Underground Comics

Underground comics (sometimes referred to as “underground comix”) are an art form that emerged in the United States during the late 1960’s. According to scholar Susan Spiggle’s analysis of underground comix,  the publications were considered an alternative channel that provided “artistic and journalistic freedom” that were not allowed in mainstream comics (p. 102). They were not affiliated with the Comics Code or any type of censorship. The underground press supported the anti-war movement, feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement.

The first underground comix book was created in 1961 by a college student named Frank Stack. He wrote and drew comic strips titled The Adventures of Jesus Christ. The comic included material that was considered too inappropriate for publishing, so it was only distributed to fellow classmates and friends. Stack’s work was later reprinted by Rip Off Press in 1968 (Bradley, 2015). The majority of comix readers were college students and young adults who purchased them at retail locations such as “head shops, alternative book and  record stores, [and] street vendors” that marketed countercultural items (Spiggle, p. 102). Throughout the late 70s and 80s, distribution channels included specialized stores, direct mail, and particular mail distributors. Today, some scholars view underground comix from the late 20th century as influential to the development of the industry and demonstrate the idea of social criticism as an option to share with the public.

For more information on underground comix, The History of Underground Comix by Mark James Estren provides an interesting and humorous look into the history of these publications. The book also discusses the origin of the comics, artists and writers, the various types of comic genres used for underground, and their transition into being associated with above-ground comics.

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This illustration is the cover page to an underground comic printed by Rip Off Press in 1970. Image source: Crumb, R. (1970). Motor city. Southfield: Rip Off Press. 

Rip-off Press was one of the most popular publishers for underground comix. Here is an example of one of their issues for Motor City Comics. This title page does not include highly explicit material, but it does reveal a woman’s breasts and a house that is filled with hippies being raided.

 

This image is an example of a title page with what was considered explicit information during the late 20th century. Abortion Eve is a comic that was published by Nanny Goat Productions in 1973. Image source: Chevli, L., & Farmer, J. S. (1973). Abortion eve. Laguna Beach: Nanny Goat Productions.
Figure 2. This image is an example of a title page with what was considered explicit information during the late 20th century. Abortion Eve is a comic that was published by Nanny Goat Productions in 1973. Image source: Chevli, L., & Farmer, J. S. (1973). Abortion eve. Laguna Beach: Nanny Goat Productions.

Some underground comix featured topics that were highly inappropriate for the above-ground medium. This cover page of Abortion Eve is an example of such a topic that would be forbidden for mainstream comics. The comic also demonstrates one of the many movements they encouraged — support for oppressed women.

These panels from the Death Rattle series represent the horror and gore side of underground comix. Image source: Poplaski, P. (1972). Something that grabs ya. Death Rattle 1(1), 3.
Figure 3. These panels from the Death Rattle series represent the horror and gore side of underground comix. Image source: Poplaski, P. (1972). Something that grabs ya. Death Rattle 1(1), 3.

Another genre example of underground comix is horror. This image illustrates the type of explicit material that is found inside horror themed comix. The graphic images and scary component make this comic an “adult only” read.

 

 

References

Bradley, Drew. (2015, Feb. 3). Small press month: A brief history of underground comixMultiversity Comics.

McAllister, M. P., Sewell, E. H., & Gordon, I. (2001). Comics and ideology. New York: Peter Lang.

Spiggle, S. (1986). Measuring social values: A content analysis of sunday comics and underground comix. Journal of Consumer Research, 13(1), 102.