New York

Zap #12

Psychedlic Solution

It has been more than 20 years now since Zap Comix first reared its ugly monster head out of the psychedelic miasma and sociopolitical upheaval of the ’60s to change forever the way we think about comic books. In both form and content, it goes beyond the obvious appeal of transgression/regression fantasies. Zap is that rare kind of artistic and literary masterwork that jumps out and smacks you right in the face, knocks you to the floor, and wrestles with your bilious heart of darkness till you’re screaming uncle, wretching in utter disgust, or begging for more. Reveling in hysterical silliness and naughty bathroom humor, it remains a seminal voice of countercultural commitment, the earliest and most persistent comic book dedicated to the radical possibilities of social satire, taboo sexpressionism, and absurdest or surrealist puerility. Its uncompromisingly nonconventional, underground spirit keeps it fresh and distinguishes it from the new breed of graphic novels, which are completely devoid of such instinctual rebelliousness.

Zap was begun in 1967 by Robert Crumb; he was the sole contributor to its first two issues. To this day, Crumb is generally regarded as the biggest star among the magazine’s infamous creative cast. He is the progenitor of characters whose idiosyncratic outlooks have made them some of the most adored antiheros of our age—from that irreverent sage of vaudevillian logic, Mr. Natural, to the voraciously carnal Fritz the Cat. Crumb’s art was so in tune with the ’60s dream that it constituted a cultural iconography far beyond the audience of underground comics publishing. To my mind, however, perhaps the most unforgettable image Crumb created was the unlikely portrait of himself as a shy, gawky introvert, painfully lacking physical or emotional strength. Yet it was this droll outcast, a neurotic, insecure, sexually obsessive, even misanthropic character who, like Woody Allen, used the enigma of embarrassment and pathological misery to become the great scene stealer and star of the show.

In 1968, Zap #3 appeared, including three additional contributors—Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, and S. Clay Wilson. Moscoso was a student of Milton Glaser and Joseph Albers before moving out to San Francisco in the ’60s. Combining an uncanny graphic flair with a mastery over the wide-ranging possibilities of color, he became known as the technical virtuoso of Zap artists. Moscoso’s way of visually skewering the sequence and layout of his panels into lyrical, nonlinear tangents, and his vibrant Op-Artlike effects, help make up for what his stories sometimes lack in narrative intensity. Griffin is one of the premier developers of Surf art, and created the classic beach-bum comic character, Murphy. Griffin’s style is most widely seen in his record covers for groups ranging from the Grateful Dead to The Cult. What is most admirable in Griffin’s art is his acid-freak mysticism, his peculiar vision of an enigmatic cosmic realm in which one is not surprised to see Christ riding a surfboard.

S. Clay Wilson’s unfathomably beautiful, twisted, sadistic, and inhuman encyclopedia of variations in torture is dedicated to the exploration of humanity’s darkest moments. His surrealistically psychotic imagination rates as one of the heaviest, most intense and disturbing ones around, spawning the transgressive fantasies of the Checkered Demon and Ruby the Dyke. The madness, villainy, and corruption let loose in Wilson’s den of iniquity is as scarringly unforgettable as it is beyond all hope of redemption or exorcism.

Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, and Robert Williams first appeared in Zap #4 in 1969. Shelton is the creator of the phenomenally popular comic strips relating the various drugged-out adventures of those hippie scuzballs known as the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. These delinquent role models send out a blaringly contrary message, set in opposition to the virtuous “good guy” projections of mainstream comics. Continuously frustrated by their own spaced-out incompetence and society’s misunderstanding of them, Shelton’s characters and situations seem quite believable and real. A lot of people identify quite strongly with them, making Shelton one of the most widely published and closely followed of the Zap artists.

Spain Rodriguez has been the lone artist responsible for adding to Zap a deliberate and overt expression of political belief. Like all Zap contributors, Rodriguez’s world is a fantasy constructed of his own personal fetishistic fascinations and those psychological ambivalences he has toward them. In the same way that Crumb’s anatomically overbearing amazon women or Griffin’s transcendental surf bums are representative of a larger world view, so too, do Rodriguez’s savage black leather-clad urban warriors sum up an entire noirish outlaw world as imagined by a single obsessive imagination. Yet while his cohorts use their folly and vulgarity to articulate their apolitical rejection of the status quo, Rodriguez does so as a direct and deliberate critique of the current political, economic, and social hierarchy.

Robert Williams is the only one of Zap’s artists to have gained some token recognition for his work within the contemporary art world. Williams has been producing a major body of paintings that transpose the lowbrow material of his comics onto the canvas with wit, style, and masterfully refined elegance. It’s as unfortunate as it is predictable that Williams, who has not only worked as director of the influential Ed “Big Daddy” Roth studios but has produced some of the most memorable images from American youth culture during the past 20 years, would only become an accepted figure in our galleries and museums for his paintings. However, lest one think that Williams’ move to painting is a selling out to the pressures of the mainstream on his part, one need only scan the array of sexually explicit and grotesque pop-culture material that his paintings draw on to see exactly whom they are destined to please and whom they will inevitably offend.

Since 1969, no one else has been added to the wicked, grizzly roster of infamous Zapsters. Yet every new issue of Zap generates the same mass excitement, anticipation, reverence, nostalgia, and potential for a glorious return to a sacred communal experience that is promised when some rock supergroup of the ’60s comes back together for yet another reunion show. Rock and comics, we all know, are for the young among us. But as Zap #12 proves, weirdo artists like these guys never quite seem to run out of ideas or lose their mad energy and ability to capture our attention.

Carlo McCormick