Crafting a Complete Zap

We've been covering the release of The Complete Zap Comix, which is in stores now, via various archival interviews with artists (here's Crumb and Spain) and we'll have a review and an essay shortly-ish. I thought I'd ask editor and publisher (and of course, the boss at this mag) Gary Groth a few questions about the project to try to get a more personal take on it. I don't need to say much by way of introduction, as Gary's answers are geared toward providing all the context you need to understand this project. While I was waiting for his answers the news broke that the book is, in fact sold out at the publisher level. It's still in stores and online, but it was sold non-returnable to retailers and there is not any stock left via Fantagraphics' distribution channels. Now on with the show. - DN

Dan Nadel: Tell me a bit how you see the importance of Zap as a publishing model, as the launch of the underground comic book business (such as it was), and then as an ongoing publishing entity through various houses.

Gary Groth: It wasn’t just Zap as a model, but the entire underground comix publishing ethos, of which Zap was probably the most prominent example. For the first time in the history of comics, there was a community, a movement, a collective —however you want to characterize it— of artists who took it for granted that they would own their own work, function as autonomous creative artists, and wrote and drew comix as a form of personal expression. And there were publishers who sprung up who instinctively honored this principle (Last Gasp, Rip-Off, Print Mint).

I see Zap as part of the lineage of historically important and aesthetically ground breaking comics anthologies, the first in this lineage, of course, being Mad, which influenced all the Zap artists; next, Humbug, then witzend, then Zap. (Mid-way through Zap’s run, there was Weirdo and Raw, of course.) Each one of these comics anthologies were created by the artists themselves in opposition to the prevailing economic and creative standards of the comics industry; each one of them was created in order to give artists greater freedom to create the work they wanted to create, without the editorial restrictions placed on them by commercial dictates;  and the publishing rights and original art featured in each of them (with the exception of Mad, which was at least published by the most enlightened publisher in the history of comics to that time), was owned by the artists —collectively, they represent the long fight for cartoonists to take control of their own destinies. They are the Humbug co-op (composed of Harvey Kurtzman, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee, Jack Davis, and Will Elder) wanted the freedom to edit, write, and draw a humor magazine suitable for grown-ups; Wally Wood hated mainstream publishers, may have hated editors even more, and created witzend as a place where mainstream cartoonists (and a few young underground artists like Art Spiegelman) could do whatever they wanted, free of the suffocating editorial demands imposed on them by mainstream comics editors; and Zap, of course, created by Crumb, became a collective where the artists could do whatever they wanted. As a model of artists taking their “careers” into their own hands, it can’t be beat.

How and when did you come to the material first? The 1970s? And when did it take root for you as part of your own set of interests?

I was a late bloomer. I don’t think I discovered underground comix until my last year in high school, which would’ve been 1972; I was too immersed in Marvel and DC to notice them. Despite my living a sheltered suburban upbringing, I remember being delighted by them rather than shocked, and by 1973, I started a tiny mail-order business and began dealing undergrounds. I’d drive into Georgetown (in Washington, DC) and buy comics at wholesale rates from a head shop. So, by ’74, I had hundreds of undergrounds in my apartment and kept one copy for myself of those I thought were remotely interesting. I gained a greater appreciation for them once I started the Journal in ’76 and began to think more comprehensively about the history of comics. I published Jack Jackson’s Los Tejanos in 1981 and that began my affiliation with underground cartoonists.

Zap has had a varied publishing life. How did you come to it as a publisher, and what made me you want to initiate the collection?

For someone who has devoted his entire adult life to the proposition that comics could be art, Zap is the Holy Grail — an important touchstone, historically and aesthetically, so it was an obvious project to propose and take on. I’d met all the Zap artists over the years at cons, at parties, or because I approached them about publishing solo books of their work — and as it happens, I eventually published virtually most of the Zap artists in individual volumes — several by Spain, two volumes of Robert Williams’ paintings and his complete comics, a collection by Moscoso. Of course, I pitched my idea of The Complete Crumb Comics to Robert in ’86, and published 17 volumes of it (along with ten volumes of his Sketchbooks, and several solo themed volumes). We serialized Gilbert Shelton’s “Not Quite Dead” strip in Mome. I never published Paul Mavrides exactly, but I did conduct a great interview with him for The Comics Journal (which was easy because Paul is a fascinating guy and a great talker). (I only met and spoke with Rick Griffin once — at the sprawling Psychedelic Solution party in 1989.) So, I knew the artists and worked with most of them. When I proposed the idea, I think they were open to it because they knew me and most of them had worked with me. Which doesn’t mean it was a slam-dunk. I think they had interest from other publishers, and it took me years to negotiate the contract — Zap is an egalitarian co-op and everyone has to agree to every single thing, which is wonderfully utopian but inefficient.

Why did you choose this format, as opposed to something less deluxe?

Partly because it kept growing organically. One of Victor’s requirements was that the book be published big — 9” x 12” (and as it turns out, it’s even bigger than that). The dimensions pushed the price up. (I was a skeptical of this at first, but in retrospect, he was absolutely right: The art in Zap is often dense and detailed. It suffers being reduced to the size of a comic and the repro suffered by being printed on cheap paper. Since we were able to scan from negatives and print larger, this is the best reproduction the work has ever seen.) Then, I felt that a history of Zap and bios of all the artists were essential. Patrick Rosenkranz produced an oral history and wrote the bios. Originally, I envisioned two volumes. Once I realized how many pages the complete Zap comprised, I knew it couldn’t be two volumes — two volumes would be so heavy that they’d be too unwieldy to read! So, the two became four. The Zap history expanded because we kept finding more historical images to accompany it — photos, many of which had never been published, many of which had been published in obscure ‘zines; drawings, sketches, etc. (there are over a dozen full pages by Crumb of pre-Zap Zap covers that he was playing around with in his sketchbooks). One Patrick turned in his text, Mike Catron was assigned as the managing editor and scoured the earth for images, and the history became its own solo volume. At this point, the retail price was already clearly well over $200, so we decided to hell with it and to go all out on this first edition, include 17 gyclee prints of the covers in its own clam shell, and charge accordingly. Make it a true collector’s item. We can offer it later at a lower price point, but my goal was to make the first edition a unique package that the work deserves.

How is Zap important now, in the age of the quality lit graphic novel (or, for that matter, CAB)? Which parts do you think have endured and which seem less successful?

It’s important to know that it’s quite probable that there wouldn’t be literary graphic novels today if it weren’t for the artistic terrain the Zap artists and the other underground cartoonists pioneered. This is the first time in the history of comic books that there was a critical mass of artists who insisted on their work being an expression of themselves — their sensibilities, values, and ideals. Every independent cartoonist today who’s doing work of great personal meaning owes a debt of gratitude to them for breaking this ground.

God knows, there were vast numbers of awful underground comics written and drawn by kids who were inspired by Crumb or Wilson or Shelton but who didn’t have the talent or commitment to pull it off, and published by publishers who were not discriminatory and were cashing in. But, the best work done between, say, ’67 and ’75, stands the test of time, and the artists in Zap were among the best cartoonists to come out of the underground scene. There were other important artists, of course (Bill Griffith, Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Greg Irons, Vaughn Bode, et al.), but every artist in Zap was a devoted craftsman, stylistically unique, with a distinct point of view. Zap was a creature of its time, but the artists never flagged, and continued doing outstanding work throughout the run of the title — including in the last, 16th issue, that’s published in the Complete Zap.

How do you situate Zap in terms of its literary and artistic context in the 1960s and '70s, even into the '80s? How, if at all, do it cross with your literary interests in that time period?

Zap was obviously part of the ’60-counter-cultural zeitgeist —it couldn’t have happened without the larger cultural shift that it epitomized— but I tend to think the whole underground comix revolution was too singular to compare tidily with the stylistic and attitudinal shifts in the other arts in the ‘60s (and ’70s). You can observe parallels in other media: artists like Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Frank Jacobs, and Kenneth Anger were pushing the formal elements of film; Vonnegut, Pynchon, Brautigan, Kesey, and others were emerging in prose fiction, but they didn’t represent a decisive split from the past.

But in terms of visual art, I don’t see much connection to other artists emerging in the ‘60s. Surely the Zap artists had little in common with (and I bet most were even fundamentally opposed to) Warhol (who showed his first comic strip painting in 1960) or Litchenstein (who did his first comic strip painting in 1961) or Claus Oldenberg or Gerhard Richter or Ed Ruscha, whose ascendancy parallels the underground artists. Their respective values seem quite different to me. The only art movement that I can see that Zap or the underground artists generally shares any affinity with is the Chicago Imagists (or the Hairy Who) (who had their first show in ’66)— artists like Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum. They had a cartoony, occasionally psychedelic cast to their work, but used to different ends, the results of which were pretty remote from those of underground comix. You could make a case that Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had the same aesthetically anarchic spirit as much of the undergrounds, but that too seems a bit of a stretch. And maybe rock was was as huge a break from previous pop music as Zap was from previous industrial comics production, but the explosion of rock seems more like a continuation or culmination of musical trends, whereas underground comix was a decisive break from the past — a deliberate, incendiary reaction to the censored blandness of comics over the previous 15 years. So it seems to me that the Zap crew was somehow part of but apart from their countercultural brethren in the other arts.