Ol' Mizzou 

Classic underground comics shed light on Missoula then and now

On a recent afternoon, I was sitting across from local artist Dirk Lee in Butterfly Herbs listening to his stories about Missoula's arts scene in the 1970sspecifically about underground comic books—when a gentleman with bright eyes and a wide frosty beard approached our table. It was poet and occasional mystic Parris Young. He was peering at the worn copy of Mondo Montana sitting on the table in front of us, an old 68-page comic magazine with a cover price of $2.50. "Can I see that for a second?" he asked, and then flipped it open to a three-page story written and drawn by someone called SunDog.

"Otherwise known as Parris Young," he told us.

Such coincidences aren't uncommon in Missoula's small artist community. And, in many ways, the comic book and graphic novel world is just as tight-knit. But it was still a pleasant surprise to sit down for a cup of coffee with a 35-year-old limited-edition magazine and have one of the contributors randomly reveal his identity to the public for the first time. Ever. Even Lee, also a contributor to the magazine, didn't know. "Go ahead and blow my cover," Young said. "That was back when I thought humility and anonymity were the same thing."

Mondo Montana, Missoula Comix and Missoula Scandals are three graphic comic publications released in Missoula between 1978 and 1980. Their appearance around town, however brief, made Missoula part of the counterculture movement of adult comic books that boomed in late 1960s San Francisco, most notably with the work of R. Crumb. Missoula publisher Frank Ponikvar says he printed and sold 1,000 copies of Missoula Scandals and Missoula Comix and at least 2,000 of Mondo Montana. The black and white pages feature short stories and graphic art influenced by the San Francisco scene as well as the international monthly fantasy anthology Heavy Metal.

Some of the contributors to the three books you'll recognize as Missoula standards: Monte Dolack, Dirk Lee, J.R. Rummel, David Thomas. Others may surprise you: Steve Albini (recording engineer for Nirvana, the Pixies, Robert Plant, Cheap Trick and dozens more), Ron Hauge (writer for "The Simpsons," National Lampoon, "Seinfeld," "Ren & Stimpy"), and S. Clay Wilson (Zap Comix and friend of R. Crumb).

Missoula's notoriety as an liberal anomaly in a primarily conservative state started as far back as the '60s with community members like Bill Stoianoff (aka Uncle Bill), who founded Montana's first head shop, The Joint Effort, in 1968, servicing the community with "a comprehensive line of lifestyle aids," according to a cartoon ad in Missoula Comix. Within a few years the Garden City had firmly established a radical reputation without sacrificing its small town vibe. "Missoula was a very cool place in the '70s," says Ponikvar. "It was as liberal as could be, yet there was no traffic behind you."

The artistic community grew and new collaborations led to new ideas—including the comic books. In 1973 Ponikvar invited Lee to share studio space at the Warehouse Mall. Those now-iconic studios, known then as Recycled Reality Studios, were part of a growing artist co-op founded with help from Lee, Dolack and others. The studio owed its financial survival to all the artists selling their wares, including a man known as "Doctor" Marvin Baker, now deceased, who sold marijuana and other "lifestyle aids." After settling into the art studios, Ponikvar published the first of the three books, Missoula Comix, in 1978.

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That first book became Ponikvar's calling card, and generated enough interest to keep the artists going for the next few years. He says he even got a copy into the hands of R. Crumb. Shortly after printing, Ponikvar and Dolack moved into a studio above the Top Hat where they founded one of the world's first creative rubber stamp companies, Rubber Brothers. Their catalog got wide distribution, including an ad in Rolling Stone, and attracted some top comics talent, including R. Crumb's associate S. Clay Wilson, whose work added a striking "big time" feel to subsequent issues.

Wilson wasn't the only brush these comics had with fame. One local contributor, Susan Geston, had fallen in love and married actor Jeff Bridges, whom she met while he was in Montana filming Rancho Deluxe. Geston and Bridges moved to Southern California, where Geston landed a job with the Los Angeles Times taking photos of early Hollywood actors. The cover of Mondo Montana, which came out in 1980, is her photo of Clayton Moore (the original Lone Ranger from the television series), taken exclusively for the magazine.

After a three-book run, Recycled Reality had amassed over 150 pages of content, some sweet, some silly and some controversial. Nudity, sex and drug culture fill the pages, along with plenty of social commentary covering topics of censorship, women's rights, corporate hegemony, environmental exploitation, the industrial military complex and even the rise of impersonal computer automated customer service.

"It's still pretty outrageous material by today's standards," Dolack says. "Occasionally people at that time might say they 'didn't get it' but I think people are more reactionary today than they were then."

In fact, most resistance to the Missoula comic series came from the left rather than the right. According to Lee, one group of feminists wrote a letter to the underground Missoula paper, The Borrowed Times, encouraging people to steal and burn issues of Missoula Comix. Ponikvar fired back in the second publication, Missoula Scandals, with more nudity and an explicit indication that their intent was openness and anti-censorship, not pornography. "It was hard because we were supposed to be on the same side," Lee says.

Although globally conscious, the magazines' content captures elements of Montana lore with Onion-esque news satire about the Flathead Lake Monster, references to phosphates in Dillon and the mention of a character "surviving" a trip to Butte. Many of the comics are particular to Missoula, with references to "zoo city," "ol' Mizzou" and even PBR. There's a drawing of what is now the Hip Strip with the Babs in the background. There's a jab at Missoula's air quality. They feature the Florence building, the Wilma, the Top Hat, the "M", the Crystal Theatre, the Higgins Street bridge and the Clark Fork. And they capture a mentality, too, that Missoula seems to have carried to this day. In one panel there's a father and son standing against the backdrop of Mt. Sentinel and Hellgate Canyon. The speech bubble says, "Daddy, what is Hell?" The dad responds, "Hell, son, is life outside Missoula."

For the past year or so Ponikvar has been working to digitally compile all three publications. He plans to incorporate some new material and release a collected edition late this summer. Times have changed, but much of the original content in the books still feels relevant. Ponikvar says when they first came out they were a reaction against the dismal paranoia of the times. "There was no future," he says. "There was just a war you could go off to. It was kind of bleak."

The Indy hosts a First Friday exhibit and reception for its inaugural Comix Issue at the ZACC March 7, at 5 PM. Free.

This article has been updated April 18, 2014 to show that the artists co-op, Recycled Reality, was financed through all the artists who worked there.
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