Underground Comix - Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Art of Satire

September 29, 2015

As so many other works of art, underground comix movement started with a - prohibition. During the fifties, Entertaining Comics (E.C. Comics) were highly popular among youth of the United States. And what was not to like, too? Horror fiction, crime fiction, science fiction, satire, military fiction - who wouldn't have loved that? Yet, the U.S. authorities back then have thought that comics are corrupting young people - and especially comics published by the E.C. Comics. During the twenties and the thirties, the main characters in comics were superheroes, talking animals or other acceptable heroes. And then, during the forties, comics started to embed some more serious subjects, which led to the emergence of the E.C. Comics in the fifties. Yet, in 1954, a guy named Fredric Wertham wrote an article at Reader's Digest, where he stated that reading comic books resulted in "juvenile delinquency". After that, the whole crusade started against comics (with the E.C. Comics being on top of that list), and soon, the Comics Code Authority passed the Comics Code, a set of rules that were compulsory for comics creators. Every comic book that was published by the E.C. Comics was halted, except for Mad, that became a magazine - for censorship reasons. Parents were burning and throwing away their children's comics collections, and exactly among those kids who were hit the most with this ban, were the ones that, some 15 years later, would start producing underground comix.

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Left: Larry Todd - Iron Soul Stories / Center: Jay Lynch - Roxy Funnies. 1972 / Right: Trina Robbins - Girl Fight Comics, 1974

The Beginnings and the Golden Era

In between, survived Mad Magazine took over - one may say that the whole generations were taken by storm with Mad Magazine's satire, humor, and work by several talented young artists. And then the sixties came. What have we had in the United States during the sixties? Well, not much, apart from the hippies, protests against the Vietnam War, free love, widespread use of drugs, rock'n'roll music, fight for civil rights, feminism, anti-abortion protestors, Cold War... In these conditions, the underground comix started to grow. If you have wandered why is it written "comix" instead of "comics", the underground comix artists used this term in order to differentiate themselves and their work from mainstream comics. Oh, yes, and one more thing - this "X" was also saying that the content of these publications was X-rated, which was sooo not-in-line with that Comics Code we've mentioned.

Underground comix had their biggest USA popularity between 1968 and 1975 (1973-74 in the United Kingdom), and underground comix artists had two centers of gathering: New York and San Francisco. In fact, at the peak of underground comix, in 1972-1973, the Mission District was packed with underground cartoonist, that all lived within the walking distance of each other. But, let's go back to the beginnings. Although it is considered that Jack Jackson's God Nose from 1964 was the first underground comic book that was published (in Texas, of all the places), the underground comix scene was not that much successful until 1968 and Robert Crumb's self-published Zap Comic in San Francisco. Zap actually had financial success, so since the issue #3, Zap was published by The Print Mint, with several important underground comix artists, such as Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez and Robert Williams. Crumb himself started a whole series of other titles - Despair, Uneeda, Big Ass Comics, R. Crumb's Comics and Stories and Motor City Comics that were all published in 1969, as well as porno comic books Jiz and Snatch, while Home Grown Funnies and Hytone Comix were published in 1971. At the end of the sixties, underground comix started to receive some recognition, and in 1969 Corcoran Gallery of Art organized an exhibition called The Phonus Balonus Show and it featured works by Crumb, Shelton, Vaughn Bodé, Kim Deitch and Jay Lynch, among others.

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Left: Starlin - Star Reach / Center: Richard Corben - Slow Death / Right: Gilbert Shelton - Further Adventures of those Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers / Rückseite

Underground Comix and Counterculture

So, what were the topics that underground comix had processed? Well, anything that couldn't get through the Comics Code Authority - sexuality, violence, drug use, anti-war politics, horror - the whole counterculture was thriving against traditional values. For instance, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, made by Gilbert Shelton, had drugs as their main subject. Radical America Komics and Corporate Crime Komics were about politics. S. Clay Wilson contributed to Zap and published Bent, that was all about violence and ugly sex. In a word, almost every of the movements had its own comic book - from drug-legalization and anti-war, to feminism, pornography and Black Power. At the end of the sixties, female cartoonists entered this whole male and misogynistic world, with comix such as Wimmen's Comix, Tits 'n Clits and Twisted Sisters. Slowly, underground comix started to trickle to the mainstream media - for instance, the famous Terry Gilliam, that was contributing for Help!, later went to England and joined Monty Python's Flying Circus as an animator of this crazy and popular show. Also, Ralph Bakshi made an animated movie, an adaptation of Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Mainstream magazines, such as Playboy and National Lampoon started publishing comics that were similar to the underground comix. During the late seventies, subjects like gay liberation and gay rights, punk, environmental movements and left-wing politics started to appear in underground comix.

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Left: Warren Greenwood - Zero / Night of the Hungry People, 1976 / Center: Robert Crumb - Zap Comix, 1975 / Right: Green - Teen - Age Horizons of Shangrila, 1972

Criticism and the Fade-out

The basic criticism toward underground comix was directed to its core - comix were called irresponsible and accused for glorification of violence, misogyny and drug abuse. During the mid-seventies, the sale of drug paraphernalia was banned in many places all across the United States (the so called head-stores). Since these were the shops that were distributing underground comix, the only way comix could have been distributed was via mail ordering. This was the beginning of decline of underground comix. This coincided with the demise of hippies - it was not the revolution anymore, but became a lifestyle, filled with drugs. In the beginning of the eighties, specialty stores has emerged, and that became the distribution channel for underground comix, but the famous underground artists started to associate themselves with alternative comics, that had somewhat similar subjects with underground comix. Although it is still alive, underground comix movement has far less influence than it had during its glory days. However, the impact of the underground comix era on the today's comic book industry is incredibly strong, but also often overlooked - the world of the comic books would have never looked this way, if it weren't for underground comix counterculture. It also needs to be said that underground comix provided the needs of the young and adult public that were denied by those ridiculous accusations and the installing of the Comics Code.

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All images courtesy of Michael Studt.