Comics for the Youth Movement, Not for Kids

A new history of Zap Comix celebrates how the lascivious, tongue-in-cheek cartoons revolted against conservative Cold War-era mores.

When the first issue of Zap Comix premiered in San Francisco in 1968, sold out of a baby carriage and emblazoned with the advisory panel “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only," not many believed it could last more than a few issues. And yet by 2014, the underground publication, still publishing, has lasted 16.

This long and relatively unprolific legacy is chronicled in full in the new five-volume collection The Complete Zap Comix (Fantagraphics Books), edited by Gary Groth, with commentary by Partrick Rosenkranz. It includes everything from No. 0 (which, in the comics' tongue-in-cheek fashion, was published after No. 1) and a brand-new No. 16, edited by Groth. It also exhibits one-of-a-kind collaborations with R. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Spain Rodriquez, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, and Robert Williams.

At the time of Zap’s inception, underground comix (otherwise known as X-rated comics) were primarily published in underground papers like the East Village Other, Berkeley Barb, and Los Angeles Free Press. They attacked repressive Cold War-era mores and uptight middle-class values at a time when old-fashioned legislators believed American youths were susceptible to forces of evil filtered through rock 'n' roll and comic books.

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Threatened with government regulations that would diminish profits, the comics industry decided to police itself through the Comics Code Authority, which like Hollywood’s proscriptive self-regulating Hays Office, cleansed any morally suspicious content prior to bestowing its seal of approval. Such rampant comic book deviancy as gratuitous violence, unwed sex, and disrespect of authority was duly expunged.

Zap artists, inspired by original '50s MAD comic book, had enough of Code-inspired mediocrity. Underground comix, says Rosenkranz, the author of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, “ridiculed authority and encouraged debauchery. They blew minds and gave voice to all kinds of dissent, not just political issues. They arose at a time when things needed to be changed and people were willing to risk their necks for what they believed.”

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Zap was started by underground cartoonist R. Crumb, and No. 1 featured his refreshingly deranged views of conventional life. Included inside were such strips as “Whiteman,” a timeless tale of “civilization in crisis”; “Mr. Natural Encounters Flakey Foont,” a jab at spirituality trends; “Ultra Super Modernistic Comics,” a shot at high art; and his classic “Keep on Truckin’,” an iconic, absurdist burlesque. While today these comics seem tame, at the time satires dealing with sex and nudity, recreational drug use, and even critiques of racial stereotyping tested the tolerance of mainstream adult America, who were at odds with the emerging youth culture Zap embodied.

Fantagraphic Books
Fantagraphic Books

“Sweaty cartoon characters having all kinds of sex was offensive enough for self-appointed censors everywhere,” Rosenkranz told me, “but coupling it with sedition, disrespect, and calls for revolution made it intolerable to the Silent Majority, as Nixon and [Spiro] Agnew liked to call their invisible supporters.”

Not surprisingly, various local authorities banned issues of Zap (especially Nos. 2 and 4), issuing summons and even arresting news dealers. Groth, founder of Fantagraphics Books and editor of The Comics Journal, says some work like R. Crumb's “Joe Blow,” (depicting a family enjoying incestuous relations) still packs a punch. And contributor S. Clay Wilson’s work remains as raw and unmediated as anything done by any cartoonist since. “In fact, considering that the Zap run spans 1968 to the present, it's astonishing how contemporary it feels, how it hasn't dated,” Groth said.

Fantagraphic Books
Fantagraphic Books

Comics were considered a children's medium when Zap was under legal scrutiny, and officials did not feel that the “Adults Only” label was enough of a warning. This, Groth explained, showed artists rebelling the only way they knew how, by making comics unfit for children.

For late '60s youth culture, Zap was what superheroes were for Depression-era, war-scarred American boys: a symbol of power. The '60s was the age of the anti-hero, and underground comix like Zap “gave readers another way to participate in the revolution,” Rozenkranz said.

“Reading those things and laughing at them was like endorsing the boldness of the ideas behind them,” he added, noting that another, simpler reason the young people liked them was that they were “shockingly funny.”

Fantagraphic Books

Zap was buoyed by another trait, which this collection brings into clear focus: It exhibited artists at the top of their form. “The sheer artistic weight of seven of the best underground cartoonists under one roof gave the title a singular distinction that solo comics by the individual artists couldn't match,” Groth said. “They covered the spectrum of styles and sensibilities and played off each other in such a way that made Zap greater than the sum of its parts.”

Rick Griffin died in 1991, Spain Rodriquez in 2012, and S. Clay Wilson is no longer drawing comics, but the other contributing artists continue to create to this day. Which raises the question: While the Zap collection nontheless preserves some of the most era’s most iconic comix, why wasn’t it more prolific? After 50-plus years, one might expect more than 16 issues.

Rosenkranz pondered the possiblities. “They should have gotten off their butts and come out with an issue every year,” he said. “Muses were blamed for being late and excuses rained down like meatballs, but we could be reading Zap No. 46 now instead of this boxed set. How much better would that be?”