I was a student at Columbia University when I started reading the East Village Other in 1966. It was full of outrageous and libelous stories, bawdy language, wild accusations, and doctored photographs. Best of all, it had totally crazy comics, the likes of which I’d never seen before. Every week I’d pick up a new issue at a Village newsstand, along with a slightly larger New York Post, and, unsure of how my fellow Gothamites might react to its lurid covers, I would read EVO camouflaged on the subway ride uptown to Morningside Heights.
Like many of my contemporaries, I tuned in, dropped out, and dove head first into the maelstrom that was “Amerika in the ’60s.” From out of the swirling punchbowl of experimental lifestyles and altered mind-states, and amid the strange melodies of psychedelic and protest music, the underground comic books really caught my eye. I bought Zap Comix #1 in spring 1968 in San Francisco, lost it, and then bought another copy in New York that summer. By the fall there were a bunch of new ones in the head shops: Bijou, Feds ’n’ Heads, Yellow Dog, another Zap. Oh happy days!
This year, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of underground comix, which began in February 1968 when Robert Crumb sold Zap Comix #1 on Haight Street. No, wait! It could be considered the 42nd anniversary, because Joel Beck published Lenny of Laredo in 1966. But hold on, it might really be the 44th anniversary because Gilbert Shelton published Frank Stack’s The Adventures of Jesus at the University of Texas in 1964, and that same year Jaxon published God Nose. But then, what about The Cartoon History of Surfing, drawn by Rick Griffin and published by Greg Noll in 1963? Damn it! What anniversary is it? It was underground. So who knows? It was during the cultural wars. Lines were drawn. Names were changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. Underground comix were inevitably entwined in the confusing context of their age.
Let’s go back to a time not so very long ago, when you could go to jail for writing the word “fuck” in a book. Oops. — Patrick Rosenkranz
You could walk into any head shop or record store in America or western Europe in the early 1970s, and find racks and stacks of comic books with names like Slow Death, Man From Utopia, Feds ’n’ Heads, Young Lust, and Tales from the Ozone. You could also find record albums by Jimi Hendrix and Quicksilver Messenger Service, black-light posters, American-flag rolling papers, macramé plant hangers, patchouli oil, electric hookahs and a newspaper rack stuffed with Berkeley Barb, LA Free Press, and local underground papers. Comix sold for 50¢ a pop, and copies were often passed around among friends, to be read and reread at crash pads and dormitories. Cartoonists like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and Art Spiegelman became the avant garde of the era, artists on the cultural cusp, and for a few brief years, underground comix enjoyed both critical acclaim and decent sales.
Conceived and nurtured in the brash environment of the 1960s, these cartoons were perceptive reflections of the anti-war, anti-establishment fervor of the times. They arose at a critical time, when the convergence of political repression, the protest movement, psychedelic drugs, and innovations in printing technology created the right mix for an impromptu and improvised art movement.
Zap Comix was the spark that brought together a nucleus of artists and publishers in San Francisco in 1968. Within five years, there were more than 300 new comic titles in print and hundreds of people calling themselves underground cartoonists. Print Mint, Rip Off Press, and Apex Novelties couldn’t print comic books fast enough to satisfy their customers. Even after their popularity peaked in the mid-’70s, many of these artists continued to produce highly personal and potent work. Their unrelenting insistence on complete artistic freedom revitalized the comic medium, and broke it loose from the repressive Comics Code Authority. Comics, long stereotyped as kid stuff, aggressively reclaimed their adult audience with explorations of provocative subjects.
Underground cartoonists reflected their upbringing and environment. They were a generation weaned on television, comic books, and rock music, politicized by an Asian war and a generation gap five miles wide, and psychedelicized by lysergic acid. The early 1960s saw Buddhist priests setting themselves on fire in the streets of Vietnam, Martin Luther King speaking his dream at the Washington Monument, and John F. Kennedy getting assassinated in Dallas. That memorable decade also witnessed freedom marches, more assassinations, half-a-million American troops fighting in Vietnam, and riots and demonstrations in every major American city. In its final years, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society gave way to the grim regime of Richard Nixon.
In the midst of all this turmoil, a cadre of cartoonists succeeded in elevating comics to a medium of personal expression and unrestrained passion. Despite repression, rejection, and underfinancing, the comix industry thrived for a time and prepared the way for punk graphics, alternative comics, graphic novels, and other products in the small-press market today. The influence of underground comix can still be observed in the print medium as well as film and television, but especially in the collector’s market, where their value is attested by demand. Underground newspapers and comic books and original art are now sold at auction houses in New York and Europe.
This book presents a portrait of the underground comix movement — a story of the artists and publishers behind one of the vital art events of the 20th century.