Underground Comics

Who And What You Should Know About Underground Comics

Underground comics are a staple of comic history that not many people know about. While the need for the genre has vanished as censorship and regulations relax, the effects of the underground movement can still be felt today. Underground cartoonists are still some of the most respected in the industry. Many modern artists became cartoonists because of their love of the underground world. So what exactly are underground comics? Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they evolve into the modern alternative scene?

The Preamble

Bur first, some historical context. In 1954, a post-World War II America was clinging desperately to any semblance of order that it could. Everyone was aware of the threat of nuclear war. More women were in the work force than ever before during the war, and many missed the sense of independence that granted them. In this tumultuous time, the public at large was in favor of stability, peace, and all-American values. I.e., the country was vastly conservative for the sake of maintaining order.

Enter Werthman. Dr. Fredric Werthman was an acclaimed psychiatrist. His findings did fantastic work, including overturning segregation statutes in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education. However, his modern legacy is more closely related to his seminal work: Seduction of the Innocent.

underground comics
Credit: DC Comics, Curt Swan, and George Klein

Seduction of the Innocent was a scathing critique of the state of modern comics. Dr. Werthman was quick to condemn the violence he saw in the comics, along with what he viewed as harmful queer influences. For example, he famously claimed to find homosexual subtext in the relationship between Batman and Robin. His findings created such a stir that later the same year, the Comics Code Authority appeared.

Comics Code Authority

underground comics
Good luck with that

While the stated goal of the CCA was to “think of the children!”, it became a hotly contested piece of self-imposed censorship in the comics community for decades. The original 1954 code outlined forty-one points which publishers and distributers were to abide by, lest they face shutdown. Notably these rules included the forbidding of depictions of criminals in any sort of positive light, the elimination of any “grotesque” horror imagery, and the outlawing of profanity and vulgarity of any kind.

But as the sixties and seventies rolled around, the youths raised on CCA-approved comics began to grow discontent. Why should they have to censor out their nastiest thoughts? Who decides what’s socially acceptable? And then, as they tend to do, the kids revolted.

Underground Comics Surfacing

As the hippie movement grew in America, the discontented youths of the country found new ways to make their voices heard. One way that the counterculture expressed themselves was through underground presses. These were small newspapers and magazines distributed to mailing lists, not something you could find on the grocery store shelves. Underground comics first started appearing in publications such as these, first as simple cartoon strips you would find in any newspaper, and soon exploding into their own industry. With heavy inspiration from Harvey Kurtzman and MAD Magazine, the underground cartoonists were off!

underground comics
OZ Magazine; a staple of 60’s counterculture in London
Credit: OZ Magazine and Norman Lindsay

Early publications that focused purely on rude, crude, underground comics include Apex Novelties, Rip Off Press, and Zap Comix. These publishers were all situated in the Bay Area, an epicenter for free thought and free-er expression. California’s drug culture influenced cartoonists and many colorful covers of psychedelic, LSD-fueled teens in the area.

What Makes A Comic “Underground” Anyway?

Underground comics were meant to be the voice of a generation. All malcontent, rage, and angst rolled up into a fifty cent bundle. In his book A History of Underground Comics, Mark James Estren lays out a few criteria that pretty much all underground comics adhered to. For one, underground comics had highly limited availability. While their contemporaries were printing books in the hundreds of thousands, an underground publication would be lucky to print and distribute tens of thousands of copies.

The artists were typically “full cartoonists,” meaning they wrote and illustrated their own stories rather than dividing labor between a writer and an illustrator. These cartoonists were typically young, with many being in their late twenties to early thirties at the height of their careers. All of them were politically minded, and their subject matter was contemporary, satirical, and absolutely scathing. The satire of underground comics made them some of the first deconstructions of the genre available. Most importantly, though, underground comics did not adhere to the Comics Code Authority.

underground comics
Marvel tried publishing its own label of underground comics. It went about as well as you’d think.
Credit: Marvel Comics and Peter Poplaski

By limiting distribution to mailing lists and head shops, the underground scene managed to avoid the wrath of the CCA entirely. In doing so, they could have as much fun as they wanted with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. And oh boy, did they.

The Underbelly Of The Underground

Underground Comics were also known for their less savory aspects. For every biting critique of the American war machine, there was a truly abhorrent racist caricature. For every jab at police brutality, a woman would be assaulted. It’s impossible to separate the underground movement with the toxic elements that pervaded it.

Look no further than R. Crumb, an absolute rat bastard who I promised myself I wouldn’t acknowledge in this article but HERE WE ARE! Crumb’s work is frustrating. He’s a highly competent cartoonist with an incredibly skilled hand, but as a person he’s just the worst. He and his critics both describe him as a self-hating, sex-obsessed intellectual. A dangerous combination. Crumb only seems to feature women in his work as living fleshlights or punching bags. He has a very specific type: strong, domineering women that he and his author-proxy protagonists can “tame”.

underground comics
If Crumb can make a living airing his fetishes out for everyone to see, you can do anything you put your mind to.
Credits: Fantagraphic Comics & R Crumb

Crumb also felt comfortable depicting black characters with fully black skin and minstrel show style expressions. Crumb claims that his crude caricatures of black America were satirical of the modern state of the country, but was he really the person that needed to be delivering this critique?

Obviously, Crumb isn’t the only guilty party in these phenomena, but his work is so influential in the underground community as a whole that it’s impossible to separate him from the movement. In addition to sexism and racism, underground comics have dabbled in a plethora of taboo topics. In any given underground publication you can find incest, rape, heavy drug use, socially-motivated violence, and/or general nastiness. Hey, they’re underground for a reason, baby.

A Few Notable People In Underground Comics

There are a few artists you should always have in the back of your head when you think about underground comics. Here are just a few of them.

Denis Kitchen is an active voice for the rights of cartoonists across America. He founded the Comics Book Legal Defense Fund in 1986 to help secure legal defense for comic creators, publishers, and distributors experiencing any lawsuits that would violate their First Amendment rights. His fund is a vocal advocate for the free distribution of ideas — supporting Banned Book Week across the country.

underground comics
Credit: Peter Poplaski

Art Spiegelman is still celebrated widely today for his graphic novel Maus. Maus is one of the most game-changing comics to ever come out, and that’s in no small part due to Spiegelman’s time as an underground cartoonist. His focus has always been on the political, the personal and the dark sides of reality that aren’t as shocking as they are deeply disturbing.

underground comics
Credit: Art Spiegelman

Trina Robbins is one of the few women to make a name for herself in the underground scene. As a second wave feminist, she focused on women’s issues such as abortion and liberation. Her work on the anthology Wimmen’s Comix promoted female cartoonists for twenty years. In addition, she was the first cartoonist to depict an out lesbian character in one of her strips.

underground comics
Credit: Last Gasp and Trina Robbins

End Of An Era: Underground Comics To Alternative Comics

It wasn’t long before underground comics hit the mainstream. As the work became less and less shocking, and the CCA became less and less strict, underground comics started to fade into obscurity. More presses were set up to distribute indie comics. The ’80s saw the rise of gritty, violent superhero comics that didn’t care about the Comics Code. Underground comics were inherently rebellious. They became irrelevant once they had nothing to rebel against. So where did all of that angst go?

underground comics
Credit: Gabrielle Bell

Most comic scholars and cartoonists alike agree that the modern alternative comics scene is the natural successor to underground comics. Alternative cartoonists shake up the genre every day with biting, personal stories. Both genres revel in autobiographical tales of sad loners, in the dregs of society, in the philosophical questions that everyone has about the world. The rebellious nature of the underground lives on here, but in a tamer, more modern way. Personal bias: The best publisher today of indie comics is Uncivilized Books. They feature incredible cartoonists such as Craig Thompson, Gabrielle Bell, and M.S. Harkness.

Closing The Book On Underground Comics

The underground scene launched the careers of many artists and inspired countless more. The dedication of the cartoonists involved in freedom of expression changed the way that comics are made, and crushed censors into the dirt. Despite some unappealing genre trappings, any comic fan worth their title should at least take a look back on this incredible piece of comic history.

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