Liquid Television: Crude Flashes of Brilliance From an Old School TV

The lights are off, and I'm in bed watching television. The year is 1992.  I'm supposed to be sleeping -- I have school in the morning, but I can't stop watching Liquid Television. Images are flashing across the screen, a kaleidoscope of colors and mangled drawings. The characters are unbelievable -- Crazy Daisy Ed, Aeon Flux, Beavis and Butthead, Dogboy. The scenarios are even wilder -- "Cut-up Camera,"" Invisible Hands," "Stick Figure Theatre, The Art School Girls of Doom" -- each escalating in delicious promise and craziness.

When the TV is off, these images swarm through my mind. Odd music, odder scenarios, forming memories, re-routing synapses, shocking parents across the greater USA. At the time, I was unaware that many of these short vignettes were from the minds of underground cartoonists who were just trying to make a buck beyond book covers and advertising. MTV transformed a few of these into later series that didn't retain the shocking appeal of these early forays. They set the bar too high and never returned. Their product became increasingly stagnant, but The Maxx and The Head are still worth watching. Night time became the realm of alternative music videos, other more linear cartoons, and at the nadir of the 90's, electronic music saturation.

In 1996, I received a catalog from Fantagraphics Books and finally began putting two and two together. These harshly drawn, yet creatively inspired cartoons had more in common with these comics than what Marvel, DC, or Image were doing. They were often about fucked-up situations between normal or abnormal people; no one was super. The first scratchings of Beavis and Butthead, "Frog Baseball" and "Peace, Love, and Understanding" were crude and visceral (the image of one fist pumping in the bleachers forever sticks in my mind), unlike many of the Fantagraphic books, but they captured a similar spirit of artistic passion and d.i.y. that more mainstream cartoons lacked. Their later popularity was never a foregone conclusion. Likewise, Aeon Flux's early non-linear bloodbaths were a far cry from the later half hour show. Charles Burns' "Dog Boy" and Richard Sala's "Invisible Hands" started in the trenches of the independent comic scene. Both infused the oddness of 80's Raw magazine with the cache of late night teen television. I was hooked then and remain so.

MTV released two best of VHS collections of Liquid Television in the 90s. (I found my copy of volume 2 in a thrift store.) They were later released on DVD, but no larger collection has been forthcoming. They have released the archive on line, but I'm still holding out for the definitive high-def blue-ray collection that will never come. I don't think a regular DVD set is too much to ask for; the cult fan base will certainly buy it; they quickly gobbled up the Daria set from a few years ago. Hell, we don't even need the original music.


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