Doonesbury and the Comix, Part One: “Pigs and Nixon” (The Politics of the Undergrounds)

Around the time of Doonesbury’s October 1970 debut, the Christmas edition of Playboy was on newsstands. The interview that month was with the poet Robert Graves, who predicted that a new culture of sexual liberation that “violates the moral principles on which the state is founded” would lead to “a sharp increase in homosexuality and … drug taking.” Meanwhile, Miss December, Carol Imhof, told readers that she would “never wear a midi” outside of modeling jobs: short skirts, she maintained, were part of a “conspiracy” underlying the women’s fashion industry.

That issue of Playboy also featured an article about another emerging challenge to “the moral principles on which the state is founded,” one that explored (and promoted) the shifts in morality that concerned Graves, and went after the corporate culture behind the marketing “conspiracies” that frustrated Imhof. In “The International Comix Conspiracy,” Jacob Brackman took an early look at an ongoing literary/artistic revolution: the underground comix movement. Described as “obscene, anarchistic, sophomoric, subversive, [and] apocalyptic,” the comix were “[attacking] all that middle America holds dear.”

While Playboy was among the first mainstream titles to examine the undergrounds, comix had already received scholarly attention thanks to the work of Paul Buhle, a University of Wisconsin history graduate student. The July 1969 issue of Leviathan, an underground newspaper affiliated with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) featured “Komix Kountermedia,” in which Buhle framed the work of artists like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and S. Clay Wilson as “subversive thrusts at capitalism coming right out of a popular cultural tradition.” 

Playboy, December 1970

A half-century later, journalist Brian Doherty has published Dirty Pictures, a history of underground comix that focuses on the “Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels” that drove the movement. As Doherty traces the networks that connected underground artists, writers, printers and publishers, he outlines the connections between key comix personalities and the larger counterculture: Beyond providing cover art for her breakthrough album, Crumb was close with Janis Joplin; Trina Robbins was one of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” (“Trina wears her wampum beads/She fills her drawing book with line…”); Don Donohue, publisher of Zap #1, shared an apartment with Grateful Dead manager Danny Rifkin; Jack “Jaxon” Jackson worked with the Family Dog, a collective that promoted many San Francisco bands; S. Clay Wilson hung out with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, while Charles Plymell, who printed Zap #1, was friends with Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, a foundational figure in the Beat and psychedelic movements.

When I began this project, I asserted that Garry Trudeau’s early Doonesbury strips “[followed] in the footsteps of underground comix artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton.” While that’s basically true, the relationship between Doonesbury and the undergrounds is more complicated than that throwaway comment captures, in part because the undergrounds weren’t a coherent artistic/literary movement. The comix gave voice to, and were shaped by, the social, cultural, and political turmoil and contradictions of their time, what the historian Howard Brick calls the simultaneous “authenticity and artifice, the appeal of systematic organization and the distrust of order, the urgency of peace and the uses of violence” that defined the 1960s. Any reading of the comix must pay attention to how those contradictions shaped the form, content, and meanings of the genre. In this next series of posts, I’m going to use the writing of Buhle, Brackman, Doherty, and a few other scholars of – and participants in – the underground movement to trace the political and cultural dynamics of the comix. My goal is to better understand the undergrounds, so that I can better situate Doonesbury in terms of its relationship with critical changes the world of comics was undergoing in the early stages of its development, and how it carried the legacy of those changes forward. 

Doherty’s Dirty Pictures

Buhle frames the undergrounds – “little experiments in vernacular art” – as heirs to a tradition of politically-subversive American art that dated back to the “Ashcan” movement of the first decades of the twentieth century and that had been unusually silent following the outbreak of the Cold War. “More than simply instruments of the political New Left,” Buhle writes, comix were “a tool that subverted the established order” and had the potential “to destroy an old view of the world and replace it with a new one.” Underground comix were, like psychedelic rock or New Journalism, both a product of, and an attempt to capture, a moment when youth questioned, challenged, and worked to dismantle social, political, and cultural norms. Brackman saw comix as “a conceptual breakthrough that … can make a difference in how a generation learns to conceive of America”; Doherty sees them as capturing “what it looked like and felt like to be young and strange and rebellious.” Beyond providing a revolutionary era with many of its visual cues, comix were “genuinely subterranean” in a way that, say, rock music wasn’t: Unlike the Jefferson Airplane (RCA Victor) and Bob Dylan (Columbia Records), comix artists had to rely on networks they created and maintained to reach their public. Moreover, while rock musicians may have engaged in various forms of criminality, the undergrounds often broke the law just by being on a store shelf, and their creators and distributors often faced prosecution simply for expressing themselves.

The undergrounds were a critical element of a revolutionary moment, but to call them “political” overlooks their ambivalent relationship with the politics of their times. Some of those who have studied the movement caution against over-reading the centrality of politics to the undergrounds. In 1969, Radical America, a journal of political thought aligned with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and edited by Buhle, published Radical America Komiks, a collection featuring some of the movement’s principal creators. While Radical America Komiks was tied to a foundational force in the New Left, Doherty argues the volume gave comix “a reputation for serious politics that isn’t quite deserved.” Robbins agrees, maintaining that lumping the undergrounds in with the larger radical politics of the era misses the mark: “for most of the boys,” she recalls, “legalizing pot was about as political as they got.” For Robbins, the undergrounds were more about “personal liberation” than any sense of “movement politics.” 

Looking beyond Radical America, however, there are sufficient exceptions to Doherty’s reading (many of which he documents) revealing that the undergrounds had more than incidental links to “serious politics.” Greg Irons and Tom Veitch produced the Vietnam-themed Legion of Charlies, a favorite of GIs that counterposed My Lai and Charles Manson as representatives of “the dual sicknesses in the American psyche.” In a similar vein, Doherty notes that Dan O’Neill of the Air Pirates (a comix collective that was sued by the Walt Disney corporation for copyright infringement) drew Odd Bodkins, a strip that included material about Vietnam and was also read by soldiers who praised O’Neill as someone who “knows what’s going on here.” Alongside mentions of Vietnam and a deep engagement with feminist politics – a topic we’ll deal with more fully next time – the comix also gave voice to new ideas about what we then called “the ecology” and now think of as climate politics found in titles like Slow Death Funnies.

Moreover, alongside their connections with key counterculture figures, underground comix creators and publishers had personal links to critical political figures of the era. In 1968, Crumb went to Chicago during the Democratic National Convention to hang out with Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson from the Bijou Funnies group: while Crumb seems to have had little interest in this key political moment, Williamson was friends with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He contributed illustrations to their books, and, like Jules Feiffer, covered the trial of the Chicago Seven: Williamson’s Conspiracy Capers and Feiffer’s Pictures at a Prosecution rank among the earliest examples of comics journalism. When Dan O’Neill of the Air Pirates was sued for copyright infringement by the Walt Disney Industrial Complex, he was represented by Michael Kennedy, who also represented Timothy Leary, Huey Newton, and Bernardine Dohrn of the Weather Underground.

Radical America Komiks

Air Pirate Ted Richards described cartooning for underground newspapers as an opportunity to get “really adept at drawing pigs and Nixon.” While Richards’ Left credentials include drawing for the Berkely Barb’s “more radical” offshoot, the Tribe, a newspaper that Doherty describes as being “in solidarity” with the violent politics of the Weather Underground, he felt that his creativity as a cartoonist was stymied by the need to toe a party line. The ambivalence in the relationship between comix and the politics of their times is underlined by the fact that underground artists were as likely to turn their pens against countercultural politics as they were to skewer the Establishment. Buhle argues that Gilbert Shelton, “the most ‘political,’” of his cohort, “[refused] to make total acceptability of his work easy to the political Left” and describes Jay Lynch’s Nard ’n Pat, which ran in Radical America Komiks, as “two-edged, cutting into the mechanistic Left as well as its enemies.” For his part, Crumb had what Doherty calls “complicated feelings about mid-1960s America,” and used characters like Fritz the Cat to poke fun at “the beatniks and bourgeois, folkers and rockers, Blacks and radicals.” (Crumb’s “poking fun at” Blacks is something I’ll come back to in another post.)

Doherty sees Spain Rodriguez as the most radical political figure in comix: the Weathermen reprinted his Trashman in their newspaper New Left Notes, and he was involved with the Resurgence Youth Movement, an anarchist offshoot of the SDS. But Spain’s radicalism was arguably more deeply rooted in his embrace and depictions of a lifestyle that challenged American social norms as it was in his engagement with organized movements. Spain was a biker, and, like the Hells Angels that Hunter Thompson wrote about, he and his comrades rejected bourgeois American values, but were less interested in “[changing] society” than they were in seeking ways to “exist within it in their own fashion.” While the biker aesthetics and tropes that were a regular focus of his cartooning didn’t necessarily “hit the reader … as making any point about capital, labor, or the technocracy,” Doherty notes, Spain’s depictions of biker life “captured that hard left fantasy” of “[taking] up the gun and [doing] the revolution by force.” 

Spain’s embrace of an inherently revolutionary lifestyle underlines how a narrow focus on organized movements obscures the genuine commitment to revolution the comix embodied. In his foreword to the 2018 reprint of Radical America Komiks, Jay Kinney (from the Bijou Funnies group) maintains that the volume’s title makes more sense if we see the word “radical” as referring not to movement politics, but to “a ‘radical’ rejection of the current norms.” The question of the politics of the undergrounds ultimately has much to do with what one imagines counts as “politics”: some comix artists and scholars see the politics of the movement being revealed less in explicitly “political” messaging and more in making culture a site of resistance. This dynamic may be obscured by the central role that resistance to the Vietnam War plays in the memory of the Long 1960s. Robert Williams, a key early figure in the undergrounds, argues that deemphasizing Vietnam as the “catalyst” of 1960s protest might help us see how, years before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution signalled a landmark shift in the scope of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia and brought students out to protest, the counterculture was born not in opposition to war, but as a movement to “get this fucking Ozzie and Harriet right-wing nation off our backs.”

While Buhle recognized the revolutionary potential of the new medium, he also recognized that comix created tension between the New Left and older ideas about how to make a revolution. Traditional leftists were “plainly distressed to see the excitement over komix”: not only were they not worth taking seriously, they were, to old Reds, examples of “lifestyle radicalism” that constituted “an attempt by the ruling class to pervert the revolutionary threat.” What the Old Left failed to see, perhaps, was that the comix belonged to the people in a way that other forms of cultural production didn’t, and thus had the potential to become “a potent force whatever their political direction.” To Buhle, framing comix as either politically insignificant or a “perversion” of revolutionary energy overlooked the potential of a medium that resonated strongly with the people and gave expression to new, challenging ideas. Comix had revolutionary significance because new forms of artistic expression had the potential to help “masses of people” find “a new way … see their own lives” The undergrounds were a “step toward an organic New Left, striking root in society deeper than the level of ‘politics.’” 

Echoing Buhle, Brackman concluded Playboy’s take on the comix observing that while they didn’t yet enjoy mass popularity, the undergrounds would “come to define where large numbers of young people stand in relation to our maniac culture,” and had had the potential to become “the most powerful subversion of the Seventies” not because of any explicitly political messaging, but “because … they’re the most fun.”

The comix were fun. And dangerous. Next time out, we’ll look at where they came from, some of the ways in which they challenged the Establishment, how some of the dynamics they gave voice to undercut their revolutionary cred in their time – and were a precursor to a toxicity that continues to infect the larger comics world.

Stay tuned. 

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