Big Apple Comix Review

By | Tuesday, December 12, 2023 Leave a Comment
I was doing some research for a piece on Flo Steinberg and realized that I had this massive gap in my familiarity with her in the form of Big Apple Comix, the underground/alternative anthology she published in 1975. I mean, I knew of it, certainly, but I didn't really know anything about it beyond the some of the superifical stuff you can find on the Grand Comics Database. So I tracked down a copy and I can talk about it here.

First a little background on Flo. She was born and raised in Boston. She did technically go to public school, but it was a decidedly affluent one, and after she graduated she went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to get a Bachelor's of History. She worked on Ted Kennedy's first Senate campaign in 1961/62 and, not long after he was elected, she moved to New York City. She spent several months interviewing for jobs before eventually landing in front of Stan Lee, whoe hired her as Marvel's second employee (Stan being the first). Flo was what today might be called an Executive Assistant, essentially taking care of all Stan's (and, by extension, Marvel's) paperwork and scheduling and all that. She left Marvel in 1968 and edited technical manuals for a couple years before moving out to San Francisco in 1970, following several of the friends she had made in the underground comix community. Within a couple years, she had moved back to New York and worked for Warren Publishing for a few years.

Which brings us to 1975 and Big Apple Comix.

The comic contains about a dozen pieces from creators like Neal Adams, Archie Goodwin, Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe, Al Williamson, and Larry Hama among others. They range in length from one page to five, and cover all sorts of styles. Most of them, though, do seem to center around a "what it feels like living in New York City" theme. I don't know precisely what Flo asked or prompted each of the creators with, but Denny O'Neil's foreword sums it up with this...
I liken my adopted home to a cold bitch. She's a challenge. Stay with her, try one more time, and maybe, just maybe, she'll give you the best orgasm you ever dreamed of.

Such is my version of the famous New York love-hate affair. In the following pages, some of the most talented folk currently practicing the cartoonist's art presnt theirs.
It's a bit coarse. A bit crude. Even in those few lines, it's clearly not a rosy portrait of the city. Many of the pieces throughout the book present similar looks at NYC. The first panel alone depicts two murders, a suicide, a road rage accident, child abduction, prostitution, a drug addict, an alcoholic, and "the final insult" -- someone stepping in dog crap on the sidewalk. The rest of the issue continues to present many of the seedier aspects of New York, often justifying the "Adults Only" balloon on the cover. Recall that this came out in 1975. The entire US was in a recession for much of the decade and New York City in particular suffered from massive economic problems and rising crime. Go watch Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy to get a sense of how different things were compared to the New York of today.

By all accounts, Flo was a delightful and pretty sunny person. I saw one writer describe her smile as being so wide that it forced her eyes shut. Because of that Big Apple Comix seems a bit counter-intuitive. Why would such a nice, happy person put out something so deliberately riddled with filth? Particularly when the location it focuses on is a place where she consciously chose to live in? Twice!

That's actually why I opened with Flo's background. She came from an area of relative privilege, and was raised among a fairly elite social group. They likely questioned her moving to New York because of it's (at least partially deserved) reputation, when she had perfectly "appropriate" options back home. She worked with one of the Kennedys, for Pete's sake! I suspect -- though admittedly have no real evidence to prove this -- that Big Apple Comix was Flo's answer to her friends and family in Boston. She wanted to show that she wasn't ignorant or naive about New York's flaws and less-desireable aspects, but that the energy and excitement and opportunity the same city afforded outweighed all the negative elements. Flo writes in her "Backword" for the book...
For good, for bad, for whatever -- we feel a poignant bond to our city, certainly the most fascinating, irrationl, egotisical, decadent, eccentric, electric, brash, and frisky metropolis in the world, the glorious or inglorious (as you prefer) epitome of the word, "city." We alternatively curse and priase our Big Town, our Big Dirty, our Big Apple; but, in the end, New York City is ours and from it is received a vitality, a life force, found no other place.
The contents of the book itself are good, but not particularly outstanding. It is cool to see so many talented creators in a single comic, and they all turn in solid work, but in the handful of pages each of them have to work with, there is little that is particularly stand-out in their respective ouvres. (Maybe the Adams/Hama story in how it has two parallel narratives, and how they each handled the storytelling slightly differently.) The book is more interesting as a historical artifact of publishing -- I've seen it argued to be the 'link' between underground and alternative comics -- than any of the contents per se. It's weirdly a very personal work of Flo's despite nearly all of the content coming from other creators. I think, as a comics historian, it was worth the ten bucks that I paid for my copy, but I don't know that it's worth the $20-$40 price tags I'm seeing at a lot of online sellers. But regardless, it's still an interesting snapshot of what comics creators were thinking outside the Marvel and DC offices in New York in the mid-1970s. And that's something you certainly don't see very often!
Newer Post Older Post Home