There hardly seems to be a day go by when there aren't headlines, or at least a modest news item on page two, involving some counterculture fixture from thirty years ago that has now gone mainstream. I guess we shouldn't be surprised that art is no exception. Except in this case, we could call it "under-the-counter" culture. In the 1960s, this artwork was sold in coffee houses, head shops, and under the counter from comic book shops. It began when a greeting card designer named Robert Crumb quit his day job and started selling copies of his comic art from an old baby carriage on Haight Street in San Francisco. The year was 1968, and the artwork was so rife with sex, drugs, and profanity he'd probably been arrested on any other street in any other city. Today, the original artwork is selling in upscale galleries for $2,500 to $20,000.
Victor Moscoso, a friend of Crumb, who soon joined him in his publishing venture characterized their work "...as if Walt Disney had dropped acid." They called it Zap Comix. Crumb and Moscoso were soon joined by Rick Griffin, Robert Williams, Gilbert Shelton, Clay Wilson, and Spain Rodriguez. They bought an old printing press, a ton of newsprint, and cranked it out themselves. Rebelling against the restrictive comics code of the 1950s, the "Magnificent 7," as they called themselves, applied the same artistic freedom they saw developing all around them in music, poetry, and painting, to the previously sacrosanct art of the comic book and effectively put the "ugh" underground art. Each had a distinct style, a rebellious vision, and cast of characters ranging from the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" drawn by Shelton to Crumbs "Mr. Natural" and his "Keep on Truckin'" pop icon.
There was something for everyone to hate. They went out of their way to offend nearly everyone at one point or another, poking fun at religion, suicide, rock and roll, politics, and even themselves. Eventually fifteen issues came off the press and even today, all of them remain in print. As late as 1991 all seven met regularly to drink, draw, and drool over one another's evolving talent. Griffin referred to it as like being a part of a rock band. However his death in 1991 in a motorcycle accident spelled the beginning of the end of the group. Williams is now a painter living in Los Angeles. Sheldon and Crumb took the considerable income from their publishing venture and moved to France while Moscoso, Wilson, and Rodriguez continue to plod on. Crumb still contributes though he's trying to cut down. He calls it, "...like trying to quit the Mafia." New blood has come online, Paul Mavrides, but he concedes the collaborative effort is not what it was in the comic book's heyday. He characterizes it as "...coming to a party 25 years after the last beer has been drunk." Yet Zap lives on. It's just that it keeps getting harder and harder to offend people.