Self-expression from the underground in 1968

At The Comics Journal, critic R.C. Harvey has a lengthy examination of the start of underground comix. He writes that back in 1968, new series like Zap Comix on the West Coast and in radical newspapers in New York City, cartoonists were given “the chance for self-expression,” an opportunity they weren’t afforded as contracted freelance artists for mainstream comics companies. A tide of irreverent strips and stories sprouted up around a time of social upheaval in America—there were protests against the Vietnam War on college campuses, assassinations of political figures, and more.

underground comix history harvey spain

Harvey drills down on the beginnings of the East Village Other, which included the work of Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez and more:

The EVO, as it was dubbed, was among the first countercultural newspapers to emerge, following the Los Angeles Free Press, which had begun publishing a few months earlier.

The EVO was described by the New York Times as “a New York newspaper so countercultural that it made the Village Voice look like a church circular.” The Voice, which had been founded ten years earlier by Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher, John Wilcock and Norman Mailer, is usually recognized as the country’s first alternative newsweekly. Although it hosted a variety of writers and artists and cartoonists (most notably in the latter category, Jules Feiffer), the Voice was not known as a newspaper for cartoonists. The EVO, on the other hand, was.

It was a breeding ground for the underground comix, providing an outlet for artists including Spiegelman, Deitch, Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Gilbert Shelton before underground comic books emerged with the publication of the first issue of Zap Comix.

The popularity of comic strips led to the publication of separate comics tabloids, beginning with Zodiac Mindwarp by Spain Rodriguez and continuing with Gothic Blimp Works.

See R.C. Harvey’s informative feature (and wealth of reprinted art) at The Comics Journal.

Last year at Hyperallergic, I wrote about the work of artist Spain Rodriguez. In my review of an archival collection from Fantagraphics Books, I struggled with finding a balance between appreciating Spain’s venturesome cartooning while pointing out how totally misogynist his stories and visuals could get.