Lettering Underground Comix Part 2: Other Hands

From ZAP COMIX #2, 1968, Apex Novelties, untitled story © Rick Griffin

Continuing this article with creators other than Robert Crumb, featured in Part 1. Underground comics are a large subject, there are hundreds of individual issues. I’m narrowing this article to ones created in the 1960s and 1970s, the formative years, and focusing on creators who drew what I consider interesting and unusual lettering on their stories and covers, at least those I’ve found. Many undergrounds had poor or bland lettering, though I applaud the effort of artists to do everything themselves, as in the early days of comic strips, but some were better at it than others. The center of underground comix publishing was San Francisco, but they came out all around the country, and were often sold in “head shops,” places that also sold drug paraphernalia and other youth-culture items. By the mid 1970s, most of those venues had closed, and the undergrounds that survived did so largely through mail order, at least until the rising tide of comics shops, part of the new direct market, began selling them.

Rick Griffin, image found online

Richard Alden “Rick” Griffin (June 18, 1944 – August 18, 1991) was an American artist and one of the leading designers of psychedelic posters in the 1960s. As a contributor to the underground comix movement, his work appeared regularly in ZAP COMIX. Griffin was closely identified with the Grateful Dead, designing some of their best-known posters and album covers such as Aoxomoxoa. Griffin’s work in ZAP uses lettering and sound effects as three dimensional elements in ways that no one else did. The balloons in the example above are truly balloon-like, with shading to add roundness, and the sound effects jump off the page, filling that middle panel. The letter styles are also varied and well-crafted.

From ZAP COMIX #3, 1969, Print Mint, cover © Rick Griffin

Griffin’s cover work was equally impressive, and used the same kind of very three-dimensional lettering and balloons. There’s something about it that’s both elegant and organic, the letters of ZAP might be made of bones. You can see why he was in high demand as a rock concert poster and album cover artist.

From MAN FROM UTOPIA, 1972, San Francisco Comic Book Company, © Rick Griffin

Another fine example of Rick’s cover work with lots of interesting lettering styles. I particularly like the vertical line running down the left side.

From MAN FROM UTOPIA, 1972, San Francisco Comic Book Company, © Rick Griffin

This entire book is Griffin work, short stories or single pages. This page has some fine lettering with a little of the psychedelia he was known for. His work appeared in many underground titles in the early years, and a few in the 1980s as well, though he was even busier as an artist for other media. Sadly, Rick died in a motorcycle accident in 1991, cutting short a brilliant artistic career.

From HELP! Vol 2 #4, Nov 1962, Warren Publishing, © Gilbert Shelton

Like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton’s comics work first appeared in Harvey Kurtzman’s HELP!, where his 1961 creation Wonder Wart-Hog, a Superman parody, made early appearances, as seen above. Shelton’s lettering is uneven, but already interesting, with a large title and several styles of balloon text.

Gilbert Shelton, image found online

Shelton was born in Dallas, Texas on May 31, 1940. His early cartoons were published in the University of Texas’ humor magazine The Texas Ranger. In 1962 he also published one of the first underground comix, THE ADVENTURES OF JESUS by Frank Stack, using the pseudonym Foolbert Sturgeon.

From WONDER WART-HOG #1, 1967, Millar Publishing, © Gilbert Shelton and Tony Bell

In 1967, two comix of all Wonder Wart-Hog stories came out showing that Shelton’s art and lettering had improved considerably, the lettering here is somewhat similar to what Robert Crumb was doing in ZAP COMIX, with appealing roundness and better balloon shapes. The logo is still uneven, but in a cartoony way that works fine. I like the pie sound effects.

From FEDS ‘N’ HEADS, no number, 1968, © Gilbert Shelton

In 1968 Shelton self-published FEDS ‘N’ HEADS, a collection of strips first published in the Austin underground paper The Rag. The comic featured Wonder Wart-Hog and what became his most famous strip, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The first edition of FEDS ‘N’ HEADS had an initial print run of 5,000 copies; it was later re-issued multiple times by the San Francisco-based publisher the Print Mint, selling over 200,000 total copies by 1980.

In 1969, Shelton co-founded Rip Off Press with three fellow “expatriate” Texans: Fred Todd, Dave Moriaty, and cartoonist Jack Jackson. Rip Off Comix published 13 issues of THE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS comix from 1971 to 1997, with many issues undergoing multiple printings. The characters resonated with readers, both because they celebrated the drug culture and because they made fun of it in appealing ways. The lettering added to the humor, in my opinion.

From ZAP COMIX #3, 1969, Print Mint, © Gilbert Shelton

Shelton’s work also appeared in ZAP alongside that of Crumb and other early underground stars. Notice the final balloon on this page, which is for loud cries, but rather than a burst, it has large scallops interrupted by small open areas with thin burst lines, an original idea. Shelton’s comics show how well cartoony lettering and art work together, no matter the subject.

From FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THOSE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS, 1972, Rip Off Press, © Gilbert Shelton

Even minor character Fat Freddy’s Cat had his own following, and his own spin-off series. I love the title and sound effects here, and even the tiny lettering is amusing.

From BIJOU FUNNIES #1, 1968, Bijou Publishing, © Jay Lynch

Chicago’s answer to the San Francisco comix boom was BIJOU FUNNIES from Jay Lynch and friends, featuring Lynch’s best-known characters Nard (the human) and Pat (the cat). I like Lynch’s logo here, the rest of the lettering does the job, but isn’t impressive, though I like the FEATURING in the bottom caption, in the style of Ira Schnapp.

Jay Lynch, 1973, photo © Patrick Rosenkranz

Jay Patrick Lynch (January 7, 1945 – March 5, 2017) was born in New Jersey. At age 17, in 1963, he moved to Chicago where he attended art school and was soon placing cartoons in college humor magazines and underground newspapers, as well as professional humor magazines like Sick and Cracked. In 1967 he became the main writer for Bazooka Joe, the tiny comic strips added to bubble gum packages, something he continued to do until 1990. In 1967 he teamed with fellow cartoonist Skip Williamson to publish an underground newspaper, The Chicago Mirror, which soon became BIJOU FUNNIES.

From BIJOU FUNNIES #3, 1969, Print Mint, © Jay Lynch, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

By the third issue, Lynch’s lettering had improved and become more interesting, with similarities to what Robert Crumb was doing, though it was still fairly sedate. BIJOU FUNNIES ran eight issues, and Nard ‘n’ Pat had their own brief series. Lynch contributed to other comix, and later wrote the comic strip Phoebe and the Pigeon People, worked on trading cards for Topps, and wrote for MAD and other humor outlets.

From DAS KAMPF, 1963, © Vaughn Bode (macron over the final e)
Vaughn Bode, image found online

Vaughn Bode (July 22, 1941 – July 18, 1975) was born and grew up in Utica, New York. He joined the Army at age 19, but later went AWOL. In 1963, at the age of 21, he self-published one of the first underground comix, DAS KAMPF, a military/war satire in the style of the Charles Schulz book Happiness is a Warm Puppy. The cartooning and lettering already showed the loose, appealing style his work would always feature.

From GOTHIC BLIMP WORKS #4, 1969, © Vaughn Bode

Discovered by fellow cartoonist Trina Robbins, Bode moved to Manhattan in 1969 and joined the staff of the underground newspaper the East Village Other, where he helped create the comix insert GOTHIC BLIMP WORKS, which ran eight issues. Among Bode’s contributions were stories about his character Cheech Wizard, above, mostly seen as a hat with legs. The lettering and sound effects are full of energy, and the art has humor leaning toward animated cartoons.

From JUNKWAFFEL #2, 1972, Print Mint, © Vaughn Bode

The odd juxtaposition of cartoony art and violent subject matter made Bode‘s work stand out from the crowd in comix like JUNKWAFFEL, which ran four issues. The sound effects here are inked with a brush, adding interest to the lines, and extra time was spent putting corners on the emphasized words. Bode was a prolific artist and illustrator, with work appearing in science fiction magazines, men’s magazines, Warren magazines like VAMPIRELLA, and the anthology HEAVY METAL, as well as comix. His life seemed chaotic and sometimes troubled, and Bode’s death was due to autoerotic asphyxiation at the young age of 33. His son Mark continued the work in later years.

From SLOW DEATH FUNNIES #1, April 1970, Last Gasp, © Greg Irons

Greg Irons was another artist who began drawing rock concert posters in San Francisco, and then joined the comix movement. His excellent logo and lettering on this cover shows what he could do.

Greg Irons, 1972, image © Patrick Rosenkranz

Greg Irons (September 29, 1947 – November 14, 1984) was born in Philadelphia. He moved to San Francisco in 1967, where he soon found work designing posters for Bill Graham at The Fillmore Auditorium. He also worked on The Yellow Submarine animated film.

From SLOW DEATH FUNNIES #1, April 1970, Last Gasp, © Greg Irons

Irons’ three page story inside has fine caption lettering and interesting balloons, particularly the final one, while the sentiments of the story could apply to today.

From HEAVY TRAGI-COMICS #1, Feb 1970, Print Mint, © Greg Irons

Irons also put out a few solo comix like this one, with another fine logo. I love the curly points on the letters and the varied line widths.

From HEAVY TRAGI-COMICS #1, Feb 1970, Print Mint, © Greg Irons

This interior page has a nice variety of small and large lettering, and very stylized balloon shapes. In the mid 1970s, Greg turned mainly to book illustration, and sadly, while on a working vacation in Bangkok, Thailand, Irons was struck and killed by a bus at the young age of 37.

From IT AIN’T ME BABE COMIX, no number, July 1970, Last Gasp, © Trina Robbins

While most of the underground artists were male, Trina Robbins was among a few female artists carrying the standard for women’s liberation. Her iconic cover for this first all-female underground features famous female comics characters charging forward. Trina’s logo is not well drawn, perhaps, but it captures the moment perfectly.

Trina Robbins then and now, image found online

Trina Robbins (born Trina Perlson; August 17, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York) was an active member of science fiction fandom in the 1950s and 1960s. Her illustrations appeared in science fiction fanzines. Her first comics were printed in the East Village Other. She also contributed to the spin-off underground comic GOTHIC BLIMP WORKS. She left New York for San Francisco in 1970, where she worked at the feminist underground newspaper It Ain’t Me, Babe, leading to the comix of the same name.

From WIMMEN’S COMIX #1, Nov 1972, Last Gasp, © Trina Robbins

Trina also co-founded and contributed to this title featuring all female cartoonists. Robbins’ lettering here shows the influence of mainstream comics while still being quite personal. 

From WIMMEN’S COMIX #8, March 1983, Last Gasp, © Trina Robbins

This more polished work for a later issue has a fine logo and typeset captions, showing how Trina’s work evolved over time. Robbins became increasingly outspoken in her beliefs, criticizing underground comix artist Robert Crumb for the perceived misogyny of many of his comics, saying in the book Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History Of Comic Art by Roger Sabin (Phaidon Press 1996):

It’s weird to me how willing people are to overlook the hideous darkness in Crumb’s work…What the hell is funny about rape and murder?

In the 1980s, Trina wrote and drew graphic novels for Eclipse and Crown Books, wrote and drew series for DC and Marvel Comics, and later became a revered comics historian focusing on female artists and cartoonists. She continues to work on new projects today.

From COLOR, no number, 1971, © Victor Moscoso

Victor Moscoso was another rock poster artist whose work often appeared in ZAP COMIX, but generally with no lettering. His self-published one-shot COLOR is an exception. The cover features great three-dimensional lettering and logo work.

Victor Moscoso, image found online

Victor Moscoso (born July 28, 1936 in Spain) grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and moved to San Francisco in 1959. He was a busy rock concert poster artist in the 1960s, and his work was also in many undergrounds through the 20th and early 21st century.

From COLOR, no number, 1971, © Victor Moscoso

There isn’t a lot of lettering inside COLOR, but I like the clever work on this page. Moscoso continues to live in the Bay Area.

From YOUNG LUST #1, Oct 1970, Co. & Sons, © Bill Griffith
Bill Griffith, 1985, image © f Stop Fitzgerald

William Henry Jackson Griffith (born January 20, 1944 in Brooklyn, NY) began making comix in New York City in 1969 for magazines like The East Village Other and Screw. He moved to San Francisco in 1970 and co-founded YOUNG LUST with fellow cartoonist Jay Kinney as a parody of traditional romance comics. It was popular and successful. Bill’s logo takes its cue from Simon and Kirby’s YOUNG ROMANCE, but with a comix twist, and while his lettering is uneven, it captures the flavor of the original.

From REAL PULP COMICS #1, Jan 1971, Print Mint, © Bill Griffith

Griffith’s most famous character, Zippy the Pinhead, first appeared in this 1971 underground, based on Bill’s fascination with a microcephalic character from the 1936 Tod Browning film Freaks.

From ZIPPY STORIES, Dec 1977, Rip Off Press, © Bill Griffith

Zippy made more comix appearances, then starred in a weekly comic strip for the Berkeley Barb beginning in 1976. It was popular, and gained national distribution. In 1985, Zippy became a daily strip syndicated by King Features, and he and his catch-phrase “Are We Having Fun Yet?” became even more well known, and continues to appear today. The logo and lettering on this cover shows much improvement from Griffith’s early work.

From FANTAGOR #1, Dec 1971, Last Gasp, © Richard Corben

Richard Corben is a good example of a creator who followed his own path and developed a unique style that brought publishers to him. His work is full of muscular bodies, action, creative lighting, and vivid color, using a color separation technique he developed that made his work stand out. His logo on this series is clever and effective with unusual vertical stacking that still reads well.

Richard Corben, image found online

Richard Corben (October 1, 1940 – December 2, 2020) was born on a farm in Anderson, Missouri, and went on to get a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1965. After working as a professional animator at Kansas City’s Calvin Productions, Corben started writing and illustrating for comix. His work was soon also being published in Warren magazines like Creepy and Eerie, and in Heavy Metal.

From ANOMALY #4, Nov 1972, Bud Plant, © Richard Corben

Another fascinating Corben logo using stacked and intertwined letters, and three-dimensional shapes created with texture and lighting. Both these logos are for unusual words, but they still read well.

From GRIM WIT #2, Sept 1973, Last Gasp, © Richard Corben

Corben’s work often featured naked people, like his bald strongman Den, first seen on this cover, and a Corben cover was generally a ticket to reader interest and strong sales. The logo on this book is not quite as good as the previous two, and Corben’s balloon lettering was generally weaker than the rest of his art. Later, he often used type instead.

From GRIM WIT #2, Sept 1973, Last Gasp, © Richard Corben

The first page of what became Corben’s best-known epic story, DEN, with a creative logo drawing from Celtic sources. The caption lettering here is fine, and readable even in a dark color, but uneven. Corben’s style found a strong following in both America and Europe, and was used in films, and on album covers. He continued to have a busy career, sometimes as a writer/artist, sometimes illustrating the writing of others, at many comics publishers, and new versions of his work continue to be published.

From ZODIAC MINDWARP, 1968, East Village Other, © Spain Rodriguez

The underground artist known as Spain, or Spain Rodriguez, first made an impact with this tabloid-size insert in New York’s East Village Other newspaper. The title/logo is handsomely done circus-style lettering with an eye in the O. Reportedly it was tabloid size because printers refused to publish the sexually explicit work at comics size.

Spain Rodriguez, image found online

Manuel Rodriguez (March 2, 1940 – November 28, 2012) was born in Buffalo, New York. He picked up the nickname Spain as a child, when he heard some kids in the neighborhood bragging about their Irish ancestry, and he defiantly claimed Spain was just as good as Ireland. Spain had work in many popular underground comix, including ones featured here, but the nature of his work keeps me from showing much of it. At some point he moved to San Francisco and co-founded The United Cartoon Workers of America with Robert Crumb.

From INSECT FEAR #2, March 1970, Print Mint, © Spain Rodriguez

This cover is in the style of EC Comics, and certainly captures the creepy and horrific nature of those covers. The logo and cover lettering is not as good as what Al Feldstein was doing at EC, but it does hit a raw nerve.

From ARCADE #3, Fall 1975, Print Mint, © Spain Rodriguez

On the other hand, the lettering he did for this adaptation of the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is creative and gracefully angular, with the large word XANADU the most impressive element, though a bit hard to read. Spain’s character Trashman appeared in many magazines, and in later years he taught and worked on larger illustration projects.

There may well be more underground comix creators whose work could be included here, but these are the ones that stood out to me as letterers and logo designers, at least in the initial comix period of the 1960s-70s. Undergrounds had some interesting effects on the comics world. On one hand, older established creators from the mainstream were inspired to try publishing their own work, and on another, comix provided a stepping-stone for some into the mainstream comics world. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of creators took undergrounds as a model for their own independent publications, too. I’ll look at those trends in another article. It’s clear that, once a path for self-publishing was forged, there was no turning back to the tyranny of a few New York publishers holding all the cards.

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

3 thoughts on “Lettering Underground Comix Part 2: Other Hands

  1. A. J. Payler

    Interesting to hear your perspective on this nonmainstream lettering, where the words are more often fully integrated into the page design and artwork rather than being applied on top after the fact, therefore acting as an extension of the art rather than a separate layer.

    Along those lines, I’d be very curious to learn your outlook on the lettering work Dave Sim did in Cerebus. While the work as a whole obviously suffers from his mental illness-induced slide into virulent misogyny and incomprehensible religious obsession to the point that it’s hard to recommend anyone read it today (and his current output is just… unmitigated garbage, and all lettered with mechanical fonts so not worth considering in this light), at its peak Cerebus had some of the most expressive and flexible lettering anywhere, combining the accomplished technique of the mainstream books with the expressive seamless integration of the undergrounds.

    The man himself is of course an eminently ignorable figure today (by his own choices) but at one point, the skill he put on display monthly was unique and striking.

  2. Kit

    Notable re Gilbert Shelton: after the first few years of the Freak Brothers, Gilbert often worked with full co-writer/co-artist collaborators, and once he moved to Europe in the early 1980s, there would be times that Paul Mavrides, or Mavrides and Dave Sheridan together, would do the complete finished art… but on pages that Mavrides had brought back from in-person writing sessions fully lettered by Shelton, as they believed that was the most important “voice” for the reader to perceive consistency. (Also illustrated by your role on eg Sandman and the 5YL LSH, with exceptions clearly proving the rule…)

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