The three artists were examining a cover proof sheet, a cartoon drawing of a bristly male nude suspended in foetal position, his genitals a long electric cord plugged into a wall socket. He was surrounded by a burst of yellow that paled out over a blue ground into a billious green.
"It works better than the dick plugged into his ass. This looks more like an embryo."
"I redrew him. It's more like the acid vision I had." The scene was an editorial conference for Zap Comix, the proof a cover for Zap Zero, which is being published simultaneously with Zap No. 3. Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso, two of Zap's four regular contributors, were gathered in the studio of Robert Crumb, designer of the cover cartoon, Zap's founder and presiding genius, creator of Angelfood McSpade and Mr. Natural, and also originator of a more recent comic book called "Snatch."
Crumb (it's his real name), 25 years old and entirely self-taught, a former designer of comic greetings and bubble-gum cards, is a pioneer and near legendary figure of the underground comic renaissance which is spawning new publications all over the country, the biggest revolution in pop art since the rock dance poster.
It is, in part, an extension of the dance poster, or at least that branch of poster art which emphasized funky farce, hallucinatory metamorphoses, erotic fantasies and native Americana.
It is also a new phase in the tradition of so-called "sick" humor. It was never sick, of course, but is the really sane voice in the wilderness, a parody of "realities" which are themselves gross parodies and therefore striking on both levels, the shock of absurdity and the shock of truth. Crumb is a direct descendent of Lenny Bruce, but working with the tools of a visual age and without Bruce's alienation, or rather, in an age when alienation is a majority feeling; the inward turning bitterness of isolation has yielded to a sense of solidarity which no longer requires a defensive exclusiveness, but can absorb, synthesize and have genuine fun with all the traditionally maligned trivia of American mass culture.
Zap is the most effective publication of the underground comic renaissance thus far, with the possible exception of Snatch; Zap has been removed from sale in at least three cities (Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Boston) since the first issue came out last March, but a Berkeley book dealer was recently busted for selling Snatch almost as soon as it hit the stands.
A strong ingredient in Zap's success is the uncanny cohesiveness of its four major artists (Crumb, Moscoso, Griffin and S. Clay Wilson), who are as attuned to one another's work and receptive to mutual influence as a tightly integrated band. But the main ingredient of both magazines is Crumb, whose cartoon style is a fantastic synthesis of all that was best in the history of American cartooning—Popeye, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, Little Orphan Annie—with the conviction and integrity of a comic artist of the Thirties or Forties only now coming to the surface.
Crumb's studio—the back room of a second-story Victorian flat a block away from the ruins of Haight Street—is a cluttered compendium of pop relics: Old and new posters, food containers, toys, tops, bubble-gum cards which he drew during an earlier career as a free-lance commercial artist. Crumb is tall, thin, bespectacled and self-effacing, preferring to let his work speak for itself but eventually warming to your own enthusiasm and rapping with great articulateness.
The underground comics phenomenon is "a weird, parallel thing of my generation now coming to the surface," Crumb said. "When I started putting out the comic strips, people popped up all over. We're trying to reproduce the things that turned us on when we were kids.
"I grew up reading comic books and watching television," he added. "It's all I know. The artists of any time use what's available. A certain segment always tries to maintain traditional forms—keep painting alive because painting is great. Bullshit.
"What appeals to me about comics? It's hard to pin down. The whole thing, the whole media. Just about anything done in it is interesting.
"People still think of comic books as being for kids—books with words are for grownups, books with pictures are for children. It's the whole McLuhan thing—breaking out of linear ways of thinking.
"Partly, it's a nostalgia thing. Comics are an American folk art form. The way to turn people's heads is to take a medium they're familiar with and then do something new in the old medium. Hippie artists have a tendency to try to be exotic; rather than embracing the whole thing they came out of, they reject it. It turns me on to absorb the whole culture we came out of—comic strips, advertisements, bottle caps."
Crumb pointed to the "Jerk Off" illustration for the back cover of a forthcoming "Snatch." I drew his face from a 'Write for Profit' match cover," he said. "There are millions of things like this to pick up on in America. It's incredible what we live in."
"Also, the mass media thing turns me on. That's why we need newsprint for Zap 2, to give a feeling of mass media, even though it's really not printed on a mass scale; there are only 5,000 copies. Working on a small level is a lot harder; you have to charge more money. A hundred thousand would cost two cents per copy; 5,000 costs 20 cents per copy. If it was possible, I'd like to get the sales price down to 10 cents, like any other comic book."
"I've always drawn, ever since I was a little kid," Crumb said. He grew up in Philadelphia, and his first publication was the high-school newspaper.
"My brother, Charlie, taught me cartooning," he said. "He gave it up, and now he's writing books." He picked up a composition tablet from among the clutter on his drawing board; it contained a few caricatures on the inside covers, but the pages were crammed with wavy, ballpoint penlines neatly scribbled across each line. "This is the kind of thing he's doing."
Who turned him on? "Just about everybody," Crumb said. But he said he preferred, and still prefers, such old-time heavies as Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Harold Gray (Orphan Annie) and early Popeye.
"I like the earlier styles—for some reason, they're more natural, more nitty gritty. A lot of the new strips, things like the Wizard of Id, seem like the degenerate, last days of comics. No one can identify with it. That's why the publishers like it. They don't want anything new, anything that will affect anybody in the newspaper. I've met a lot of people who have tried to start new strips. The syndicate restrictions are just incredible. That's why the underground exists."
"I used to have a big collection of comic books, old Forties things. Now I go to a collector's to look at them; I didn't like stuff around, I already have too much junk.
"In my teens, I started digging back, finding old things in second hand stores. I found out a whole world existed before World War II. It was a different world. In the early days of the mass media, it was open and loose. Good people could get into it."
Other early influences were Jules Feiffer and Mad.
"Feiffer turned me on when I was about 17—he was the only thing happening at the time. He had a big effect on cartooning; he brought a heavy psychodrama into cartoons," Crumb said. "When I was 14, Mad was a very heavy thing. It was the first thing that poked fun at the mass media. The old Mad comics worked inside the mass media. But it started getting too strong. People got scared and the government threatened action. The publishers formed the comic code. There haven't been any good comics since then. That's 13 years."
After leaving high school at 19, Crumb spent a year "lounging around, doing nothing." He ended up in Cleveland, with a $60-a-week job doing color separations for American Greeting Cards. "A horrible scene," he recalled. "They hire kids just out of art school who have no idea what they'll be doing. It's all tiny detail work. Most of them quit when they find out what it's like."
Crumb began doodling cartoon figures in the margins of his work; they caught the eye of officials, who moved him into Highbrow Studios, the company's fun-card division, where he worked as a designer for another year; he still has a few of his old comic cards. Eventually, he quit, got married, went to Europe and then to New York, where he freelanced "whenever they sent me work. All the commercial artists I met had ulcers." He went back to American Greeting Cards for eight more months, and then two years ago "escaped to San Francisco when I met two guys in a bar who said they were driving west."
Meanwhile, Crumb had been filling up sketchbooks; one, done while he was living in Europe, included 36 pages of two long stories based on a character named "Fritz the Cat." He sent some of the drawings, along with an article, to Cavalier magazine, which asked to see more of the drawings and published one of the stories in a 1965 issue.
"I didn't intend to get it printed," Crumb said. "They were done as exercises, really, to improve my ability."
The idea for Zap took root in Crumb's mind "a couple of years ago. It took about a year for me to feel confident enough to do stuff for publication." He did the inside pages, and the original cover version, for what is now being published as Zap Zero; they were turned over to a perspective printer, and somehow disappeared. The current Zap Zero is based on Xerox copies of the original drawings.
Meanwhile, Crumb drew the material for Zap No. 1, which was published in March. "About the same time, Griffin and Moscoso had been planning their own comic book," Crumb said. "The backing fell through, but we pooled our interests and did Zap 2." Zap 2 also included the first published drawings of Steve Clay Wilson, who specializes in unfettered orgiastic fantasies involving motorcycle gangs, pirates and the scum of the wild west.
"He just blew in from Kansas with this portfolio of completely wild drawings," said Crumb. "They really blew my mind. Meeting Wilson really changed my attitude; he's really had a big effect on me. I used to censor myself; I thought I had to. Wilson sort of showed me the folly of that. He doesn't censor himself at all. Wilson is probably the one most responsible for this big sex revolution in comics. I used to draw stuff like that and I threw it away. I suddenly realized, why the fuck do I censor myself?"
Crumb sums up his basic themes as "dope, sex and violence," but he always gives them a unique twist. He opened a book to one of his strips which begins with a view of two teen-agers jitterbugging, then follows them through in a Bonnie-and-Clyde orgy of running over old ladies and other forms of terrorism and violence. "I take the Archie tradition of teenage American kids, but then it turns into—well, it turns into something else," Crumb said. "If I try to explain what I'm doing—well, it explains itself. It's non-verbal, breaking out of verbalization altogether. That's the magic of it."
Crumb listens patiently to attempts to read into his cartoons various forms of social comment—his "Angelfood McSpade," for example, as a symbol of a deep-rooted basis of American race prejudice. He nods in partial agreement, but says "It just turns me on to draw her. The same with Mr. Natural."
"Part of the kick is putting in all kinds of little eyeball kicks," he added. "I cram in as much as I can to look at."
The sex theme has been dominant in most of Crumb's recent, post-Wilson drawings, and it achieved a climax in the first issue of "Snatch," published in October.
Snatch is an indescribably wild parody of pornography, making unabashed use of themes which fall within even the most narrow interpretations of obscenity; and all the more graphic because they bear no stylistic resemblance to Rembrandt, Picasso or Indian sculpture.
"This isn't regular pornography," said Crumb. "It comes at it from another angle. It's a satire on itself, it makes fun of pornography."
He picked up a pocket size pulp magazine, with a smirking chick on the cover and the title, "Hello, Buddy Army and Navy Belly Laughs."
"Snatch takes off from pocket sex books," Crumb said. "They never really have anything about sex in them. When I got hipped to these things, I realized it was a medium no one's really tapped. It's so widespread and natural a scene. What we need are hip sexbooks, maybe a cartoon Kama Sutra."
As anyone working with media, much more so than most people involved in commercial media, Crumb is concerned about the reactions of his audience.
"I wasn't really sure people would like it," he said. "There has been an incredible reaction to my stuff. The reactions are all different.
"Most people dig it. We've found people are really hungry for any valuable information about sex. It tries to open all the gates and let out all the bullshit about sex that's been locked in everybody's isolated minds for hundreds of years. They can say 'I've had fantasies like this, too.'
"A lot of artists feel they have to do things that most people can't understand, but look up to. But this says 'I'm the same as you.' It makes somebody feel better to see that other people share his fantasies. This is the only thing noble about it I can think of. Outside of that, I do it like masturbation; it's fun to do. If you're really doing what you enjoy, other people will enjoy it, too."
Would it be accurate to say that only people over 30 would take offense to Snatch's sex cartoons?
"No, that's not true," Crumb said. "A lot of chicks are offended. When I show it to them, they hand it back to me like it's a big turd. I understand why. It's not very romantic. It's as crude and gross as possible. Girls are sort of an oppressed minority, anyhow. Maybe I'll do a love comic for girls."
"Some people have called it cheap sensationalism," he added. "Maybe that's true. I keep looking for new stuff. But I don't like to stay on any one trip too long. Or to go back to something earlier. Every so often I need to escape, to go on into something else."
Crumb feels that pornography was not really at issue in a recent bust of Snatch in Berkeley.
"They could bust any one of a dozen places for selling obscenity," he said. "What they didn't like about this is that it's underground, out of their control. It isn't involved in established channels of distribution."
Crumb has no love for Establishment media. Currently, he is working on a project for Viking Press, which plans to publish his original two Fritz the Cat stories along with some new Fritz material that he is doing. "They've already paid me the money. I'll try to do it, but it doesn't turn me on anymore. It's going back to another thing."
His album cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills was "one of the few commercial things I've done I really think is great. But I won't do any more. It's a hassle, a pain in the ass. I really hate working for the schmucks."
Recommended for the job by Janis Joplin ("Janis really likes me"), Crumb originally did both a front and back cover for the album, the front a cartoon of Janis, the back what finally ended up on front. "They turned down the front," Crumb said. "They said it looked cheap. But the name is 'Cheap Thrills,' right? They don't know what they're doing. It's worse because they think they do. They like your stuff, but they wouldn't pay for this," and he picked up the copy of Snatch.
Crumb is a rapid worker. When he isn't in San Francisco drawing, he is usually travelling around the country, meeting other cartoonists, usually staying around long enough to contribute a drawing to whatever new underground outlet happens to arise: In New York, a cover for the East Village Other; in Chicago, a strip for "Feds n' Heds."
He said he still occasionally has a recurrence of acid visions, another strong source of inspiration. "I had one just last night when I was in bed," he said. "Sometimes it makes you wonder why you were crazy enough to ever take the stuff."
Crumb said he was probably the only cartoonist to make a living by his work during the past year. He finds the mushrooming of underground comics an encouraging thing. "There are really all kinds of heavy new people," he said. "Almost all of them are good in one way or another."
"I still have doubts sometimes while I'm doing it," he added. "It's my linear mind telling me that. There's always a battle with it; you might call it the ego. That civilized part of you that always wants to be rational and logical. And the real self that wants to be magical."