Lettering Underground Comix Part 1: ROBERT CRUMB

From ZAP COMIX #1, Feb 1968, Apex Novelties. All images © Robert Crumb except as noted

The 1960s were a time of change in many areas of society, including comics. One factor was the availability of cheap printing for the general public. Independent offset printers were setting up all across the country and small runs of a comic book with black and white interiors and a color cover could be produced for a few hundred dollars. A new generation of cartoonists was exploring that option, first just printing copies for friends, but new kinds of stores were opening up that would sell them. A counterculture focused on drug use, politics, folk, blues, and rock music, and free love was gathering young fans in droves, and they were meeting to buy things in head shops that specialized in drug paraphernalia and literature and posters related to the movement. A new type of comics, dubbed “comix” to imply the X-rated nature of much of the content, was arriving on those shelves. One of the earliest and most prolific creators of comix was Robert Crumb, whose anthology series Zap Comix was a hit, and sold well enough to encourage lots of imitators. Crumb’s work sometimes looked back to sources like the comics he loved as a kid, but more often it drew content from past and current music and culture. Both his art and his lettering had a rough quality that was very different from most mainstream comics, but beneath that rough look was solid cartooning and design skill. The content was raw, sexual and violent, free from any kind of censorship. It helped that court rulings at the time were making prosecution for producing or selling such things harder. Underground comix included everything the Comics Code Authority was sworn to prevent, and that made them all the more appealing. Crumb said in the book Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels by Roger Sabin (1996, Phaidon Press):

People forget that was what it was all about. That was why we did it. We didn’t have anybody standing over us saying ‘No, you can’t draw this,’ or ‘You can’t show that.’ We could do whatever we wanted.

In a way, underground comix reset the idea of making comics back to the beginning, with each creator doing his own complete package. Some were able to produce entire comix themselves, but many joined forces in anthology titles like Zap Comix. The center of comix publishing was San Francisco and nearby Berkeley, California, though comix were published in many parts of the country. No longer did a cartoonist have to live in the New York City metropolitan area and gain favor at the mainstream publishers to reach an audience. In Part 1 I’ll focus on Robert Crumb, in Part 2 I’ll look at other early underground artists and their lettering.

Robert Crumb, 1969, © Baron Wolman / Iconic Images
From HELP! #25, July 1965, Warren

Robert Crumb was born Aug 30, 1943 in Philadelphia to a troubled family with unhappy parents and five children. They moved often, but Robert and his brother Charles loved comics and animation, and created their own small humor/satire pamphlets named FOO! that they tried to sell door to door with little success. The model was Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD and HUMBUG. When Robert graduated from high school, he found work at American Greetings in Cleveland, Ohio, drawing greeting cards there for four years. In 1965, Kurtzman published some of Crumb’s work in his magazine HELP!, as seen above, where his title lettering is already unusual and interesting. While continuing to draw greeting cards, Robert placed comic strips featuring his own creation, Fritz the Cat, in the men’s magazine Cavalier in 1965-66. He began experimenting with LSD, and an early marriage failed. Crumb followed friends to San Francisco where his work became popular in underground newspapers.

From ZAP COMIX #1, Feb 1968, back cover

In 1967, Crumb agreed to create his first underground comix for publisher Don Donahue under the name Apex Novelties. The first issue he did was labeled #0, but the art for it was lost for a while, so he continued with issue #1, the first published. As you can see on the cover (at the top of this article) and the back cover, above, Crumb’s lettering and logo design work were an important part of the books, and that would continue to be true through his career. The front cover has elements similar to comic books, including a large, well-drawn logo under a smaller subtitle, a fake comics code seal, and two cover blurbs using display lettering. The back cover is similar to ads seen in old comics, but with a sly, subversive message. Some of the lettering imitates serif type, but it’s all clearly hand-drawn.

From ZAP COMIX #1, Feb 1968

One of Crumb’s best known characters, Mr. Natural, began in this issue. His big-foot style and textured art works well to draw in readers, and his lettering is appealing and organic. I see lettering influences from Basil Wolverton.

From ZAP COMIX #1, Feb 1968

Another of Robert Crumb’s interests was old blues records, and on this famous page, he used lyrics from a 1936 song by Blind Boy Fuller, “Truckin’ My Blues Away.” The image in the first panel with its distinctive open title, appeared everywhere for years, becoming a kind of visual symbol for the counter-culture.

From ZAP COMIX #1, Feb 1968

Not all of Crumb’s work was so benign, his stories were often sexist, racist, pornographic, and violent. Many of them contain material I don’t care to show here, you can find them for yourself online. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, ZAP was popular and sold well.

From ZAP COMIX #0, 1968

This issue, the first one Crumb drew, came out after issues 1 and 2 when he was able to find photocopies of the missing artwork. Most of it was created in 1967. I love his logo, so full of electric energy, perhaps influenced by the WEIRD SCIENCE logo of Al Feldstein for EC Comics, and the word balloon is large and heavy, with the kind of thick outline often used by Artie Simek at Marvel Comics in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Crumb knew his comics.

From ZAP COMIX #0, 1968

The title on this page takes the kind of telescoping often used for comics logos in a new direction, with shading lines following the direction of the vanishing point and very large pointed serifs on the letters. The art suggests the kind of thing you might have seen in 1950s science fiction comics and pulp magazines.

From ZAP COMIX #0, 1968

The title on this page has a three-dimensional organic look that makes it seem almost alive, an approach imitated by others in the early days of undergrounds, perhaps influenced by rock concert posters Crumb would have seen in San Francisco.

From ZAP COMIX #0, 1968

This strip is funny and full of good comics storytelling and appealing lettering and art. It’s like an early 20th-century newspaper strip in its use of many small panels and complete on one page, and the lettering is not unlike what many of those early strips had. The symmetry in each panel is uniquely Crumb.

From ZAP COMIX #0, 1968

Crumb’s love of all kinds of comics is evident in the top panel of this page, with nods to funny animals and very rounded letters. The friendly feel of the art allowed him to get away with things more realistic art would not have, I think.

From ZAP COMIX #0 back cover

Here’s some words about comics from Robert that many of us can relate to, though perhaps moreso older comics fans, before comics were sometimes considered valuable collectibles. The lettering and title are perfect for the subject.

From ZAP COMIX #2, July 1968

By the time of this issue, ZAP was selling well, and Crumb invited other artists to join him, making the book a many-authored anthology, as it would remain for decades. I’ll look at some of the other art in Part 2. The Crumb cover is a tour-de-force of dynamic, cartoony art and lettering with a fine three-dimensional logo and sound effects. I particularly like the joined O’s in the word TROOTHS in the bottom blurb.

From ZAP COMIX #2, July 1968

Mr. Natural returned in this issue, an early recurring character for Crumb, with an even better logo that has an Art Deco feel, like so many comics logos of the 1940s-50s. The balloon lettering is thick and rounded, and looks like it took a lot of time.

From R. CRUMB’S HEAD COMIX Trade Paperback, Viking Press 1968

While the world was slow to embrace underground comix in general, Robert Crumb’s work in particular found favor at mainstream publishers, as seen here. The logo is beautifully done, and perhaps Crumb took more time on it than usual.

Original cover art for R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat Trade Paperback, Oct 1969, Ballantine Books, image courtesy of Heritage auctions

Another mainstream book publisher taking a chance on Crumb work, some done for Cavalier magazine, some new. Ralph Bakshi made an animated film of Fritz released in 1972, further putting Crumb on the map in American culture. This logo is again done carefully and well, and has an Art Deco feel.

From DESPAIR, no number, 1969, Print Mint

While continuing to do some work in ZAP, Robert also put out solo books of comix from various San Francisco publishers, like this one. The logo and art suggest a romance comic but one heading in a different direction that predicts where some self-published comics would be going in later years., and it all has a looser, rougher, but more realistic feel than much of the earlier work.

From ZAP COMIX #3, 1969, Print Mint

The delightfully graphic title on this story seems like something Basil Wolverton might have done, and shows that Crumb was always trying new things.

From MR. NATURAL #1, Aug 1970, Apex Novelties

New Mr. Natural stories appeared in this two-issue series with a very different logo, tall script that leans slightly to the left, and has a double outline for a second color.

From PROMETHEAN ENTERPRISES #3, 1971

This was an underground comix fanzine produced by Bud Plant, Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr., and Al Davoren, and pretty close to an underground itself. I love Crumb’s logo made of swear symbols, surely the first use of them in such an impactful way.

From UNEEDA COMIX, no number, 1971, Print Mint

Another all-Crumb one-shot with a great cover. The logo is block letters with telescoping in one-point perspective, and the tiny thought balloons are wonderful. Crumb even got away with including Goofy.

From HOME GROWN FUNNIES #1, Jan 1971, Kitchen Sink Press

Robert went for an old comics anthology look on this cover, with a fine lower case logo and character heads in circles down the left side. The music note balloon is also uniquely his.

From XYZ COMIX, no number, June 1972, Kitchen Sink

Crumb again imitates the look and format of old comics anthologies here, with a handsome logo and small character figures around the central image.

From BLACK AND WHITE COMICS, no number, 1973, Apex Novelties

On this cover, the logo takes the opposing words to extremes of perspective and color, while COMICS is very similar to WALT DISNEY’S COMICS AND STORIES, the 1940s anthology from Dell. The balloon and caption lettering is small, but has lots of variety.

From ARCADE, THE COMIX REVUE #1, Spring 1975, Print Mint

In 1973 the liberal political climate began to swing the other way, and new obscenity rulings made comix harder to sell. Many of the head shops they were sold in closed, and publishers had to rely on mail order or the earliest independent comics retailers. One of the last new underground titles was ARCADE, co-created by Art Spiegleman and Bill Griffith, which lasted seven issues to 1976. Crumb did a fine cover for the first issue with a logo that reminds me of MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS. I like the way some of his balloons have shading, giving them a three-dimensional look.

From ZAP COMIX #8, 1975, Print Mint

ZAP was still coming out, and Robert did this great cover for issue #8 with a creative angular logo that sort of combines two types of the letter Z.

From ZAP COMIX #8, 1975, Print Mint

Inside, Crumb’s story has a huge title and interesting initial capital letters in the captions.

From AMERICAN SPLENDOR #3, 1978, © Harvey Pekar

In 1976, Crumb helped his friend Harvey Pekar start an autobiographical comic, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, with Pekar writing and Crumb illustrating some of the stories, other artists drawing some as well. It was a great combination that proved popular and began a new trend in self-published autobiographical comics that Robert also followed in his own work.

From WEIRDO #1, Spring 1981, Last Gasp

In 1981, Crumb created this new series with a cover that suggests some of Harvey Kurtzman’s covers for MAD when it went to magazine size. The logo is wonderful, and every issue had a different one, again imitating Kurtzman’s earliest MAD run. They and the covers are all amazing. This was also an anthology with many creators, and Robert’s interior content was sometimes sparse, but always interesting.

From WEIRDO #8, Summer 1983, Last Gasp

I would not have guessed this cover was by Crumb if it wasn’t signed, it looks more like something Peter Bagge might have done. Plenty of Bagge’s work is inside, and clearly Robert was looking carefully at it.

From ZAP COMIX #13, 1994, Last Gasp

ZAP continued to come out sporadically until 2005, but Crumb’s work for it became much more autobiographical, as here. I love the heavily textured title and serif lettering, this style is typical of Robert’s later work. One thing you have to say for Crumb, he was honest about himself.

From THE BOOK OF GENESIS, 2009, W. W. Norton

In more recent years, Crumb’s comix output dwindled in favor of work for other media like album covers, but in 2009 a major new project came out in book form, a version of Genesis from The Bible in Crumb’s cartoon style. It shows he’d lost none of his skill. Crumb remarried in 1978 to Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and both she and their daughter Sophie are published cartoonists as well. His work continues to be collected, republished, and celebrated.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

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