Comics History

Underground comix and the underground press

The East Village Other, cover by Vaughn Bodé, 1968Gothic Blimp Works, cover by Kim Deitch

The late 1960s saw the emergence of underground comics, a new wave of humorous, hippie-inspired comic books that dealt with social and political subjects like sex, drugs, rock music and anti-war protest. For this reason, these new comics became known as "comix" to set them apart from mainstream comics and to emphasize the "x" for x-rated.

Fat Freddy as Santa Claus, by Gilbert Shelton in The East Village Other, 1970Fat Freddy as Santa Claus, by Gilbert Shelton in The East Village Other, 1970

Comix originated from a variety of sources, which can be traced back to the 1950s. First, there was the influence of the Mad tradition. Harvey Kurtzman had liberated comedy in comics and inspired a new generation of cartoonists to push the boundaries of satire even further. More directly, in his post-Mad magazine, Help!, Kurtzman provided pages devoted to "amateur talent," where many future undergrounders, like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, got their first break. Also, underground newspapers such as The East Village Other (which featured articles, music reviews and hippie news), started to publish comix and attracted work by artists such as Vaughn Bodé, Spain Rodriguez and Willy Murphy. As these comix gained popularity, The East Village Other started its own monthly comix magazine, Gothic Blimp Works.

Zap Comix 2, cover by Robert Crumb, 1968Zap Comix 4, cover by Victor Moscoso
One of the earliest underground publications was Zap Comix, famous because Robert Crumb published there, and also Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson contributed.

A major underground influence was the anti-censorship reaction to the imposed 'comics code'. In the 1950s, there had been a crusade against comics (especially those published by E.C. Comics), which had inspired the passing of the Comics Code, a set of rules to which comics creators had to adhere. As children, the future underground artists were the very people who had been worst hit - they watched their parents tear up their comics collections, or throw them on the playground fires. Now it was time for payback.

from the back of Zap number 0, by Robert Crumb, 1967From the back of Zap issue 0, by Robert Crumb, 1967

The most outspoken production against the Comic Code was the defiant series Doctor Wirtham's Comix & Stories, which appeared around 1977. The colophon read: "We publish good art and underground stories in the E.C. vein, the kind of stuff you know the good doctor would love to hate," which referred to Dr. Fredric Wertham, the man who wrote "Seduction of the Innocent," the book that was responsible for causing the ban on comics in the 1950s by alledging that comic books were corrupting kids. Some of the artists who contributed their work to this series were Doug Potter, Mike Roberts, Al Davoren, Ripp, Greg Irons and Hector Tellez.

Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories, cover by Greg Irons, 1977 Dr. Wirtham's Comix & Stories referred to Dr. Fredric Wertham, the man behind the ban on comics in the 1950s. Cover by Greg Irons.

The underground movement was an expression of its time. In the latter half of the 1960s the hippie movement in America was engaged, to a greater or lesser extent, with protests against the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, anarchism, Women's Lib and Gay Liberation. Add to this an interest in the spiritual value of taking drugs and of "free love" and you had, very simplistically speaking, a thriving "counterculture" against traditional values.

The New Adventures of Jesus, by Frank Stack 1969Another theme treated with irreverency in underground comix was religion. One of the most splendid examples of this is 'The New Adventures of Jesus', created by Frank "Foolbert Sturgeon" Stack in 1962. Another one is 'God Nose', by Jaxon. This comic is considered by many as the first underground comic.

Back of Air Pirates Funnies, 1971Back of Air Pirates Funnies, 1971

Air Pirates Funnies, 1971Also other well-respected institutions such as Disney were "befouled," for instance in Air Pirates Funnies (1971), a comics series by artists Bobby London, Ted Richards, Shary Flenniken, Dan O'Neill and Gary Hallgren. The well-known Disney characters were made to perform unspeakable acts, which caused Disney to start a legal process for copyright infringement.

San Francisco and the New York area weren't the only places that produced underground comix. Many people featured their comic art in self-published fanzines from all over the United States. One hot spot in the underground comix scene was the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, which was basically a pub with a music hall that attracted many artists, and resulted in publications like 'Armadillo Comix' and 'Austin Stone'. Some of the artists that were a part of this scene were Jim Franklin, Guy Juke, Karl Dolgener, Dennis Harper, Kerry Awn, Micael Priest and Danny Garrett.

Armadillo Art Squad, by Micael Priest"Armadillo All-Star Art Squad"
Illustration by Micael Priest in Austin Stone, 1976.
From left: Danny Garrett, Sam Yeates, Jim Franklin, Ken Featherston, Henry Gonzales, Micael Priest, Kerry Awn, Guy Juke and Gary McIlhenny.

Without the financial, strategic and moral support from the publishers and comic stores behind the scene, the comix couldn't have survived. Print Mint, Last Gasp, S.F. Comic Book Company, Kitchen Sink, Apex Novelties, Comics & Comix stores and others were the vital links to keeping the comix alive and flourishing. They faced the financial risk of the books being commercial flops or even worse, being arrested for promulgating literature considered "obscene according to the standards of the local community."

Amputee Love, cover by Brent Boates 'Amputee Love' (1975), a liberating comic about a female amputee and her lovers. Written by the double amputee Rene and drawn by her husband Rich. The cover is by Brent Boates.

In April 1968, Gary Arlington (1938-2014) opened the San Francisco Comic Book Company, one of the very first 'comics only' book stores, in the city's Mission district. As guru and 'godfather' of underground comics, he encouraged and directed many artists on their path to publication. His tiny 200-square-foot store became the underground nexus where artists met, discussed projects and exchanged ideas. He also published several series of early comix, namely Skull Comics, Slow Death Comics and, of course, San Francisco Comic Book (issue no. 1 of this series is very rare and has become much sought after by comix collectors).

Slow Death, cover by Jaxon, 1970Anarchy Comics, 1978

By the end of the 1960s, women comic artists united and founded their own comix, such as Wimmen's Comix, Tits 'n Clits and Twisted Sisters. After 1975, a second wave of underground comix came up, with more punk inspired comix such as Anarchy Comics, founded by Jay Kinney.

Arcade, cover by Jay Lynch, 1976The publication of Arcade in 1975 marked the end of the first era of underground comix. This magazine was founded by Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith and featured the work of the most influential comix artists of the early underground era. It contained work by artists such as Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson and Justin Green.

Art Spiegelman and Justin Green (photo by Patrick Rosenkranz)Art Spiegelman and Justin Green (photo: Patrick Rosenkranz)

Tom Veitch and Greg Irons (photo by Patrick Rosenkranz)Tom Veitch and Greg Irons (photo: Patrick Rosenkranz)