On Zap

Rick Griffin Zap #3 cover

Cover by Rick Griffin. Copyright 2015 Estate of Rick Griffin. Zap is a registered trademark.

The Complete Zap Comix came and went a couple months back, selling out at the distributor level within a week or so of its release. For such an event, there was little discussion about it aside from laudatory news articles and the occasional interview (my own contribution to said genres, an interview with Robert Crumb, will be published in the February issue of The Believer). So, I wanted to mention a few things and then maybe we can all discuss Zap for a moment.

I tend to agonize over what is being looked at and what is not, and if there’s one thing I have noticed these last few years of the proliferation of comic book conventions is that the various constellations of influence and adulation have shifted a lot. One could argue that the main source of influence is the convention itself, but that’s a different discussion. All this to say is that there is now a notable lack of interest in Crumb (and a fair bit of antipathy, as well, but hey, he can take it) and a near-total disinterest in underground comics in general. There was a time, oh, 15 years ago let’s say, when Crumb and Zap remained the gold standard. This was reinforced by Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, who brought together the RAW and Weirdo strands of influence into a briefly coherent history in which Art Spiegelman, Crumb, and Gary Panter, all loomed large. This time has passed. Things are far too fractured now to nail down any dominant lineage in comics, and Clowes and Ware have withdrawn from their more public efforts at history making, having thankfully accomplished a ton. (Though I still long for Clowes in particular to take a more active role in publishing the oddities of comic book history, but hey, he’s busy. We’re all so fucking busy after the age of 35. Who has the time?) There are so many strains that have sprung up in the last ten years – thanks in large part to the availability of manga, the ongoing reprint boom, and most especially the web, and Tumblr in particular. Nothing is just a straight line anymore, if it ever was. I mean, if you’d told me ten years ago that the figures looming largest in comics today (at least from what I can tell at festivals and online) are Osamu Tezuka, Moebius, and Alison Bechdel I’d have laughed you out of the room. Quality lit comics might still sell the best (think Roz Chast, Bechdel, and of course Ware), but that does not equal influence. Yeah, so this is the odd situation we find ourselves in, wherein the medium of comics is being so thoroughly explored and mined for new streams that once unavoidable figures and events like Crumb and Zap can simply be ignored. This is good and bad. It’s good that there is such a plurality now, but bad that the rise of the plurality means there’s a lot of noise to cut through to get to the good stuff.

Anyhow, Zap. Underground comics already existed before Zap. It was a thing – they were published in the underground newspapers and various one-off titles by the likes of Frank Stack and Joel Beck. Hell, in New York Joe Brainard published C Comics in 1965 and Chicago’s Hairy Who published a comic book format publication in 1966. Underground comics was also related to Harvey Kurtzman’s Help (in which Crumb, Shelton, and even a young Terry Gilliam appeared), the early 1960s college humor magazines and frat culture, which once upon a time harbored radicals. There were dirty, satirical cartoons being published across the country. But like any moment, something needed to crystalize it. That’s what Zap did in 1968. Furthermore, with the additions of Griffin, Moscoso and Wilson in issue 2, Zap was far more graphically sophisticated than any other publication (underground or not) at the time, and by the time issue four rolled around you had Williams and Shelton in there as well. This was a group of artists from incredibly different backgrounds, each bringing a unique culture to bear.

Crumb came from commercial illustration on the East Coast, and was working with his mature style; Californian Rick Griffin had spent nearly a decade in surf magazines and psychedelic posters; Victor Moscoso was a Brooklyn graphic artist trained in modernism who had already designed some of the best posters of the 20th century (my list of the best poster designers might go like this, in no particular order: A.M. Cassandre, Tadanori Yokoo, Wolfgang Weingart, Moscoso); Robert Williams had done years in the trenches of Southern Californian hot rod culture perfecting the rendering of chrome with ink; Gilbert Shelton was a well-published Texan classic cartoonist and yarn spinner; Coming out of the freak scene in Kansas, S. Clay Wilson had a half-decade of mature work under his belt, and was then perhaps the most grotesque image-maker in North America aside from Peter Saul; Spain, a Marxist, came from Buffalo biker culture and had already been well-published in the underground press. All of this is to say: These were not pikers. They were practiced. They had skill.

Yes, that word comes to mind: The level and diversity of skill displayed in these comics is unmatched. No other comic book before or since has contained such unbelievable skillful drawing on all fronts. Not skill like being able to draw photo-realistically (though Crumb and Williams could and did) but skill in terms of being able to make an utterly distinctive world visible on the page, and doing so by delineating its physical properties. The best cartooning does this – traps you in a visual space. And Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso simply blew the doors off of what a comic could be. Yes, “abstract” comic narratives existed before, most notably in the work of Saul Steinberg, but Griffin and Moscoso used the comic book form in a way no one had before – as a place for plot-free graphic exploration. And one more thing about this group: By calling themselves a closed group, they signaled their own break from hippie communalism. They waved a pirate flag and practically begged the squares to come and get them

I don’t mean there weren’t tripped out non-comic comics before, but those rarely surfaced. Zap was happening on a mass cult level! Print runs could reach 50,000 or more copies. Zap was nearly as common as a Grateful Dead record, and all of the artists were intimately connected to the popular music scenes of the day via posters and record covers. For a brief moment, underground comics gave the casual freak or edge-culture buyer a comic to read. We have those now, but print runs tend toward 2500 copies unless you’re in the quality lit game (see above). And "Underground" didn’t mean gathering in a church gymnasium and playing swap shop. This was a real commercial enterprise. It meant a vast network of heads, some dopey, some delusional, some smart and some vicious, but it was a network – it was there and until its inevitable collapse, it sustained quite a few cartoonists. And of course Zap inspired a ton of underground comics. This was not a band – it was a gang, and they were better than you, but accessible. You couldn’t be them, but you could do THIS activity. And so: underground comic book publishing. Has comics ever been in sync with the youth culture since? Maybe glancingly, on a much smaller scale in the 1990s with Clowes, Peter Bagge and the Hernandez Bros? On a very small scale in Providence? But no one has broken through in a Zap way since.

The other remarkable thing about Zap is that this was the dark side of the counter-culture – it was not particularly friendly. Zap 2, fully a year before Manson and everything went south, has S. Clay Wilson’s debauched work in full force. Here was prescient acknowledgment, furthered in 1969’s issue 4, with Crumb’s “Joe Blow”, that the hippie utopia didn’t work. The artists believe in something – maybe in art or themselves, but not in hippie utopia.

This darkness, as well as the de facto avant-garde nature of the act of making those kind of comics helps situate it next to artists like Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Joan Brown, Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Claes Oldenberg and The Fugs. “Art” became a dirty word in comics in the ’60s, what with Warhol and Lichtenstein and appropriation etc., but really Zap had a lot in common with some of the contemporaneous art, in terms of the breakdown of all moral taboos and boundary pushing and fucking with people-ness. It was a re-envisioning of what was possible in a given art form; a grotesque and debased shout.

Obviously Zap functioned in different social and economic worlds from those artists (though there was briefly some crossover with exhibitions at The Corcoran in Washington, D.C., and The Whitney Museum in New York), but most of those artists weren’t getting rich, either. I mention them not just to link Zap to something else in the culture, but to emphasize how radical what Crumb did with Zap #1: He did what Robert Rauschenberg did, and what Marcel Duchamp did before him: He took something you thought you understood and turned it inside out. Just like Rauschenberg pronounced a grotesque conglomeration of objects to be “art”, so Crumb pronounced Zap #1 a “comic book”. Not an artists book, not a newspaper, but a comic book. He declares it to be something, and it came true. Because Zap was above all a willing into being of a new thing. Go beyond that initial moment and think about the cover to Zap #3 by Rick Griffin (an artist who desperately needs a reexamination in his proper cultural context, to be appreciated as one of our great wild and wooly American artists) remains perhaps the most deeply strange image ever to be published as a comic book cover: A beetle approaches a sun, there is a staircase, there is Hebrew lettering, and there is nonsense lettering. And yes, it bears the form of a comic.

But look, Zap is not infallible. After 1971 you could say that there more interesting cartoonists to read in the prose/lit sense of the term (as opposed to the more drawing-based Moscoso, Griffin, Williams and Wilson) – Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, Aline Kominsky Crumb (though no one did experiential comics better than Moscoso and Griffin), for example, but no other group meshed so well together, nothing else (and there were many attempts) had that combination of strengths. And you could not like Zap for its violence and misogyny, but that’s like dismissing de Kooning for his “Woman” series. This is not propaganda or literal-minded work. There is a difference between breaking taboos and being hateful, and there are terrible downsides to all revolutions. But what Zap gave us far outweighs any of its problems. It is fecund territory to explore, and I hope there’ll be another printing of this thing so that it can work its spell once more.

20 Responses to On Zap

  1. Eric Reynolds says:

    Great piece, and well put regarding the shifting tides of influence. I hadn’t thought of things in quite that way, but I think you are on to something.

  2. >>>I mean, if you’d told me ten years ago that the figures looming largest in comics today (at least from what I can tell at festivals and online) are Osamu Tezuka, Moebius, and Alison Bechdel I’d have laughed you out of the room.

    I wouldn’t have. I would have just nodded my head.

    The alternative history of comics has always existed, it just wasn’t acknowledged.

    That said, fascinating piece.

  3. Dan Nadel says:

    Yep, I wrote two books about the alternative history of comics. I know it all very well. I knew it well 10 years ago. But I’m talking about influence, not history. If you’d nodded your head then (in, I guess, agreement?) you were certainly more prescient than anyone else around.

  4. Jeez I’m really risking sounding like an idiot whenever I comment here, but here are my thoughts nevertheless:

    I think Crumb and the Zap guys represented an ideal image to earlier generations of cartoonists that wanted to make serious, personal comics with no limitations. And as the years went on, their influence produced this kind of work.

    At this point in time however, the need to draw “nigger hearts” and people using women as toilets are no longer necessary to break taboos. I think you are starting to see younger cartoonists view Zap as a product of it’s time, and not something that needs to be integrated into their work. The restrictions that we face today may speak to why Allison Bechdel is put in such high esteem and relevancy. I think the appreciation for Zap is defintiely there though.

    I personally see the value in Zap, and I think Crumb’s lines are the best ever scratched onto paper after Moebius and Herriman respectively. This has nothing to do with my point. I’m just saying.

  5. Frank Santoro says:

    “took something you thought you understood and turned it inside out” – I appreciated this part a lot.

  6. R. Fiore says:

    Well you know, it’s a much bigger island than it used to be. I once compared alternative comics to a volcanic island, which went dormant for a while and then erupted once more and just grew and grew. (Note: Not the same volcano analogy I used for digital media transmission.) Once it was small enough for one school to dominate, but no longer. One consequence is that the Zap cartoonists will have to maintain their reputations as individuals rather than a collective. If Crumb’s position has eclipsed, which I tend to doubt, then it’s not going to last. Spain transcended his underground roots by producing a large body of work apart from it. Shelton I suspect is perceived as a comic strip Cheech & Chong, which is unfortunate and unjust. His work has such a basic appeal, however, that I think it could be revived by some well-produced and edited collections. The thing about Williams is that his most significant cartooning is presented as paintings, and they render his formal comic strips a bit of a footnote. The others I don’t have any particularly strong feeling about.

    One thing that limits Zap’s influence is that a woman reading it has to be willing to put up with a lot of shit. Unless they wanted to pursue gender politics directly, the National Lampoon was a much more important route for women into cartooning than the hyper-masculine underground. Weirdo, on the other hand, was a lot more gender-ecumenical.

    The thing I notice about the counter-influences Dan cites is what good models they are. Tezuka can show you a lot about what you can do with a comic strip. It’s certainly much better to be influenced someone like Bechdel who shows you what good drawing adds to a compelling story than someone who suggests you can get by with half-assed artwork if your story is compelling enough. Moebius, it depends on how you take him. It’s much better if your perception of him includes Blueberry. It’s much better if you take him as a creator of fully imagined and fully realized worlds, rather than a purveyor of dazzle. What they have in common with the Zap crew is an emphasis on the importance of the graphic dimension of the art form.

  7. Jeffrey Goodman says:

    ” there is now a notable lack of interest in Crumb (and a fair bit of antipathy, as well, but hey, he can take it) and a near-total disinterest in underground comics in general.”

    “The Complete Zap Comix came and went a couple months back, selling out at the distributor level within a week or so of its release.”

    I’m confused!

  8. Dan Nadel says:

    @Jeffrey Goodman: I don’t think you’re really confused, but just in case: I was referring to a lack of interest amongst the younger generation of cartoonists — the under-30 set. The Zap set was not aimed at that demographic. The issues themselves are mostly readily available at a $3-5 a pop.

  9. Jeffrey Goodman says:

    Dan, I get what you’re saying, but you could also substitute ‘black and white movies’ and ‘Sgt. Bilko’ for Zap and leave out the word ‘cartoonists’ and arrive at the same conclusion. I have noticed times where I have been in a comics store chatting about undergrounds with some fellow enthusiast, that younger folks do take an interest when they become aware of the existence of them. I showed a 20-something employee at my LCS a batch of Zaps and not only was he unaware of them in general, as soon as he started to give them a close look it was hard to get them out of his hands when I wanted to leave!

    I’m more the demographic for the Zap set except for the fact that I don’t have $350-500 to spend on it. Especially when the Oral History and Zap #16 are the only components that would be new to me. Sadly that wad of cash is set aside for other collected editions or comics histories, similar to your 2 volumes (which I’m proud to own), that I don’t already have more than enough of….I mean when you factor in the other collections and monographs of the various Zap-sters, it just gets redundant and almost incestuous with the limited output that’s historically been available.

  10. Noel says:

    “I mention them not just to link Zap to something else in the culture, but to emphasize how radical what Crumb did with Zap #1: He did what Robert Rauschenberg did, and what Marcel Duchamp did before him: He took something you thought you understood and turned it inside out. Just like Rauschenberg pronounced a grotesque conglomeration of objects to be “art”, so Crumb pronounced Zap #1 a “comic book”. Not an artists book, not a newspaper, but a comic book. He declares it to be something, and it came true. Because Zap was above all a willing into being of a new thing.”

    I’m not sure how I feel about Crumb being compared to Rauschenberg or Duchamp. Crumb’s work certainly broke new ground in the field, but I don’t think Zap#1 could be confused for anything but a comic. In some cases Rauschenberg and Duchamp’s work evokes in viewers a feeling of being unsure of what they’re looking at. “Am I looking at a painting, or a taxidermied goat?” “Is this a sculpture? a urinal? both?” “Is this art?” They challenged the idea of the form of painting and sculpture. Crumb offered a unique vision for comics, but his work is so firmly grounded in the pre-existing form, down to the EC inspired cover design of Zap#1, he pushed the medium forward by making comics for adults, but he didn’t come near breaking the form nor was that his intention. I feel like his work is about making well drawn tijuana bible infused personal worlds. He broke some rules, sure, but he didn’t turn anything inside out, there was so little to be turned inside out at that point. He worked in a medium with a legacy almost entirely of a commercial nature directed and marketed towards children. He finished laying the ground work for the medium, helping to bridge comics into the world of the adult intellectual through immature yet beautiful means.

    In short, I would argue that Rauschenberg and Duchamp’s work is about questioning modernism, and Crumb’s work is in line with Modernism. Maybe Crumb could be more appropriately compared to Manet, showing up to a salon with a crude nude and reminding a generation that there’s a world outside of the rules.

  11. John Larrey says:

    I initially clicked on this article just to see the eye candy that IS THE Rick Griffin cover to Zap #3. It looks Great! Glowing up there on the screen!

    Now, I liked this write up…I’m glad they gave Zap! the deluxe, hi-def, publishing-treatment…And I’m glad they sold out! And the article is a nice “tap on the shoulder” to the younger crowd of comic book readers and artists, who may not know about ZAP!, because they were born after 1985…Which, by that time, a middle aged Robert Crumb was in a battle with publishers (and the general US public), defending the early ZAP! comics he made in his 20’s, from the late 60’s Protest Era America…(which, in many quarters of the US are STILL considered controversial, obscene, and racists works).

    Essentially, by 1985, R. Crumb was busy advocating for comic book creator rights, working to get protections for expressing ideas, and fair business practices…while fending off lawsuits…just to stay in the business of drawing and writing up comics books…And since the Paris attacks, it HARD not to think of ZAP! since it was the European artists who helped him out during that time…But yes, I’ve run into the 30 year old (and under) comic book reader/artist that has not heard of ZAP! Ya’know, because it’s the Underground Press …not the Alternative Press…That’s not a slight…But they are sometimes confused or treated as interchangeable…sometimes it works, but not so much with ZAP! I agree with the gist; There really is NOT a modern-day (post 911) corollary to ZAP!

    It’s easy to see why ZAP! has fallen off the “influential works” lists in the past years…because, quite frankly, it’s NOT an EASY READ…And while, yes, it IS a product of it’s time, it’s was NEVER meant to be “ready-for-prime-time…” That was kind of the whole idea behind the thing…And while I’m sure the specialty book goes into more details about the PRINTING history of the Underground Press…it would’ve been nice to get a few lines in the article…how ZAP! was (on a confrontational level) a direct reaction to the Comics Code,which was imposed on nationally distributed comic books at the time…

    Now, I’m not knocking the new Comics Code Cup for sale or anything, but 20 somethings should know that there was a time when the Comics Code effectively censored out (and forced businesses NOT to hire) those artists who wanted to write and draw “controversial material” for comic books (to protect the children). It was either “our way or the high way”…

    And here were these freaky-skilled comic book and book illustrators THAT WERE NOT INTERESTED in doing super heroes books, or funny animal books, or training manuals, or working inside the Hollywood / Disney animation studio system, or design book cover jackets and magazine slicks for the High Art crowd in New York City, or slave away for an advertising conglomerate opening on the other side of the globe…For many of these guys, there was only ONE way to make it happen- You HAD to Do-It-Yourself…

    And yes, Thank God for the music (drug) scene! But, even that had pitfalls, because ZAP! was an Independent Voice…Made from six to eight different creators…Each of them with a distinct style, yes…but, being published nationally (sans Comic Code) each became a weird representative for certain sections/areas of the US, each figuring out how to DEAL with the so-called MODERN WORLD. So, R. Crumb was dealing with the radical issues hitting the 60’s (fall out from the FBI criminal trials of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s…when mobbed-up connections used publishing houses (as money fronts) had dried up, or mysteriously burned down…the rise of sexual freedoms with the pill… the influx of blacks and inter-racial couples fleeing from larger cities (usually on fire)… the shootings at Kent State University, the military draft, etc. And, his MOST favorite jab (ala Mr. Natural) – The things we’ve done to our land, our towns, our cities, and with our lives, in the name of PROGRESS. For a guy who was nostalgic for the simplicity of small town America, I’m assuming it was A LOT to take…

    Meanwhile, the West Coast artists were dealing with the Haight-Asbury drug scene, the Manson murders and the death penalty, biker gangs – some of them, friends who grew up along the coast, joined the army for patriotic purposes, were trained and shipped out from dozens of military bases, and never came back, or came back damaged, or worst, came back REALLY MAD AT EVERYONE…ALONG with the San Fransisco poets, and the surf culture…When dealing with ZAP! – context is important! And I’ve barely scratched the surface…

    In a nutshell, when ZAP! showed up, it was a comic book, sure, but it was the ANTI-COMIC BOOK! It was showing you (obscene bathroom trips and all) what YOU could put in a comic book – WHILE, at the same time, becoming something MORE than a normal comic book…Justice League of America this was NOT! And it was mistaken by the general counter-culture at large as a MANIFESTO of sorts…R. Crumb has spoken about how hippies and anti-establishments-types would tell him (back then) that ZAP! was great and the artists are great and then something to the effect: “YOU guys should do a thing about the poor, or the war, or this, or that, and be REALLY in their face about it! Go GIVE it to them!”

    You know, YOU TAKE THE RISKS…And he’d tell those folks that they should MAKE their own comic book…and he’s NOT a hippie, he’s NOT a sexists, he’s NOT a “peacenik” with a message, or a manifesto…He’s an artists…trying to cope with his own viewpoints of society… which, truthfully, can be unpleasant to read for some…I own ZAP! comics, but I’m not going to show them to my mother or a twelve year old child…I’m not apologizing for him or making excuses for him…I’m saying…Discretion is key: As a comic book, ZAP! was intended to be everything comics books (and to an extent, satire itself) were NOT allowed to be…ZAP! promotes sex, drug use,violence, the bad guys win, the ideal is inverted, the weirdest one in the room gets the rewards…The women are exaggerated and unashamedly UNLADYLIKE… The successful men in the suit and ties are turned into an animals, or grotesque doppelgangers who REALLY “just doesn’t get it…” and are less successful when it comes to dealing with paradigm shifts.

    ZAP! was part visual psychedelic trip-guide, part conscious provoking-dilemmas, and part shock for shock’s sake, while using (and destroying) the comic book format…Yes, it featured the standard 6 grid pages, 2 page splash collages, but also had short auto-bio tales, dream journals, meaningless doodles, and single frame pieces of art (some hanging up in museums now-a-days), bundled inside one issue…It refused to conform…while in a strange way setting up a lot of what would become (to a degree) the template for The Alternative Press…ZAP! was/is an important piece in comic book history, but it was designed for The Underground, not the main stream…That said, it’s nice to dig it up every now and again and PLUG IN!

    Anyway, thanks for letting me get that off my chest…Peace!

  12. >>>If you’d nodded your head then (in, I guess, agreement?) you were certainly more prescient than anyone else around.

    Tezuka is one of the most influential cartoonists of ALL TIMES! You hardly need to be prescient to figures that out.

    Crumb is a great cartoonist, but his themes of misogyny (Self aware, but asking “Am I a misogynist, I wonder?” is not a great opening line) and cultural appropriation are not in vogue today.

  13. Dan Nadel says:

    Heidi, there wasn’t much in print by Tezuka in 2004 (Buddha started in 2003, and before that it was junky Dark Horse books). I was there. People just weren’t talking about him. He’s hugely influential, but I was writing specifically about generational influence for US cartoonists. You’re being totally disingenuous (or at best, just completely misremembering), but whatever.

  14. R. Fiore says:

    The question is, in what time frame was the reputation of the Zap group most out of proportion? I think a fair-minded answer would be when they were the center of the universe. If they’re waning now they’ll wax, and since they’re unlikely to fall out of view altogether they will likely each find their proper place, possibly with advantages. For instance, Victor Moscoso is esoteric in the world of comic strips as a whole, but extraordinarily accessible among abstract comics. Being inordinately dedicated to strong meat they can’t help but challenge contemporary sensitivities, but you know, those aren’t going to last forever either.

  15. R. Fiore says:

    As I also have lived in the past, I should add that Dan is correct in saying how surprising it is to think that Crumb wouldn’t be a central figure, particularly given how high he stands among cartoonists-as-artists. The ratio to the next name down the line, whoever you might dub, is just about Beatles/Kinks. However, it’s not hard to see why a young contemporary cartoonist might feel more in common with Alison Bechdel, or a story-oriented cartoonist would gravitate more to Tezuka, or a fantastic adventure cartoonist might gravitate to Moebius.

  16. Ralphe Ostrander says:

    “Crumb is a great cartoonist, but his themes of misogyny (Self aware, but asking “Am I a misogynist, I wonder?” is not a great opening line) and cultural appropriation are not in vogue today.”

    Whew! Stop the presses! Scoop is on it! Meanwhile, Haspiel’s Abs at 11:00!

  17. R. Fiore says:

    Cultural appropriation is the source of most that’s best in American culture. All hail miscegenation!

  18. Dan, there were certainly cartoonists in the 90s who bought Tezuka in the Japanese versions. Scott McCloud was very active in promoting Tezuka, and laugh if you will, but he was also tight with a bunch of folks in the indie cartooning circles of the 90s. There was always a little Tezuka cult—probably smaller than the Urasawa cult now. But you didn’t need to read his stuff in English to follow his storytelling.

    I’m a little sad that the comment above mocking me from a known troll was approved. But then, this is a thread about Zap!

  19. Michael Grabowski says:

    The question I have is how well the newest Zap! material from these artists holds up to the standard set by the collected historical work. The price pretty much limits the conversation on that for now. Which is pretty bitterly funny, that a product of the underground, made in such a format that its ideas could be as accessible as possible to the masses, has now become this upper-bourgeois artifact only available to “the 1%.”

  20. Will S says:

    Gary panter shows this Griffin cover in every slideshow at a college I’ve seen him do. Fun fact

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