Leave it to good ol' Hunter S. Thompson to be one of the first people to put his finger on the swan-songy feeling that would dominate the 1970s. As usual, his language defied the malaise he described: "We are all wired into a survival trip now," he wrote in 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "A generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody — or at least some force — is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel."
At that time Guy Colwell couldn't even say what the Light looked like. Inner City Romance, the comic he drew from 1972-1978, is like one long poem of '60s energy gone sour. Between the political fights nobody wins (certainly not the good guys), explicit sex that's often more despairing than beautiful, and ordinary people rendered with an agonized blend of love and hate, Colwell captured the essence of the '70s zeitgeist. The mystery is how he held it together enough to document what he saw.
Colwell is among those '60s survivors who paid a hard price for their idealism: He did a year and a half in a federal penitentiary for resisting the draft. When he began contributing to alternative papers in the early '70s, his accounts of prison life made him stand out in the burgeoning underground comics scene. He continued to attract attention with his snapshots of life among the poorest, most beat-down city dwellers.
In the interview that opens this book (his first-ever collection), he describes mingling in "an underclass network that included addicts, prostitutes, dealers, as well as musicians, artists and politicos ... I was able to wander through the hard-drug, black-music, sex-for-sale and radical-political underground and take in a lot of information that would inform my art and my life."
For Colwell, this immersion seems to have produced drastic emotional ups and downs. Hunter Thompson rebuffed '70s stagnation by taking drugs and spitting out a defiant, barbaric yawp. Colwell yawps too, but intermittently. Both his form and his content vary so wildly, reading it is like working your foot on the pedal of a carnival bumper car. Sometimes he draws and paints beautiful stuff, ranging from meticulous renderings of humankind to wild, drug-fueled fantasias. Other sketches could have come off the cover of a high school student's marbled composition book.
That said, it's a rare artist — student or otherwise — who can muster Colwell's deep fascination with, and unique perception of, the mystery that is other people. His faces are rictuses or weirdly exaggerated masks. In his paintings, some of which are included in the book, the faces are much more carefully rendered than in the comics, though they all tend to have a doll-like feel. Many of his paintings depict big crowds, perfectly capturing how it feels to be trapped with a bunch of other humans. They seem to breathe sweat and people-stink, with interchangeable bare limbs popping out of the mass here and there. (It's a shame the editors didn't figure out a better way to reproduce his big, crowded works; the loss of detail is painful.)
Colwell clearly loves to draw sex, but his success here varies as wildly as everywhere else. Some of his clasps display careful thought about how bodies interact, but usually he omits the flopping and folds that are natural. One notable exception is a love scene between an old African-American couple; their lightheartedness is as winning as their decidedly imperfect bodies.
There's a lot of sex in the very first story, a tale of three guys who get out of prison on the same day. Two of them occupy themselves with drugs and willing women, but the third's path is muddled. He's angry, but he's not sure at what; the cords of his neck look like steel columns. He entertains fantasies of joining his friends' bacchanal and equally powerful fantasies of killing them all. The one thing he can't seem to envision is a positive way forward, a new life.
Neither can Colwell — at least, not a coherent one. He went to prison for his nonviolent beliefs, then got out less than two years later to discover that idealism was decidedly out of style. Inner City Romance is crowded with characters, but in some ways it documents an abstract process: The quest of a mind, once comfortably full of conviction, to cope when that conviction is lost.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.