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I’ve always been something of a comic book fan. Captain Marvel, Batman, Green Lantern, even Richie Rich and Archie. When I was 10 years old and was evacuated from the small military base I lived on in Peshawar, West Pakistan because of a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, the thing I remember the best is the incredible number of comic books at the disposal of all the youngsters I was evacuated with. We spent hours reading comics that other military dependents and GIs had donated to us. When our plane stopped over in Tehran for a refueling on its way from Kabul, Afghanistan to Istanbul, Turkey the Red Cross and USO volunteers gave us each a bag lunch and three comics. Mine were two Supermans and a very old Captain Marvel. I don’t remember the contents of the lunch at all. The first few days in Turkey, all of the boys over six years old slept in a barracks dorm on Karamursel Air Station. There were several hundred comic books strewn around the place. Unfortunately, we eventually had to go back to school and my comic reading time was cut short. Although I still read them when I could, my obsessive binge was curtailed.
I regained some of that obsession the day I saw the first three ZAP Comix in a head shop in Germany. For those of you unfamiliar with ZAPs, they were the best of the underground comix that were published in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. R. Crumb, Denis Kitchen, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Moscosco, Robert Williams and so on-all of the best artists filled the pages of these psychedelic, mind-bending, rude and antiestablishment exercises in expression. Part of the rebellion against the moralistic Comics Code that mainstream comics had to adhere to, underground commix laughed in the face of this attempt by the puritans to regulate what people could read. If someone was looking for a way to be offended, they could find it in ZAP. For the rest of us, ZAPs and their sister publications were cutting social and political criticism. Whether it was R. Crumb drawing and writing a story about Whiteman, the screwed-up representative of male middle-class America or S. Clay Wilson sharing his intricately drawn tales of brutality and excess among bikers and pirates, these comix rearranged the often-dull world we live in. They weren’t light reading and sometimes not very pretty, but neither is the daily news. At least comix are fun.
GIs loved Dopin’ Dan, a hapless GI who fumbled his way through the man’s army stoned on weed and whatever else was around. A Beetle Bailey for the Vietnam generation of soldiers, Dan’s primary concern was staying alive, staying high, and making a fool of the lifers who tried to rule his world. Gilbert Shelton from Austin had his tales of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, three twenty something men who had dropped out of Middle America and moved to the hippie ghettoes. Their bumbling adventures avoiding cops, the draft, and work were not only humorous, they were what we were living. ZAP Comix combined such underground comix characters as Mr. Natural and Coochie-Cootie, The Checkered Demon and Trashman, Agent of the 6th International. The latter was an anarcho-syndicalist superhero created out of the cartoonist Spain’s interest in politics and the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War. Often quite sexist in their portrayal of women, these comix reflected the society they existed in. The sexism did not go unanswered, however. Several women cartoonists began a series of commix they titled All-Wimmin Comix that saw the new world of the counterculture from a feminist perspective. Like much good satire, these comix used exaggeration to make their point. It was this exaggeration (that bordered on the grotesque at times) that got them in trouble with prudes of the right and the left.
I recently purchased the most recent issue of ZAP-Number 15. Like its predecessors, there is something to offend anyone who wishes to be offended here. Heck, parts of it offend me. Is it for children, like other comics supposedly are? If your definition of children means those younger than high school age, my answer would be no, at least in most cases. Ken Kesey (an avid Captain Marvel fan) once noted in a published conversation with Paul Krassner that when his kids read underground comix, their style of play “turned inward.” Kesey attributed this in part to the cartoonists’ tendency to use their art as a way to work out some of their demons. Adults, argued Kesey, either had enough of their own demons to deal with or had built enough walls that enabled them not to take on someone else’s. Children, on the other hand, don’t have such walls. Despite this, I would rather see a ZAP comic in the hands of a child than support a call to limit their sales or censor their content.
Content-wise, ZAP 15 takes on the new police state of the post 9-11 America. While satirizing US residents’ fear of terrorists, Shelton, Crumb and the other artists in the collection take on the puritanical persuasions of the current administration and its manipulation of fear to create the police state it desires. Whether it’s R. Crumb’s autobiographical sketch of his neuroses, Spain’s portrayal of the car-racing culture, S. Clay Wilson’s grotesque artistry portraying the underside of human existence in no uncertain terms, or Gilbert Shelton’s latest Wonder Warthog adventure where in the Warthog’s alter-ego Hebert Desenex loses his job and his superpowers (gee what could that mean?) and then gets arrested for looking like a terrorist just because he’s weird, ZAP 15 continues the grand underground tradition of getting under that bit of the Establishment’s skin we all wear. . Despite the intention of satire (it is a comic after all), there are elements of this comic that are more real than fantasy, more truth than fiction. Than again, isn’t that the nature of satire? To take the facts and make them so real (super real, in fact) that the truth comes through? Jonathan Swift did it back when he wrote “A Modest Proposal,” and the aforementioned Paul Krassner made a publishing career out of it with his now-defunct magazine, The Realist. In other words, many a good satirist adopts the philosophy of “screw ’em if they can’t take a joke.” ZAP and its artists continue this tradition.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org