Truth Be Known and the 1990s Comics Underground

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Inspired by last week’s pick of Tadao Tsuge’s Trash Market, I hoped to dig even deeper to unearth more avant-garde/underground comics treasures this week (and in general going forward).  And to my luck, on a bookcase of used comics at Amoeba Records yesterday, I found Maximum Traffic’s Truth Be Known.

Cover of the Truth Be Known Collection

An anthology of Traffic’s work as an Obscuro comics artist along with his editing work for the White Buffalo Gazette zine, Truth Be Known contains a underlying, cohesive argument in the midst of a frenetic mix of semi-collage artwork, comic panels, and single pages of text. Fiercely bold, political, philosophical, comedic, and absurd, Truth Be Known exemplifies the independent voice of zine culture, one I only know a little about, especially since the comics from zines of the 1990s were created when I was a still a small child.

Adding to my own lack of familiarity of  the 1990s comics underground, little mass public attention (even via the internet today) has been given to the zines producing those comics. Plenty has been written about the early underground comics, especially on that now famous San Francisco scene Robert Crumb led with its foundations in the satirical works of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. However, the next generation of the comics zine world of the 1990s and its delivery of the descendants of original underground comics has remained largely underground and accessible only through zine fests. Consequently, my own knowledge of the vitality and content of this alternative media form before and after the the internet age is pretty thin.

What I do know about zine culture of the 90s comes from stories of Generoso’s friends who notoriously gobbled up two industrial sized toner cartridges publishing an edition of their anarchist focused zine. A media form with no rules and often even no desire for monetization, anything goes in the zine world, making it a perfect incubator for creative, political, and philosophical opinion. As a result, there’s plenty of noise found amongst the zines published in the past and present, but given the wild west freedom of the media outlet, there are plenty of gems, and one gem distinctively comes from Maximum Traffic and his stable of artists and writers of the White Buffalo Gazette and Obscuro group.

A labor of love, passion, and desire to discuss current morality, politics, faith, and any element of society that influences our thoughts and opinions for better or more likely for worse, Truth Be Known contains works that study and investigate our fears, our comforts, and our culture with righteousness, humor, and most importantly humanity. Some of the comics are more traditional in structure, and others are more like a psychedelic dream, creating a nice pace of reading and viewing throughout the collection. The moment you begin to feel you’ve had enough of the ethereal, a more traditional (though no less entertaining and insightful) comic arrives, and the moment you begin to crave something a bit more challenging and unclassifiable, one of the looser, hallucinogenic comics starts. You never get too complacent with stability or instability with Truth Be Known, since both exist and constantly complement each other.

Some of this ebb and flow between the avant-garde and the traditional comes from the mix of artists and corresponding styles included in the anthology. Steve Willis contributes his funny and reality crossing Morty Dog comics; Mike Hill contributes his satirical Modernman comics; and, Maximum Traffic contributes his outstandingly beautiful Neo-Psychedelic Man comics. With this mix of artists and voices, every story in the anthology has a purpose; Maximum Traffic excluded anything that would be considered as filler here, showcasing his clever and deft editing skills in addition to his brilliant collages that alone make Truth Be Known worth a look.

Truth Be Known contains an energy and a specific commitment to honesty and creativity only found in a publication where no commercial expectations exist. All are free to roam in the world of Truth Be Known, and despite their drastically different approaches, all unite to develop works to not only entertain readers but also provide an alternative perspective on life, mass media, and existence.

While the references in the anthology may clearly date Truth Be Known, the collection still stands as a relevant body of underground comics. In their challenge to existing popular comic forms and desires to innovate in a format with established conventions, Maximum Traffic and his Obscuro friends progressed the comic form then and hopefully continue to inspire artists today to do the same now. If you can find it, do pick up Truth Be Known and any copies of the White Buffalo Gazette, and while you’re at it, go out and pick up any zine for a fresh, sobering breath of zine frontier air.

Thankfully, the creative and thought independence of the tradition of zine culture still lives on, which means that modern underground comics gems are out there; they’re just waiting to be discovered and shared.

Truth Be Known collected by Maximum Traffic is available via Maximum Traffic publications. 

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