications.

Spiegelman realized there was a genuine need for the kind of comics he liked to read and - equally important - wanted to draw. So he and his wife decided to launch their own independent comics magazine. In 1978 they founded their own publishing company, Raw Books and Graphics. The three-letter acronym was inspired by Mad Magazine, while the word "raw" signified "having its vital juices intact", a fitting name for the uncompromising comics they wanted to promote. In July 1980 the first issue of Raw rolled from the presses. Spiegelman designed the cover and came up with the tagline: "The Graphix Magazine of Postponed Suicides". Originally intended as a one-shot, it sold well enough to already warrant a second issue in December of that year, with the tagline: "The Graphix Magazine for Damned Intellectuals". The second cover was illustrated by Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte and colorized by Mouly. From the 7th issue on Raw allowed one associate editor, Robert Sikoryak, himself still a young artist at the time.

Raw issues #3 and #4.

The first six years (1980-1986)
Raw was an odd mix between elegance and anarchy. It had a classy public image, much like The New Yorker. Compared with other comics magazines it offered the finest quality paper and was printed on a large format. It allowed stores to place it next to other magazines, rather than stash it away in the comic book section. Spiegelman and Mouly didn't just promote Raw in comics circles, but also through media with an interest in high art and literature. The artists in the magazine were painters, illustrators, graphic designers, cartoonists and art students. Much of their readership came from the same world, or at least had an interest in contemporary culture or adult comics.

Yet Raw never played it safe. Each issue was completely unpredictable, risky and often controversial. A cover could be a dazzling illustration one time, then be a brutal collage in the next. Most bordered between being punk or just plain arty farty. The fourth issue (March 1982) had a cover with cut-out holes designed by Charles Burns. It offered a glimpse at another drawing on the page behind it. Belgian illustrator Ever Meulen designed the cover of the fifth issue (March 1983), which had a color section printed on old style comic book newsprint. Art Spiegelman cut-and-paste the cover of the seventh issue (May 1985), which was a collage of several images. Each copy of said issue was different, because the right-hand corner had been torn away and thrown in a pile. These pieces were then picked out and randomly stitched to another cover. Spiegelman intended it as a critique of mass production.

Raw issues #5 and #6

Each page of Raw had a number in a circle, but this same number was often depicted dropping out of that very same circle. A perfect metaphor for Raw's iconoclastic public image. Some pages were printed in different kind of paper or colors. Certain issues had witty taglines, such as issue #3 ("The Graphix Magazine That Lost Its Faith In Nihilism"), #6 ("The Graphix Magazine That Overestimates The Taste of The American Public") and #11 ("High Culture for Low Brows"). Some issues added trading cards or mini comics. Raw #4 came with a flexi-disc under the title 'Reagan speaks for himself'. Presented as an interview with then current U.S. President, it was actually a cleverly manipulated montage of soundbites. The fact that the real Reagan was known for sometimes giving confusing answers made the absurd tape manipulation believable until the very end. In the 8th issue (September 1988), 23 pages were devoted to 101 gags, all a crossover work by dozens of cartoonists, artists and painters to create one long, surreal story. Some made exclusive work, others were just reprints rearranged into a new tale. 

Mark Beyer in Raw #6.

Only a few artists in Raw could be described as regulars. Most only appeared in one single issue, leaving room for plenty of newcomers. Spiegelman brought in established veterans from the former U.S. underground comix scene, like Robert CrumbAline Kominsky-Crumb, Kim DeitchJustin Green, S. Clay Wilson, Jay Lynch and Bill Griffith who didn't hold anything back in terms of politics, sex, violence or strong language. Some comics in Raw were reprints from Spiegelman and Griffith's Arcade, but also from Heavy Metal. It introduced mainstream audiences to the latest generation of U.S. alternative cartoonists, including Mark Beyer ('Agony'), Charles Burns ('El Borbah', 'Big Baby'), Gary Panter ('Jimbo'), Rick GearyNorman DogCarol Lay, Lynda Barry, Krystine KryttreGary Hallgren, George Griffin, Scott GillisRod Kierkegaard, Mark Fisher and Chris Ware. Ware was in fact a fan of Raw from the first hour and thrilled to eventually publish in its pages! Some artists in the magazine were teachers or pupils at Spiegelman's school, such as Jerry MoriartyKazDrew Friedman, Mark Newgarden and Jayr Pulga. Some, like Ben KatchorRichard Sala and Robert Sikoryak, had never published anything before!

Yoshiharu Tsuge's 'Oba's Electroplate Factory' appeared in Raw v2 #2 (1990).

Other comics were reprints from the Japanese magazine Garo, namely the work of Yoshiharu TsugeShigeru Sugiura and Teruhiko. Mouly brought in reprints from the French magazines L'Écho des Savanes, Fluide Glacial, (Á Suivre) and Métal Hurlant, which introduced a new readership to the work of Baru, Marc CaroJulie DoucetPascal DouryFrancis Masse, Christian Roux, Jacques Loustal and Jacques Tardi. Raw even presented the first English translation of Tardi's gripping graphic novel 'C'était La Guerre des Tranchées' ('It Was the War of the Trenches'), long before it became available in book form. From the Spanish adult comics magazine El Vibora came cartoonists like Javier MariscalCarlos SampayoJosep Marti and José Muñoz ('Tenochtitlan'), while Italy was well represented with the fine art of Lorenzo MattottiGiorgio Carpinteri and Francesco Tullio Altan. The UK introduced David Sandlin and Alan Moore and Germany Heinz Emigholz. Belgian cartoonists in Raw were reprints from Humo, namely Kamagurka and Herr Seele's 'Cowboy Henk' and Ever Meulen. The Dutch graphic artist Joost Swarte reprinted 'Jopo de Pojo' and 'Anton Makassar', which previously appeared in the Dutch comics magazine Tante Leny Presenteert, but also made straightforward illustrations. In 1986 he organized an exhibition about Raw in the brand new gallery of Amsterdam comics store Lambiek, further widening its notability across the borders.

Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch and Bruno Richard sharing the page in Raw #5.

The input of Japanese and European cartoonists made Raw more global than previous U.S. comics magazines. It introduced U.S. readers to many strange, exotic and shocking cartoonists they never heard from. Likewise other readers across the world discovered new talent too. Some of these foreign reprints were personally translated and/or colorized by Mouly and Spiegelman. While Raw held its finger at the pulse of time, it didn't neglect the past. Some issues brought attention to interesting U.S. comics pioneers, such as Winsor McCayGeorge HerrimanMilt GrossBoody RogersFletcher HanksEdward Sorel and Basil Wolverton, but also French pioneers like Caran d'AcheThéophile Alexandre Steinlen and Gustave Doré. Placed between all the contemporary comics by Raw's living contributors, many of these comics barely looked out of place. Some even looked way ahead of their time! At a certain point the line between comics, illustration, woodcut, painting, collage, graffiti art and museum art became completely blurred. Mouly also added work by crossover artists like David Holzman, Georganne Deen, Lorenzo Mattotti, Sue Coe, Henry Darger, Bruno Richard, Marshall Arisman, Bob Zoell, Yosuke Kawamura, Cheri Samba, David Ostrem, Patricia Caire, Dom Blonde, Lumen Winter, Christian Chapiron (aka Kiki Picasso), Vitaly Komar & Alexander Melamid, Ever Meulen and Joost Swarte. Professionals and amateurs stood next to each other in equal harmony and contrast.

Pascal Doury's 'Paul', from Raw v2 #1 (1989).

Certain comics in Raw, like Pascal Doury, Mark Beyer and Gary Panter's work, challenged readers with their brutal drawings and sometimes incomprehensible "stories". One example was 'Here' (1989) by Richard McGuire. This classic comic tells several moments in past, present and future, but in unchronological order and within the same panels! Yet not all content in Raw was that complex. Some cartoonists made perfectly readable and compelling comics which just couldn't find publication in any other suitable U.S. comics magazine. One of them was Art Spiegelman himself, who published Raw's best known comics series, 'Maus', a graphic novel about his father's past as an Auschwitz prisoner. It debuted in the second issue and up until the very last issue, eleven years later. Since 'Maus' was the only serialized comic in Raw, it instantly became its flagship. Spiegelman also made some experimental one-shot comics, while most of Mouly's contributions were scripts for other cartoonists. Her only self-drawn and written comic, 'Industry and Review No. 6' (1980), appeared in the debut issue.

By offering such a wide variety in styles and artists, Raw remained fresh. All artists had three things in common: they had artistic aspirations, they wanted to do something new and they wanted to make something exclusively for adults. Raw's advertising slogan summarized its vision perfectly: "Now it's safe for adults to read comics... or is it?"

Recap for the 'Maus' serialization.

Raw also published spin-offs and compilations. In 1982 Mark Beyer's 'Dead Stories' was brought out in book format, later along with his 'Agony' (1987). A compilation of the first part of 'Maus' was issued by Pantheon Books in 1986. Pantheon also published 'Read Yourself Raw' (1987) - which collected Raw's first three issues - as well as Gary Panter's 'Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise' (1988) and Charles Burns' 'Hard Boiled Detective Stories' (1988). In 1991 Penguin Books brought out the final three issues of Raw in paperbacks. A special series was 'Raw One-Shot' (1982-1986) of which each volume focused on a different artist. The quintet was comprised of Gary Panter's 'Jimbo' (1982), Sue Coe and Holly Metz' 'How to Commit Suicide in South Africa' (1983), Jerry Moriarty's 'Jack Survives' (1984), Gary Panter's 'Elvis Zombies' (1984) and Charles Burns' 'Big Baby: Curse of the Molemen' (1986). A special series was 'Raw One-Shot'. Between 1982 and 1986 five volumes came out, each focusing on a different artist. Some were a collection of short comics, others an entire graphic novel.

Raw issues #7 and #8.

Hiatus (1986-1989)
While Raw's first two issues appeared within the same year, five months apart from each other, it became an annual magazine from 1981 on. Spiegelman wanted the magazine to remain pure and not turn into a business. Therefore it had no regular publishing schedule. The third issue rolled from the presses in July 1981. Issue four came out in March 1982, followed by the fifth exactly one year later. Readers had to wait a little longer for the next issue, namely until May 1984, while the 7th arrived exactly one year later. It took two years before the 8th issue could be found in stores, in September 1986. At this point, Raw had risen from a small-print publication into a widely respected art magazine with a print-run of more than 20,000 copies. Spiegelman and Mouly now expected their first child, leaving them with less time. Ken Tucker, a critic of The New York Times, was so enthusiastic about the prepublication of 'Maus' in Raw that he promoted it in his column. More readers got interested, which motivated its book release in 1987. 'Maus' became an overnight critical and commercial success. Suddenly Spiegelman was one of the most famous and respected cartoonists in the world and interviewed by dozens of journalists. The downside was that it took until 1989 before a new issue of Raw was published. He was also considered less of a peer among new contributors and more as someone to look up to. The plus side was that it was now far easier to find a distribution deal and stipulate certain artistic demands to publishers.

Raw volume 2, issues #1 and #3

RAW: comeback and cancellation (1989-1991)
In July 1989 Raw made a comeback, now falling under distribution of Penguin Books. The magazine underwent a notable format change. It became smaller, yet had more pages (sometimes over 200!) and a print run of over 30,000 copies. Purists didn't like the new look, but most readers enjoyed the double amount of comics. Most could even be published in their complete form, without being edited down or serialized. And in the end, everybody had to admit that innovation was what Raw was all about. Unfortunately Raw just couldn't compete with the market. After two more issues, the 11th (June 1991) proved to be the last. It ended on such an abrupt note that 'Maus' still had one chapter to go. People who wanted to read the conclusion had to wait for the book version, which appeared a few months later.

While RAW was gone, its artists remained on board for several of Spiegelman and Mouly's future projects, most notably the 'Little Lit' (2000-2003) anthologies and the Toon Books publications (since 2008). One project intended for the magazine was 'The Narrative Corpse'. The idea was to have all comic artists contribute to one long experimental comic strip, all drawn in their respective styles. The idea was inspired by 'Le Cadavre Exquis' ('Exquisite Cadaver'), a game played in 1925 by Surrealist artists like André Breton and other artists within the movement. One artist drew a few panels, then passed the paper to another artist building upon the previous images. The project started in issue #8 (September 1986) went on for so long that it was only published in its complete form in 1995. Much had to do with the fact that two versions went on, one kicked off by R. Sikoryak in New York City, the other by Savage Pencil in London. In their lead followed Mark Beyer, Gilbert Hernandez, Mary Fleener, M.K. Brown, David Mazzucchelli, Mort Walker, S. Clay Wilson, Chester Brown, Debbie Drechsler, Mark Landman, Jay Lynch, Gary Leib, Willem, Carol Lay, Jason Lutes, Max Andersson, Joakim Pirinen, Peter Bagge, Gé Wasco, Spain RodriguezCarol Swain, Richard McGuire, Drew Friedman, David Sandlin, Ever Meulen, Mariscal, Joost Swarte, Pascal Doury, Georgeanne Deen, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Lorenzo Mattotti, Justin Green, Julie Doucet, Kaz, Gary Panter, Françoise MoulyJonathon Rosen, Krystine Kyttre, Jaime HernandezScott Gillis, Jim Woodring, Paul Corio, Will Eisner, Carol Tyler, Max Cabanes, Gilbert Shelton, Scott McCloudTypex, José Muñoz, Matt Groening, Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Savage Pencil, Jacques Loustal, Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Kamagurka & Herr Seele, Thomas Ott, Bruno Richard, Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor, Lynda Barry, Mark Zingarelli, Richard Sala, Bill Griffith and Jayr Pulga.

Charles Burns in Raw #4.

All in all Raw's success and longevity surprised even its creators. Given the kind of content it published, it's amazing in hindsight that it lasted a full decade! In that span it proved the marketability of adult comics. It showed that innovation and creative freedom don't necessarily mean a magazine's doom, if promoted well. Spiegelman, Mouly and later Sikoryak destroyed the ridiculous borders between comics and other graphic arts, but also between art & commerce, homegrown & foreign, old & modern, cult & mainstream. Certain magazines tried to replicate its success, among them Snake Eyes, Blab, MOMA and Rubber Blankets. Others, like Robert Crumb's Weirdo, were created as a direct attempt to be the anti-Raw. But there was really only one Raw. In 11 years time it made a powerful artistic statement and dropped the mike before it could be overcooked...

In 2013 rock legend David Bowie made a list of his '100 Favorite Books'. He only included three comics, all magazines: The Beano, Viz and... Raw!

Final issue of Raw (volume 2, issue #3).

(Text by Kjell Knudde)