Rarely is a conversation about early underground comix something straightforward and agreeable, no matter how you turn it. Just a few months back, I found myself at San Diego Comic Con, rapt with attention at a discussion about media censorship that featured some of underground comix’s best defenders. One of the most vocal among the group was an esteemed comics professor, whose opinion throughout the entire panel seemed to consist of such charming bon mots as, “The problem with ‘the left’ is that they don’t even try to read them” and other charming anecdotes about the ineptitude of the potential younger, less conservative readership.
There are problems on every extreme of the conversation surrounding censoring controversial and difficult media (a fact stated more neutrally by a fellow panelist) but this particular scholar wasn’t necessarily wrestling with that idea, as much as arguing something notably different – an idea that’s extremely popular among several older underground comix enthusiasts that, summarized, translates into something akin to, “If this offends you, you’re just not trying hard enough to look at it in the way I do.”
Unfortunately, this seems to be part of the norm. It’s certainly not the first time over the course of the last few years that I’ve really started to dive into more difficult topics of comics history where the underground comix fandom/scholar community has laid claim to the fact that any reaction other than absolute awe and un-questioning agreement of difficult topics means that someone is far too soft themselves to appreciate them.
I suppose the other side rings true as well though. For every person who’s told me that critically unpacking their favorite underground zine as a historical piece through a lens of today is cause for alarm, there has been someone on the other end telling me that I am a terrible person for wanting to read them in the first place. The mere notion that someone would seek out these occasionally disturbing, highly-sexual, misogynistic, racist, and utterly bizarre comix is a red flag of someone personal beliefs and potential – inevitable, even – social blunders. After all, how many times has someone of a marginalized group been told that they’re overreacting for having strong, valid feelings about the value of poorly-aged pieces of history and art.
So with the newcomers upset and the old heads upset– where do we go in this age of reading underground comix? Hell, how do we manage to still teach them and help them live on without completely casting an entire group – either the ones who have potential to uphold it or the ones who began it – out of the conversation? It’s…complicated. And more than complicated, it requires a willingness to look deeper into what the upset around these bits of comics history mean outside of our own references and the subjectivity of moral compass norths.
Let’s not get it twisted — the last thing I believe is that these comics should be cast out and never taught again, or that all of the older generation of comics historians or creators are no longer viable. (That would be to deny accomplishments and history outright!) Nonetheless, even as I have a deep desire to better understand controversial work and, perhaps most importantly of all, deny any wave of generational puritanism, I also understand the dismay of the new generation, and the ones to whom the torch must be passed.
Could it be time that the generation that created the comics are perhaps the same generation that could stand to learn more about themselves from a different, perhaps less insular, and subjective perspective? Is satirizing “the man” no longer feasible when the rebellion being taught has turned against what one has themselves become? Maybe we need to go back to the beginning to take a new look at everything, before we go any further.
In 1954, the Comics Code Authority emerged over the horizon like a horrific beast, following in the footsteps of their sister censor, the Motion Picture Production Code. Spearheaded by Dr. Fredric Wertham — psychiatrist and author of Seduction of the Innocent, a title that correlated delinquency with “morally wrong” depictions in comics — and backed largely by family groups and parents readily willing to burn any book that may contribute to little Timmy and Sally’s downfall, the Comics Code Authority set its sights on stripping every piece of even potentially lurid content out of comics. This wasn’t hard to do of course when armed with a list of 41 separate restrictions, including the obvious choices of ‘no cursing, sex, drugs, “suggestive posture”, or violence,’ that would boil comics down to the most dull do-gooding one can imagine. (As Adam Ant once sang — “Don’t drink, don’t smoke — what do you do?)
With the ever-tightening noose of censorship forcing publishers like Marvel, DC, (and famously, EC Comics) to sanitize their titles with very non-scary, very heterosexual, very pacifistic, and determinately very straight-laced do-gooding, the only other option was to rebel. Thus the underground comix movement was born, featuring the work of some of the comics most well-remembered artists such as Art Spiegelman, Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins, Aline Kominsky, Bill Griffith, Pat Moodian, and heaps of others along the way.
Along with the support of local bookstores across the U.S., as well as head shops, and some rough-and-ready organizations in the Bay Area such as Last Gasp, Print Mint, and Apex Novelties, the underground movement in comics quickly grew to reign supreme in the counterculture — breaking taboos and defying censorship of the traditional comics standard through satirizing American values and their corporate symbols. Ultimately, this was a group of very clever, very stoned smartasses, ranging from disturbed and crass and provocative to poignant, thoughtful, funny, and intellectual (or some combinations of several of the above) who were ready to push back against what was acceptable in ways that asked people to reach beyond their everyday view as well.
For all that underground comix were once the rebellious kids of the Now Generation pushing back against the censorship and tight-lipped regime of corporate whistleblowers, they have since become a noted part of history and something of a mainstream staple. The family cafe around the street from my house has framed art from S. Clay Wilson and Robert Crumb hanging on their walls. Art Spiegelman has become one of the most prolific creators across several generations. Howard Cruse, may he rest in peace, was a massive advocate for more LGBTQ+ creators and representation in comics across the board; Denis Kitchen remains in charge of the Eisner, Kurtzman, and Capp estates as well as continuing the fight in favor of creators for media censorship. The list goes on and there’s brilliant work to show for it.
With the mainstream, however, comes a distance from rebellion — something that is not inherently bad by any stretch, considering the wonderful and thoughtful work done by many of those who contributed to underground comix in the years and decades since they were part of that particular scene.
While many of these figures have updated their views with the times, and grown with their audience — both in terms of contemporary creations and conversations around their previous work — the outreach of underground comix is one that seems to stop short for much of the younger generations… and not necessarily because they don’t want to engage with it, but perhaps because it’s never properly been discussed in such a way that allows them to. We have to ask at some point during the struggles of teaching these comics if it really is too much for people to yearn for more authentic voices from marginalized groups rather than dwelling on the chipped shoulders of disgruntled white men in cartooning.
It would be easy to discount the younger generations as being “soft” and “too sensitive” (as many have suggested) as explanations for their reticence about learning more about underground comix; that, perhaps, the millennials and zoomers of today’s comics audience are just “too woke” – a sentiment I loathe to type out – to understand the satire of the bygone generation and the rebellious nature of pushing back against the establishment. The joke of this is that those who sought this rhetoric have themselves, in their own way, become the establishment in rewriting and excusing their meanings when trying to teach a message of their cultural and historical importance.
We should agree, now, that not everything published in these rebellious little zines was good or without problematic avenues, though, even by 1960s and 1970s standards. Despite being an outlet that supported many marginalized voices in its history, there is plenty to look back on with a questioning eye and understandably bristled reaction, even within those works academically noted as “strictly as pieces of satire” by their creators, or told that the “blatant exposure of American bigotry” on the parts of the cartoonists are part of a potential, more intelligent, joke.
Within these pieces of media that are, objectively, hurtful regardless of time period — even ones arguably created with the best of intentions by the author — there are potential teachable moments; whether it’s about the time period, hate speech of an era both as satire or as just plain hateful, the ways empowerment-focused language has shifted, or even about the lives and minds of the underground comix creators themselves. There is no shortage of ways to go about teaching these comics to budding cartoonists and curious comics nerds in ways that are effective and sensitivity informed. The problem is, of course, that teaching these comics is a concept that seems to go by the wayside in favor of demanding forgiveness of them and their creators in exchange for their historical importance.
In looking at many of the cartoons available that are, let’s face it, worth teaching, it’s no wonder that people have the potential to get upset now even more than they might have “back in the day”. Times have changed and are, admittedly, less lax on what is considered acceptable when satirizing social mores that still have a sting that resonates now – a fact that is often the core of the argument for readers being “too sensitive”. This idea falls short, however, when accounting the purpose of these comics to begin with.
In Zap Comics #4, a little story called “Joe Blow” was written and drawn by cartoonist and noted provocateur Robert Crumb. The story features a mother, father, daughter, and son spending the entirety of the unusually rounded cartoon panels carrying on an “Artisocrats” amount of incestuous sexual activity between one another – one somehow worse than the next, and all done with doll-like glee. The end of the strip concludes with the father declaring – in a bizarre and even arguably funny “sick under the surface” propaganda poster-like way – that he never realized what fun parents could have with their children! As he declares to the reader, “The youth holds the promise of the future!”
I don’t just bring this up because it’s one of the most remembered and unsettling pieces from the Zap days – but because of Crumb’s response when asked, very plainly, about his intent with it in the New York Times in the early 1970s: “That was the most heavily-busted thing I ever did. Incest is taboo and it’s a taboo that I went along with. […] I don’t know. I think I was just being a punk.”
Crumb’s sentiment surmises a good deal of why the underground comix continue to upset readers today in much the same way that they did when originally published – because they were created to do exactly that, through humor, shock, or misanthropy – these were comics intended to make you pay attention. Even with the less intense strips drawn by Gilbert Shelton, the reaction was one offering a rise via entertainment and loopholes. When asked about The Muthalode Smut Ring story in Zap in particular, Shelton remarked that it couldn’t be bestiality because Wonder Wart-Hog is actually a human being. “The main difference between me and other Zap cartoonists was that my primary aim was just to be funny,” Shelton remarked in an interview decades later.
Whether it was the feminist-driven satire of Wimmens Comix, the soft eroticism and soapy-ness of later comics like “Omaha” the Cat Dancer, the drug-themed jokes and critique of counterculture in Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, or the disarming and sometimes delightful unpacking of several creators’ fetishes – the collective goal of the underground comix community was, it seems, to stir the pot, make people think, and create a reaction for better or worse, similar to how film directors of the period had aimed to harness the edginess, discomfort, and reaction of their generation – Scorcese, Kubrick, Lumet, and Coppola, to name a few.
The problem, then, with this purposeful and effective poking of the proverbial mainstream-sized bear, becomes about the framework in which this work is presented. By simply presenting the work without context – even to groups of people who may have experience with comics history and cartooning – many pieces of this particular corner of comics history will be jarring.
There is undoubtedly an argument to be made that fits both sides here regarding the impact of artistic merit, however. For example, for all that Wilson’s comics may have been filthier and raunchier with truly explicit sex acts and horrible jokes on full display the taboo holds up as a piece of humor through the test of time because of Wilson’s animated cartooning style and willingness to offer the joke. Crumb, on the other hand, whose cartooning and penchant for storytelling is objectively remarkable, is offered up a social commentator of the highest order– despite holding the same discomforting taboo subjects – because of the caliber of this cartooning.
Ironically, this falls into the problem of seeing art from a perfectionist standpoint, where regardless of subject, the technical standpoint is where the value lies. In offering the work without guidance in how to read and interpret them through a critical lens and even playing field while still scolding for upset, we undercut the purpose of the body of work altogether.
If we are meant to be teaching about the rise and reaction of these rebellious comics in ways that will educate and create an appreciation that can create a conversation and lasting critique, then why do we present them in ways that scold (or dismiss) their accomplishments? This is partially due to the shift in generational thinking: that a strong emotional reaction, a trait seemingly assigned to the establishment through these stories, is still the oppressor to be rallied against. By laughing away such reactions as weakness, the comics end up stripped of their intention and instead become used for alternative, much more subjective and personal purposes. The intent with which these comics are being taught becomes harder to parse if the teacher themselves become a willing oppressor.
Now more than ever, there is a need to reject the idea that the kids have “gone soft” when they express emotion towards the pages of underground comix because to reject that reaction is to reject that which we are trying to uphold and teach in the first place. The “kids” have been soft; they’re also in the same vein as the rebellious, perverted, curious, appalled people who bought them with their pocket change back in the 1960s and 70s…but the rules have changed; the times have changed. And that’s to be expected as a step forward, not as a slight against the material.
The disgust and ruffling of feathers that many of these comics instill in people are the teachable moments if we just took the time to interact more strongly with that discomfort in ways that are impactful to understanding and reframing the work. This, ironically, often works in contrast to perpetuating harmful narratives and stereotypes simply by not judging the stories by how well they fit into the avoidance of upsetting today’s standards, but where they stand in relation to understanding marginalized struggles and offensive works as they’ve morphed through time.
The phrasing of “it’s bad on both sides” may be true in sentiment, but perhaps something misunderstood in the context of the division around teaching underground comix. The problem is less that one side is wrong or right in different measure, but that we – all of us, collectively – have allowed these controversial, valuable, and occasionally formative works to be re-contextualized in such a way that their original, anarchic intent has been overwritten in terms of their historical importance by an aged perspective, lack of respect, and unwillingness to meet them where they are now. It’s not wrong to get upset by these oft-misanthropic, equal-opportunity destroyer comics – that’s kind of the point – but we do have to look deeper and ask why we get upset, what that says about us, about culture, about history, and all of the ways these things have changed in the interim. Pretending that the ugliness, bigotry, exclusionism, and disturbances of comics history doesn’t exist won’t make them go away as a part of that history that cannot simply go unaddressed.
For my money, the best thing that we can do for these comics and their creators – the good, the bad, and the ugly of them all – is to continue to allow ourselves to react, get angry, get offended, and ask why. The answer might be smacking us in the face, and the answer may have (hopefully) changed or shifted over the past fifty years, but it is an answer worth discussion outside of our own views. If we want these comics to live on and be something to learn from – as a piece of its time, a piece of social history, or as pieces of art – then we need to be able to reach beyond our own interpretations and the interpretations that live within our cliques. It’s time to meet that discomfort head-on and on all sides.
Otherwise, we’re not actually reading the comics as what they are and what they have always been, but just responding to our ideas of what we think they’re supposed to be like either then or now. And who wants to spend their time or tuition on that?