Dr. Fredric Wertham nearly succeeded in killing comic books in 1954. That was the year his book Seduction of the Innocent sparked a nationwide anti-comics crusade. The psychiatrist’s frenzied diatribe, illustrated with comic panels depicting gruesome and sadomasochistic scenes, painted a horrific picture of children losing their minds and morals to the lurid four-color pulps. Wertham‘s factually inaccurate, hysterically toned polemic was a big hit. Its wide coverage in the press led to hearings by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to deal with the comic-book menace. Almost overnight, dozens of comic-book publishers went out of business. The survivors established a self-censoring organization called the Comics Code Authority, which issued a set of explicit guidelines on what was forbidden and what was mandatory in comic-book stories (e.g., “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities” and “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds”). With the exception of Mad, comics became bland and safe for kids once again.
In retrospect, Wertham probably should have gone after Mad, too. In the early chapters of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963–1975, by Patrick Rosenkranz, Mad’s sneering contempt for the establishment is frequently cited as a source of inspiration by the pioneers of the underground-comics movement. (In fact, it was Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman who hired Robert Crumb to draw pictures of street life in unfamiliar places like Bulgaria and Harlem for his short-lived humor magazine Help! in 1964.)
Rosenkranz began working on Rebel Visions nearly 30 years ago, interviewing every major cartoonist and publisher in the underground-comics movement, resulting in the first book that definitively chronicles one of the biggest countercultural artistic and literary movements in America. It‘s not only authoritative, it’s also great fun to read. Illustrated with art and photographs (many previously unpublished) spanning a fascinating and riotous 12 years of artistic reawakening, Rebel Visions is largely an oral history told by the surviving originators of the movement. The quotes Rosenkranz selects vividly recount the birth, explosion and decline of underground comics.
Laid out chronologically in chapters that cover two years apiece, Rebel Visions begins in 1963, four years before the publication of Crumb‘s seminal Zap #1. At that time, artists who didn’t want to follow the rules of the Comics Code Authority worked their way into science-fiction fanzines, college humor newspapers and hot-rod magazines. In the early days, artists like Rick Griffin, a surfer from Southern California, and Gilbert Shelton, a college student in Austin, drew in isolation from the nascent hippie counterculture. The early underground cartoonists were less interested in overthrowing the status quo than they were in poking fun at it. As long as Griffin could sneak a few marijuana references into his surf-mag funnies, and Crumb could lampoon the staid office protocols in his comic strip for American Greetings‘ employee newsletter, that was enough.
But by 1965, it was clear that a social revolution was taking place, and cartoonists who didn’t want to draw pictures of men in tight-fitting colored underwear gravitated to San Francisco and the East Village, where they instantly became absorbed into the subculture dedicated to dope, free love and rebellion for the hell of it. LSD was legal, the Vietnam War was a sham, and rock music was an antidote to the assorted poisons spewed out by the establishment. The underground artists fit right in, becoming celebrities on the level of rock stars, Eastern religion proselytizers and psychedelic gurus. New inexpensive printing processes were helping to spawn underground newspapers like the East Village Other and the San Francisco Oracle. And rock music posters, most of them being drawn by the same artists who did comic strips for the underground press, became popular as wall art, resulting in the establishment of a national distribution system. According to Rosenkranz, “It was the production and distribution of ballroom posters that created the infrastructure for San Francisco to become the center of the underground comix industry.”
Artistically, the most important event in the genesis of underground comics can be attributed to a “fuzzy” acid trip that Crumb took in November of 1965. In the months that followed, Crumb‘s perception of the world around him was altered, and his sketches reflected the new twists and turns his brain was making. “He started drawing strange characters and stories set in a soft, squishy, cartoon world,” Rosenkranz writes. “Big-footed, pin-headed goofballs crowded the pages of his sketchbooks . . . There were plump nudes, working stiffs, cool cats, eggheads, holy fools, and men whose heads silently exploded — lots of those.” Crumb’s trip lasted nearly five months, and he credits it with the birth of his most famous characters, including Mr. Natural. “It was during that fuzzy period that I recorded in my sketchbook all the main characters I would be using in my comics for the next 10 years,” said Crumb.
Crumb used the characters to populate the pages of Zap, a famously successful comic book that he sold from a baby stroller on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury district. In subsequent issues, Crumb invited his favorite artists, such as Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Robert Williams, Gilbert Shelton, Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez and S. Clay Wilson to contribute — and share equally in the ownership — of Zap. In short order, hundreds and hundreds of underground-comic titles were weighing down the racks of head shops and comic-book stores.
Rosenkranz pegs 1971 as the year underground comics peaked. Titles were typically selling over 40,000 copies. The cartoonists felt that they were part of something big and wonderful. Maus creator Art Spiegelman told Rosenkranz, “It did feel like this must have been what the Cubists were going through. All the magic of being in Paris for the Post-Impressionist movement did feel somehow like being in San Francisco in the early ‘70s.”
Of course, the magic had to end sometime — but no one expected it to vanish so soon. By 1973, underground-comics sales had nosedived. Rosenkranz cites several factors: a nationwide crackdown on head shops, the Supreme Court’s ruling on community standards for obscenity, and an increasingly politicized underground press that censored what it interpreted as sexism or racism from stories. Mainstream culture had changed, too. In a 1998 interview, cartoonist Jay Kinney told Rosenkranz that underground-comic artists, once regarded as “taboo breakers and iconoclasts,” lost their mojo after mass media began dishing out their own brand of extreme sex, drugs and gore. How could underground comics “out-gross slasher films, video porn, Hustler magazine and Cheech and Chong?” asks Rosenkranz rhetorically. Twenty-five years after the death of the movement, his Rebel Visions brilliantly recalls the astounding influence, giddy thrills and sense of freedom that underground comics provided during a pivotal point in American culture.
Mark Frauenfelder is the author of Mad Professor, published by Chronicle Books.