NEW YORK – Comic books have long fulfilled many needs from young children learning to read to adults seeking entertainment or escapism. Created for adult tastes, underground comics have all the appeal of their more straitlaced counterparts but set out to be revolutionary. With titillating covers and subversive topics, the most sought-after of these were Zap Comix, which proclaimed from its first issue that it was breaking new ground, printing on the cover “For Adult Intellectuals Only.”
Underground comics sprang from the youth counterculture movement in the late 1960s and while Zap Comix was not the first, it is well known. Its name (comix vs. comics) is not merely phonetic but spoke to the co-mixing of comics with raunchy art, dirty jokes and provocative storylines.
Alex Winter, president of Hakes’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania, said the underground comics world embraced the counterculture movement of the time and reveled in all things subversive. “No topic was off limits from political views to drug culture to the sexual revolution and all points in-between,” he said. “While the comic book world was not without controversy over the years, what was printed in the pages of the underground comics was like nothing that had come before it. It set the stage for what would follow in the coming decades as far as taking content and subject matter to new limits and further shaking up the establishment.”
Arthur S. Nusbaum, founder of Third Mind Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., said one must first consider the emergence of underground in the wake of their countercultural predecessors – the writers of the Beat Generation – and in the heady milieu of late 1960s San Francisco in which Zap Comix first appeared. “By the late 1950s, New York City was not the only countercultural hotbed for literary or artistic insurgency then flowered or blooming,” he said.
In 1963, poet-publisher-printer Charles Plymell was based in San Francisco with Neal Cassady, known to most as the muse or “hero” famously depicted in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, according to Nusbaum. Plymell’s peer group comprised Beat Generation luminaries like
Allen Ginsberg, and being a printer/publisher afforded him unfettered access to a large group of like-minded poets, activists and intellectuals.
Arguably the most controversial – and most well-known – of all the underground comics artists was Robert Dennis Crumb, who shared his story in volume V of The Complete Zap Comix (Fantagrafics Books Inc., 2014), explaining he drew one issue in October 1967 and one in November. “Don Donahue, publisher of Apex Novelties, saw the original art for Zap and really liked it. Donahue knew Charles Plymell, an old hipster poet who had a small offset printing press,” Crumb was quoted as saying, adding that Donahue funded Zap’s first printing in early 1968 by trading his $300 tape recorder to Plymell. “Plymell was the printer of the early runs of the most-important issue of Zap Comix, Zap Comix No. 1, and Crumb did write and ‘draw’ the entire issue himself,” Nusbaum said.
What makes one issue more valuable than another? Just like other comics and printed matter, first and foremost are printings and condition. Most sought after are first printings in high grade of key issues, Winter explained. “Many Underground titles saw multiple printings and some are not so obvious but there is now a wealth of information on the subject, so it is key to make sure of the printing you have or are searching for,” he said. “Robert Crumb is certainly the most recognized name in underground comis, and the most collected, but there are so many legendary names that were a part of that movement and command just as much attention such as Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriquez just to name a few.”
Nusbaum echoed his comments, saying, “Early issues of Zap don’t necessarily have value because they just contain Crumb ‘artwork’ and Crumb actually isn’t even the best artist of those that contributed to Zap as it went along. His contemporaries, including the great Robert Williams, were far better artists than Crumb ever was,” he said. “What Crumb did was combine the countercultural sentiments of the Psychedelic Revolution – namely a prescription to the psychological beneficence of psychedelic drugs on one’s worldview – the literary angle of the Beat Generation (as exemplified by this partnership with Plymell) – and the sexual revolution that went part-and-parcel with both of those.”
The legacy of Zap Comix is widespread and echoes today. “Zap is fun, educational and historically important because it’s virtually the first time the counterculture began to laugh at itself in order to learn from itself. It’s the counterculture, commenting on the counterculture,” Nusbaum said.
A product of its time and place in the birthplace of counterculture, San Francisco, Zap Comix influenced artists worldwide, changed how comics are created (graphic novels might not otherwise exist today) and they continue to inspire nonconformists and enthrall collectors today.