Underground Comics

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Underground Comics

Underground Comics (or "Comix," with the X understood to signify X-rated material) include strips and books heavily dosed with obscenity, graphic sex, gory violence, glorification of drug use, and general defiance of convention and authority. All are either self-published or produced by very small companies which choose not to follow the mainstream Comics Code. Some undergrounds are political, carrying eco-awareness, anti-establishment messages, and general revolutionary overtones. Others are just meant for nasty, subversive fun. All have elements of sensation and satire. The origins of underground comics can be traced to the so-called "Tijuana Bibles" of the 1930s and 1940s: illegally produced 8-page mini-comics that depicted mainstream comic strip characters getting drunk and having sex (Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Dick Tracy, etc.). The legacy of underground comics are the Alternative and Independent of the 1980s and 1990s.

Underground comics truly came into their own during the 1960s, thanks to the talents of artist/writers such as Robert ("R.") Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and S. Clay Wilson. The first underground strips appeared in underground papers such as New York's East Village Other, Berkeley's Barb, the Los Angeles Free Press, and the Detroit Fifth Estate. The first recognizable underground comic book is God Nose (Snot Reel) put out by Jack ("Jaxon") Jackson in 1963. Undergrounds proliferated in the mid and late 1960s, with printing and distribution by companies such as San Francisco's Rip-Off Press, Milwaukee's Kitchen Sink Enterprises (a.k.a. Krupp), and Berkeley's Print Mint. These companies sold their books not through newsstands but through Head Shops.

The first issues of R. Crumb's Zap (1967) were a milestone in underground comics. Zap featured the catchy Keep On Truckin' image and introduced characters such as the hedonistic guru Mr. Natural and the outwardly proud but inwardly repressed Whiteman. Crumb's intense and imaginative artwork, strange and often shocking images, unsparing satires, and unflattering self-confessions still remain perhaps the most impressive work in the history of underground comics. Crumb's very popular comics and illustrations have become widely available in compilations, anthologies, and even coffee table books. Crumb's life and work are the subject of the excellent 1995 documentary film, Crumb.

Gilbert Shelton found his greatest success with his Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic, more than a dozen issues of which have been infrequently published since #1 in 1968. The Freaks include Phineas, Freewheelin Franklin, and Fat Freddy (the most popular of the three): fun-loving hippy buddies out looking for sex, drugs, and rock n' roll—especially drugs. The comic also features the adventures of Fat Freddy's cat, who must sometimes fight off suicidal cockroaches in Freddy's apartment. Shelton also writes and draws the superhero parody strip "Wonder Wart-Hog."

S. Clay Wilson holds the distinction of being the most perverse and most disgusting of any underground comic artist. His work is filled with orgies and brawls, molestations and mutilations. His characters are usually pirates, lesbians, motorcycle gangs, or horned demonic monsters. All his characters are drawn in anatomically correct detail, complete with warts, nosehair, sweat, saliva, and wet rubbery genitalia. Comics featuring his work include Zap and Yellow Dog.

Other important and popular underground artist/writers include: Kim Deitch whose playful and humorous work appeared (among elsewhere) in the East Village Other and Gothic Blimp Works ; Greg Irons whose frightening bony faces and horror stories appeared in Skull ; Rick Griffin whose psychedelic-organic art appeared in Zap, countless posters, and some of the more famous Grateful Dead album covers; Victor Moscoso whose space/time distortions show the influence of M.C. Escher; George Metzger who was the most important sci-fi/fantasy underground artist with his dreamy Moondog book; and Richard Corben (later famous for the Den series in Heavy Metal), whose fleshy, muscular, scantily-clad men and women appeared under the pseudonym "Gore" in Slow Death and Death Rattle. Mainstream artists who got their start with early undergrounds include Bill Griffith (Zippy) and Art Spiegelman (Maus, covers for The New Yorker). There have been few women in underground comics, but notable exceptions include Trina Robbins and Lee Marrs, both of whom worked as artists, writers, and editors. Robbins edited It Ain't Me Babe Comix —the first all-women comic—in the early 1970s.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the most popular underground sex comics included Snatch Comics, Jiz Comics, Big Ass Comics, Gay Comics, Young Lust, and Bizarre Sex. Popular pro-drug comics included Freak Brothers, Dope Comix, and Uneeda Comix. Popular political compilations included the anti-pollution Slow Death and the anti-government Anarchy Comics. Small print-runs and low distributions kept most of these comics away from the eyes of civil and political authorities. But there were some notable legal battles, the biggest of which erupted in 1969 over Zap Comics #4, which featured Crumb's infamous "Joe Blow" story about an incestuous S&M family orgy. A New York State judge ruled the comic obscene and therefore illegal, holding publisher Print Mint liable for fines.

When Head Shops died out in the early 1970s, many underground comics vanished entirely, the survivors becoming available only through mail order. But with the dawn of comic speciality shops in the early 1980s, undergrounds once again had a place on the shelves. In the 1990s, reprints and compilations of early undergrounds are found alongside conventional mainstream books.

The influence of underground comic books and the openness of comic specialty shops helped make possible the so-called Alternative or Independent comics that flourished in the 1980s and continue to reach wide audiences through the late 1990s. Some of the most popular Alternatives are the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets, Chester Brown's Yummy Fur, Roberta Gregory's Bitchy Bitch, Peter Bagge's Hate, Dave Sim's Cerebus, Dan Clowes's Eightball, Charles Burns' Black Hole, and compilations Weirdo, Raw, and Drawn & Quarterly. Like the early undergrounds, these new books are uncompromising in their treatment of sex and violence, and often hold skeptical and subversive undertones. Most Alternatives avoid the extremism of their 1960s and 1970s predecessors, but without these earlier books, the widely-read and widely-praised Alternative books would not have been possible.

—Dave Goldweber

Further Reading:

Adelman, Bob, editor. Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Estren, Mark James. A History of Underground Comics. Berkeley, Ronin, 1993 (1974).

Griffith, Bill, editor. Zap to Zippy: The Impact of Underground Comix. San Francisco, Cartoon Art Museum, 1990.

Juno, Andrea, editor. Dangerous Drawings: Interviews with Comix and Graphix Artists. New York, Juno, 1997.

Sabin, Roger. Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels. London, Phaidon, 1996.