Things have changed since the first wave of underground cartoonists scratched their anti-authoritarian visions into the cave walls of culture at the height of the San Francisco ’60s. Dig the 1970 Kansas City Art Institute diploma co-created by Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and S. Clay Wilson that appears early in Rebel Visions. Big veiny penises, smirking biker dykes, boots of pleasure and pain, and big-footed stoners proceed anarchically across the certificate until the final panel, wherein a nubile grad fellates a potbellied, middle-aged cigar smoker. “Now that you have your degree,” he says, “we can use you.” It’s a bitter blast of the sort of uncensored mind graffiti one rarely sees anymore. It wasn’t nice, but it was Art.
As entertainingly transgressive as any popular art ever, underground comics-with-an-x slithered out of a dubious gene pool that included EC horror titles, Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and Help! magazines, college humor mags, hot-rod and surfer cartoons, and psychedelic poster art. Drawn west by promises of free love and recreational chemistry, Crumb, Wilson, and Rodriguez created Zap Comix in 1967. Zap‘s stoner illuminations and cosmic freestyling inspired scores of innovators and imitators until the bubble burst in 1973 thanks to porn busts, a crackdown on head shops, and market glut.
Although his exposition is nowhere near as exciting as his subject, Patrick Rosenkranz wisely leaves it to the artists to tell their own stories in this lavish and luridly illustrated monument to the underground’s golden era of representing the unthinkable. Zap quickly led to the far more prurient Snatch and Cunt comics, and by 1968 the artists were, as Robert Williams put it, “seeing just how absurdly improper you can get before the authorities have to hunt you down.” Others moved in the opposite direction. For Art Spiegelman, this meant evolving from “Jolly Jack Jack-Off, the Masturbating Fiend,” which he drew for the East Village Other in 1967, to winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his familial Holocaust story, Maus, which originated two decades earlier in a Funny Aminals [sic] story.
The scene’s most poignant bio probably belongs to Rick Griffin, the surfer-boy-gone-Christer whose resplendent visual palindromes graced Grateful Dead covers and Zap prior to his untimely death by motorcycle mishap in 1991. But the underground’s cast of dozens is full of such colorful characters, and Rebel Visions empanels virtually all of them. The visions persist today in work by Daniel Clowes, Kaz, Peter Bagge, and others, of course. But as Spiegelman wonders, “I don’t know if we’re the vanguard of another culture or if we’re the last blacksmiths.”