Underground comics (or "comix") are small press or self-published comic books that first emerged in the 1960's. They came about as an artistic response to the mainstream, Comics Code Authority approved comics, which focused on superheroes, war, romance, and juvenile humor, while ignoring many of the real-life issues affecting their readers. Underground comics took on these topics forbidden in the mainstream, including explicit drug use, sexuality and violence. They were most popular from the late 1960's to the early 1980's.
Underground comics were popular with the hippie counterculture and punk scenes. Produced by people like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Gary Panter, the comics tapped into the zeitgeist of the youth culture, exploring themes of distrust in government, the horrors of daily life, and the fading of The American Dream.
Underground comics gained prominence and influence, as is evidenced in such works as The Movie of Fritz the Cat, Down and Dirty Duck and Monty Python's Flying Circus. Also, Zippy the Pinhead and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originally began as underground comics before gaining mainstream success (in Zippy's case, syndication in newspapers, whereas the Turtles were basically commercialized and pimped out by major corporations). Even mainstream comic books weren't immune, and took on underground themes, as with Howard the Duck. Their legacy is most obvious with Alternative Comics, the genre's Spiritual Successor.
This movement helped to kick off the Furry Fandom early on due to the sheer number of attempts to subvert the belief that "all comics are Funny Animals" that was pervading the mainstream comics industry in the 70s, by basically taking those characters and putting them in adult or sexual situations.
Still other underground comics were important not for the sex and violence, but because they could be experimental in other ways; exploring subject matter that was mundane rather than fantastic, or experimenting with the medium of comics itself.
As the comic industry has matured (or at least become more tolerant), these pioneering works have lost some of their original power; Slice of Life, extreme violence, and sex have all found their way into mainstream comics nowadays, but that doesn't mean these comics are any less important or entertaining.
- American Splendor: Early on. Later published by Dark Horse Comics and Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics. A pioneering autobiographical comic focusing on the life of its creator and writer, Harvey Pekar, with art drawn by many underground cartoonists, including Frank Stack and Robert Crumb.
- Isaac M. Baranoff: Modern day underground cartoonist known for Funny Animal comix. Creations include:
- Vaughn Bode was a very early, and, until his premature death in 1975, extremely popular underground cartoonist. His Cheech Wizard comics were a regular feature in the National Lampoon, and he was an influence on filmmaker Ralph Bakshi.
- Das Kämpf, from 1963, was one of the very first underground comics.
- Cheech Wizard: A philosophical talking yellow wizard's hat interacts with anthropomorphic lizards and attractive babes; inspired a limited special edition shoe and matching hoodie from Puma, a custom toy from Kidrobot, a lot of graffiti artists and a line in Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot".
- Cobalt 60: A lone mutant riding a two-legged beast across a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
- Cherry Comics: Dumb Blond has lots of sex in a Porn with Plot usually stylized after Archie Comics (when drawn by Cherry's creator, Larry Welz, not by Mark Bodé).
- Buzz!, published by Oni Press and telling the story of a world where spelling bees are Serious Business and a form of combat.
- Robert Crumb
- Angelfood Mc Spade: A satire of American racism and blackface iconography.
- Fritz the Cat: An anthropomorphic cat who seeks self-fufilling pleasures, including drugs and sex, who proclaims to be a deep poet seeking "the truth". Adapted as a 1972 film by Ralph Bakshi. A second film, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (which had no involvement from Crumb or Bakshi), was released in 1974.
- Mr. Natural
- Life in Hell: Before going on to wide mainstream success with The Simpsons and Futurama, Matt Groening self-published this in Xeroxed comic book form. It focused on a bitter, depressed rabbit named Binky, his girlfriend, their illegitimate son, Bongo, and a pair of identical gay lovers named Akbar and Jeff (you can even see in the Simpsons character designs that a lot of the inspiration was from Life In Hell, particularly Akbar and Jeff, whom most Simpsons fans will recognize as Milhouse van Houten, his mother Luann, and his father, Kirk).
- Bobby London:
- Dirty Duck: Bobby London's comic strip, published in underground comics, and later in National Lampoon and Playboy. Artistically influenced by George Herriman; the comic's protaganist is also similar to Groucho Marx. Not to be confused with the 1975 film of the same name, which was actually titled Down and Dirty Duck, produced by Roger Corman, and starring Flo & Eddie. While it does feature a duck, it has nothing in common with the comic strip, and does not feature the comic's main character.
- Merton Of The Movement: A household of ostensible revolutionaries who were basically unmotivated stoners - done in the style of Elzie Segar (Thimble Theater).
- Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist: Created by lesbian cartoonist Diane DiMassa, the comic is about a lesbian who seeks to end misogyny and homophobia by killing or castrating every man she sees.
- Mr. A: Surprised to see something Steve Ditko was involved in on here? Ditko's Ayn Rand-inspired, Objectivist-themed superhero series appeared in underground comics series like witzend, as well as issues self-published by Ditko himself.
- Omaha the Cat Dancer: A very explicit Soap Opera with Funny Animal or Furry characters.
- Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman: A very silly comic about a very violent man.
- Ted Richards:
- Dopin' Dan: A look at the everyday boredom and frustrations of a private's life in a big Army base.
- The Forty Year Old Hippie: first published in the later 1970s, about a guy who never abandoned the hippie lifestyle (and it looks like it's added another forty years to him.)
- Rocky: Swedish autobiographical comic by Martin Kellerman in which Funny Animal Author Avatar Rocky and his slacker buddies deal with things like relationships, hang out at bars and coffee shops, attend Hip-Hop concerts and have a series of often-embarrassing one-night stands.
- Dori Seda
- Gilbert Shelton
"Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope."
- The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers: A trio of hippies in search of marijuana, various forms of psychedelic drugs, sex, and cheap thrills.
- Wonder Warthog: His secret identity is the mild-mannered reporter Philbert Desanex. (Occasionally, however, Shelton has depicted Wonder Wart-Hog and Desanex as two distinct individuals, with Wonder possessing the ability to reside inside the reporter's body.) Distinguishes underground comics from alternative comics, as alternative comics do not focus on superheroes, which are considered to be mainstream.
- Frank Stack:
- The Adventures Of Jesus: Often considered the first true underground comic, Frank Stack's strip and book series featured Jesus Christ as its main protaganist in order to satirize modern culture and the hypocrisy of so-called Christians. Stack drew the series as "Foolbert Sturgeon" early on, but later drew new strips under his own name, because the alias was too ridiculous.
- Dr. Feelgood: A ghetto psychiatrist, whose sole patient is a neurotic academic white guy who recounts his dreams and experiences.
- Space Moose: A perverted, nihilistic moose-like alien and his room-mates violates every behavioral norm and societal taboo they can find.
- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was originally a self-published independent comic which was ridiculously gritty and violent (as a parody of the two most popular comics of the early 80s, Frank Miller's "dark and edgy" Daredevil and the teenage mutants of the X-Men), prior to becoming a mainstream sensation aimed at children.
- Tijuana Bibles are an early form of underground comics. Often they were solely pornographic parodies of mainstream comics (featuring characters ranging from Blondie and Dagwood to Mickey and Minnie Mouse), but there were also Tijuana bibles that featured original characters, a rarity in the comic book industry at the time, as during the early days of comic books, the medium almost solely published reprints of newspaper comics. Today, they're best remembered for being the most direct precursor to modern Rule 34 culture.
- Zippy the Pinhead: Early on. Later became a syndicated newspaper comic, thus earning mainstream status.
- The Saga of White Will: About as underground as it gets, the comic was scripted by William Luther Pierce, the head of the American white supremacist organization The National Alliance and author of The Turner Diaries and Hunter. The comic is a pure propaganda piece against blacks and multiculturalism and only got a single issue.
- Jawbreakers: Lost Souls: An Indiegogo funded comic staring a group of ex-superhero mercenaries that has been surrounded by controversy since day one of its reveal.
- God Nose: Considered one of the first (if not the first) underground comic; self-published by Jack "Jaxon" Jackson in 1964, it features God, Jesus and a satirical look at life in The '60s.
- Lynda Barry's early work in the late 70s: bizarre, Gonk-filled musings about sex and the relationships between men and women. These were mostly published in alternative weeklies as disjointed strips Ernie Pooks Comeek.