Imposing rules on culture is the quickest way to create counter-culture. The perfect example of this is Robert Crumb starting with Zap Comix in 1968. Crumb is often dubbed the Father of Underground Comix, a mantel that he never sought nor fully accepted.
Look through his collection and you will see sexual frustration, a disdain for pop-culture and a disregard for political correctness. It is a glimpse into the dark corners of another man’s mind and above all- honest, something many people would say main stream culture was NOT in the 1950’s.
To understand his impact, you have to understand R. Crumb growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. It was nuclear family and McCarthyism at its peak, a veneer across social culture. Step out of line and you were a deviant. US culture had become characterized by social conservatism and materialism. Sexual taboos and juvenile delinquency were hot topics, marking an entire generation and laying the groundwork for the beatnik and free love revolution of the 1960’s.
Censorship made its way into the comic book industry in 1954 when 80% of kids were reading comic books. As a reaction to the increasingly sexualized horror and crime genres, Congress applied pressure to the industry. This resulted in the establishment of the Comic Code Authority to avoid government censorship. Without the CCA’s stamp of approval you weren’t carried in comic book stores and you could not find a publisher, edging out smaller artist but leaving industry icons like Marvel and Disney largely untouched. The CCA ruled the industry for 10 years leaving self-publishers and those who did not meet the CCA’s criteria to make do with small runs that rarely saw the light of day.
Enter a young greeting card illustrator, Robert Crumb, who moved to the Haight district of San Francisco on a whim. Zap No. 1 hit the street in 1968, famously sold from a baby carriage, by Crumb and his wife, on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets. Zap blended together an established visual language of strips and panels with scandalous stories and gag-lines that had been banned for 10 years from main stream comics. Every panel was satire; it was a middle figure to censorship, including self-censorship. No topic or taboo was off limits. It was artistic catharsis. Crumb’s thoughts and vices laid out for the world to see, resulting in a radical departure from the norm.
As main stream comics depicted larger and larger external forces such as Gods, space exploration and Communism; Crumb explored internal forces such as self-doubt, questions about the meaning of life and being an outcast. What came to define the Zap series and Underground Comix in general was a focus on the forbidden with a psychedelic art style to back it up.
It is no surprise that Zap’s largest reader base identified with the Free Love campaign and the Civil Right Movement. After the first few issues, Zap became a collaboration between Crumb and three other giants of underground artwork, this quartet, would launch Zap into every head shop on the east and west coast resulting in issues 3 and 4 selling 50,000 copies in the first print. Zap continued to run for 27 years with the final publication Zap No. 16 coming out in November of 2014.
The honesty with which R. Crumb delivered his message made him an icon for an entire generation of rebellious youth.
This video was made possible thanks to both R. Crumb and Keep On Truckin’ Apparel, which has been licensed to print Crumb’s art on apparel, t-shirts, since 2009.
If you want to support an independent business, if you want to support R. Crumb, visit them at www.kotapparel.com