. . . the cartoon is ugly, cheap and degrading. Its purpose is to stimulate erotic responses, and does not, as claimed, deal with basic realities of life. It is grossly shocking, demeaning the sexual experience by perverting it . . . it is not reality or honesty, as they often claim it to be....
-- From New York Judge Joel Tyler’s written ruling in the 1970 criminal case against Zap Comix
Not to draw too fine a point about Judge Tyler's finding that 'demeaning the sexual experience by perverting it' is a sure-fire way of stimulating erotic responses, he did get at least one thing right - Zap Comix are, even all these years later, grossly shocking. His dismissal of claims to Zap's reality and honesty (two very different things) stands on shakier ground.
Zap was the definitive 'head comic' of the hippie era. While artists like Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, and even Terry Gilliam were stretching the comic style in papers and magazines, Robert Crumb was the first to successfully subvert the form of the comic book with Zap #1 in 1967. He drew it all himself, and legend has it that he hawked the thing for a quarter from a baby carriage on the sidewalks of Haight-Ashbury. Zap #1 was actually the second Zap that R. Crumb created. The first one had been stolen, but was later recovered and published as Zap #0. These early issues were all Crumb, but they were Crumb before he had honed his misanthropy to a fine edge. Featuring such enduring characters as Mr. Natural, they were full of sex and satire, thumbing their nose at such unpopular values as uptightness and aversion to drugs. They were an immediate hit in San Francisco, and were soon sold in headshops and the more daring comic shops across the nation.
By Zap #4, the 'Magnificent Seven' of Zap Comix had coalesced. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Robert Williams, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, and Spain Rodriguez decimated every limit and taboo available, and opened the way for scores of other underground comix, some derivatave, some crude, some serious works of art and thought (like Art Spiegelman's MAUS, for famous example). Zap did not invent a medium, but it thoroughly redefined one.
I doubt that the Magnificent Seven were conscious of bearing any burden of societal advance at first. Zap smells more like unself-conscious self-centeredness. Wilson drew Hog-Ridin' Fools, Dyke Pirates, a Checkered Demon, and many other oily, disgusting characters, reputedly bringing the word choad back into common usage. Griffin and Williams contributed dreamlike reveries, Spain's work is full of tall, authoritarian imagery. Sheldon, of course, threw in his Wonder Wart Hog and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
Given the sublime vileness and violence of S. Clay Wilson's work, it seems odd that one of Crumb's 'arrested juvenile vision' pieces would be the one to get Zap into serious legal problems, but he did a series of panels in Zap #4 called "Joe Blow" that resulted in scores of pornography arrests across the USA. I can't seem to find Zap #4 in my troves, but I believe the story deals with incest. As lately as July 16, 2001, Canada was still confiscating Zap #4 at its borders. This stuff lives at the misty edge of Free Speech. To heads of the sixties and seventies, it was scripture.
The Magnificent Seven continued to get together for Zap "jam sessions", and put out a Zap Comix every couple of years or so until 1991, when Rick Griffin died in a motorcycle accident. 1994's Zap #13 was dedicated to him.
Things turned nasty in 1998, when Crumb stood the others up for the Jam Session for Zap #14. In a fine, fitting display of self-absorption, that issue contains the story, in versions by Crumb, Spain and Moscoso, and even the new guy, Paul Mavrides (actually another grizzled relic of underground comix). Zap #14 may be the last. All those guys are big-time artists now, with work in haughty New York galleries. There are books and movies about them. Why would they hawk comic books anymore? They're so effete. So blase. They're boozhwah degenerates.