Censorship has long plagued the history of publishing. Since books have existed they have been banned and people have tried to restrict what other people can write. Comics and graphic novels are no exception.
When you think of comics from the 1950s and 1960s, you probably think of wholesome comics of Superman and early Captain America. However, this period saw the rise of “Underground Comix”. This movement was largely a product of its time. It was a counter-cultural movement involving the publication of comic strips in the small press. Most of these comics were crude or satirical. It was a time in America when hippies were at their peak, as was the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War.
There are several Underground Comix cousins that hit the scene first. One of the earliest examples was the Tijuana Bibles. The Tijuana Bibles were dirty eight-page comic strips, often featuring popular cartoon characters. These comics were distributed illegally throughout the 1930s-1950s. Most of the artists remain unknown.
Zines are other underground publications that also date back to the 1930s. They rose to prominence somewhat later than Underground Comix, taking the punk scene by storm in the 1970s and 1980s. in common with illegal Underground Comix.
The most famous cousin is mad magazine (1952-2018), which originally started as a comic book series. Coincidently, Crazy avoided future censorship laws by switching exclusively from comics to sleek magazines. Crazypeople net of influence has been thrown away during its 67-year run. His style and sense of humor have inspired many artists in the Underground Comix movement.
No Pleasure Allowed: The Comics Code Authority
In 1954, a new organization brought down the hammer of censorship on American comics. As a result of the Motion Picture Production Code, which was designed to self-censor movies, the Comics Code Authority emerged in all its gruesome glory.
Dr. Fredric Wertham was also largely responsible for the Code. His book, Seduction of the innocent, correlated juvenile delinquency with violence and sex in comics. Parents rallied around this and were more than happy to burn these books for “the sake of their children”.
Thus was born the Comics Code. If the Code didn’t approve your comic, it wouldn’t be stocked in stores. There were 41 restrictions, including the most obvious: no sex, no drugs, no swearing. Then there were more specific moralistic issues, like the lack of words like “terror” in titles and the fact that cops could never be portrayed as bad guys.
Underground Comix Rebellion
As the Code clutched its cold, dead hands around mainstream comics, artists were left with two choices. They could submit and sanitize their work beyond recognition. Or, they might resist. This is what launched the Underground Comix movement.
Major comic companies such as DC and Marvel have had to follow finicky guidelines. Meanwhile, individual artists in Underground Comix were putting out some wild stuff. Underground Comix was gritty, dirty, steamy and controversial. Some prolific artists of this movement include R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, and Gilbert Shelton. These artists willingly went against the grain to do their work.
Some of the Underground Comix movement’s work has been criticized for being misogynistic, glorifying violence, or socially irresponsible. This is certainly true in some cases. However, the Code also prohibited discussion of sexuality, especially LGBTQ+ issues, and many other issues. Artists were able to find their voice in this movement and speak out on important issues.
It is important to remember that these artists could not do it alone. Many had the support of local comic shops. Print Mint, Last Gasp, SF Comic Book Company, Kitchen Sink, Apex Novelties, and many more organizations have helped keep this movement alive. They were threatened with lawsuits by the Comics Code Authority for keeping these books on their shelves. Nevertheless, they continued to support these artists.
Comix by Wimmin
The Underground Comix movement was very masculine. In response, a collection of all-female comics titled “It Ain’t Me, Babe” was published in 1970. Comix by Wimmin movement formed soon after. Some of these artists include Terry Richards, Lee Marrs, Trina Robbins, Pat Moodian, Aline Kominsky, Michele Brand, Shelby Sampson, Karen Marie Haskell, and Janet Wolfe Stanley. Together they made the first ongoing comic series directed entirely by women.
Comix by Wimmin was only the first of its kind. cartoon tits and clits and twisted sisters followed shortly thereafter. In the 1970s, Anarchy comics began to rise, but Underground Comix was coming to an end.
The End of the Underground Comic
Created by artists Art Speigelman and Bill Griffith Arcade in 1975. This comic featured many of the movement’s prominent artists and capped the end of the first wave of Underground Comix.
The Comics Code has lessened its grip over the years as the moral panic subsided. More and more companies have willfully violated the Code, no longer fearing the repercussions. In 2011, DC and Archie were the last to break the Code. This ended his reign of more than 50 years.
The underground press of various kinds is alive and well today. There will always be people who rebel against the norm. There will always be people who want to do comics.