Great Graphic Novels: Zap Comix #2

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

Zap Comix #2

I think it was 1969, so I was 11 or 12 years old. A conservative science teacher with a Marine-style buzzcut had just finished projecting an anti-drug exploitation film for us in class, in which teens were getting hit by cars and launching themselves from buildings as the result of bad acid trips. Just after this, Mr. Buzzcut excitedly announced that he would demonstrate to us what a burning marijuana cigarette smelled like, just so we'd know the odor and be able to avoid areas where it was present. He gathered all thirty students around as he lit up a colorless tablet. None of us could detect any sort of odor at all.

As they usually did for just about everyone who was subjected to them, these anti-drug presentations aroused my curiosity to try the real thing, consequences be damned.

That weekend, I hopped on my Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle to scout out areas where I suspected longhairs would gather. Early one evening I detected an extremely fragrant scent outside a movie theater on Wilshire near La Cienega. Finally, I thought, I had experienced the real smell of "Mary Jane," pot, grass or whatever those exploitation films maintained was the current slang. Later, I discovered that particular odor was patchouli oil, a fragrance common to LA hippies. Continuing my search, I pedaled up Fairfax Avenue toward the strange Orthodox Jewish stores with fancy menorahs and gefilte fish, and on this block found a Free Press bookstore that emanated the strong hippie scent. Winding up my courage, I stepped through the hanging beads at the front door. Maybe, I thought, I would get lucky and ogle some dirty magazines.

The store's longhaired cashier seemed amused by my interest in leafing through the Playboy magazines and didn't stop me from doing so. In the rear of the store, the pinks and purples of weird, creepy posters were illuminated by an ultraviolet light. In the lit portion of that room were images of W.C. Fields playing cards, Huey Newton holding a rifle while sitting in a wicker chairs, and African-American women with strangely prominent breasts. A couple of shelves in this dark room featured comic books for 50 cents apiece, costlier than the usual Superman, Fantastic Four, or Batmans that my parents did not allow me to possess, having dismissed them as "crap."

By far, the most interesting comic I found there was called Zap. The issues were far weirder than I’ve ever seen, and curiously erotic as well, including satiric illustrations of “savage” women you'd see in National Geographic magazines.

Though it said ADULTS ONLY at the top, I was able to purchase a copy of Zap anyway. So, I bicycled it home and attempted to absorb its psychedelic insanity at the dining room table. A horny little guy with a long beard named Mr. Natural, a lengthy story about motorcyclists and a monster demon with checkered pants gassed me. Throughout the book were pages of strange nightmare scenes in an quasi-psychedelic art style I had never seen before and didn't really understand. There was one particularly weird, fascinating page of pirates talking about enormous penises, where one of them drew a knife, chopped a big cock in half, and started to chew it up as if it were dinner. Just as I was trying to wrap my head around this, my father came into the room, pointed at the comic and asked, "What the hell is that?"

"A comic book," I mumbled.

Dad grabbed the book, saying, "I'd like to have a look at that," and spirited the thing away, never to be seen or spoken of again.

Yes, it was Issue No. 2 of Zap Comix which introduced me to a weird world that whacked my head, a world that changed my life for good.

A decade and a half later I got to know Robert Williams and S. Clay Wilson and had the opportunity to include their art in a large-format comic & photographic collage book, Exit, that I edited in 1983 with fellow Strand Bookstore employee George Petros. Due to its use of totalitarian propaganda, alternative history versions of New York Times front pages, and other unsavory things, Exit got banned or sold secretly under the counter at the city's various comic store outlets.

Williams became famous for his extraordinary "Lowbrow" paintings and for introducing Juxtapoz magazine to the marketplace. I used Wilson's work when I reissued an ancient Catholic Martyology, as this was a guy who clearly understood how to visually express torture. Wilson was a lovely chap in person, and when he crashed at my house in East Hollywood, I also discovered that he was quite a drinker and tended to speak in tongues when he was loaded.

My encounter with Zap Comix was a game changer for me. (In an interesting coincidence, the cover of Issue 2 screamed "BOING" in the upper left-hand corner.)

Fantagraphics Books has announced they will publish a slipcased set of the complete Zap Comix this Fall.