Picture perfect

Sukhdev Sandhu on graphic revolutionaries and imaginary pop stars

For a long time, Mingering Mike was one of the greatest black musicians no one had ever heard of. Based in Washington, he brought out around a hundred singles and albums between 1968 and 1976. They included a tribute to Bruce Lee, a consciousness raiser about sickle-cell anaemia and Live from Paris: The Mingering Mike Revue. His songs were funky, political and, as in the case of "Sometimes I Get So Hungry I Can Eat a Light Bulb, Or My Chair, Or Even My Hair", tinged with bitter-sweet comedy.

The reason no one ever ushered him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is because his records were released in editions of just one copy each. And because, instead of being pressed on vinyl, they were issued on pieces of cardboard that he painstakingly coloured with felt-tip pens. Now, thanks to Dori Hadar, who found many of them at a flea market a couple of years ago, this extraordinary phantom archive is available as Mingering Mike: the Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar (Princeton). It's a beautifully designed volume that is far more than "outsider art"; it's a celebration of one individual's heartfelt and intelligent response to the imaginative power of black popular music.

Black Panther: the Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas (Rizzoli) is a collection of some of the most funny, hard-hitting and passionate political propaganda of the 20th century. In his cartoons, posters and newspaper illustrations, Douglas created the visual corollary of the firebrand rhetoric of his friends Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. He used techniques drawn from collage and contemporary advertising to create a body of work, much of it pasted across the walls of crumbling ghetto buildings, in which policemen were routinely cast as black-hating pigs and African-American liberation was explicitly linked to the struggles of Palestinian and Vietnamese people.

Danny Glover's preface and a number of critical essays contextualise and pay tribute to a graphic revolutionary who wrote of landscape art: "It is good only when it shows the oppressor hanging from a tree by his motherf***in neck."

Douglas, for the most part, was anxious to keep his art as real as possible. By contrast, in his mind-blowing volume Gravity's Rainbow Illustrated (Tin House), porn performer Zak Smith is happy to mix the literal with the surreal whenever and however it suits him. The book renders in graphic form all 760 pages of Thomas Pynchon's famous 1973 novel, described by members of that year's Pulitzer Prize jury as "unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene", but which has since then been widely acclaimed. Smith's style is as diffuse as Pynchon's: employing both black-and-white and colour, his images move between chemical abstraction, childlike doodles, graffiti and stencil art and, most frequently of all, an angular, distorted eroticism that recalls the work of Egon Schiele. A very special work in its own right, it should be compulsory for Pynchon obsessives.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet