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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Cleaning up after the sixties elephants : Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and the genesis of Zap Comix Pederson, Amy Marie


Any discussion of the underground comics of the sixties must be foreshadowed by a discussion of the censorship which preceded it. Paralleling anti-Communist purges, the anti-comics crusade of the 1950s can be seen as part of a larger and more encompassing battle against domestic subversion in all its varieties. Culminating in a series of senate subcommittee hearings to investigate links between comic readership and juvenile delinquency, anti-comics sentiment mushroomed in the postwar period as the American public struggled to find the cause for a spiraling divorce rate and a perceived fragmentation of the family as an institution. Unable to establish direct connections, the hearings spurred the comics publishing industry to self-censorship with the adoption of a hasty rewrite of the Motion Picture Association of America code, one which severely truncated the content of the comics and went far beyond the censoring sex and violence to ensure that the medium would reflect only mainstream values. Post-code, the comics were elevated into a supposedly morally pristine and ideologically secure environment, testifying to the monumentality of the fable of American Cold War propaganda of which they were a part. In my project, Zap Comix, emerging in the 1960s, and particularly the work of Robert Crumb and Robert Williams, will serve to articulate the antagonisms inherent within this monumental structure through their gleeful transgression of every code prohibition and countless societal taboos. Spanning the years 1967 to 1973 and issues #0 through #6, my thesis is limited to the years between the comic's inception and the point of Zap's excision from the Zeitgeist of its geographical and historical location. These books contain racist and graphically violent material, as well as sexual content which often ventures into the terrain of the perverse, the grotesque and the misogynist, and all are tempered by a strong element of fantasy. Fantasy in this case functions not only as imaginary wish fulfillment but also has psychoanalytic implications. In psychoanalysis, fantasy can provide a mediation between the domains of the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of objects we encounter within it. It can also operate as a phantasmic screen, obfuscating the true horror of a situation but at the same time revealing what it purports to conceal. In my study, I argue that Freudian psychological categories may be applied in a sociological manner because they have become in this instance political categories. Viet Nam, the Manson family, and numerous political assassinations all coloured Zap's appearance at the tail end of the doomed and fragile idealism engendered by the brief Edenic flash of the Summer of Love in the Haight. I will show that in Zap the unrepresentability of what was Lacan's notion of the Real merges with the horrific violence of the period. Zap's pages thus construct a phantasmic screen, simultaneously masking certain traumas and exposing others while providing insights into larger superstructures. This screen is grounded in a glorification of Bataillean unproductive expenditure tempered by humour. "Normative" notions of sexual economy are confounded through the provocative depictions of sexual violence, incestuous perversion, and bio-mechanical fetishism but at the expense of female bodies. Like the Surrealists, in Zap these bodies are subjugated sites for the vicarious exploration of boundary transgressions and are a focus for male bonding on the part of male artists and audiences. In his 1997 book The Plague of Fantasies, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek discusses Emir Kusturica's film Underground and thus provides a model to begin looking at Zap's imagery. In the recent apocalyptic climate of the former Yugoslavia, Kusturica depicts not literal genocide but an alternate libidinal economy to Serbian ethnic slaughter. The actors of this economy are enveloped in a trance of pseudo-Bataillean excessive expenditure, performing to the constant rhythm of eat-drink-sing-fuck (but not kill), building a fragile border to block the entry of the inevitable. In the interwar period, a time of violent and Fascistic tendencies which has unnerving links to the 1960s, Georges Bataille turned to the Marquis de Sade's crimes as constituting the violence he saw at the foundation of civilization and of the experience of it. Sade's articulation of pathos and perversion challenged societal insistence that sex and violence stay outside of culture's definition, our delusions being exacerbated by the silence of the state and the institutionalization of violence. I conclude that Zap's value, like Sade's, lies in giving violence a voice, one that counters the simple enshrinement of Zap Comix within the mythology of "counter-culture" lore.

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