Rebel Visions - Introduction by Patrick Rosenkranz
Written by Patrick Rosenkranz   
Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975 [Revised Softcover Ed.]
Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975 [Revised Softcover Ed.]
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Foreword

I was a student at Columbia University when I started reading the East Village Other in 1966. It was full of outrageous and libelous stories, bawdy language, wild accusations, and doctored photographs. Best of all, it had totally crazy comics, the likes of which I’d never seen before. Every week I’d pick up a new issue at a Village newsstand, along with a slightly larger New York Post, and, unsure of how my fellow Gothamites might react to its lurid covers, I would read EVO camouflaged on the subway ride uptown to Morningside Heights.

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Like many of my contemporaries, I tuned in, dropped out, and dove head first into the maelstrom that was “Amerika in the ’60s.” From out of the swirling punchbowl of experimental lifestyles and altered mind-states, and amid the strange melodies of psychedelic and protest music, the underground comic books really caught my eye. I bought Zap Comix #1 in spring 1968 in San Francisco, lost it, and then bought another copy in New York that summer. By the fall there were a bunch of new ones in the head shops: Bijou, Feds ’n’ Heads, Yellow Dog, another Zap. Oh happy days!

This year, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of underground comix, which began in February 1968 when Robert Crumb sold Zap Comix #1 on Haight Street. No, wait! It could be considered the 42nd anniversary, because Joel Beck published Lenny of Laredo in 1966. But hold on, it might really be the 44th anniversary because Gilbert Shelton published Frank Stack’s The Adventures of Jesus at the University of Texas in 1964, and that same year Jaxon published God Nose. But then, what about The Cartoon History of Surfing, drawn by Rick Griffin and published by Greg Noll in 1963? Damn it! What anniversary is it? It was underground. So who knows? It was during the cultural wars. Lines were drawn. Names were changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. Underground comix were inevitably entwined in the confusing context of their age.

Let’s go back to a time not so very long ago, when you could go to jail for writing the word “fuck” in a book. Oops. — Patrick Rosenkranz

The Setting

You could walk into any head shop or record store in America or western Europe in the early 1970s, and find racks and stacks of comic books with names like Slow Death, Man From Utopia, Feds ’n’ Heads, Young Lust, and Tales from the Ozone. You could also find record albums by Jimi Hendrix and Quicksilver Messenger Service, black-light posters, American-flag rolling papers, macramé plant hangers, patchouli oil, electric hookahs and a newspaper rack stuffed with Berkeley Barb, LA Free Press, and local underground papers. Comix sold for 50¢ a pop, and copies were often passed around among friends, to be read and reread at crash pads and dormitories. Cartoonists like Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson and Art Spiegelman became the avant garde of the era, artists on the cultural cusp, and for a few brief years, underground comix enjoyed both critical acclaim and decent sales.

Conceived and nurtured in the brash environment of the 1960s, these cartoons were perceptive reflections of the anti-war, anti-establishment fervor of the times. They arose at a critical time, when the convergence of political repression, the protest movement, psychedelic drugs, and innovations in printing technology created the right mix for an impromptu and improvised art movement.

Berkeley Barb
John Thompson, Berkeley Barb, January 1970

Zap Comix was the spark that brought together a nucleus of artists and publishers in San Francisco in 1968. Within five years, there were more than 300 new comic titles in print and hundreds of people calling themselves underground cartoonists. Print Mint, Rip Off Press, and Apex Novelties couldn’t print comic books fast enough to satisfy their customers. Even after their popularity peaked in the mid-’70s, many of these artists continued to produce highly personal and potent work. Their unrelenting insistence on complete artistic freedom revitalized the comic medium, and broke it loose from the repressive Comics Code Authority. Comics, long stereotyped as kid stuff, aggressively reclaimed their adult audience with explorations of provocative subjects.

Underground cartoonists reflected their upbringing and environment. They were a generation weaned on television, comic books, and rock music, politicized by an Asian war and a generation gap five miles wide, and psychedelicized by lysergic acid. The early 1960s saw Buddhist priests setting themselves on fire in the streets of Vietnam, Martin Luther King speaking his dream at the Washington Monument, and John F. Kennedy getting assassinated in Dallas. That memorable decade also witnessed freedom marches, more assassinations, half-a-million American troops fighting in Vietnam, and riots and demonstrations in every major American city. In its final years, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society gave way to the grim regime of Richard Nixon.

In the midst of all this turmoil, a cadre of cartoonists succeeded in elevating comics to a medium of personal expression and unrestrained passion. Despite repression, rejection, and underfinancing, the comix industry thrived for a time and prepared the way for punk graphics, alternative comics, graphic novels, and other products in the small-press market today. The influence of underground comix can still be observed in the print medium as well as film and television, but especially in the collector’s market, where their value is attested by demand. Underground newspapers and comic books and original art are now sold at auction houses in New York and Europe.

This book presents a portrait of the underground comix movement — a story of the artists and publishers behind one of the vital art events of the 20th century.

Distant Early Warnings

Paul Mavrides: “My earliest ‘art’ memory dates from when I was two, when I discovered that the contents of my diaper were suitable for the creation of a large-scale (to my child-sized point of view, anyway) mural on my grandmother’s hallway wall. I was told that my father had to spend several hours deconstructing this seminal work and was none too happy about the task (for reasons I didn’t fully comprehend at the time). I was strongly and physically encouraged by my family to switch to more traditional painting media.”

Justin Green:Captain Crow was the first comic book I ever saw. I saw it when I was four or five. I learned how to read and write by copying the blurbs over and over again. Somehow along the way I ingested a whole bunch of truisms about life. Captain Crow was a lot like Aesop’s Fables. It was a very moralistic comic and there was always a point to every story.”

Bobby London: “The first children’s book illustrator I remember seeing was W.W. Denslow and his pictures for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. My father brought home a biography of Frank Baum that reprinted the entire book. Denslow was my first exposure to print cartooning and it had a profound influence on me. Puppetry and animation got to me first, however, and early shows like Foodini; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Rootie Kazootie; Howdy Doody; and especially Time for Beanie opened the door to the performing arts and got me stage-struck.”

Robert Crumb: “By the age of seven or eight, we had begun drawing our own comics, and that compelled us to study comics much more closely. Then the good stuff started to shine out! We were connoisseurs by age 11. By then it was obvious to us that most comics were hacked-out crap, boring, stupid. Outside of the really good storytellers like Carl Barks and John Stanley, there were only a few comics that attracted us. I liked Super Duck, which was completely wacko and still strikes me as imaginative and funny when I look at it today. I liked Nancy. I remember reading Nancy while sitting on the toilet.”

Jay Kinney: “I went to the pharmacy in our neighborhood where they carried Mad in their magazine rack and tried to buy a copy. But the pharmacist refused to sell it to me because it was for adults, and I was only eight at the time. So I complained to my father and thereafter he would go and buy me Mad each month, until I was old enough to convince the pharmacist that I deserved it.”

Jay Lynch: “I did a little book called The Vulgarmental when I was about nine or ten years old. There was a TV show called The Continental. It was this continental guy who’d come out in a smoking jacket and mix martinis and talk to the housewives in a real seductive voice. He’d say things like, ‘Have a little more champagne, my darling.’ My character would say things like, ‘My darling, I see you are growing a tail. Oh no, it is only the shit coming out of your ass.’ I passed this around to my friends. Somehow this kid Billy Sullivan wound up with it and his father was a cop. Billy Sullivan’s father showed me that he had found this Vulgarmental comic book in Billy’s possession and warned me never to do obscenity again or he’d arrest me.”

Jack Jackson: “I was raised on a farm, and being able to draw is the most totally useless trait in that kind of environment. It was always discouraged. There were people in my family that were artistic. They did things like go out and shoot birds and stuff them or paint pictures of them. That was acceptable, that was considered an innocent pastime. But scribbling in pads, filling Big Chief pads with little pictures of cowboys and Indians and all this...”

George Metzger: “Like a lot of kids who were into collecting comic books, my parents made me burn my collection. I collected a lot of newspaper strips and comic books, and they made me take them out to the incinerator and burn them. Two weeks later, I was right back at it. It didn’t work. It just made me feel ill towards my parents. It was a turning point for me and my parents.”

Skip Williamson: “My introduction to pre-Code comics came from my father’s younger brother, my uncle Bill Henry Williamson. He kept a stash of crime, range-rider and horror comics in a box under his bed. So when we’d visit my grandparents in Appomattox, I’d try to sneak a read or two. Also there was a teen-aged baby sitter who would look after me and my younger siblings who had a great cache of ECs that she would let me have free access to. The EC horror story that implanted itself most vividly in my unfledged psyche was one illustrated by Jack Davis featuring a baseball game where intestines were the baselines, a human heart was home plate and a head was the ball.”

S.Clay Wilson: “I asked my Mom one day, ‘When are we going to get a TV?’ She says, ‘draw your own pictures’ and threw me a crayon. I’ve been drawing ever since.”


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