Zap Comics

Essays by Steven Heller
2 751 words14 min read

Back in 1968, underground comix attacked the peremptory values of a conservative society that less than a decade earlier had imposed strict rules of conduct on its youth. During the early to mid 1950s, at the height of the social and political purges known as McCarthyism, Congress was engaged in an investigative frenzy to root out Communists in government and adverse influences on the culture at large. They believed that American kids — the offspring of a victorious post-war nation — were susceptible to forces of evil being filtered into the collective unconscious through such inflammatory media as comic books. Threatened with government regulations and fearing impinged profits, the comics industry agreed to police itself through the Comics Code Authority which, like the film industry’s Hays Office, applied strict watchdog standards to any and all content prior to bestowing its Seal of Approval. Any deviation from its list of standards (which prohibited gratuitous violence, any sex, and disrespect towards authority) was met with swift punitive measures, notably banning distribution to all stores in which the majority of comic books were sold.

Pressure on the creators, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of comic books resulted in products that upheld proscribed American values. Yet neutering comics did not hinder sales, instead over time it fomented rebellion. After almost a decade of predictable Superman, puerile Archie, and tiresome Sgt. Rock, a generation of American kids became teenagers with pent-up inhibitions that demanded venting. During the late 1960s the busting of strictures emerged in youth movements that were expressed through political radicalism, civil disobedience, hallucinogenic experimentation, free love, and raucous rock and roll. Virtually overnight (after fermenting for a decade) American society was in part transformed by a youth culture that reclaimed art, writing, music, and ultimately comic books from the guardians of propriety.

Thirty years ago Zap #1 was the spearhead of the underground comic book revolution. In 1998 Zap #15 rounded out its extraordinary duration and is still publishing one issue every two years. Before Zap, early underground comics appeared in underground newspapers, such as New York’s East Village Other and its sister publication, The Gothic Blimp Works, where R. Crumb, Kim Dietch, Gibert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, and Spain Roderigues launched assaults on convention. To describe the effect of this work as inspirational would understate the incredible power of such fervent taboo busting on a generation weary of trite comic heroes and boobs. While these undergrounds looked like comics and read like comics, in fact they were “com-mix,” a combination of a conventional visual language (i.e. the panel and balloon motif that dates back to the late nineteenth century) and scabrous story and gag-lines heretofore banned from mainstream comic books.

Zap began as a com-mix of artists bound together by their collective contempt for conventional mores, yet each individually had varying perspectives from which to draw their respective themes. Among Zap’s earliest contributors, founder R. Crumb was known in the counter culture for his string of bizarre, ribald, and racy characters, including Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade, Dirty Dog, and Schuman the Human; Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin were progenitors of the vibrating psychedelic rock concert posters that took San Francisco and the world by storm; and S. Clay Wilson was known for living out his perverse fantasies through dark comic figures.

Zap #1 featured Crumb’s work exclusively as a vehicle for the artist to pay homage to pre-Code comics and to concentrate his admittedly deranged view of conventional life in a handy medium. Under the caustic advisory “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only,” Crumb introduced a selection of tales that had spiritual roots in MAD magazine’s irreverent satire. But while MAD eschewed sex and politics Crumb reveled in it. Among his earliest stories, “Whiteman,” was a tale of “civilization in crisis,” “Mr. Natural Encounters Flakey Foont,” was a jab at spirituality, “Ultra Super Modernistic Comics,” was a tweak at high art, and his now classic “Keep on Truckin,” was just an absurdly funny slapstick. In retrospect, these comics were tame compared to later underground raunchiness. But at the time even comical jibes at frontal nudity, recreational drug use, and racial stereotyping (i.e. Anagelfood McSpade, a bug-eyed African cannibal, sold a product called “Pure Nigger Hearts”), tested the tolerance of accepted standards.


When Zap #1 premiered, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin were among the most prominent graphic artists of the San Francisco rock and roll ballroom scene. A year earlier, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Griffin and Moscoso launched a graphic style that undermined prevailing Modernist notions of formal rightness by introducing vibrating color, illegible lettering and vintage graphics to posters that were complex assemblies of type and image designed to be read while high. Always the experimenter, Moscoso, who had been interested in serial imagery when he was a painter studying at Yale in the early 1960s, was beginning to play with skewed sequential photographs for use as a Christmas card for an old high school friend, the animator and film title designer Pablo Ferro. Also in an experimental mode, Griffin had done a poster send-up on The San Francisco Chronicle’s comic section. After seeing this poster, which was “like Disney on LSD,” Moscoso recalls, “it turned me in the direction of cartoons, as opposed to photos.”

At first Moscoso was hesitant to devote himself to comic strips. He was already spending the better part of a week designing two and sometimes three rock posters, which were printed on good paper, sold for a dollar, and therefore more tangible than the underground tabloids printed on cheap newsprint and destined for landfill. “Why should I do something that’s going to be thrown away?,” he asks rhetorically. Instead Moscoso and Griffin together created a series of posters for Pinnacle Productions in L.A., promoting Janis Joplin and Big Brother, B.B. King, and PG&E that would lead them to different approaches. “At the bottom, were three comic panels which Rick drew,” Moscoso says about the inspiration that gave them the idea to do a comic magazine which would combine their talents through alternating panels. “I did a template for each of us on 8"x-5’ cards,” he says about the format. “We were using a rapidograph at the time, and since we each had the same template, we’d start drawing anything that came into our mind in a box, and alternately put one next to the other in a non-linear fashion, so that the development would be purely visual.”

Originally, this comic was just going to include Moscoso and Griffin’s collaborative artwork. “We were already doing our respective drawings, when we saw Zap #1 when Crumb had started selling it on Haight Street,” Moscoso recalls. “Crumb asked us to join, because he admired Griffin’s cartoon poster. In fact, Crumb did a comic strip in Zap #1 which was a direct bounce off that poster. So he asked Rick, and Rick said, ‘Moscoso and I are already working on this stuff.’ So he invited both of us to join in.” Crumb also asked S. Clay Wilson, who offered up a ribald comic strip drug fantasy titled ‘Checkered Demon.’ With this, Moscoso and Griffin decided to shelve their collaboration and each did their own strips.

Given the quartet’s respective popularity on the two coasts (Moscoso and Griffin on the West, and Crumb and Wilson on the East), Zap #2 was an immediate success. However, despite their Hippy (mine-is-yours) roots, Moscoso wanted to insure equitable distribution of profits and copyright. “After having been burned so much in the poster business,” he says about his intellectual property travails that denied him the right to many of his images, “I set up a publishing deal with Print Mint which was a distributor of my and Rick’s posters already. When Zap #2 came out, here’s Moscoso and Griffin and these two new guys, Crumb and Wilson, in the same stores where Rick and I were selling very well.” The poster- and head-shops that had sprung up in hippy strongholds of big cities and college towns allowed independent distributors a network that bypassed the Marvels, DC’s, and all the other Comics Code Authority publishers. By the time Zap #3 and #4 were published sales were as high 50.000 copies each for the first printing (subsequent printings increased that number into the six figures). Originally half the profits after expenses were earmarked for the distributor, and half to the artists. In the meantime, however, the Print Mint changed ownership and after some unfair dealings on their part Moscoso renegotiated with Last Gasp (the distributor of Zap today).

The first two issues of Zap were fairly innocuous compared to Zap #3, the special ‘69 issue (“because it was 1969,” explains Moscoso). #3 began to rock the boat with its risqué content that lived up to its “Adults Only” advisory and was spiritually akin to Tijuana bibles (the cheaply produced, sexually explicit eight page comics imported to the US from Mexico during the 1930s and 40s). This issue was sandwiched between two separate front covers designed by Wilson and Griffin respectively, and could be read front to back and back to front. The hinge was in the middle, a Moscoso designed turnaround centerspread which featured drawings of Daisy and Donald Duck engaged in comic book hanky panky.


At the same time that Zap #3 was being worked on, Crumb revealed a set of photocopied pages that he originally had prepared for what was to be the first Zap but had given the artwork to a publisher who disappeared with the originals before publication. “Fortunately, Crumb had Xeroxed the pages, including the covers,” recalls Moscoso, who adds that “in those days, the Xeroxes picked up the line, but not the solid black. So Crumb had to fill in all the solids.” Moscoso and Griffin agreed that since Crumb had this entire comic book together, he should publish it just as was without the other contributors and they would call it Zap #0. The only thing he changed from the original was the cover. “We didn’t very often ask each other for advice,” says Moscoso about the time that Crumb asked for him for his thoughts about a drawing showing an man floating in a fetal position with an electric wall cord plugged into his derriere. “I looked at it and I said, ‘It don’t look right, Robert. The guy is in a fetal position with electricity surrounding him, so to have the chord go into his ass doesn’t make as much sense as if it went into his umbilical cord.’ And he actually took my advice.”

Not to diminish Crumb’s major contributions to Zap or underground comix in general, Moscoso credits S. Clay Wilson with inspiring the contributors to feistily bust taboos. “First Wilson comes out with the “Checkered Demon,” then “Captain Piss Gums and his Perverted Pirates,” in which he is drawing my worst fantasies! Frankly, we didn’t really understand what we were doing until Wilson started publishing in Zap. I mean, he’s not a homosexual, yet he’s drawing all these homosexual things. He’s not a murderer, yet he was murdering all these people. All the things that he wasn’t, he was putting down in his strips. So that showed us that we were, without being aware of it, censoring ourselves.”


Once the self-imposed constraints were lifted the Zap artists, which now included Spain Roderigues and Robert Williams, began to explore their own addled fantasies. “Each one of us started looking at our own work asking, ‘How far out can we go along the model that Wilson had set up?’ The only thing was, it has to be our individual stories. I, for one, was not going to do “Captain Piss-Gums.” Instead, I had Donald and Daisy eating each other in the 69 issue because I was getting back at Walt Disney! I mean, I love Walt Disney. But here Mickey and Minnie have nephews, but nobody fucked. So this was my chance.”

In this sense Zap quickly became an arena to test the Supreme Court’s “community standards” doctrine, which allowed each community to define pornography in relation to the local consensus. As on the edge as it was Zap #3 was unscathed. Zap #4, on the other hand, stretched those standards beyond the limit and was, therefore, enjoined by the San Francisco police. For between front and back covers of a dancing penis, and features including the explicitly titled, “A Ball in the Bung Hole,” by Wilson; “Wonder Wart-Hog: Breaks up the Muthalode Smut Ring,” by Shelton; and “Sparky Sperm,” by Crumb the seeds of discontent were born. But the strip that forced the police’s hand was Crumb’s “Joe Blow,” featuring Dad and Mom and Junior and Sis in a satire of the incestuous all-American family. Or as Moscoso explains: “You can cut off a guy’s penis and devour it (as in ‘Heads-Up’ by Wilson), you can even chop people up into little pieces, but you can’t have sex with your children.” The Zap artists thought that “we could knock down every taboo that there was.” Instead, the police busted City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and in New York Zap #4 was prohibited from being sold over the counter.

Nevertheless, after paying a fine the City Lights’ proprietor, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, continued to sell the contraband and the subsequent issues without incident. Predictably, the attention caused Zap’s reputation and sales to rise. As for the artists, “I never did an incest story,” says Moscoso, “and Crumb never did an incest story again, as far as I know...not for Zap. However, we did not self-censor ourselves. it was just after a while we got it out of our systems.”

Although subsequent issues were spared legal harassment, they were no less explicit than the offending issue. By the seventies the raunch factor in underground comics was commonplace and with the liberal court’s First Amendment rulings it was fruitless to expend legal energy in cracking down on them. Moreover, Zap seemed to serve a purpose in venting the urges of a generation that needed to push boundaries. In fact, Zap is today a textbook study of how when fringe ideas are unleashed they are no longer mysterious or threatening. In Zap #7, for example, Spain introduced “Sangrella,” which serves as a paean to sado-masochistic lesbian eroticism with a sci-fi twist that address the extremes of such weird fetishism. In retrospect is little more than a ribald jab at the sexlessness of superheroes. In Zap #8 Robert Williams’ “Innocence Squandered,” is less prurient than it is a satiric commentary on how pornography is adjudicated in the courts. Actually, by Zap #11, although sexual references proliferate, the strips became more experimental in terms of form and content. In this issue Crumb’s “Patton” about the great blues performer Charley Patton, is a masterpiece of comic strip as documentary. In the same issue Spain’s “Lily Litvak: The Rose of Stalingrad,” transforms a little known historical fact into a comic strip that is kindred to the heroic comic books of the World War II era. And in Zap #13 even Gilbert Shelton turned his attention from fantasy to real life in “Graveyard Ghosts,” a brief tour of Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Thirty years, fifteen issues, and (according to distribution figures) millions copies later, Zap has not changed all that much (the same contributors, minus Griffin (who died in 1995) are still pumping out an issue every two years). But during a period in American history when political ultra conservatives are blaming the Sixties for all social ills, it is interesting to note that even in maintaining its consistency, Zap is not the wellspring of radical raunch that it once was. American tolerance for abhorrence has long ago stretched beyond Zap’s boundaries. “The fact that we’re even still selling these things actually is still remarkable,” Moscoso admits. “These things should have been gone by the wayside a long time ago, by all logical standards. But there are people who still read this crap! Not bad for a piece of trash. Really.”