Anyone with a serious interest in Underground Comix — those adult-themed “sex ‘n drugs” comic books sold in head shops beginning in the late 1960s — should know the name “Gary Arlington.” In case you aren’t familiar with the gentleman, please allow me to bring you up to speed.
The Underground Comix movement began in 1967, when former American Greetings Company artist Robert Crumb left his secure, steady job in drab Cleveland for a more exciting life among the Haight Street hippies in San Francisco.
After landing in town, Robert set out to do his heart’s desire – draw comic strips, comics with a decidedly different look and approach than what could be found in average “straight” newspapers; these strips found a home in the emerging Free Press newspapers like the East Village Other, Chicago Seed, and Berkeley Barb.
By the end of the year, Robert put together an entire comic book of his crazy cartoons; these were printed and initially sold on the streets of San Francisco out of an old baby buggy.
It didn’t take long for copies to wind up at what is now considered one of the country’s very first stores specializing in selling comic books – both new and old. The shop was Gary Arlington’s San Francisco Comic Book Shop, located in the heart of the city’s Mission District. Gary had the incredible foresight to buy extra copies of EC comics – you know, Tales From the Crypt, Weird Science, Haunt of Fear – when they originally came out in the early-to-mid 1950s.
Gary originally rented a storefront space in what was then a low-rent district of town mainly to house his enormous collection; he soon turned the space into a shop that became the hangout for the city’s growing group of Underground cartoonists. Guys like Crumb would come in, hang out, and trade artwork for old comic books, and most of these artists were also into the old ECs, which inspired their own work.
Gary really dug these new “anything goes” comics, and he felt the urge to publish a few titles on his own, using his traded art and new contributions from his employees, including Rory Hayes and Simon Deitch.
Gary was considered a “larger than life” character by those who knew him. While I never had the privilege of meeting him, I knew his name well from the many times I saw it in print, in titles like San Francisco Comic Book, All Stars, Thrilling Murder Comics, and The Man From Utopia. In later life, Gary took up art himself, and his work was the subject of a recent book collection, I Am Not Of This Planet.
Gary had various health problems, and they finally caught up with him this past January. His massive collection of original artwork and comic books had dwindled a bit from his peak years of collecting, but he stubbornly held on to the best of the best, right up to the end.
His heirs have decided to sell this material with Heritage, and I’ve just spent several days going through this fascinating collection, which includes several complete EC horror and Western stories, plus an incredible collection of rarely-seen commissioned artwork that was designed to “continue” his beloved EC titles, in the form of faux “covers” for titles like Two-Fisted Tales and Weird Fantasy.
The best of his material will be auctioned by Heritage this May, with more items spread through the upcoming year. Anyone with interest in either ECs or Undergrounds will be wise to watch our online listings. As Johnny Carson used to say, this is some “wild and crazy stuff!”
By David Tosh