Underground Comix Meet the Fleet

Bill Adler holds up a small tin of candy with a Devil Girl comic on the lid

When journalist, former Def Jam publicist and hip-hop collector Bill Adler received a pen-and-ink drawing of ’90s rappers Salt-N-Pepa for Christmas, “the nerd” in him immediately went online to learn more about the artist, Ariel Bordeaux. He discovered that she worked in the special collections section of RISD’s Fleet Library and got in touch to see if there was any interest in his thousand-item collection of underground comix.

“We have an excellent selection of comics and graphic novels, and Bill’s deep dive into underground comix is a great fit.”

Special Collections Associate Ariel Bordeaux

“We were immediately interested,” Bordeaux recalls. “We have an excellent selection of comics and graphic novels, and Bill’s deep dive into underground comix is a great fit.”

Adler and RISD librarians peruse a table full of underground comix
Dean of Libraries Margot Nishimura, Bill Adler and Special Collections Associate Ariel Bordeaux review the incoming collection.

“This was such a terrific opportunity to build on the incredible secondary resources we have in the main library collection related to cartoon art thanks to the generosity of RISD alum Tim Finn 00 FAV,” Dean of Libraries Margot Nishimura adds.

After many months of pandemic-related delays, Adler delivered box loads of original pieces to the Fleet in late June. “The archive is so broad and it goes back so far,” he says. “I’m thrilled to make a contribution. The idea that folks I don’t even know will find joy and use in it is cool as hell.”

“I’m thrilled to make a contribution. The idea that folks I don’t even know will find joy and use in it is cool as hell.”

Bill Adler

Underground comix emerged in the 1960s as a kind of adults-only response to mainstream comics by publishers like DC and Marvel. “Everything was up for grabs culturally in the ’60s,” Adler explains. “The artists didn’t want to draw stuff for kids; they wanted to make something that would reflect the foment of the time. They put the X in comix.”

Ariel Bordeaux, Bill Adler and the Salt-N-Pepa drawing that connected them
Bordeaux and Adler pose with the Salt-N-Pepa drawing that brought them together. 

For the past 50 years, Adler has been quietly building the collection, purchasing whatever catches his eye, sometimes while traveling. “To see a version of Dr. Seuss in Yiddish? What?! That thing ruined me,” he exclaims. “I saw a French language graphic novel based on a murder mystery by [late African American author] Chester Himes. You know I’m going to snap that up!”

Adler has worked as publicist, biographer, record label executive, documentary filmmaker, museum consultant, art gallerist, curator and archivist, but he has only tried his hand as a comics creator once. In 2013 he collaborated with his friend, poet Umar Bin Hassan, and Pittsburgh-based cartoonist Nate McDonough on a piece called Up South in Akron. “Umar and I are both from the Midwest, and he tells great stories about growing up in Akron, OH,” says Adler.

a brightly colored comic

Adler's one attempt at creating a comic
An Adler original he co-created in 2013 is part of the collection.

His eye for collecting goes way beyond comics and includes vinyl recordings, hip-hop photography and articles about the musical genre (in which he worked for “a hundred years”). In 2013 he sold his collection of related news clippings, artist bios, correspondence, photographs, posters, flyers and ads to Cornell University, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired more than 400 of his photographs in 2015.

“Hip-hop had international appeal from the very start,” Adler says. “Its impact started right here and fanned out into the world. That idea guided me when I put together this collection as well.”

Adler, his wife and library staff pose in front of comix collection
Work-study student Joshua Coverdale 22 FAV, Nishimura, Bordeaux, Adler’s wife Sara Moulton, Adler and Special Collections Librarian Claudia Covert.

Will RISD students be as inspired by the collection as Adler is? “Underground comix are relatively obscure today, but the genre’s main descendants—graphic novels—are hugely popular and well represented in the Fleet archives,” Adler says. And Bordeaux notes that “RISD students frequently visit RISD’s Archives & Special Collections for inspiration and research,” and says her team will digitize a lot of the items to make them more accessible.

A self-described obsessive, Adler is already picking up new comix-related items for the collection, notably a novel called Krazy Kat by Jay Cantor that expands on the characters created for the iconic George Herriman cartoon strip. “I’ve been alive to the visual appeal of comics since I purchased my first one at the age of 11,” he says. “It’s such a creative medium, and every artist puts their own stamp on it.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

The Fleet Library at RISD’s Special Collections include more than 20,000 rare books and periodicals dating back as far as the 14th century. Please direct any donation inquiries to Claudia Covert

July 13, 2021

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