At times like these — with all the news bombarding us about the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of the brutal death of an African-American citizen, George Floyd — I am proud to be working on the Italian edition of an American underground classic: Inner City Romance by Guy Colwell.
Originally released between 1972 and 1978 by underground publishing house Last Gasp of San Francisco, Inner City Romance is first and foremost a cathartic journey — violent and shameless — inside the subcultures that redefined the cultural order of the United States of America at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s.
As if that wasn’t enough, Colwell’s seminal masterpiece (almost 200 pages of psychedelic love, psychoactive drug abuse, sex that is more or less contemplative, and riots against an omnipresent police force) is an ode to African-American “ghetto” culture that puts the white caucasian Colwell in the spotlight of other “white niggers,” like jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow (for whom, incidentally, I curated the autobiography Questo è il Blues, Red Star Press).
But if Mezzrow, who died in 1972 (the same year Colwell’s first comic book was published in black and white), is a willing spokesperson for the remarkable era of the historic jazz revolution he witnessed, Colwell instead is an astonished onlooker of the middle-class counter-revolution, which was determined to destroy the “Summer of Love” and the hippies, chased down by the ghosts of the Attica Prison Riot and into the safety of their San Francisco fortress.
It should be noted that Colwell’s stories are not romantic. His protagonists are junkies, ex-convicts, murderers, homosexuals, drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps. In his universe without redemption, drugs seem to be the decisive leitmotif, capable of corrupting and — at the same time — necessary to run from the “pigs”.
For Colwell, who did not have two pennies to rub together and had to leave Arts School due to his financial difficulties, it was essential to be able to tell these stories; to bear witness to the things that happened to him and his friends.
When the first issue of Inner City Romance was released, Colwell was 27 years old. Before that he had sporadically worked for the movement’s underground press. Then surprisingly, for two years he worked as a sculptor for Mattel. Colwell also spent two years in jail for draft dodging.
Since the early 1970s, Colwell has worked as an illustrator for the activist movement’s weekly publication “Good Times,” and lives with the editorial staff on a commune. There he has embraced the art of painting, which will follow him for the rest of his life.
Defined by his critics as a “surrealist-socialist painter,” Colwell carries on in his artistic pursuits, despite the ups and downs. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012 before he finally earned a coveted spot in the American counter-culture bible, “Juxtapoz.”
Today Guy Colwell is 75 years in age, well-known and deeply respected, especially in the arts. In 2015 publishing house Fantagraphics printed a collection of the five original Inner City Romance comic books, which together create an excellent overview of Inner City Romance
The love and the anger, the political activism, the jails and the ghettos are all still there — unaltered. Colwell has added introductions to several chapters in his own hand so that the reader can better contextualize the work.
I’m actually taking a break from working on the adaptation and revision of that very book in order to write this article. The book is translated by the talented Marco Bisanti and soon to be published by Red Star Press.
Air travel is suspended right now, in particular when you are Colwell’s age, but my ultimate, post-Covid goal is to bring him to Italy.
The book doesn’t have an official release date yet, as I am awaiting Colwell’s eventual visit (2021, I reckon). If you’d like to get an email about when the book will be available, you can get in touch through this form, and simply write in the subject: Inner City Romance.
And since you were so patient to read through the entire article, you’ll also find a bonus below!
See you soon!