How It Stands Up

Zap Comix Reconsidered

A sober second look at R. Crumb's seminal underground comic book, more than four decades after it became a head shop best-seller

For adult intellectuals only.

I wasn't a big stoner in the hippie era, but as I recall, getting stoned was pretty much a prerequisite for reading Zap Comix.

Zap — "for adult intellectuals only" — was the brainchild of cartoonist R. Crumb, one of the Sixties' true icons, creator of Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, the classic "Big Brother and the Holding Company" (with Janis Joplin) album cover and the once ubiquitous "Keep on Truckin'" catchphrase (which he came to hate).

Crumb's counterculture comics were indelible fixtures of a certain time — the '60s and '70s — and place: college dorm rooms, crash pads, living rooms with beat-up couches where album covers adorned with joints, stems and seeds littered the floor.

Unlike so many other icons of that era, however, Robert Crumb, now 71, has continued to flourish as a creative force. He's been the subject of a movie, publishes his work in the New Yorker, exhibits in art galleries and museums and is compared to Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. Crumb has illustrated a biography of Franz Kafka, and his last book was, published in 2009, was a graphic novelization of the Book of Genesis.

Which makes a re-evaluation of his early underground comics all the more intriguing.

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Despite having transcended the psychedelic Sixties, Crumb was certainly a product of the era, and proudly so. The back cover of Zap No. 0 is a house ad urging readers to "GET STONED!" — accompanied by diagrams on how to inhale, hyperventilate, "exhale very slowly through the nose" — and finally promising that when "the miracle molecules hit the center of the brain, you will find yourself in a new world!"

Indeed! But what's it like to read the early issues of Zap and Mr. Natural more than 40 years later, totally straight?

Short answer: still pretty damn good, albeit with something missing. Kind of like leftovers from a really good meal a day later. Still tasty, but better fresh.

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Some of the purely visual pages in Zap No. 0, such as "Kozmic Kapers," which starts with a sketch of a suburban house that gradually transforms into the black/white yin/yang circle and then total nothingness, were clearly meant to be viewed under the influence.

But the introduction of one the great American comic duos of all time, Mr. Natural and his perpetually perplexed sidekick Flakey Foont, holds up just fine, as they deftly satirize hippie yearnings and guru know-it-alls through a filter of timeless comic repartee worthy of P.G. Wodehouse or Carl Hiaasen.

We can also see the first drafts of Crumb characters the cartoonist will use for decades to come: Whiteman, Mr. Snoid, Schuman the Human, Angelfood McSpade and, perhaps most enduring of all, the beleaguered artist himself, unleashing his uncensored id, anxieties and voracious sexual fantasies.

Speaking of uncensored, the most jarring revelation of the early Crumb comics is his depiction of African-Americans, referred to as "spades," as grossly stereotyped Sambos speaking in a "'dis and 'dat" dialect. Although this is clearly intended to be a satire of stereotypes — just as Whiteman is an uptight businessman in a suit and the hippies are long-haired stoners — I don't think Crumb is still drawing fake ads for "Wildman Sam's Pure Nigger Hearts" in the 21st century.

The fact that he once he did, however, is illuminating. Crumb's genius was — and is — a combination of his distinctive visual style, fantastical imagery, unleashed personal obsessions and sharply observed social satire. Everyone has missteps, and this is his early work.

Zap comics also allows us to see the creative gestation of an artist who, like his contemporaries Bob Dylan and Hunter Thompson, would continue to evolve and, at his best, in the words of cultural critic Ian Buruma, "brandish his pencil like a stiletto."

Tags: arts