Our script editor, Adrian Reynolds, gives a brief history of the American underground comix movement, something that inspired Hunt Emerson, the artist for our DH Lawrence chapter.
“The American underground comics were what started me on comics in the first place. I’d read the Beano etc as a child, and also been profoundly influenced by early MAD comics, but it wasn’t until I saw work by Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Kim Deitch, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, and their contemporaries, when I was in my early 20s, that I got the idea that this was the path I wanted to follow. My own work was influenced by them and by the British kids comics, and then later, as I learned about comics history, by such as George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and by European comics.” Hunt Emerson
American kids of the fifties grew up but never really left childhood behind. Advertisers recognised youth as the biggest market to sell stuff to, and entertainment was aimed at a generation who didn’t want to make the same choices as their parents. Movies like Easy Rider were made by people in the film business who felt a kinship with the counterculture. And having grown up reading comics, it was no surprise that their creators started to produce comics that fit the times.
Some would say they were comix and not comics, the x signifying that they were for adults like X-rated movies. A lot of the time, that amounted to nudity and drugs featuring in stories to no great effect – like sixties comedians realising that they could swear on stage, without having anything to say. While many titles had little to offer beyond the desire to shock, some underground comix explored their times with more insight, in the way that Lenny Bruce brought subversive intelligence to the comedy stage.
Robert Crumb was the Lenny Bruce of underground comix. Fearless in his frank depiction of his sexual fascinations and neuroses, his art burst the bubble of the hippy dream that other artists such as Vaughn Bode were suckered by. Crumb’s honesty was a pointer to something uncomfortable: many of the new radicals were basically their own parents with longer hair, as messed-up as any generation. And he wasn’t going to win favours with his views on drugs as a time when they were the fashionable thing to do: “Killing yourself is a major commitment, it takes a kind of courage. Most people just lead lives of cowardly desperation. It’s kinda half suicide where you just dull yourself with substances.”
There’s a timeless brilliance to Crumb’s work, but it often makes for uncomfortable reading. His truthfulness about his own obsessions perhaps reminds us of whatever our own may be. The result is that though he’s acknowledged as the leading underground creator, he’s not the most popular.
Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, concurs with Crumb about the counterculture: “what came out of it was also kind of an imitation community with a lot of mindless conformity.” Like Crumb and many of the underground cartoonists, Griffith’s work was a way of exploring America’s underbelly. His approach was idiosyncratic – he dissected his neuroses not directly as Crumb did, but through putting the media to scrutiny, one of his conclusions being “All life is a blur of Republicans and meat.”
The sixties underground scene was a pretty male-dominated one, and a lot of the work thrived on imagery that was essentially pornographic. A different kind of underground emerged in the seventies, taking feminism as one of its key notes. Trina Robbins and Joyce Farmer were behind titles like Wimmen’s Comix and Tits & Clits Comix, which presented a stronger view of women as creators and protagonists.
Trina Robbins was appalled by some of the misogyny of stories in Zap – to which Crumb was a major contributor. “We were simply not accepted by the underground comix community, which were all guys. They were incredibly threatened by my feminism and they hated the fact that I dared criticize the absolutely violent misogyny in underground comix. I’m not talking about simple sexism, I’m talking about violent [comics] where women are raped and murdered and their body parts are scattered across the landscape and then the whole thing is considered funny. It was horrific stuff and I had the nerve to criticize it so I was really persona non grata in the comix community.”
A lot of the underground material has dated now, but some of it transcends its era. Most of all, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, which has constantly been in print since the seventies, and finds new readers whenever a new generation of young people discover the pleasures of cannabis. Actually, the comic – created by Gilbert Shelton – is brilliantly funny, with archetypal characters in the form of buddies Fat Freddy, Freewheelin’ Franklin, and Phineas…not forgetting their cat, often the smartest of the bunch. Their adventures are well-plotted, the cartooning is brilliant, and the whole is very funny indeed.
It’s hard to be clear just when underground comix became independent comics, but that’s one transition that happened. Another was the way that mainstream comics were influenced by the underground scene. Steve Gerber is the clearest example, his Howard the Duck being one of the least likely Marvel titles ever. Howard owes a lot to the underground’s critique of American culture, the mallard hero ‘trapped in a world he never made’ and thus able to offer comment on it in ways that ‘hairless apes’ could not.
In turn, Gerber was acknowledged as an influence by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two of the British writers who went and contributed to the revitalisation of the medium at a point when superhero comics were looking particularly tired, and needed an injection of fresh blood. Both had dabbled in the British underground as part of their early years too, and its interest in politics, drugs, and satire is apparent in much of the work put out when DC editor Karen Berger started to hire writers from this side of the Atlantic in the eighties. All of which is to say, there’s a line connecting some of what those creators did in titles like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Sandman, and the work a bunch of potheads were putting out in the sixties. It’s worth checking out in its own right, and you’ll get a better sense of the history of comics if you do so.
Hunt Emerson’s D.H Lawrence Zombie Hunter was released on 8 September. You can read it here.
- Heroes of the Underground Comix (forbiddenplanet.co.uk)
- Underground comix (tumblr.com)
- A history of underground comics (ukundergroundcomix.blogspot.co.uk)
- Madison Magazine art blog covers underground classics (undergroundclassics.wordpress.com)
- Underground and independent comics, comix, and graphic novels (britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk)
- Why Women’s comix? (womenscomix.wordpress.com)
- Nottingham Comic Convention (nottinghamcomiccon.co.uk)
- Hunt Emerson (largecow.com)