Far away from the lime light of giants such as Marvel and D.C. Comics, the sub-genre underground comix is comprised of small press or self-published comic books that tends to be socially relevant or satirical in nature. They often include content that would be considered improper by mainstream social mores and are read by people who identify with counter-culture.
Examples of well-known underground comix cartoonists are Barbara “Willy” Mendes, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Patricia Moodian, Melinda Gebbie, Lynda Barry, Aline Kominsky, Shary Flenniken, Gary Panter, Trina Robbins, Joe Petagno, Lyn Chevli, Bryan Talbot, Chris Welch, William Rankin (Wydnham Raine), Michael J. Weller, Edward Barker, Malcolm Livingstone, Dave Gibbons, Martin Sudden, Jay Jeff Jones and Brian Bolland.
Underground comix were especially popular in the United States during the era when the Comics Code Authority was particularly influential, i.e. the 1960s and 1970s. In the United Kingdom, underground comix are chiefly associated with the 1970s.
The underground comix can be seen as an ancestor of the alternative comics movement that developed in the 1980s. Just like the underground comix, the alternative comic scene presents an alternative to mainstream comics, such as the Comic Code superhero comics that dominated the U.S. during the second-half of the 20th century.
Preserved Comix collections
Here are a few examples of notable known Comix collections:
- The Underground Comix Collection at Berkeley´s Bancroft Library at the University of California. This is a large collection which is especially rich in Bay Area comix. Many items in the collection comes from a deposit account at Gary Arlington´s San Francisco Comic Book Store.
- The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Ohio holds the personal underground comix collection put together by Jay Kennedy, editor of the King Features Syndicate.
- The Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design acquired a thousand-item underground comix collection in 2021. The acquisition was possible thanks to a donation from the music journalist Bill Adler.
Early underground comix history in the United States
Pornographic comic books featuring unauthorized depictions of popular comic strip characters were fairly popular in the United States from the late 1920s and onwards, and were commonly referred to as “Tijuana bibles”.
Modern-style underground comix began to appear in the early 1960s and bloomed during the second-half of the decade. One type of publication was the one that simply collected and re-printed comic strips from underground newspapers. There were also comic artists who produced small editions of subversive comics intended for a limited circle of acquaintances.
Soon, the underground comix scene became a part of the wide counter-culture movement, dealing with subjects such as politics, social commentary, narcotics, music and sex. The x in comix were used to emphasize that the content was x-rated.
In the late 1960s, so-called head shops emerged in the U.S, specializing in items related to cannabis culture. With strong ties to the counter-culture and the anti-Vietnam War movement, these head shops also became an important outlet for underground comix.
Early underground comix history in the United Kingdom
Launched in London in 1966, the underground newspaper International Times (IT) reprinted some underground comix from the United States, thereby making them more accessible to readers in the UK and parts of Europe.
Another option for British readers in the 1960s was Oz. First published in Sydney, Australia in 1963, a parallel version of Oz commenced publication in London in 1967. Both in Australia and the UK, the creators of Oz were prosecuted on charges of obscenity. Oz launched cOZmic Comics in 1972, printing a mix of old work from the U.S. When Oz closed down, cOZmic survived as it was rescued by Felix Dennis.
In 1970, a group of people from IT, spearheaded by the photographer Graham Keen, launched Cyclops and underground-marketed it as The First English Adult Comic Paper.