Two seminal figures of the underground comics movement, both with strong ties to Chicago, have died within 11 days of each other.
Artists Mervyn “Skip” Williamson and Jay Lynch helped make the Chicago Seed underground newspaper a “crossroads between the East Village Other and the Berkeley Barb,” said Art Spiegelman, an underground cartoonist and creator of “Maus,” the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
“These two were very important pioneers, and it put Chicago on my map,” Spiegelman said.
In the days before cellphones and email, “Jay’s [Chicago] house became a pit stop for cartoonists traveling back and forth in their VW vans” between the East Coast and West Coast, Spiegelman said.
Mr. Williamson died March 16 at Albany Medical Center in New York, said his wife, Adrienne Morales. She said her husband, who had heart failure and diabetes, had an adverse reaction to medicine.
Mr. Lynch died March 5 in Candor, New York, said Patrick Rosenkranz, author of 12 books on underground comics, including 2002’s “Rebel Visions: the Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975.”
Both artists were 72.
Mr. Lynch arrived in Chicago from Florida. Mr. Williamson came from Missouri. Together in Chicago, they created a 1968 comic book, Bijou Funnies, with contributions from Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, known as R. Crumb, the creator of Fritz the Cat, Rosenkranz said. He said Crumb came to Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, staying at Mr. Williamson’s apartment. Mr. Crumb and Mr. Lynch mostly stayed in and worked on Bijou, while Mr. Williamson went to protests against the Vietnam War, then returned to work on the comic.
“Skip would come back at the end of the day, smelling like tear gas, and do his part,” Rosenkranz said.
Crumb’s Zap Comix came out in February 1968, Bijou Funnies in August.
“They were a revolutionary new look in comics that changed the medium forever,” Rosenkranz said.
“Their work was genuinely subversive,” Spiegelman said. “It opened up and personalized a new art form.”
It was “highly political but also very artful,” said Albert Williams, a lecturer at Columbia College Chicago.
“I sort of think of Skip and many of his colleagues as canaries in the coal mines,” said John Kinhart, a Maryland documentarian who did a film on Williamson last year called “Pigheaded.” “They were very irreverent. It took a lot of courage to do the subversive stuff that they did.”
The artists had grown up with the subversive slyness of Cracked and Mad magazines and were influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, the anti-war movement and drug and hippie culture. They also were rebelling against Chicago’s Democratic Machine and the censorship of the 1950s Comics Code.
As young men, “Skip, Jay and I were part of the world of fanzines” when they were mimeographed, purple-inked works, Spiegelman said. “Skip had one called Squire. Jay was involved with one called Wild! I had one called Blase.”
Before Bijou, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Williamson published a satire magazine called Chicago Mirror, Rosenkranz said.
Mr. Williamson attended the Chicago Seven trial as a sketch artist after Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman escorted him to court, Rosenkranz said, telling a deputy: “This is my sister — he can come in.”
He also did illustrations for books by Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, another defendant in the circus-like Chicago Seven trial, where leaders of ’68 convention protests were tried on charges of inciting riots.
In Chicago, Mr. Lynch worked as a fry cook and taught at the Learning Center, bringing in lecturers including Crumb and Mad cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, according to Rosenkranz. Mr. Lynch also created covers for Midwest, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sunday magazine. Mr. Williamson worked in Playboy’s art department, at ad agencies and contributed to Gallery and Hustler magazines.
“This was the birthplace for a lot of this countercultural activity, not just San Francisco and New York,” Williams said. “Chicago was home to Playboy magazine, which meant these guys could get jobs. A lot of advertising agencies were based here and still are.”
“In the Chicago Seed and elsewhere, Skip cleverly satirized both militarist macho and revolutionary bravado,” said Abe Peck, former Seed editor and a professor emeritus at Northwestern University. “Jay wryly inked Nard n’ Pat, and later his Phoebe and the Pigeon People brought smiles to Chicago Reader readers. . . . Their dying within 11 days seems like a cosmic joke but made them literally friends to the end.”
In 2000, Mr. Lynch left Chicago, saying the rents were too high. He eventually settled in Candor, New York, Rosenkranz said. Mr. Williamson moved to Atlanta and then Wilmington, Vt. Mr. Williamson met his wife Adrienne through the website Deviant Art, and they got married in 2015 at their Vermont town hall.
He experienced a heart problem in 2015. Afterward, he told Adrienne Morales that, at his most ill, he felt as if he were floating in a stream, accompanied by a powerful, calming presence. When Mr. Lynch died, she said her husband told her: “I know Jay is OK. I was there.”