Note from Rebus: During the spring semester of 1973 the student newspaper at Virginia Commonwealth University published three tabloid supplements that were inspired by the underground comix of that age. The first of these issues featured my breakthrough role in an edgy strip in which Rea presented me for the first time as just Rebus, an everyman character apart from the Biograph spokesdog persona.
The timing was perfect for Fan Free Funnies, as this was the zenith of the hippie era in the Fan District neighborhood VCU's academic campus is part of.
In the Fan, in the early-1970s, there was a group of young, mostly VCU-trained artists, who created paintings and prints in a style that owed much to old animated cartoons. Some of them were also making short films in Super 8 and 16mm and hung out at the Biograph.
Due to his well-honed talent for drawing cartoons, the most obvious of this pack was Phil Trumbo. “We were all influenced by the amazing work of sixties underground cartoonists," said Trumbo, “like Robert Crumb, Rick Griffith, S. Clay Wilson and Trina Robbins.”
R. Crumb was the most celebrated of the underground artists from the days when cartoonists bitterly lampooning the tastes and values of middle class America were having a noticeable impact on popular culture. Spontaneously, Crumb launched the movement in 1968, selling his Zap Comix No. 1 out of a baby carriage on San Francisco sidewalks.
"Ed Slipek, the editor of VCU's student newspaper, Commonwealth Times, approached me to help create an underground-comix-style supplement,” said Trumbo. “I suppose he contacted me because I had done some independent comics and was exhibiting paintings influenced by comics imagery.”
Slipek asked each of the invited artists to create a full page, drawn to proportion, in black and white. Some submitted a page of images set within traditional comic strip frames; others wandered into loose, more avant-garde styles.
For me, it meant creating the first strip for Rebus. Before Rebus even had a name, he had been appearing in my flyers touting midnight shows at the Biograph Theatre. I went to school on how R. Crumb used Mr. Natural as a spokesman, sometimes like a carnival barker. But Rebus wasn't a holy man, he was a schlemiel with a dog's head.
Not long after the first issue of Fan Free Funnies came out, my three-year-old daughter, Katey, asked me a question. Pointing at her most recent birthday card pinned to her bedroom wall -- with Rebus on it -- she asked, “Is Rebus real?”
I shrugged. “What do you mean?”
She said, “Like Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck.”
“Sure,” I said, “Rebus is real. But only the cool people know about him.”
Phil left Richmond in 1984 to pursue a career in animation, which eventually led him to the West Coast and being the Art Director of Entertainment Media at Hidden City Games. Along the way he picked up an Emmy Award for his art direction on Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
Charles Vess (VCU 1974) was another of the artists who participated in the Fan Free Funnies project, who has made a name as an award-winning illustrator. Vess’ art has been seen in Heavy Metal and National Lampoon. He has worked for comic book publishers such as Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Epic.
The other featured FFF artists were: Bruce Barnes, Damian Bennett, Eric Bowman, Michael Cody, Jeff Davis, Joanne Fridley, Stanley Garth, Gregg Kemp, John McWillaims, Nancy Mead, Dale Milford, Bill Nelson, Trent Nicholas, Alan R. O’Neal, Ragan Reaves and Verlon Vrana.
“Fan Free Funnies was a really diverse collection, representing vastly different graphic styles and inventive, experimental approaches to sequential storytelling,” said Trumbo.
Note: Scans of the three issues of Fan Free Funnies are available at VCU Libraries Digital Collections.
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