“A Bad Time to Be Weird”: Comics at the Dawn of the Comix

In September 1971, Playboy interviewed cartoonist Jules Feiffer, whose work had been a regular feature in that magazine (and the Village Voice) since the mid-1950s. While Feiffer didn’t say much about recent developments in comics, readers leafing through their copy would have encountered a trio of comic characters who were familiar to anyone reading the underground comix that were then at the peak of their popularity: Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the most famous stoners in comics history. That issue of Playboy included “Feds and Heads,” a cut-out board game based on Shelton’s strip. In this “game of pot luck,” players “[tried] to keep on the grass while avoiding the attendant pitfalls of rip-offs, burns and busts.” As with the publication of Jacob Brackman’s “The International Comix Conspiracy” a year earlier, the appearance of Fat Freddy, Dealer McDope, and the Notorious Norbert the Narc in Playboy, a magazine that defined hipness for a particular crowd, signalled that underground comix were worth the attention of those trying to be “with it.” 

“Feds and Heads” penalty cards. Playboy, September 1971.

This post is the third in a series looking at underground comix, with an eye on tracing how Doonesbury fits, and doesn’t fit in, with that body of work. Previously, we’ve seen how comix artists had a complicated relationship with the politics of their era, expressing counter-cultural values and being deeply tied to key revolutionary people and moments while remaining ambivalent to organized movements that fought to transform those values into action. We’ve also looked at how underground newspapers played a critical role in the development and popularization of the comix. This time out, I’m examining some developments in the wider world of comics that informed the emergence of the undergrounds. 

In a 1961 letter to a friend, Robert Crumb wrote that he was trying to “put into my work the everyday human realities that I’ve never found in a comic strip yet, though Feiffer has come the closest.” It’s hard to overstate Jules Feiffer’s importance to post-war comics history, whether it’s his influence on later mainstream comic strips (especially Doonesbury, about which I’ll say more in a future post), or how his explorations of the relationships between alienated individuals and an alienating society helped shape the deeply personal alternative comics that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and remain a central pillar of the medium. By the time Feiffer sat down with Playboy, many underground comix creators had, like Crumb, built on his explorations of social and political issues including racial inequality, Vietnam, women’s liberation and the sexual revolution and the isolation, hang-ups, and general sense of existential malaise that accompanied those dynamics. These themes, as well as Feiffer’s loose, “sketchbook” drawing style were, to one degree or another, central to many underground comix. 

Feiffer’s work emerged during, as one comics artist put it, “a bad time to be weird.” Nineteen-fifties post-war cultural conformity and Cold War paranoia made comic books a target for social activists who saw them as a threat to youth and public morality, foreshadowing later moral panics like the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s or more recent concerns about allegedly harmful, but ultimately nonexistent, TikTok challenges. In 1954 psychiatrist Frederic Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent, which asserted that consumption of violent images in popular comics contributed to juvenile delinquency. The resulting outcry led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to hold hearings on violence and gore in comics. Publishers, seeking to protect their image and fearful of the prospect of a government clampdown on the medium, formed the Comics Code Authority to self-regulate their industry. The Code imposed draconian restrictions on comics creators, purging comics of “sex, violence and any other content not in keeping with critics’ standards … eliminating slang and colloquialisms,” and emphasizing “respect for government and parental authority.” Comics would only get the Seal of Approval “if they were suitable for the youngest readers.” Most famously, the Code led to the demise of William Gaines’s EC Comics, a publishing house that gave creators unprecedented freedom in the mass-market comics business. (Gaines’s subsequent adventures in publishing are the subject of a future post in this series.)

While their monthly counterparts were gutted by the Code, newspaper comics were not directly affected: given the wide readership of a daily newspaper, the funny pages had historically been “safe” for the broadest, and blandest, conception of an audience. Dating back to the 1920s and strips like The Gumps, Bringing up Father, and Moon Mullins, the funnies long used humor not to attack American mores, but to normalize a patriarchal White, American, middle-class ethos. During the Cold War, Brackman noted, titles like Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy, and Blondie doubled down on the medium’s “establishmentarian” orientation, especially after Wertham’s campaign. And while it’s undeniable that the funny pages have become increasingly diverse, contemporary strips like Foxtrot and Zits (both of which I really dig) continue to center the White, two-parent, middle-class family.

Ten years before the Feiffer’s Playboy interview, Charles Beaumont, a writer for the classic Twilight Zone television series whose work appeared often in the magazine, framed newspaper comic strips as a literary art form poised to make important gains in expressive scope and relevance after having lost respectability when “some sourpuss came along and pointed out that comics were a lowbrow entertainment, fit only for kids.” As evidence of the new cultural relevance of comic strips, Beaumont cited a report that Boston University was spending $37,000 on a study of their history and cultural impact, but, as was the case with the Shelton feature, the appearance of an article about newspaper comic strips in the same copy of Playboy as writing by and about hip touchstones like John Dos Passos, Lenny Bruce, Marlon Brando, William de Kooning, and Ray Bradbury itself speaks to the growing importance of newspaper funnies as a satirical vehicle.

Even as many comics reproduced traditional values grounded in God, Mom, and Apple Pie, Beaumont noted that three strips stood out for bringing socially- and politically-charged satire to the funnies. The unquestionable genius of Walt Kelley’s Pogo had long ago forced critics to argue that it wasn’t “really” a comic strip in order to protect their highbrow cred when they wrote about Kelley’s brilliance. The arrival of Peanuts, a strip that, as the historian Blake Scott Bell writes, “regularly touched on the lived experience of socially- and politically-conscious Americans in the postwar era,” marked the end of an “unofficial ban” on taking comics seriously as an artistic/literary form. 

If any one newspaper cartoonist can be credited with combining sophisticated satire with enduring mass popularity, it’s Al Capp. In a 1961 interview with The Realist, Feiffer credited Capp, who had been drawing Li’l Abner since 1934, for “the strides towards satire the comic strip has taken in recent years, arguing that there was “a straight, progressively stimulating line from Li’l Abner to Pogo to Peanuts.” Beaumont framed Capp’s guiding ethos in terms that would have made perfect sense to the comix artists whose work emerged over the course of the 1960s: after decades spent writing about “almost every major issue of our era,” Capp had come to the conclusion that everyone and everything were “incurably stupid” and the only reasonable response was to laugh. 

This fundamentally cynical view of humanity pervaded the comix, and as their creators took aim at a broad set of social, cultural and political targets, they would spoof the counterculture as much as the establishment. Feiffer’s work was a precedent for that dynamic: as Paul Morton notes, Feiffer went after “middle-of-the-road liberals” as much as he spoofed “hip readers who indulged new sexual mores in order to achieve a facile identity and something adjacent to pleasure.” In this, he had the full support of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner whose list of possible targets for the cartoonist’s pen included the hip consumerism and libertinism at the core of Playboy’s philosophy. Hefner’s suggestions for topics eligible for satire included: 

“…the man and his job, his relationship with his boss and associates, the organization man, getting ahead in the world, male and female fashion, dining and drinking, sports cars, hi-fi, jazz, the Beat Generation, psychoanalysis, advertising, the movies, television.”

Ironically, as their work was informing an emerging form of counter-cultural expression, both Feiffer and Capp rejected the new radical politics. Of the two, Capp became much more sharply reactionary, bitterly mocking the New Left both in public statements and in comic strips, and overtly flirting with fascist ideas. In an introduction to a 1978 anthology, Capp described how he had historically been “a liberal … [demanding] that the unfortunate be given welfare, that their rent be paid, that they be given food benefits,” and expressed pride in how his generation of liberals had fought to make the system more fair. Over the course of the 1960s, Capp became alienated from the increasingly radical left, and began to believe that a growing class of beneficiaries had become lazy and “entitled to government gifts [people who worked] couldn’t get.” In a 1965 Playboy interview, Capp described James Baldwin as “pompous, ill-tempered,” and hateful; William Buckley, on the other hand, was “a profound thinker, a dazzling scholar, and a fearless crusader.” Turning his attention to the subject of poverty, an issue he had long written about in a way that made his New Deal sympathies clear, Capp argued for compulsory sterilization of those “unfit” to have children

Two Li’l Abner arcs, twelve years apart, illustrate Capp’s political shift on the question of racial equality, from expressing solidarity with the Civil Rights movement to mocking attempts to undue systemic racism in higher education. In 1956, during the Montgomery bus boycott, Capp took a clear stand against racism with “Welcome Strangers,” an arc about a family with square eyes who move to Dogpatch. They are rejected by the community because of their difference, but Mammy Yokum has an epiphany and realizes that the “Square-Eyed folk” were just like Dogpatch folk “even though they looks a li’l diff’runt.” As the language of  Civil Right gave way to white fears of Black Power, Capp took a decidedly different approach to writing about race in the United States. In 1968 Black students at Harvard tied the murder of Martin Luther King to demands for an increased presence of African-American people, ideas and experiences in the university’s faculty, admissions, and curricula. In response, Capp wrote “Ignoble Savages,” which told the story of a Harvard Dean of Admissions who must recruit an Indigenous student in order to fulfil a racial quota. He pleads with a young Indigenous man – drawn as a racist “Indian” stereotype – to accept a place at Harvard, promising to “show how liberal we are” by “[kicking] out a Paleface to make space for you.”

Al Capp in 1956…
…and in 1968.

Capp’s public break with the left became a cautionary tale for Feiffer, who recalled an event at Columbia University where a student cornered him and said: “in ten years you’re going to be Al Capp and we’ll have to put you up against the wall.” Like Capp, Feiffer fell out with the left as growing anger at the war in Vietnam and widespread questioning of core cultural values forced the first generation of Cold War liberals to give way to radical new voices. While Feiffer may have “[shared] much of the kids’ criticism of society today,” he acknowledged that they and he were “living in different cultures.” The resulting generation gap is revealed in Feiffer’s complaint about how his cohort had to “at the age of 40, [listen to] to 22-year-old Weatherladies lecture us about Marxist Leninism.” That said, Feiffer’s discontent with youth radicalism did not lead him to emulate Capp’s reactionary turn: he saw Capp as “an elderly right-wing Abbie Hoffman,” implying that neither man was worth taking seriously. Instead, he clung to the “radical middle,” opposed to the war and social injustice, but rejecting burning down the whole system. 

Yet as Feiffer disavowed the radicalism that fueled underground comix culture, like the comix, his early-70s work exposed the darkness and violence at the heart of the American experience, elements brought to the fore in an era defined by a brutal war in Asia and assassinations, rioting and bombings on the home front. Feiffer’s 1971 play Little Murders, later adapted to the screen by Alan Arkin, focuses on family dysfunction, alienation and random violence. The play grew out of Feiffer’s understanding of the assassination of John Kennedy as a moment revealing the violence brought forth as the “frustrations of the American dream measured against the American reality” boiled over; it ends with the men of a family giddily shooting passers-by with a sniper rifle from their apartment window. 

That particularly American sense of darkness pervading the sanctuary of the family sits in tension with the America in which Blondie and Steve Canyon unfolded. The funnies embraced a normative reading of American culture, but the undergrounds, Brackman observed, “[lacked] the cheerfulness that underlies good citizenship.” Instead of promoting a lifestyle synonymous with national belonging, the undergrounds attacked that vision, often in profoundly disturbing ways. Hi and Lois and Superman stood up for the family and the flag; comix came for the social, political, and cultural foundation supporting the entire structure. Perhaps nothing from the comix reveals the rot at the heart of America than “Joe Blow,” Crumb’s infamous contribution to Zap #4, which portrays the “typical” White American suburban family home as a place where the most depraved sexual behavior takes place behind a facade of domestic bliss. 

Robert Crumb, “Joe Blow,” Zap #4.

As difficult as it is to read “Joe Blow,” the images are meant to draw in the reader, hiding sheer horror behind the most innocent visual aesthetic. Comics historian Paul Buhle notes that the undergrounds were, besides a form of social satire,“a play or commentary on comic art forms.” They often borrowed heavily from the visual language of mainstream comics: evoking the “family-friendly” characters and situations that dominated the funny pages was, as Crumb saw it, a way to “promote breaking out of that culture in an ironic, humorous way.” Part of what makes “Joe Blow” such a profoundly disturbing – and effective – piece of satire is how it uses the cutest, friendliest drawing style (Crumb honed his illustration skills creating greeting cards for Hallmark) to illustrate profoundly disturbing situations that violate any socially-acceptable sense of sexual propriety: the same scenes rendered with a drawing style that evoked the horror and ugliness that lay at the heart of “Joe’s” family wouldn’t get the point across: the real ugliness isn’t in something outside of us – it’s woven into the fabric of our lives. That’s what makes it so horrifying.

Beaumont saw newspaper comics in 1961 as being “in a slack period,” waiting for a new generation of artists and writers to take the next steps on the path plotted out by Capp, Kelly and Schulz. No doubt that Doonesbury represented a critical part of how, in the decade that followed, newspaper comics creators pushed the medium onto new satirical ground (… in a future post, I’ll look at other comic strips that emerged in the 1960s and early 70s that also helped fulfil that quest). That said, the daily paper was not equipped to handle much of the comics satire that emerged from the turbulent times that were just on Beaumont’s horizon as Camelot gave way to the darkness and violence that defined much of the American experience for the next several years. While Feiffer’s work in Playboy and the Village Voice demonstrated that periodicals that were at least adjacent to the mainstream had room for more challenging satirical comics, the work of  Crumb et. al. had no place on reputable newsstands. Instead, underground/campus newspapers and independently-published books became the principal media for a generation of comics artist who drew much of their inspiration from Capp, Kelley, Schulz, and Feiffer, but were addressing new ideas and ongoing events in ways that were simply too intense for the funny pages. 

One thought on ““A Bad Time to Be Weird”: Comics at the Dawn of the Comix

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s