Understanding Underground Comix: An introduction to the Moore Collection
Underground Comix and Banned Books Week
During Banned Books Week 2013, the second floor of the Kennedy Library hosted a display of rare comics. They were selections from the Moore Collection of Underground Comix, donated by comic book publisher and collector Michael Moore. While the collection contains comics from 1907 to 1993, the majority of its issues represent the underground comix movement, from its peak in the late 1960s and 1970s to its resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Included in the collection is the entire run of Zap Comix, started by influential San Francisco illustrator Robert Crumb.
Up in smoke
Moore’s explanation for donating these comic books is true to the purpose of Banned Books Week. “It all started with my parents making me burn my comic books,” he wrote in 1996. “In 1954 Reader’s Digest printed an article…which claimed that reading comic books resulted in ‘juvenile delinquency.’ My parents saw the article and called me and my comic books into the living room for an inquisition. Consequently I was soon standing in the back yard…watching my [comics]…going up in smoke.”
History of Underground Comix
During the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, comic book artists rebelled against the Comics Code Authority, a bureau formed by the Comics Magazine Association of America to regulate comics. In order to be published and stocked by retailers, comics had to undergo a lengthy process to determine whether their content was acceptable. The CCA’s guidelines were extremely strict, even banning the words “horror” and “terror” from being used in comics’ titles as well as “scenes dealing with walking dead” (a far cry from today’s comic scene, as indie publisher Image Comics’ The Walking Dead has been one of the bestselling comic series for the past decade).
Cartoonists created a new genre known as underground comix, with the unusual spelling signaling their refusal to conform to the CCA’s standards. These small-run, self-published comics differed from their mainstream counterparts from Detective Comics (DC) and Marvel Comics by depicting content forbidden by code, including explicit drug use, sexuality, and violence. Critics argued that underground comix were misogynistic, socially irresponsible, and glorified the violence, sex, and drug use they sought to represent. But underground comix include comics illustrated by champions of important political causes of the 1960s, including feminism, civil rights, LGBT rights, abortion, drug legalization, and protest of the Vietnam War.
Critical Recognition of Comics
Though comics had contained political subtext since their introduction (Marvel’s Captain America was created by Jack Kirby to symbolize nationalism during World War II), comics would not be recognized as a literary format with redeeming social, political, and educational value until the late 1980s with the publication of underground cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus. Superhero comics, a genre underground cartoonists universally avoided due to their association with mainstream publishers, would also gain critical recognition during this time, with the publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s acclaimed Batman comic The Dark Knight Returns earning nearly as much praise as Maus.
Fall of the Comics Code Authority
In recent years the CCA’s influence on comic books drastically plummeted, with both DC and Marvel breaking ties with the organization in the early 21st century. Even Archie Comics, whose family-friendly appeal made them the most loyal supporter of the CCA, withdrew from the organization in 2011, rendering the CCA defunct (in late 2013, Archie Comics would go on to release a zombie horror comic called Afterlife With Archie in monthly installments which the CCA certainly would not have allowed). The fact that comic book publishers like Moore are now free to print whatever content they find desirable is another triumph for Banned Books Week and the comic book industry.
You can visit Special Collections and Archives to see more from the Moore Collection of Underground Comix.