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The comic book industry has a modern reputation of being squeaky clean, appealing to children, and easily digestible by the masses. Chock full of super heroes and damsels-in-distress needing saving, detective comics where the bad guys are always caught at the end, and nuclear families dealing with normal slice-of-life problems. I grew up on those comics, a hand-picked collection of antique comic books spanning the 1940s through the 1980s, passed down from my dad… with a dozen or two issues of MAD Magazines tossed in for the culture. My old man’s MAD Magazines are falling apart at the staples- literally, with the majority missing their covers and nonsensical fold-ins lost to time, worthless to a collector’s eye. Yet to the both of us, these satiric collections of social and topical commentary, spoofs on movies and shows, caricatures in illustrations and comics- these MAD Magazines are priceless. And even though MAD Magazine has not created new content for their print issues since 2019, the rough-around-the-edges spunk found in its pages originated in an artistic counterculture movement from the 1960s otherwise known as Underground Comix.

Above: One of Don Martin’s ridiculous (and often, nonsensical) series of comic strip antics found in MAD Magazine (1974).

Adding Gas to the Flame

Before we dive into the Wacky World of Underground Comix (spelled with an “x” to denote their more mature topics and themes), it’s important to learn about the historical context leading up to their conception. If any decade in recent history can be pinpointed as having the most diverse counterculture movements, it would be the 1960s. Baby boomers, those born after WWII, were becoming young adults, disenchanted by politics, the Vietnam War, censorship, religion, everything deemed “normal” to the earlier generations. To say that the underground movement was a rebellious shift from the normality of the 60s and 70s is an understatement- fueled by psychedelics, love, and rebellion, the comics created were essentially a mirror into the psyche of their creators, a powerful tool of expression and storytelling, both the obscure and the straight-forward. And due to the comics self-published and/or small press nature, there was no set rules or guidelines, no red lines forbidden to be crossed, the artists had complete (or near complete, only limited by their own creativity and artistic talents) control over the stories they decided to tell. As more artists joined the movement, with their own unique style of storytelling and artwork, the world of underground comics naturally became more and more diverse and exploded in popularity in counterculture spaces, adding gas to the pre-existing flames.

Artwork from Gilbert Shelton’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (1968-1992).

Started with Fritz, ended with MAUS

One of the greats of the Underground Comix world is Robert “R.” Crumb, the creator of ZAP Comix and Fritz the Cat, and organizer of many other art-based Underground comix and zines from 1965-2021. Crumb often partnered with his late wife, Alaine Kominsky-Crumb, on some of these projects, their sketchy art style and sardonic sense of humor inspiring other Underground Comix creators and readers to this day. Crumb’s most popular character, Fritz the Cat, was an adult parody of other funny animal comics1 that came before it. Fritz would be adapted into a full feature film, the first animated film to be “awarded” an X-rating, by Ralph Bakshi; Crumb hated the adaption so much, he would go on to kill Fritz in the comix series.

Art Spiegelman was another impactful member of the scene, with his magnus opus MAUS I (1986) & MAUS II (1992) being a graphic and dense retelling of his parent’s experiences surviving the Holocaust- through the lens of anthropomorphic animals. MAUS has come under scrutiny for the allegory, and for raw depictions of the realities of Spiegelman’s personal relationship with his parents and the atrocities of the Holocaust; it has been challenged or banned by organizations since 1986… and that was kind of the point. MAUS isn’t a typical anthropomorphic Disney comic book, with marketable characters and a cavity-inducing sugary sweet tone. MAUS was distinctly raw, deep, dark, and entirely what Underground Comix was meant to be- an expression and medium to tell more mature and complex issues that were considered too much for the Comics Code of Authority. When MAUS was published for a wider, mainstream audience, it created a stir in the Underground Comix world- it was far too dark and sensitive for the general public? Would they get it?

By 1992, when Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for MAUS, the original Underground Comix Movement was officially dead2.

Dead…?

It’s essential to understand the impact these comix had on popular culture, leading up to present day. According to See you at San Diego, Comic-Con International was founded by a group of folks who were fascinated by underground comix, and appreciated the amount of care and artistic talent poured into regular comic books and comix, both medias often overlooked by the general public up to that point. The Comic Cons of today, filled to the brim with marketing and advertisements, hundreds of vendors selling mass produced merchandise, and dozens of celebrities autographing portraits, evolved from something that grew bigger and bigger- from a singular room party, sharing and exchanging handmade underground comix and zines at a Star Trek Convention3. Zines and self-published comix/comics are still sold by small artists at conventions, a lingering shadow of what came before.

Now, in certain subsections of the internet and alternative spaces, the Underground Comix movement lives on, evolved to reflect the ideologies and experiences of the twenty-first century, running on the artistic creativity of rebels, raging against the world. The Comics Code of Authority loosened its firm grasp on the comic book industry, allowing for more mature topics in mainstream comics and wider representation, due in part to the explorational strides made by the numerous creators of the Underground Comix Movement.

Interested in comic book history? Visit Westlake Porter Public Library’s lobby displays during the month of May to check out some of Cat’s personal comic book collection and the wider histories of some of the most beloved comic book publishers that impacted generations!

Happy Free Comic Books Day, and read Underground Comix at WPPL!

Materials At WPPL:

Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix

Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix

See you at San Diego

Completely MAD: A History of the Comic Book and Magazine

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers: The Idiots Abroad and other Follies, In the 21st Century and other Follies, Grass Roots and other Follies

Drawn Together

The Complete Crumb: Mr. Sixties, The Early 80’s & Weirdo Magazine

MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale, And Here my Troubles Began

SearchOhio/OhioLink Materials

Fritz the Cat: The Life and Death of Fritz the Cat, Fritz the Cat (animated movie directed by Ralph Bakshi)

Crumb (Documentary about R. Crumb’s life up to 1998)

MAD art: A Visual Celebration of the Art of MAD Magazine and the Idiots Who Create It

Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975

Newave! The Underground Mini Comix of the 1980’s

Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix

Sources:

https://www.crumbproducts.com/Robert-Crumb-Biography_b_12.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/15/t-magazine/r-crumb.html

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Art-Spiegelman

https://lithub.com/lurid-offensive-troublesome-on-the-rise-of-underground-comix/

Unleashing the Underground: Exploring the Countercultural Impact of the Comix Movement

Dan O’Neill & The Air Pirates (Short documentary covering one of the wildest Underground Comix artists and his creation, a parody of Mickey Mouse and a lawsuit)

Footnotes:

  1. Funny Animals refer to any anthropomorphic animal focused media, written for newspapers, graphic novels, or independent zines, usually in the format of comics. These works are usually- but not always- written for a more mature audience in mind, and may include more complex plots, social issues, or mature content, written through the lens of anthropomorphic animals. ↩︎
  2. Many sources cite 1982 as the end of the Underground Comics/Comix Movement, as mainstream comic publishers began to widely publish “alternative comics”, which followed the same tones, themes and topics as the former movement. However, the author of this article would argue that the original Underground Comics/Comix Movement did not end, officially, until Spiegelman’s MAUS received the Pulitzer Prize, the first graphic novel to be recognized by the award, thrusting the Underground Movement into mainstream audiences. ↩︎
  3. Until San Diego Comic Con was founded in 1970, many fan-based conventions across the country were science fiction focused, often leaning more heavily into the Star Trek fandom. These early conventions were the epicenter of “nerd culture”, originating cosplay, fan fiction and fan art, fan zines, and many more traditions. While the Underground Comix Movement helped to form the first comic-book focused conventions (with numerous guests having a career in Underground Comix before/during their appearances), other fandoms found their footings in very similar scenarios. ↩︎

Read our sister series, Nostalgic Showcase Presents, for deep dives on the histories of our favorite defunct cinematic studios and the content they produced! Thanks for reading!

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the WPPL team since 2022, and writes the "Cat's Picks" and "Nostalgic Showcase Presents" series; she enjoys researching defunct and not-so-defunct studios and reading graphic novels in her spare time.