Weirdos and Eightballs:
A report on adult comics and their readers

Alistair Strachan



The idea of studying comics today is not as odd or unusual as it would have seemed twenty or thirty years ago. Back then, 'comics' would represent in most people's minds the slightly trashy reading matter of children that they were grudgingly allowed before graduating on to more serious literature. Perhaps those more knowledgeable of the medium would think also of the superhero comics from America, or of European characters such as Herge's Tintin. But, whilst acknowledging the impressive scale of the phenomenon, with 98% of children reading comics and up to 90 million readers following strips like Peanuts, most would regard it as having little interest for serious students of literature, and would see it merely as a cheerful, if rather limited and childish, aspect of popular culture.

Perhaps the reason that comics are seen as slightly more respectable today is simply down to the expanded range available the public. A visit to any comic shop today will reveal the wide variety of genres open to the reader, and indeed a wide variety of readers (albeit still predominately male). The emergence of the graphic novel in the 1980s sealed comics' new status as a serious literary form, and comics continue to shape and influence other media, from computer games to blockbuster films. To add to this, collecting comics has become a respectable means of investment, and less a regrettable adolescent trait, as early comic books can now sell for tens of thousands of pounds; this fact in itself seems to exemplify the passing on of comics from children's territory to adult's. So, while still a very minor part of the national culture, comics can no longer be dismissed as being childish or trashy - to do so would just show one's cultural ignorance.

My decision to base this study on underground comics stems from the interest I developed in them in my late teens. Like most of my contemporaries, I had enjoyed comics such as Beano and Whizzer 'n' Chips as a child, in the face of some parental discouragement, but had lost interest in them by the time I reached secondary school. Aged around eighteen, however, I chanced upon a TV documentary about Robert Crumb and his place in the birth of underground comics, and was intrigued by his nervous reminiscence of the ins and outs of the 1960s counter culture.

The following day I drove the twenty miles to the nearest comic shop, and became increasingly excited as I was directed to the 'comix' section. The titles seemed to key into the way my mind was working, more than any music or literature or film could do at the time; titles like Weirdo, Slow Death Funnies, Hate and Tits 'n' Clits. There was the familiar kick that comes with the discovery of transgressive art, one I had previously felt, like many others, upon reading works such as Burroughs' Naked Lunch; but this was a more playful transgression, quite without the aura of cultism or literariness I had found off-putting before. The shop assistant commented that this type of comic generally sold quite poorly, most customers preferring the then burgeoning world of graphic novels. This no doubt added to their appeal: on the one hand there was the exclusivity of reading these obscure works, often reprints from the '60s and '70s that had been lying around for years; then on the other was the intimacy of their contents - the drawings in these comics often seemed to have arrived on the page directly from the artist's subconscious, and were apparently unfettered by the influences that normally constrain art. The cultural and social baggage that surrounds other forms (in the case of music, for instance, the distribution chains, music press, TV shows, opinions of peers) was minimal here - one could enjoy this work as innocently as a child would enjoy his favourite comic, yet there was as much meaning and profundity as could be found in adult forms. In short, this discovery was something of a revelation.

At the time it seemed as if I alone felt this way about underground comics (one friend interested in other comics steered clear of the undergrounds, fearing that he might 'go out and kill someone' if he ever read one) but I was later to find that my reaction was not uncommon. A journal known as Blab!, part comic, part comic archive and history, ran a piece called 'Comments on Crumb' in which artists from the counter culture, as well as contemporary comic artists, recalled their first exposure to comix, particularly in relation to Crumb's Zap, often regarded as the first full-blown underground comic. Their sense of exhilaration was a match for my own: "a breath of fresh air" (Jaxon); "to say [Zap] made a deep impression is an understatement" (Alan Moore); "a delightful revelation... like a rush of adrenaline - a deep psychic, almost erotic thrill" (Foolbert Sturgeon); "a lot like discovering Jesus is to a born- again Christian... very much like being 'born-again'" (Trina Robbins).

The ultimate aim of this report, then, is to try to establish why it is that these comics had such a powerful effect on their readers. Above all else, the fans of comix stress the personal quality that attracted them - "They were about our lives and our world" (Foolbert Sturgeon)... and "illustrated subjects I had previously only joked about with selected disturbed individuals" (Josh Alan Friedman); I shall thus be looking at the strong reader-writer relationship that is peculiar to comics, both childrens' and adults', with reference to literary theories concerning reader relations. This meeting of comics with academic analysis has a troubled past, with previous attempts often leaving the academic looking a little foolish. The general view of artists and fans is that such criticism at best is pointless, but at worst lessens or destroys the original impact of comics by, as Jaxon puts it, "layering over with crud the flash that they elicited from our minds so long ago" . And yet the impact they have on their readers does suggest that if any art form is worthy of academic enquiry, comics certainly are. It is to these previous academic attempts, then, that I shall now turn.

Comics and Criticism

As the comics culture and industry progressed and developed in this century, there were a few calls to address them seriously and admit their value. Orson Welles, for example, claimed Will Eisner (creator of Spirit) as a major influence on his cinematic style, and John Steinbeck once earnestly suggested Al Capp (who drew the Li'l Abner newspaper strip) should receive "serious consideration" for a Nobel prize . It is only relatively recently, however, that serious academic study has begun to take place.

This reluctance to confer onto comics any positive cultural value can be traced back, in part, to the general disdain for mass culture that existed well into the middle of this century, sustained by, among other things, the Leavisite tradition. Leavis objected to the lurid and fantastic elements of commercial literature, once suggesting that "a habit of fantasying will lead to maladjustment in actual life" ; thus it was unlikely that he or the critics he influenced would positively assess comics books, a medium that was for most of its history wholly commercial, and often unreservedly lurid and fantastical. But it was also the campaign against comic books specifically, and their nineteenth century equivalents, the 'penny dreadfuls', that ensured their lack of critical status.

Disdain for, and fear of, the comic book reached its peak level in America in the 1950s with the campaign against horror and crime comics that were thought to be corrupting American children. This crusade was given credence with the backing of professionals like the psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose book 'The Seduction of the Innocent' was much cited by comic book opponents, and the critic Robert Warshow, who, while being more sympathetic, still saw his son's passion for comics as cause for concern. The crisis was resolved with the founding of the Comics Code Authority, a self- censoring group formed by the major comics publishers of the day, whose main aim was to remove the sex and violence from comics, to make them, in effect, harmless. Thus it was that most people became, as Martin Barker suggests, "trapped within a picture of comics as 'either harmful or harmless'" , the problem here being that at no point are they regarded as meaningful, which they clearly were for the children that bought them.

There is another reason as to why until recently comics have had little critical appraisal, however, and this is simply the difficulty of approaching them in an academic way. An early attempt at comic criticism was a 1956 essay by Arthur J. Brodbeck and David M. White entitled 'How to Read "Li'l Abner" Intelligently' , and a brief look at it will highlight some of the problems in this type of criticism, as well as some of its successes.

Brodbeck and White are conscious throughout the essay of the mismatch between the critical approach they are applying to the text, a literary and psychoanalytic one, and the text itself, a comic strip read by millions of Americans every day. Their main assertion is that the mother-dominated family of 'Li'l Abner' is "nothing but the American version of the Oedipus complex" , which they proceed to prove with excerpts from the strip. This assertion seems to rely on the strip being 'deeper' than it seems, however, as if the majority of those reading it are missing its full seriousness, or, rather, are affected by it on a subconscious level. To stress their sincerity about Capp's seriousness, the critics bring in weighty literary figures to their discussion, thus adding 'depth' by association: "There is a Henry James complexity to the strip"; "..let us not forget that Shakespeare was once an element in Elizabethan popular culture" .

The problem here is that, while Henry James and Shakespeare explicitly addressed serious moral and psychological issues, we can't help but feel that Brodbeck and White are artificially reading seriousness into Capp's work when it is so clearly a form of light entertainment. Of course, there are serious issues present in newspaper strips, but it takes a greater leap of faith on the part of the critic to suggest what they are, there being a wider gap between the evidence of the source material and the theories it generates. Brodbeck and White partly overcome this problem of the lightness of the comic strip by celebrating its playfulness, emphasising its capacity to catch us off guard, as we think we are merely being entertained, in order to put across its message - "if we accept the 'message' more easily because it is only a comic strip, that does not negate the artistic force of the strip." Ultimately, however, they are unable to overcome the sense of a discrepancy between their reading of the strip and Capp's intentions:

"Does Capp altogether know what he is saying through his comic strip? Is it perhaps a case, more than with Shakespeare, of one person's unconscious speaking through a large circulation to millions of others? The answer is bound to be moot."
This critical approach, then, is rather marked by its embarrassed tone, as can be detected in the title of the essay. Brodbeck and White are genuinely moved by Capp's work, however, pointing out that, simple though it may be, it serves a valuable and therapeutic function for its readers.

This emphasis on the function of comics for their readers is one that many critics have singled out, as is often the case with studies of the popular arts. One useful essay to look at here is 'Comic Strips and Their Adult Readers' by Leo Bogart , a social scientist who examines comic strips in terms of the effects they have on their readers, rather than from the somewhat inappropriate 'auteur' approach of Brodbeck and White. Bogart structures his study in the manner of a rigorously scientific survey-based report, but also draws on established literary concepts: "Despite its use of such transcendental concepts as 'beauty' which have little in common with the popular arts, aesthetic theory contributes a valuable notion, that of catharsis, which seems applicable [to comics]." Thus, under the stern heading 'Principal Findings: The Comics-Reading Experience', he finds that "Without demanding too much effort or attention, [comic strips] relieve the monotony of existence." Comics here, then, are tension-reducers, and this tension may be reduced "either in a conscious, purposeful way, or in a mechanical, unconscious way" ; the experience is hardly a cathartic one, however, as readers are not so much purged and emotionally rejuvenated as simply less bored and irritable.

While this approach does grant comics some value, it is purely a social rather than an intrinsic artistic value. It should be noted that both these studies centre on comic strips, rather than comic books, and this might explain their inadequacy as models for my dissertation. Comic books are less a mass medium than the strips, catering more as they do for specific readerships, and tend also to place more emphasis on authorship than do news strips. There is also a significantly different contract with the reader in comic books, generally a more intimate one - cartoonist Jules Feiffer has referred to this difference, recalling that the daily strips had "an aloof quality...a sleek professionalism", while comic books were "closer to home... less like grown ups." The comic books that I shall be looking at do not even conform to Bogart's definitions of popular art , though as a form they draw heavily upon it. Perhaps, then, the best approach would be to mix this sociological angle that considers the function of a comic for its readership (in this case, a fairly specific and homogenous readership) with a more auteur based angle. Ultimately this means looking at how the comic communicates with its reader, what assumptions are shared by artist and reader, what kind of contract is made as the comic is read, and so on; it should then become clear as to why this form of communication is, as I highlighted earlier, felt to be a particularly strong one.

Robert Crumb and Comix Culture

In Comics: ideology, power and the critics, Martin Barker suggests that in order to understand a comic we need to have a "particular kind of knowledge of its history... a history of comics, of publishers and their organisational practices, and of wider social and political processes." In the case of underground comics, it might be useful to examine the development of one artist through the changes in production practices, and through the social changes of the 1960s, that led to the creation of this kind of comic. Robert Crumb is often regarded as the pioneer of underground comics , and his development from commercial to more personal working practices, as well as his involvement in the San Francisco counter culture, makes him an ideal example to look at here.

Crumb began his career in comics in a greeting card company in Cleveland, Ohio, under working conditions that reflect the experiences of most comic artists up until this point in comics history. The company was organised much in the same way as one of Henry Ford's car factories: artists were lined up in cubicles in the studio, each adding his allotted artwork to the card, all under supervision of a director who had ultimate control of the finished product. This set up had influenced the output of comics, much as the studio system had created set formulas for films in Hollywood, for the most part of their history. As in Hollywood, occasionally an exemplary artist would be granted some freedom in shaping his work, but even then it was likely to be tampered with at the post-production stage.

The progression from this stifling working life to the liberating conditions Crumb found in San Francisco is crucial to an understanding of the comics he drew there, and indeed of the appeal of these comics to young adults, as it is this movement from repression to release that is a constant theme in underground comics. The progression is evident in Crumb's own life, a life he has repeatedly used as a source for his work. Crumb, educated under strict catholic rule, remembers himself in the early '60s as a "painfully shy out-of-it nerd... a lonely maladjusted weirdo" with "heavy catholic guilt" . In 1965 he tried LSD for the first time, and recalls that "the whole world I was living in just seemed like a puppet show, a tragic farce," and around the same time he was given the opportunity to work on Harvey Kurzman's (editor of Mad,) Help, a new title that allowed young artists some freedom to poke fun at this 'tragic farce' of modern America. Mad, along with the student papers of the early '60s, is often referred to as the major precursor to comix, if only for its cocky sense of rebelliousness - it had managed to evade the repressive rules of the Comics Code Authority simply by calling itself a magazine instead of a comic. Such displays of defiance were later to shape the underground artists' 'outlaw' image of themselves. Still, working for Help, and later for the East Village Other, Crumb was still under supervision by editors and publishers, and was writing for an already established readership, and so had yet to find total artistic freedom..

Crumb moved to San Francisco in 1967, and while he became a familiar face around Haight-Ashbury, he thought himself "too uptight" to be a full blown hippy, and remembers Haight as a "zoo". This impression reveals an important distance between Crumb and the hippie milieu he found himself in, the same distance that separates him from the poster designers, light-show artists, and the majority of psychedelic rock bands of the time, all of whose art was created to support and sustain the hippie dream, rather than to examine it. While Crumb was fascinated with drawing the hideous contortions of his own and America's repression, the release that followed it often seemed to fascinate him in much the same way, and was portrayed in even more grotesque forms. Thus, 'liberated' hippies are depicted in gross, sweaty sexual escapades, or as stoned morons, or as simply aimless and bored - as anything other than their own idealised 'flower children' image.

Even when satirising the love generation, with its naive ideas of freedom and liberation, however, Crumb still seems to convey a shared sense of this freedom. He later refers to this in Ron Mann's documentary Comic Book Confidential (1989): "When people say 'What are underground comics?' I think the best way you can define them is just the absolute freedom involved... we didn't have anyone standing over us." The reason no-one was 'standing over' artists such as Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and Jaxon was because, tired of the unfair profit share publishers had always had over them, they had formed a "kind of artists' co-operative on a profit-sharing basis" - the Rip Off Press. Working in what was essentially a collective was bound to have some influence on the comics that followed, this being the first time in American comics history that the hierarchical 'studio system' had broken down. Any amount of drugs could be consumed in the studio now, and anything could be drawn, and inevitably there proceeded to be a move away from commercially acceptable themes to darker ones. As Crumb recalls in mock-defensive tones, "I moved further and further away from mass entertainment. The sexual element became increasingly sinister and bizarre. Don't blame me! The bastards drove me to it! They all backed off after that!"

The "exciting sense of freedom, of liberated imaginations" that comes across in Crumb's comics is evidenced in the popularity and relevance they hold beyond their American audience, particularly in politically unsettled countries. In England, for example, the publication of obscene Crumb drawings was a major reason for Oz, the leading underground paper, being taken to court in the 1970s, an event billed by the media as 'the counter- culture versus the establishment', and a crucial moment in the history of the British underground movement (if not exactly a triumphant one). And in Spain the sudden popularity of previously suppressed Crumb comics after the death of Franco again reflects their capacity to attract readers invested with a sense of liberation.

We have seen, then, how Crumb's comics appeal to a certain type of reader, usually one who has found a new sort of freedom (but is perhaps unsure what to do with it), and why this reader-relationship came about - the personal, artistic and commercial changes in Crumb's own life, as well as the larger social and political changes in America. What we have yet to see, however, is how the actual comics work in creating and shaping this relationship. In order to understand this, it will be useful to look at an established text on reader-relations.

Umberto Eco reads Zap

Umberto Eco's The Role of the Reader takes as its main supposition the idea that texts are "co-operatively generated" , that is, are created as much by their readers' interpretations as by their authors' intentions. The implications this has on the way we study a text are far-reaching - it is no longer enough to regard the text as a sealed unit, the components of which may be analysed to uncover its (already determined) meaning; rather, the actions taken on the part of the 'addressee' in order to interpret and understand the text, and the considerations made by the author for his/her 'model reader', must be examined to reveal how the two come together to create meaning.

A good way of seeing how this process works is to look at cases where it doesn't, to look at texts that are prone to 'aberrant' interpretations. American horror films from the 1950s, for example, have a different status today because they are read aberrantly, that is, in ways that diverge from their makers' intentions. The 'model readers' for such films would have been teenagers, and the correct interpretation would have resulted in a response of fear; the readers today, however, tend to be adult intellectuals, and their response is laughter. Thus the meaning of these texts has changed, proving true Eco's assertion that the idea of a hermetically sealed text, with a set meaning, is a false one. Texts that are "randomly open to every pragmatic accident" , such as the above, Eco calls 'closed'. The reader does cooperate in generating such texts, but can do so in any possible way, thus producing "mere states of indeterminacy" rather than fully communicated meaning. In 'open' texts, however, there is more than one 'correct' interpretation available to the reader, and unlike the 'closed' text, where differing interpretations clash and detract from the communication, here the interpretations can fuse or accumulate to produce a fully rounded 'message'.

The examples Eco uses to illustrate the 'open' and 'closed' categories tend to correspond to the distinction between high and popular culture - Baudelaire's and Joyce's works are classed open, while works such as the Superman comics and Fleming's James Bond novels are shown to be closed. This is interesting in respect to the subject of this dissertation, as Robert Crumb works in a medium that is wholly rooted in popular culture, and yet is regarded (at least in the comix world) as an auteur, an artist working above and beyond the restrictions of mass cultural art. In order to see where Crumb fits in, it is necessary to take his work through Eco's 'textual levels' - the levels at which a reader interprets a text, from the basic linguistic ones to the more inferential - thus revealing the nature of the reader's involvement.

Eco begins his levels with what he calls a 'sublevel', that in which textual elements are understood by reference to the 'basic dictionary' - our store of fundamental objective facts about the world. Thus in the opening frame of a strip like 'Joe Blow', from Zap #4, we are introduced to a character called Joe, and in detecting the "most basic semantic properties of the sememes involved" , we take him to be male, and, going by the drawing of him, middle-aged. This most basic level is then added to with 'co-references', the point at which the reader "disambiguates anaphorical and deictic expressions" . In the linguistic sense, this can be seen in Lois' comment about the television - we understand that the 'it' of "it's not on" refers to the TV. There is no need for this comment to be located as coming from Lois by adding her name (as it might in a novel with 'said Lois'), as it is already evident pictorally, and we have co-referenced her from the inset portrait.

The picture is further disambiguated with "contextual and circumstantial selections" on the part of the reader. These selections rely on the readers' encyclopaedic knowledge to make sense of the picture. So, most readers would know that someone called Joe Jr. is likely to be the son of Joe, just as "Sis" is Joe Jr.'s sister. This selection is confirmed by the placing of the Blow family together in the insets, and by the circumstantial evidence - the archetypal family home they are placed in. Other information is received through the "rhetorical and stylistic overcoding" in the picture, in other words, from our shared knowledge of the 'rules' of comics. Such knowledge allows us to see that the words 'Joe Blow' and the inset portraits are not floating in that suburban living room, but rather are telling us that the strip will concern the exploits of this family. With the knowledge of these 'genre rules' we are able to discern the literal from the rhetorical, and are set up for the rest of the story.

Further information is built up through "inferences by common frames" . Eco describes a frame as "something half-way between a very comprehensive encyclopaedic sememic representation... and an instance of overcoding" , and the frame in this instance, or one of them, would be that of 'living-room'. Crumb can therefore rely on our common knowledge of living-rooms, and so can represent 'venetian blinds', as seen through the doorway, with a few abstract white lines. Such use of common frames emphasises the part played by the reader, and the assumptions that are being shared; it also allows room for the reader to be tricked, though this is not so with the 'living-room' frame. It is within the frame of 'family' that Crumb will play on our assumptions.

While we have traced the way in which the reader accumulates information from this drawing by the shared use of certain codes, we are still far from seeing why it creates the effect that it does in conjunction with the rest of the story. The 'textual levels' above are fine for understanding how a straight- forward text like, say, an instruction manual communicates with the reader, but for a satirical, ironic text such as this it is crucial to look at the "inferences by intertextual frames" .

By centring this story around a family, Crumb is bringing in a whole tradition of previous comic art based on the family unit. In The Unembarrassed Muse: the Popular Arts in America, Robert Nye has traced the history of the early daily strips, dividing them into three main categories - the Kid strips (such as 'The Yellow Kid' and 'The Katzenjammer Kids'), the Family strips (e.g. the 'Gumps' and 'Gasoline Alley'), and the Girl strips (e.g. 'Blondie' and 'Flapper Fanny'). The family strips came about as newspaper syndicates wanted comics that would sell: "Naturally, syndicates could not afford to offend any part of their mass audience, which meant that comics had to avoid extremes and aim at the largest common denominator of tastes and values." Family strips could be read and enjoyed by all ages of readers, and would usually feature a "likeable boob husband, the bright, cute wife, and the mischievous child" - the average American family. We can see, then, how the reader approaching 'Joe Blow' would make 'inferences by intertextual frames' - there is already a knowledge of how this type of strip behaves, and of what type of conclusion it will reach (though, of course, its appearance in an underground comic already sets us up for its inevitable subversion).

These 'intertextual frames' are especially evident when reading 'Joe Blow', as the reference to the family strips literally 'frames' the story, the final scene ending as it does with the wooden moral platitudes that often conclude stories based around the family (though the blankness of the dialogue here probably refers more to propaganda representations of the family rather than comic strip ones, which tended to be more ironic in tone).

Crumb is involving us with both common and intertextual frames based around the family, then. The intertextual frames tell us that this type of strip should be mild and inoffensive in tone, taking an affectionate look at the American family, and concluding in a wry or sapient manner. The common frames concern the larger topic of the family as a whole, and what it symbolises in American society - usually a certain wholesomeness and stability that is less easy to find in other areas of life. The overall effect the story achieves is created by playing off these frames with other, radically incongruent ones; thus Crumb shows the children and parents of the Blow family happily discovering each other as sexual partners, Joe with "Sis", and Joe Jr. with Lois:

The mixing of the intertextual frames surrounding the family with more pornographic ones results in a startling and absurd effect, while the juxtaposing of the common frames of 'family' and 'sex' ultimately creates the 'point' or meaning of the of the strip, which is to somehow undermine the idealised (and thus repressive) status of the American family with this graphic sexual imagery.

What is interesting about reading Crumb as an English person is that the strips still work, despite the inevitable cultural differences in our "treasury of intertextuality" . This is partly because Crumb makes few direct or essential references to the works he satirises (though 'Joe' is a famous name in American strips, mostly because of 'Joe Palooka', a Ham Fisher character whose "heart was pure and his ideals high" ). Also, we have our own forms, and corresponding frames, that run parallel to such works, and can easily be transferred here. But we really need not know of original reference points that inform 'Joe Blow', as they are created within the strip itself - the rules and codes governing the family strip are laid down, then broken.

One other 'level of textuality' that helps us to interpret a text concerns "ideological overcoding" . Eco suggests that "the reader approaches a text from a personal ideological perspective" and finds meaning in it through that perspective. Given that underground comics were mostly distributed via 'headshops' , most of those who bought the comics would roughly share, or at least understand, Crumb's ideological perspective, and would thus interpret them as he intended (though it is difficult to say whether he himself always had ideological intentions in this often chaotic work, even if there is an underlying ideology). Buying the comics in a headshop, rather than a normal newsagent , would significantly change the contract between the text and the reader anyway, establishing a relationship that was felt to be more personal and trustworthy, and thus readers would be likely to take on board Crumb's ideological perspective. What is interesting with ideological overcoding, however, is the way in which it can completely change the meaning of a text, according to the standpoint (conscious or unconscious) of the reader. A reader of underground comics in the '90s can't help but be aware of the very different representation of sexuality in them, one that is inevitably found to be sexist (and often misogynist), it being so incongruent with the representations in today's 'alternative' literature, and this subtle ideological bias can change our interpretation of the text. In such a situation, Eco observes, "fiction is transformed into document and the innocence of fancy is translated into the disturbing evidence of a philosophical statement" - thus, with a certain ideological overcoding, a strip like 'Joe Blow' ceases to be an amusing attack on the sanctity of the American family, and turns into an example of how the counter culture was highly reactionary in its attitudes to women.

Having studied this one strip in terms of the 'levels of textuality' employed by the reader to interpret it, it should be possible to look at Crumb's work as a whole to see whether the reader's involvement in 'Joe Blow' is typical of his overall relation to these comics. Most of Crumb's work of this period (late '60s and early '70s) plays with intertextuality in the way we have seen above. The references follow Nye's categories, with Kid strips like 'Just Us Kids!!' (Zap #1), and Girl strips too, 'Honey Bunch Kaminski' being perhaps the most well known.

Crumb's drawing style is often referred to as 'Disneyesque', and his frequent use of animals in these comics draws heavily and ironically on the tradition of anthropomorphism in the genre. This element is especially interesting in respect to the academic criticism surrounding Disney, most notably Dorfman and Mattelart's How To Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (regarded by Martin Barker as "perhaps the most important of all analyses of comics" ). Dorfman and Mattelart see children's literature as "the prime centre for the ideology of American capitalism" , and Disney comics as a supreme example of this. The comics create a safe world in which this paternalistic ideology can be put across, and thus are populated by cute animals and are "kept free of the taint of sexual production" . This world is the one that every 'baby-boom' child grew up with, and is part of an internationally shared 'treasury of intertextuality', and so it comes as no surprise that Crumb plays on this. Sometimes he might do so by making an animal highly sexual, as in one of his most famous creations, 'Fritz the Cat'. But other times the subversion is more subtle, as in 'Fuzzy the Bunny': here a psychological and social realism are introduced to the animals' world, as we find Fuzzy in a mental institution, driven neurotic by the pressures of adult life. This is an interesting mix of intertextual and common frames - the intertextual frames of 'animal comics' that we all share, and the common frames of 'neurosis' that, in the burnt-out early 1970s (when this strip was published), would strike a chord with many readers.

This strip is also significant in regard to the question of whether Crumb's texts are 'open' or 'closed', as it is of a different nature to the overtly satirical and iconoclastic 'Joe Blow'. That strip left room for the reader only to enjoy the crudity and absurdity, or to be disgusted. 'Fuzzy the Bunny' is part of Crumb's more subtle and understated work, in which exciting events and dramatic resolutions are eschewed, and we are able to simply observe the life of the characters and come to our own conclusions. Serious philosophical questions are raised in this type of work, the most common one being a sort of hippie version of 'How to live?', as Crumb's characters are for ever engaged in a struggle to find something to do with their lives, having arrived at adulthood. There are no easy answers proffered; we are just shown the ironies that the problem engenders, and must generate our own meaning from this.

This strip, then, might suggest that Crumb's work would be classed as 'open'. It seems a rather limiting system of classification in this instance, however. One of the problems with Eco's method of analysis is that, tied up as it is with the distinctions of high and low culture, it can't help but be value-loaded - to find a text 'closed' is to denigrate it to the level of a dodgy spy novel, and so one is forced to look for ways in which it is 'open'. More recent revisions of Eco's model move away from this either/or system of classification, and identify texts as existing on a sliding scale between 'closed' and 'open'. In a strip such as 'Fuzzy the Bunny', Crumb provides more room for interpretation for the reader, and so we could say he is reaching further up that sliding scale.

'Comic as friend'

We have seen, then, how the reader's relation to the text is established and built up in these comics by means of shared 'frames' of cultural and personal knowledge. A certain competence on the reader's part is needed for the comics to work, and perhaps the more competent the reader feels, the more the contract between him/herself and the text is strengthened. And the fact that the subject matter is often of a taboo or highly personal (especially in Crumb's later 'confessional' strips) nature is likely to intensify the reader-writer relationship.

So, to some extent, this approach has explained the nature of the communication between Crumb's comics and their readers. The comics are full of implicit addresses to the reader in the form of cultural references, and to pick up on these addresses is to be a part of the comic, and a part of the world comix represents. This still doesn't quite explain the strength of feeling expressed by readers in regard to the comics, however. All art is based on shared assumptions and 'inferences by intertextual frames', and would simply fail to communicate if it were not, so these features cannot entirely explain comics' appeal.

One reader, recalling the impact Crumb's Zap had on him, remembers how focused and personal the experience was: "Everything he had written... seemed aimed directly at me." Part of the reason for this is that in many cases it literally was, for Crumb often makes explicit addresses to the reader, with characters staring at us, asking questions, confessing and confiding in us, all of which can only heighten the communication between reader and writer. It also continues a tradition of 'comic as friend', as has been observed by Martin Barker. Barker writes of the "parasocial" relation readers have with some comics , with the controversial children's comic Action as his example. Because Action was deemed 'unsuitable' for children, with its unusual amounts of violence and social commentary, the relation that committed readers had with it was particularly strong, as is evidenced in the comments Barker received in his readership survey: "It was... a friend," and had a certain "we're one of you" style. Comics have always had this social relation with their readers , and Crumb expands on this by having the comics speak directly to us, and not always in a polite way. Take the cover art on the first issue of HUP, for example:

Crumb here establishes the nature of our relation to the comic quite explicitly (albeit in an ironic manner) - to buy this comic is to dive into a whole new world of sex and adulthood (or so we are told), to graduate above the other comic-reading nerds that pore over 'super-hero crap' in a state of arrested adolescence. The cover very directly sets a role for its reader, that of a sort of younger brother about to be initiated into this exciting new world by the tanned, successful host, 'Stan Shnooter'. In doing this, Crumb is still setting up a 'comic as friend' relation, but here it is a different kind of friend, the sort your parents wouldn't like. While the role to which we are assigned must be taken ironically, it is still an enjoyable one to fall into, and does promise a sort of equal, eye-to-eye relationship between comic and reader.

Crumb is often emphatic in setting up this equal relationship, as is evidenced in his major work of the 1980s, Weirdo. Here, readers are encouraged to write in with comments on their own experience of comics, and any 'fanboy'- type sycophancy is met with due contempt. The readers are sometimes mocked in the art-work (one cover showed the average Weirdo reader as a balding, socially inadequate loser), but the artists are equally mocked in the letters page; either way, there is still a direct interaction between reader and writer, and between readers and other readers, making reading Weirdo seem a real communal experience. In this way, Crumb implicitly declares his intention to change the way we relate to comics, and, when effective, can even give the reader the feeling that he/she is being changed by the comic.

This idea of change brings us back to Bogart, and the function of comics. Bogart came to the conclusion that readers of comic strips experienced a mildly cathartic reaction to them, in that they managed to reduce a little tension and relieve the tedium of the day. The reason that the catharsis was mild is down to the mild, inoffensive nature of the strips, which, as Robert Nye observed, was necessary to maintain a constant readership. In regard to the reaction to underground comics, where the principle of maintaining readership was secondary to that of artistic freedom, and where the effects of the texts are a little wilder, the term 'catharsis' seems less inappropriate.

Crumb himself often refers to his early work in terms of catharsis - he speaks of "getting all this craziness out of my subconscious" when working in San Francisco, of the "raging Id" and the need to "let open the floodgates" . Because of the prominent place of the reader in these texts, there is a sense in which this catharsis is shared, that in reading such material one is breaking free from the limitations of social conditioning. It should be stressed that this 'craziness' is only a part of Crumb's work, and of underground comics in general. Mostly they deal with the everyday experiences that are part of the artists', and readers', lives. Above all else there is an (often embarrassing) honesty in these comics - probably the most common form in 1970s and '80s was the 'true story' strip, which would engage the reader conversationally in events from the artist's past, and try to make sense of them.

In trying to understand the function of children's' comics, Martin Barker came to the conclusion that they are based around the idea of adult authority and that, in reading them, children are gaining "some of the mental resources they need to cope with the living reality of the power we adults routinely hold over their lives" . It seems to me that the function of underground comics for their readers is a sort of adult version of this: having arrived at adulthood, having gained some measure of autonomy from authority, and having deconditioned oneself from societal authority (via drugs, sex, etc.), one is still left with the dilemma of what to do next, and these comics play through this dilemma. This gives them the status of transitional comics, a concept generated by the research of Wolfe and Fiske , who saw distinct stages in the comic-reading habits of children, these stages following the intellectual growth of the children until they finally grew out of comics. While perhaps an unflattering concept to their readers, this idea is backed up by the fact that the majority of them are aged between 16 and 24 - at some point, the majority of readers have gained what they needed from the comics and moved on.


The aim of this study was to find out why readers of underground comics felt their relation to the texts to be unusually direct and strong. Over the course of it, I have realised that this perception of the reader-relation may have been influenced by personal bias - the relation between text and reader always seems unusually strong to a fan of that text. Moreover, the evidence (on page 2) corroborating this point comes from other comic artists and fellow fans - hardly objective observers.

There is some seven years distance, however, between my first encounter with comix and this study, during which time I have turned from being a committed, frequent reader of them, to a more casual one, and finally to student of them. This fact in itself seems to substantiate the idea of them as transitional comics. The underground comics can be seen as transitional in another way too - while they effectively died out in the mid-1970s, they did path the way for the adult comics boom of the late-'70s and 1980s. Thus in recent years we have seen comics finally accepted as a serious form, with titles like Art Spiegelman's Maus, a history of the holocaust in graphic novel form, gaining respect from opinion-formers in the literary world. Crumb's work also arrived at a maturity and sophistication in the '80s, his detailed comic versions of works by Sartre, Philip K. Dick and Bukowski being the most outstanding examples.

This acceptance of comics into serious, cultured areas of society does not necessarily bode well for their readers, however: part of the appeal of comics is that they have always been regarded as undesirable in some way by authority figures, whether it be parental disapproval of the crudities in the Beano, or Dr. Wertham condemning the horror comics of the '50s. To read comics is thus a measure and a reminder of the reader's own autonomy - hence the loyalty and passion fans often express in regard to their comics.

This element of mischief in the reading of comics is only a small part of their overall appeal, however, as we have seen. The bond that is formed between comic and reader, be it through shared frames of cultural and personal knowledge, through the explicit reader addresses that are so effective in comics, or through the intimacy and honesty of their subject matter, should be able to survive the comics' new found respectability.


Primary texts

Zap #4 (San Francisco: Apex Novelties, 1969)

XYZ Comics (Princeton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1972)

HUP #1 (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1987)

The Complete Crumb Comics vols. 1-7 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1988)

Weirdo #1-27 (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1981-92)

Secondary texts

Barker, Martin, Comics: ideology, power and the critics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989)

Beauchamp, Monte, (ed.) Blab! #3 (USA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1988)

Davidson, Steef, The Penguin Book of Political Comics (England: Penguin, 1982)

Eco, Umberto, The Role of the Reader (London: Hutchinson, 1981)

Feiffer, Jules, The Great Comic Book Heroes (New York: The Dial Press, 1965)

Green, Jonathon, (ed.), Days in the Life - Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971 (London: Heinemann, 1988)

Inge, M. Thomas, Comics as Culture (USA: University Press of Mississippi, 1990)

Nye, Robert, The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America (New York: The Dial Press, 1970)

Perry, G. and Aldridge, A., The Penguin Book of Comics (London: Penguin, 1971)

Rosenberg, B. and Manning, D. M., Mass Culture - The Popular Arts in America (New York: The Free Press, 1957)

Sabin, Roger, Adult Comics - An Introduction (London: Routledge, 1993)

Swingewood, Alan, The Myth of Mass Culture (London: Macmillan, 1977)


Comic Book Confidential Dir. Ron Mann (Canada: Castle Hendring, 1989)

Arena: The Confessions of Robert Crumb Dir. Mary Dickinson (England: BBC, 1987)

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