Comic Books Underground Comix

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Underground Comix

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Les Daniels

SOURCE: "Underground Comics," in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, Bonanza Books, 1971, pp. 165-80.

[In the following excerpt, Daniels studies the origins and development of underground comic books and surveys the major figures who published in this genre during the late 1960s and early 1970s.]

[Underground] comics, which have existed in one form or another for as long as the medium itself, have come into new prominence through the concentrated efforts of a handful of dedicated practitioners. The underground publications are indisputably the most controversial comics ever to be produced, and what makes them controversial is their totally uninhibited treatment of sex. The newest wave of such comics, which has made the "underground" designation particularly its own, is distinguished as well by a defiance of convention, a defiance which, embracing a variety of social issues as well as warm bodies, has distinctly political overtones.

Underground comics fall into three distinct groups, representing with some overlap three eras in American culture. The first is the small, pocket-sized pamphlet devoted steadfastly to the theme of sexual intercourse, and referred to by various designations including "eight-pagers" (the least colorful but most accurate of the names) and "Tiajuana bibles" (an attempt to identify a point of origin, which identification may actually be completely spurious). While no accurate documentation of this clandestine enterprise will ever be possible, internal evidence suggests that at least a few of these eight-pagers were in print during the twenties, thus giving them a claim to the title of the first comic books. They were definitely in vogue by the thirties, and continued to crop up for several decades before going into a decline which now has given them a current standing as antique items.

The second type which might be considered underground has never been described by a generic term, although they might be called "kinky comics." Again the prevalent topic is sex, but the emphasis has turned away from documentation of copulation. The feature of these comic books—printed without color, half-size, and sold for several dollars apiece—is the depiction of various forms of sadistic or masochistic behavior. Considering the possible range of these deviations, the variations employed are not very extensive, consisting generally of some mild flagellation and bondage, using every possible male and female combination. The material in most instances is presented with a distinct emphasis on comedy and cooperation to lighten the ostensibly grim nature of the subject matter. In contrast to the eight-pagers, bodily exposure in the kinky comics is kept within strictly defined limitations, without depictions of the legally questionable genital areas. Consequently, although the topics under consideration in the kinky comics may represent for some the ultimate in erotic appeal, the breasts and buttocks they traditionally bare are not specifically censorable, and so these comics are available over the counter at retail outlets in most major American cities. The date of their first appearance is fuzzy, but elements of their style and content seem to suggest that they came into their own during the forties, after the standard comic book form had been firmly established.

There is not much to be gained from a study of kinky comics. Distinguished by an extremely narrow range of subject matter, their settings and characters are as abstract and vaguely realized as any ever presented. A few artists who demonstrated a considerable technique emerged from this school; the most widely known are Stanton, Eneg, and Willie. But the monotony of the plotting, and the ludicrous ease with which characters fall into their perverted poses, make them the least impressive of underground comics, worthy of the term only because there is no other way to classify them, and included here primarily for the sake of the record.

The third and...

(The entire section is 20,281 words.)