“Mocking Constituted Authorities with Bitterness and Fury”: The Comix and Underground Newspapers

This is the second of a series of posts where I’m digging into the history of 1960s/1970s underground comix: it’s a history I’ve always been curious about on its own terms, but I’m also exploring underground comix in order to better understand how Doonesbury reflected and drew upon critical developments in comics happening around the time of its emergence. This post, and the next few, will examine some of the roots of the undergrounds, focusing on print culture of the 60s and early 70s. Along with sources from that rich print culture environment that I’ve recently stumbled across, I’ll again be referring to Brian Doherty’s recent history of the comix, Dirty Pictures, as well as a 1970 Playboy article about the undergrounds by Jacob Brackman and writing from Paul Buhle, then a graduate student and SDS activist, now a comics creator and scholar of the counterculture. 

The historian Howard Brick describes avant-garde cultural movements as those that join artistic experimentation with emerging technology, have a political dimension that expresses “revolutionary aspirations,” and try to transcend the gap “between ‘life’ and ‘art.’” Brick provides a few examples of avant-garde literature from the late 50s and early 60s that set the tone for what would unfold over the next few years in American creative expression: William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch “conveys the hellish degradation of their existence while still pouring scorn on ‘normal’ social life”; a 1963 literary compilation titled Writers in Revolt brought together authors who represented “a genuinely antinomian element, committed to untrammeled passion and contempt for convention.” (Brick describes editor Alexanger Trocchi as a “misanthrope and sometimes pornographer.”) Aside from these “highbrow” moments, Brick lists more popular voices who gave American audiences “a more palatable style of dissent,” including Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Ishmael Reed, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and Lenny Bruce, who all created works that were “often self-consciously crude, sophmoric or aggressively sexual,” and which “dealt with both political and private life, and established conventions with varying degrees of bitterness and fury.”

Though they check all of his boxes, Brick’s list of examples of 1960s avant-garde literary culture misses a key instance of that moment: underground comix. Comix creators experimented with established elements of their medium and took advantage of technological changes that had made printing more accessible. Comix took a decidedly revolutionary stance and their creators were deeply engaged with the cultural politics of their time, even as their commitment to “movement politics” was inconsistent: in Buhle’s words, they were a “potentially subversive cultural mechanism” that could “serve … to destroy an old view of the world and to replace it with a new one.” Burroughs’s revealing the “hellish degradation” of modern life and his disdain for “normalcy”; Writers in Revolt’s “untrammeled passion” and “contempt for convention”; Trocchi’s reputation for misanthropy and smut-peddling; “crude, sophmoric or aggressively sexual,” “mocking constituted authorities with bitterness and fury”: these comparicons and descriptors apply perfectly to the ethos of the comix and their creators. 

Brackman recalls how alternative expressive cultures of the late 50s and early 60s “did more than all the Young Socialist rallies ever held to keep some of us from identifying with the good old Saturday Evening Post…They created the credibility gap, opened up the kids who would mold the counterculture a decade later.” Comix, as a literary/artistic satirical movement, emerged from what Buhle calls “a veritable subversive library” available to 1960s youth: Harvey Kurtzman’s EC Comics, and, later, Help! (which featured the work of Gilbert Shelton), Paul Krassner’s The Realist magazine, paperback science-fiction novels, campus humor magazines, DIY fanzines, hotrod and surfing magazines, (notably the work of Ed Roth) and rock-concert posters produced by artists like Mouse, Griffin, and Kelley indulged in new, often transgressive, approaches to self-expression and satire that inspired and guided the development of underground comix. 

Another element of 60s print culture, a growing network of underground newspapers, which Buhle describes as “the most singularly innovative medium since the introduction of television,” gave comix creators the space they needed to create and grow an audience. As was the case with their mainstream incarnations, the comics were typically one of the more popular elements of underground newspapers: creators like Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins, Spain Rodriguez, Art Spiegelman and Gilbert Shelton all ran their work in underground newspapers, with New York’s East Village Other playing a central role in popularizing their work.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in the EVO

What follows is a look at 1960s/70s underground newspapers that draws on two examples of their era’s rich alternative print culture environment. Fact was a political and cultural review published by Ralph Ginzburg from 1964 – 1967; its chief legacy is publishing a survey of mental-health experts who evaluated Barry Goldwater’s sanity, leading to the American Psychiatric Association to create the “Goldwater Rule,” barring its members from commenting publicly on the mental health of people they had not examined. (The “Goldwater Rule” enjoyed newfound relevance during the Trump era, as another prominent GOP politician forced the nation to question his rationality). Ginzburg’s successor project, Avant-Garde, perhaps best remembered for its innovative design, ran from 1968 – 71. Both magazines ran articles about underground newspapers revealing their close ties to the radical political and countercultural movements of their time, and how, as a consequence of those connections, they were targeted by police and the courts. In 1967, Adam Leshkol profiled the EVO for Fact. EVO, which at the time of Leshkol’s writing had been around for two years, was New York City’s most important underground paper and a popular venue for many key underground comix artists. Three years later, F.X. Boyle, writing in Avant-Garde, examined a community of underground newspapers that, by then, had grown to number over 350 nationwide. 

Boyle framed underground newspapers as “the successors to the ‘little magazines’” that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century and flourished until the Second World War. Those literary periodicals had their roots in avant-garde literary journals of the 19th century; scholars also point to The Dial, a Transcendentalist-themed magazine co-edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a notable influence. Little magazines like Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, The Glebe, and The Little Review played an important role in the development of American Modernism. Much like the underground newspapers of the 1960s, they provided a forum for “new, unusual, and often iconoclastic work,” and, like the undergrounds, they had an “overwhelming tendency to be short-lived.” 

Like the little magazines, underground newspapers relied on new developments in printing that made them relatively cheap to produce: as Boyle wrote, one could cobble together “a $500 bankroll … a printer more avaricious than he is cowardly … an abandoned storefront … [and] dedicated staffers who will work for $20 or $30 a week” and they would have the basic resources needed to put out a paper. Alongside their relative ease of production, underground newspapers flourished as the Vietnam War and a broader culture of resistance helped create an expanding audience for radical ideas, making it relatively easy to develop a readership “eager to read what they never could read elsewhere.” 

Underground newspapers shared the connections that the comix had to the broader counterculture. Leshkol framed EVO as a product of New York’s alternative literary and cultural scenes. The paper’s managing editor, Alan Katzman, described how it emerged in 1965 as a response to the Village Voice becoming “staid” as a “great migration of poets, artists, jazzmen, second-generation Beats and then third-generation Beats” moved from the Village to the Lower East Side, where Allen Ginsberg “still [reigned] over [a] poetic kingdom.” (The neighborhood was home not only to Ginsberg, but to other Beat luminaries including Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Corso). John Wilcock, a co-founder of the Voice, was a contributor and editor: he also helped found the Underground Press Syndicate, a nationwide association of underground papers that enabled them to share articles and features, facilitating the development of a broader readership. The paper’s ownership also revealed connections to a larger counterculture: one  of the paper’s owners was Tuli Kupferberg, a writer, musician and member of the underground band the Fugs

Fatigue Press. (Wisconsin Historical Society).

Looking beyond these connections to literary and counter-cultural luminaries, some underground staffers who spoke with Boyle emphasized the work their papers had done not only as journalists, but as active participants in radical politics. Jerry Powers of Miami’s Daily Planet saw his paper’s pages and offices as “a communications center,” facilitating connection within and between culturally- and politically-engaged readerships. The Los Angeles Free Press published a list of narcotics agents’ home addresses (doxxing, avant la lettre), based on the reasoning that “if the police don’t have offices where they can be reached, the community should be able to walk up to them as if they were the neighborhood traffic policeman.” One group of activists stood out among the staffers Boyle spoke with: the men who had to fight in Vietnam. Boyle heard from the editors of two papers produced by and for those men, Shakedown, which ran out of Fort Dix, and Fort Hood’s Fatigue Press. Private Joe Leblanc of Fatigue Press emphasized the role that the experience of fighting in Vietnam had played in radicalizing the paper’s staff:

When I first [enlisted], I was apolitical. I just thought it was this adventurous thing, you know? And I was 17. Then, after I’d been in the Army for a while, and I’d been in Vietnam, I became political. That’s what happens to a lot of guys. Most of the guys who work on Shakedown are veterans. 

Working for an underground military newspaper had serious consequences for servicemen: LeBlanc held the lowest possible rank in the Army (Pvt. E-1) and blamed his failure to advance in the ranks on the brass’s attitudes towards his work with the paper. Pfc. John Koresdale of Fatigue Press reported that much of his paper’s staff had been shipped to Vietnam or to Leavenworth: “They harass us because the Army can’t dig people getting together.” The Establishment’s campaign against underground newspapers was by no means limited to the military: it was experienced by many, if not most of the people involved in the underground press. Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s verbal attacks on the mainstream press, memorably captured in his characterization of the media as the “nattering nabobs of negativity,” were tame compared to how “klansmen, unscrupulous DAs, and other creeps” went after the alternative press: “All over the country,” Boyle wrote, “the youngsters who staff underground newspapers are being arrested, their papers are being sued, their cars are being set afire, their offices are being bombed, burglarized or riddled with bullets.” Powers speculated that his office’s role as an organizing space was “what makes the Establishment more uptight than anything else”; Marshall Rosenthal of The Seed, a Chicago paper, told Boyle that he was expecting to be indicted for having printed a document from the Weathermen shortly before the Days of Rage. “As The Seed becomes more political,” Rosenthal reflected, “I imagine harassment will increase accordingly.” Establishment efforts to shut down underground newspapers seemed to be more pronounced outside of major urban centers, but political opposition to underground newspapers was not limited to local law-enforcement: the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was “apparently carrying out a rather broad investigation of different radical groups, with a heavy emphasis on radical media.” 

Obscenity laws were a useful tool in the campaign against the underground press. Allen Young from the Liberation News Service saw busting newspapers for “nudity and four-letter words” as “just a pretext” for going after “basically political publications.” Krystyna Neumann of Iowa’s Pterodactyl kept on her office wall a framed copy of her arrest warrant for “unlawfully and willfully … [distributing] books, pamphlets, or printed or written paper containing obscene language or obscene prints, pictures or descriptions … tending to corrupt the morals of youth.” Her crime? Printing a reproduction of some Playboy ad copy (“What kind of man reads Playboy?”) illustrated with an image of a man “masturbating in front of some Playboy fold-outs,” meant to illustrate how “Playboy exploits women and treats women as a commodity.” (An upcoming post will focus on some of the feminist dimensions of underground comix.)

“What sort of man reads Playboy?”

Smut laws were also deployed against the comix; moreover, for both underground newspapers and the comix, the law went after not only the individuals directly responsible for creating the offending material, but seemingly anyone involved in their production and distribution. Boyle noted that underground publishers often struggled to find printers who’d risk arrest for producing the papers, that people selling the papers risked a loitering charge for selling the papers on the streets, and that merchants who carried the publications were harassed by police. Alongside detailing the most infamous use of state power against the comix – the Air Pirates Funnies’ legal struggles with the Disney Corporation – Doherty traces how bookstores and head shops that  underground comix, and the printers who produced them, were targeted by the law. In 1970, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore had to appear in court after a City Lights clerk was arrested for selling Zap Comix #4. Notable titles like Bijou Funnies and Young Lust became hard to find, even in major cities like New York and Los Angeles after that copy of Zap was targeted by law enforcement. 

Underground comix can trace their roots through a tradition of radical print culture going back at least as far as the Transcendentalists (in the US-American context, at least: the global scope of alternative comics is something I still need to dig into); they and the newspapers which carried them often faced severe consequences for dealing in dangerous ideas. Next time in this series, we’ll look more closely at what was going on in the world of comic arts as the undergrounds took root. Stay tuned. 

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