It may have started with Marvel vs. DC but it led to Robert Crumb and an Underground movement that has only grown since the 1960s
You can’t toss a grenade these days without hitting a comic book superhero. What were formerly fantasy figures for zit-covered teens are now fantasy figures for all ages and genders, zits or otherwise. Plus, these superheroes are now worth billions of dollars in film rights and product tie-ins.
As a result of this corporate money-grubbing, all the fun has been drained from the comic book swamp. It’s like when pro wrestling became a laser-lit, arena-rock extravaganza instead of the slightly illicit grunting of fat men with hairy backs, soiled trunks and masks. It’s just not the same, in other words.
A new book by Reed Tucker, Slugfest (Da Capo), explains how that transformation occurred (or, as his subtitle screams, “INSIDE THE EPIC 50-YEAR BATTLE BETWEEN MARVEL AND DC”). If you’re into that insider baseball stuff, Tucker has all the hot dope for you.
However, we prefer to toss our grenades toward the past, at least when it comes to comic books.
So, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Yarrowstalks, arguably the first full-length underground comic book in America, we present the following excursion into the (see me screaming) ORIGINS OF UNDERGROUND COMIX.
In the 1960s, mainstream comic books—mostly Marvel and DC—lost their appeal to a new generation of young fans simply because the publishers wouldn’t change with the times. True, they were hemmed in by a Comics Code—a legislated ratings authority resulting from Congressional hysteria in the 1950s over EC Comics, the gory precursor to Mad magazine. But even so, they approached their permissible subject matter with the black-or-white mindset of the Cold War era and its patronizing Father Knows Best attitude. Even the dullest lad or lass could see that that father didn’t know shit anymore.The only mainstream comic-book publisher that did change with the times was Marvel. Founded in 1939, Marvel changed dramatically in 1961 when a young, street-smart publisher named Stan Lee launched two new titles, both drawn by Jack Kirby, that found a ready audience: The Fantastic Four and Amazing Adventures. While continuing to adhere to the Comics Code rule that good must triumph over evil, Lee allowed artists and writers to mine their imaginations for new twists on old formulas. New superhero characters appeared, as complex, existential and troubled as the times. These included Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor and Silver Surfer. They clicked, almost instantly, with college kids. A 1965 Esquire article proclaimed Spider-Man to be more popular among campus radicals than Che Guevara.
Besides the characters, a dramatic change was evident in Marvel artwork. Panels were expanded, graphics and ink overlapped in kaleidoscopic patterns, landscapes were more otherworldly than they’d been since the glory days of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, a masterfully surrealistic cat-and-mouse comic strip that ran from 1914 to 1944. The greatest of the envelope-pushing artistry could be found in Strange Tales, starring Doctor Strange, beginning with Issue # 10 (July 1963), when Steve Ditko turned the tales into visual feasts and the character of Doctor Strange became, well, even more strange.
In Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Les Daniels writes, “Unlike the other Marvel heroes, he never punched anyone. Instead he cast spells and entered weird dimensions…There can be little doubt that much of the psychedelic art that was to emerge from the West Coast two years later owed something to the vistas explored in the Dr. Strange pages.” It was appropriate homage that the first communal rock dance in San Francisco—held at Longshoreman’s Hall on Oct. 16, 1965—was called “A Tribute to Doctor Strange.”
And yet, Doctor Strange was only the appetizer for what would follow. And what would follow can be traced to one man: Robert Crumb.
Though steeped in comic book tradition, Crumb had no interest in adhering to any code of censorship whatsoever. Lacking outlets for his work, he nonetheless pressed on, hanging out almost daily in the fledgling Haight-Ashbury community in the mid-1960s. Naturally, he came into contact with psychedelic drugs. The combination of hallucinatory visions and his own eccentric graphic style led to his remarkable artistry. He is now an artist whose work will stand beside that of Daumier, Hogarth and Nast. Eminent art critic Robert Hughes called him “the Brueghel of the second half of the 20th Century.”
Here’s the trailer for Terry Zwigoff’s powerful 1994 documentary on the cartoonist, his family, his demons and delights.
In Zwigoff’s documentary, Crumb explained the course of events that led from the code-limited wonders of Marvel Comics to the no-holds-or-holes-barred curiosities of his own imprint, Zap Comix: “All these hippie underground papers started up in 1966 and 1967. Every town had one or two of them. They would print anything related to psychedelic experience or the hippie ethic. So, I started submitting some of the LSD-inspired drawings I’d been doing in my sketchbook, and they liked them. Then, this guy came along and suggested I do a whole book, Yarrowstalks, which went over big. Then, this other guy says, ‘hey, why don’t you just do psychedelic comic books and I’ll publish them.’ So I set to work and did two whole issues of Zap Comix.”
There were other artists and cartoonists before Crumb who were charting an alternative vision, including people like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Frank “The Adventures of Jesus” Stack and Jack “God Nose” Jackson, but Crumb pointed the way to whole new way of presenting one’s work—as stand-alone comic books.
The artists, including Stack and Jackson, followed his lead and in a matter of weeks (according to Crumb, at least) an underground comix revolution was born. Among the artists who entered this uncharted territory—the “x” in comix wasn’t just a semantic affectation—were Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wonder Warthog), Spain Rodrioso and Rick Griffin (both of whom also designed and drew rock posters), Vaughan Bode, Kim Deitch, Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Art Spiegelman, Justin Green and Shary Flenniken.
LSD played a part in opening “the doors of perception” of the comix world, which Crumb has been quick to admit. As he told Gary Groth of Comics Journal, “The state I was in in 1967 couldn’t last. You can’t be in that state of visionary grace forever…you can’t spend your whole life on a roller coaster.”
How, then, did Yarrowstalks happen?
A man named Brian Zahn published an underground newspaper by that name in Philadelphia. After seeing some of the then-unknown Crumb’s work in his sketchbooks, he commissioned him to create a whole issue of Yarrowstalks filled only with comics. That issue, published in the fall of 1967, is the Holy Grail of comix. Out of it grew the first two issues of the comic book that would put Crumb and the other Bay Area underground artists on the map: Zap Comix. He introduced the world to characters like Flakey Foont, Mr. Natural, Lenore Goldberg, and Fritz the Cat (which he disavowed after Ralph Bakshi’s terrible X-rated film)
By Zap # 2, the cream of the underground crop had climbed aboard the Crumb train. Crumb told Groth, “Within six months it went from me, my wife and a couple other people hand-stapling comix and selling them on the street out of a baby carriage to having all these fast-talking lawyers fighting over the rights and sleazy guys offering big-money contracts…It was a crazy time. All of a sudden, my life just turned completely upside down. By the end of 1968, I didn’t know what the hell was going on any more. I couldn’t think straight…I was 24 when this thing happened and all of a sudden the phone’s ringing all the time, people want to talk to me…The hippie thing was a happenin’ thing and the vultures were descending to find out how they could shear the sheep.”
In the wake of Crumb’s Zap came Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Wonder Warthog; Spain Rodriguez’s Gothic Blimp Works and Trashman; Lynch and Williamson’s Bijou Funnies; Trina Robbins’ Wimmen’s Comix; and Diane Noomin’s Twisted Sisters.
Today’s mainstream acceptance of “graphic novels” is a direct outgrowth of Crumb’s early psychedelic visions.