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 Things are far too fractured now to nail down any dominant lineage in comics, and Clowes and Ware have withdrawn from their more public efforts at history making, having thankfully accomplished a ton.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.