This autumn, London’s ICA will be hosting an exhibition dedicated to the notorious underground comix title, Outside Now!

Originally launched in 1964 by the now-defunct publishing house Bench Press Press, Outside, Now! featured cartoon interpretations of fact-based fights between the major comic creators of the day. As its former publisher Cornelius Numb recalls: “In those days, the comic industry was full of people from all sortsa different backgrounds. Like me, most of them started out on the bare-knuckle boxing circuit.”

Holding up a well-punched 1960s Fantastic Four comic, Numb continues: “You only got to look at a page of Jack Kirby art to see for yourself. Take a look at that bold foreshortening and tough, no-nonsense linework. Just imagine the amount of upper body strength that went into each of those pencil strokes. Now, try to imagine the kind of damage the fist clenching that pencil could do to your face. It’s no wonder we called him ‘The King’.”

According to Numb, Kirby wasn’t the only Comic Book Clobberer. “These were stand-up guys who settled things the old fashioned way. Take [Steve] Ditko: a skinny looking guy, you’re thinking, not much to look at. Stick him in a boxing ring, though, that’s a whole different story. We called him ‘Mr A’, and the ‘A’ was for ‘Ass-Kicker’. Steve really knew his mind and didn’t care much for grey areas. Every thing was black and white with him until he got you in the ring, then it all went black and blue. I watched him beat seven shades of shinola out of Carmine Infantino and Bill Everett after a Marvel vs DC baseball game turned ugly. He kept screaming: ‘Submit to my will! Submit to my will!’ He really knew how to psyche out his opponents. I read somewhere that he coached Mike Tyson for a while.

“We ran the Marvel vs DC Baseball Brawl in our double-sized 1971 Boxing Day issue. Despite their injuries, Steve, Bill and Carmine [all] worked together and hit their deadlines. Those guys were pros.”

Outside, Now! reached its peak in popularity during the 1970s, and Numb claims that mainstream comics publishers were quick to cash-in on the phenomena: “Remember that Superman vs Muhammed Ali book from ’78? I rest my case.” During the 80s, though, the magazine experienced a sharp decline in sales. A new wave of comic book artists went straight into the industry from art school or advertising. “Most of them were derivative little sons of bitches who just wanted to imitate their favourite comic artists,” recalls Numb. “Those guys didn’t know the first thing about fighting.”

“I mean no disrespect, but most of these people were fans,” says Numb bitterly. “If you ask me fans shouldn’t be making comics, they should be reading them.” By the time the 80s came around the only people in the industry who’d fight on a regular basis were the letterers. People like John Costanza, Ken Bruzenak and 2000AD’s Tom Frame tried to keep the tradition alive, but without the involvement of ‘hot’ comic artists of the day, the days of Outside, Now! were numbered.

“Those guys tried their best,” says Numb, “but what kind of chump wants to read a book that doesn’t have drawings?”

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Comics’ Secret History: Outside Now!