Before there were unified groups dedicated to protecting creators’ rights and their freedom of speech and expression, there was the underground comix movement. In response to the 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearings, which ruled comics to be garishly colored, morally devoid pulps spreading delinquency and degeneracy across America, a unique group of creators banded together and openly (and rudely) waged a full-on war against the Comics Code and the blatant censorship, suppression, and moral policing plaguing the comic book industry of the day.
One of the most significant publications to come out of this movement, R. Crumb’s Zap Comix, showcased a wide array of works by the most prolific and stylistically diverse artists at the time. Originally published in San Francisco in 1968, Zap was a space where cartoonists collaborated to produce free-form narratives about literally whatever they wanted.
From the psychedelic, mind-tripping works of surfer Rick Griffin to the sexually charged and violent satirical vignettes of S. Clay Wilson, Zap was a creative space where young, passionate artists could express their innermost (and often perverse) thoughts while exercising their counterculture political and social views completely unrestrained. Using entrepreneurial and social networks that they themselves established, these creators controlled the printers and distribution channels for their comix and, as such, there were no rules, regulations, or code that they needed to conform to.
The Comics Journal reprinted some excerpts from The Complete Zap, a new collection from Fantagraphics that features interviews with many of the artists behind the series. For artist and biker Spain Rodriguez, publications like Zap Comix were the space where artists could make their “blows in the cultural war”:
We were able to kick the despicable Comics Code in the teeth. We were able to make a living. We were able to reflect our times. It’s kind of a Pandora’s Box of all these threads that weren’t allowed before.
The excerpt from The Complete Zap shared by The Comics Journal reveals how the underground press circumvented the censorship of the Code:
The underground press found a way to bypass all these barriers by creating an alternative production and distribution system. Newspapers and comic books could be printed cheaply in small runs of ten thousand or less and spread around through a network of hip businesses and street entrepreneurs. Nobody in those networks cared about censorship.
In a time when a younger generation began looking at the American government with suspicion, skepticism, and distrust, something like the Comics Code wasn’t going to stop these young artists and writers from having their creative voices heard. On the contrary, the establishment and enforcement of the code in the mainstream was the fuel that ignited arguably the most drastic and revolutionary movements in comics history. As the oral history section of The Complete Zap points out, “Freedom of the press belonged to those who owned presses, like Don Donahue, and no one could prevent small subterranean publishers like him from printing underground comix.”
Despite the freedom of expression that the creators behind Zap exercised, they were acutely aware of the risk they took when making their comics. R. Crumb relates:
There was an organized, systematic, repressive action taken against every aspect of that outburst against the system, including alternative print media, by the powers, agencies, and institutions of the corporate state. It is not paranoia, but the fact of history to say these things. They didn’t sit back and passively watch while Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage. They had their think tanks staying up nights plotting and scheming new techniques to squash, neutralize, and co-opt this threat to everything they held dear. They constructed sophisticated strategies for instilling fear into the general population. You could watch it happening all through the ’70s and into the ’80s. Fear was a weapon the bastards used very effectively.
Despite the risk — Zap #4 alone caused a series of arrests throughout the United States and was deemed obscene by courts in New York — the sense of independent control over one’s own artistic creations, of comics as a space to express one’s political, social, and personal views, and ultimately the ability to personally manage production and distribution of the books themselves that was so central to the underground comix movement sowed the seeds for what would become many of the most defining aspects of the modern comic book industry itself — the direct market system and a fervent desire to protect creators’ rights and their freedom of speech.
Read more about Zap and censorship at The Comics Journal website here.
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!