The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Countercultural History (extract)


By the end of 1967, the psychedelic dance poster craze had reached its zenith. In July of that year, the poster work of Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse and others had been showcased at a successful exhibition, the ‘Joint Show’, on Sutter Street, San Francisco. International recognition followed two months later by way of a feature on the phenomenon in the 1 September edition of Life magazine. Soon afterwards, the quality of the posters began to deteriorate, both because of the rapid expansion of the artistic pool resulting from an influx of new faces seeking to grab a piece of the action and as a result of many of the original artists seeking new ways to deploy their talents.

Album cover artwork proved to be a natural and logical progression for many, with Alton Kelley, Mouse and Griffin producing work for the Grateful Dead; Victor Moscoso doing the same for the Steve Miller Band and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia; and Robert Crumb providing the cover for Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills LP. But for many, what subsequently became known as ‘comix’ – which just so happened to be distributed commercially by the same organisations as distributed the posters – offered opportunities for experimentation and levels of artistic freedom that just couldn’t be found in the commercially orientated music industry. After all, Crumb’s iconic artwork for Cheap Thrills had originally been intended as the back cover of the album until his original illustration for the front was rejected by Columbia Records.

And so, with Zap #1 having served solely as a showcase for the work of its instigator [Robert Crumb], the second issue of Zap Comix, published in July 1968, featured not only the work of Crumb, but also of Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso and S. Clay Wilson, who had come into the Zap fold following a meeting with Zap’s printer / publisher, Charles Plymell. Subsequent issues of Zap Comix would also feature the work of Robert Williams, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton and Paul Mavrides. Meanwhile, following in the slipstream of the success of Zap Comix, underground comic titles such as the ‘as weekly as possible’ Yellow Dog anthology, Shelton’s Feds ’n’ Heads, Bijou Funnies, The New Adventures of Jesus and Hydrogen Bomb and Biochemical Warfare Funnies, to name but a few, proliferated alongside other Crumb titles, such as Uneeda, Big Ass Comics and Motor City Comics, all of which provided an outlet for the work of a whole new generation of countercultural comic artists such as Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Kim Dietch, Rory Hayes and Vaughen Bodé, alongside those already listed above.

The key to the wholly unfettered artistic freedom enjoyed by the new comix artists was that because comix could be sold through distribution systems that had already been well established as a means of supplying head shops and hippy emporia with underground magazines, psychedelic posters, bongs, beads and other lifestyle paraphernalia, they were not subject to the Comics Code Authority.

The Comics Code Authority was, and remains, and extremely restrictive regulatory scheme which was set up by the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954 in the wake of a national moral panic concerning the allegedly corrupting content of some US comic books such as EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt and Crime Suspense Stories. It forbade the depiction of such things as violence, gore, sexual innuendo and perversion in comics. And though in theory, subscription to the code was voluntary, in reality few, if any, of the major distributors of comics were willing to take on a title that didn’t bear the ‘Approved by the Comics Code Authority’ logo on its cover.

Thus, free from such established comic industry interference over depictions of sex and violence, protected by the First Amendment (though the FBI was not beyond using drug busts and dirty tricks to harass the publishers of underground literature), and above all infused with the notion that nothing is sacred, it was a case of ‘excess all areas’ as underground comix artists set about gleefully raising the stiffest of middle fingers to family values, with extremely graphic descriptions of both sex and violence in such wilfully provocative titles as Jizz, Snatch and the aforementioned Big Ass Comics.

In many ways the exceedingly frank depictions of sucking and fucking in the new comix can be viewed as a taboo-busting satirical tool aimed at confronting a hypocritical establishment with that which they had long made a dirty secret, but as one commentator posits by way of a critique of Crumb’s Snatch and Jizz titles:

‘The comics amount to a working out of personal hang-ups on paper, being more of a free-for-all for the artists involved than trenchant attempts at social satire – with the few exceptions invariably done by Crumb himself.’ (Estren, 1974, p.11)

Often singled out for particular criticism is S. Clay Wilson, whose visceral and nihilistic work pushed the limits of what was acceptable even within the genre itself, and who is held by many to have opened the sluice gates for a deluge of cartoonish sex and violence. Certainly, Crumb credits both Wilson and Robert Williams as having helped liberate him from self-censorship, saying:

‘For better or worse, the influence of Wilson and Williams began to show in my work. I too became a rebel. I cast off the last vestiges of the pernicious influence of my years in the greeting-card business. I let it all hang out on the page.’ (Rosenkrantz, 2008, p.88)

The immediate upshot of all of this was the launch of the abovementioned sex comics by Crumb, which also contained the work of his cohorts, Wilson, Williams and others. But the greater long-term legacy has been a series of far more nuanced works in which Crumb appears as a sweaty, leering caricature of himself, laying bare his numerous sexual neuroses and often toxic attitudes to women, on the page amid a palpable fug of self-loathing. Indeed, amongst all of the artists involved with the underground comix revolution, Crumb has become by far the most celebrated and respected – his renown extending far beyond the relatively narrow realm of comic art. Acknowledged as both a highly-skilled craftsman and a searing satirist by many (and as a misogynist by a great many others), Crumb’s work – even at its most seemingly base – encompasses a level of subtlety and complexity which is often wilfully ignored by – or is just too near the knuckle for – his critics.

Extracted from Chapter 2 of The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Countercultural History by Ian Lowey and Suzanne Prince (Bloomsbury / 2014)