Zap Comix

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Zap Comix

Considered by pop-culture critics to be the quintessential underground comic book of the 1960s, Zap Comix can trace its genealogy to the publication of Jack Jaxon's God Nose in 1963. By 1999, there were estimated to be more than two million copies of the countercultural Zap Comix in print, including such classics as the sexually explicit "Fritz the Cat" series and the trippy "Mr. Natural" books. Three men, working out of the San Francisco Bay area, were chiefly responsible for the Zap Comix phenomenon: Don Donahue and Charles Plymell were instrumental in securing the money and arranging the distribution of the early issues, while visionary cartoonist Robert Crumb assumed editorial control. Crumb, a Philadelphia native with no formal art training, was to become one of underground comics' most influential creators.

A one-time illustrator for the American Greeting Card Company, Crumb began doing freelance work for Help magazine in the mid-1960s, a publication by Mad magazine's co-creator Harvey Kurtzmann. Crumb's experimentation with LSD and other drugs inspired him to create ever more bizarre situations and characters, with "Fritz the Cat" and "Mr. Natural" emerging from his pen during this acid-soaked period. Crum's best early work was published in the pages of underground newspapers like New York's East Village Other, and in 1966, he moved to San Francisco, where he hooked up with a community of artists and writers who shared his countercultural sensibility. Donahue and Plymell soon enlisted him to take the reins of Zap as a vehicle for his unique talents. The first issue of Zap, numbered zero, hit the streets in February of 1967. Dubbed "the comic that plugs you in," the cover featured a Crumb drawing of an embryonic figure with its umbilical cord plugged into an electrical socket. The comic quickly became a forum for some of the most prominent underground cartoonists of the time, many of them influenced by the early Mad magazine. Illustrators whose work appeared in Zap included S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, and Gilbert Shelton.

Zap's content ranged widely, from instructions on how to smoke a joint to quasi-pornographic features like "Wonder Wart Hog," in which the eponymous swine overcomes his impotence by using his snout. The pages of Zap Comix offered readers an explicit panorama of the sex, drugs, and revolution ethos of the 1960s, subjects never before seen in comic books. Zap Comix were often sold in head shops, sharing counter space with bongs and roach clips, making them the unofficial bibles of the tuned-in, turned-on generation of hippies and other countercultural folk. With the success of Zap, Robert Crumb became an icon of the underground. The hip cachet of his comics allowed him to triumph over his own sexual frustration. As he explained later in an autobiographical cartoon story, "I made up for all those years of deprivation by lunging maniacally at women I was attracted to … squeezing faces and humping legs … I usually got away with it … famous eccentric artist, you know." Occasionally, however, Crumb's commitment to exploring his own personal sexual obsessions got him and the comics in hot water. In 1969, Crumb's incest-themed story "Joe Blow" in Zap #4 sparked obscenity busts at several bookstores.

The daring style and content of Zap Comix paved the way for a generation of cartoonists, both mainstream and underground, who felt comfortable tackling previously taboo, adult-themed subjects. "[T]o say [ Zap] made a deep impression is an understatement," commented Alan Moore, a comics writer who created the popular title Watchmen in the 1980s. Author Trina Robbins likened reading Zap for the first time to "discovering Jesus [by] a born-again Christian."

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Crumb, Robert. The Complete Crumb Comics. Seattle, Fantagraphics, 1988.

Sabin, Roger. Adult Comics: An Introduction. London, Routledge, 1993.