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The Lowdown on Undergrounds by Joseph Fiore

We would like to welcome Joseph Fiore to the GPAnalysis as the team's Advisor expert on Underground Comics. In his first of many installments, Joseph introduces us to Undergrounds.

When I agreed to write about Underground (UG) comix for this newsletter, I wondered how I could make the abandoned child of the comic book medium an interesting read. I use the term "abandoned" mainly because it is most appropriate in describing how UG comix continue to be overlooked by Overstreet, and the only comprehensive body of work containing information on varying prints and pricing is now over twenty years out of print.

I began to sort through old reviews, articles and historical documents that had worked to both preserve and define the counterculture era. Almost immediately I began to realize how it was that I originally got interested in collecting UG’s. The black sheep of the comic hobby certainly made its mark in the most dramatic of fashion, most notably for paving the way for a new generation of talented artists, and influencing an era of unique stories, incredible artwork and limitless creativity. As you will soon discover, its story is compelling. Its past makes the present coherent, and its relevance in the new age of collecting will soon speak volumes for this column. It is where the inspiration for sharing its story can be found.

These days, when I’m talking to people about UG’s, they regularly throw around names such as Zap Comix, XYZ, Cheech Wizard and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. These were classic UG comix titles made popular by some of the UG scenes most prolific artists. Artists the likes of Robert Crumb(1), Jay Lynch, S. Clay Wilson, Richard Corben(2) and Gilbert Shelton(3), who all got there start producing work for college magazines. Some even got a shot at being published in Harvey Kurtzman's HELP!, which he started shortly after leaving MAD Magazine.

The influence of EC’s MAD title on the UG comix movement is a well-documented one. Kurtzman’s brainchild is arguably the most important humor title in comics history. In fact it wasn’t until MAD changed its comic to a magazine format that the publisher decided to canter all its humor and parody completely around adults. The trouble EC had with Wertham and the Comics Code is now a permanent part of the comic hobby’s lore. By the mid-1960s, the restrictions placed on content by the Comics Code Authority and the near-total monopoly of corporate-owned characters in comic books were working to frustrate a new generation of cartoonists. These were budding artists who yearned to explore new methods of expression or, at least, create comics that could be read by adults. UG comix began to take their course in the late 60's and they appropriately earned their name mainly because they were not distributed through normal channels.

During the heyday of UG's, the comix were largely distributed though a network of "head shops" which also sold UG newspapers, psychedelic posters, and drug paraphernalia. In the mid-1970's, the Vietnam War was over. The absence of a rallying cause forced the sales of drug paraphernalia to be outlawed in many places, and the distribution network for these comics (and the UG newspapers) dried up. Although many of the UG artists continued to produce work, the UG comix movement is considered by many historians to have ended by sometime in the late 1970's.

This first installment concludes with a comic chronology. It is not meant to be an all-encompassing timeline, but rather a brief chronology which begins with the movements pre-history and ends with two of the UG comix movements most important titles. For a more comprehensive history, check your local bookstores or libraries for the books listed in my cited sources.

Comix Chronology:

Pre-History


-         1920’s -1950’s digest-sized “men’s magazines  & joke books

-         1930’s – 1940’s Tijuana Bibles

-         1952 – (EC) MAD Comics #1

-         1954-1955 – Comics Code forms

-         1958The Realist by Paul Krassner; Robert & Charles Crumb’s first fanzine Foo #’s 1,2

-         1959 – Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Wart Hog makes an appearance in a college humor mag

-         1960Kurtzman’s HELP! Magazine is launched

-         1962 – Frank Stack self-publishes the Adventures of Jesus

-         1963 – Vaughn Bode self-publishes Das Kampf

-         1964 – Jeff Jackson self-publishes God Nose

-         1965 – Joel Beck self-publishes Lenny of Laredo

-         1967 – Crumb’s work appears in Yarrowstalks, EVO, Cavalier

-         1968Zap Comix #1 (Robert Crumb, printed by Charles Plymell, Apex Novelties)

             –        Fed’s ‘n’ Heads #1 (Gilbert Shelton) First Freak Brothers in comic books.


Zap Comix (1967-1998): created by the most influential and prolific cartoonist of the Underground Comix movement, Robert Crumb, whose collected works are being preserved by Fantagraphics in the ongoing series of books The Complete Crumb (since 1987). Gilbert Freak Brothers first saw print in 1968 in a comic book called Fed’s ‘n’ Heads and quickly became a cult phenomenon.

Sources used for this article:

  • UG! 3K: 160 Pages of the Best in Underground Comix!  Dan Fogel. 1999, FogelComix.
  • COMIX: A History of Comic Books in America.  Les Daniels and John Peck. 1971, Bonanza Books.
  • The Official Underground Comix and New Wave Price Guide. Jay Kennedy. 1982, Boatner Norton Press.
  • GPAnalysis Website http://comics.gpanalysis.com


 
     
     
 

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