Comics Code Authority

Comics Code Authority

A comic book is a publication that consists of comic art in the form of sequential panels that represent individual scenes. These panels are often accompanied by brief descriptive prose and or a written narrative.

The first modern comic book was a reprinting of earlier newspaper humor comic strips, which had established many of the story-telling devices used in comics.  Although comic books have origins in 1700s Japan and 1800s Europe, comic books were first popularized in the United States during the 1930s.

The introduction of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman in 1938 turned comic books into a major publishing industry and what followed through the 1960’s were comic books that centered around the archetype of the superhero.

By the early 1970s a surge of creativity emerged in what became known as underground comics or “comix”. Published and distributed independently of the established industry, these small press comics reflected the youth counterculture of the time.  These books had an uninhibited and often irreverent style and explored issues that had never been produced in the comic book form before.

The rise of comic book shops in the late 1970s and early 1980’s supplied a market for “independent” or “alternative” comics in the U.S.  The first such comics were anthology series focusing on anti-establishment political themes while others represented experimental attempts to bring comics closer to the status of fine art.

By the 1980s, the direct market approach to comic book distribution had begun and several key independent publishers had started releasing standalone titles that featured a wide range of styles and formats. These titles differed from main stream publications allowing individual artists and writers to have a personal voice in their work.  These titles specifically diverged from the archetype of the superhero and in many ways self-consciously commented on the phenomenon itself.  These publishers also reprinted ground breaking out of print series introducing them to a new generation of readers.  Further these publishers were aware of popular foreign comic book art and distributed works like Japanese Manga for the first time the U.S.

By the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s the industry leaders in comic book publishing recognized the popularity of these new independent voices in comic books. Marvel and DC Comics sought many of the same independent artists and writers to establish a new line of diverse titles that would forever transform the comic book publishing landscape.

This exhibition curated by UWM Libraries Assistant Head Systems Librarian Andy Ritter is drawn from numerous materials held in the Special Collections Department of the UWM Libraries.  The exhibition offers a survey of the “independent” or “alternative” comic books from its modern beginnings in the 1970s through the early 1990’s.


The project is dedicated to my Dear Brother Benjamin Ritter (1971-2016)


Underground Comix

Apex Novelty Zap Comix No. 0

Apex Novelty Zap Comix No. 0

Underground comics or “comix” were small press or self-published comic books that emerged in the 1960s.  These comic books focused on the interests of the radical youth experience at the time.  Subjects like: recreational drug use, politics, rock music and sex had never been so explicitly explored in the comic book form before and found a unique audience in the counter culture movement.

Much of the underground comix scene was also in response to the strong restrictions forced upon mainstream publication industry by the Comics Code Authority.  The CCA was formed in 1954 by the Comics Magazine Association of America to force comic publishers to self-regulate the content of comic books in the United States.  This regulation restricted publications that featured depictions of violence, sexuality, and drug use.

The first underground comix were personal works produced for like-minded friends of the artists.  These artists created comics that delved into subject matter explicitly banned by the Code. Since these comics were distributed largely through unconventional channels, such as head shops, rather than newsstands, they were able to skirt the problem of mainstream distributors who were wary of carrying non-CCA-approved comics. This allowed underground comix to achieve a moderate success.

In 1968, Robert Crumb created his first solo comic, Zap Comix published by Apex Novelties. Crumb began as a professional artist drawing novelty greeting cards and was inspired by the work of San Francisco-based psychedelic poster artists. He later contributed visionary countercultural work to underground newspapers where his work gained popularity. The title was the first successful publication of the underground comix era.  Zap Comix began to feature other cartoonists, and Crumb launched a series of solo titles, including Despair published by Rip Off Press in 1969, and Home Grown Funnies published by Kitchen Sink Press in 1971. Crumb went on to create the iconic counter-cultural characters Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural.

Wimmen’s Comix, was an influential all-female underground comics anthology published by Last Gasp in 1972.  Wimmen’s Comix was comic anthology focusing on feminist concerns, homosexuality, sex and politics. Originally, the group behind Wimmen’s Comix was a few women artists who came together with a common interest to create a comic that would recognize female contributors, in the male-dominated comic book culture.  Wimmen’s Comix #1 featured Trina Robbins’ “Sandy Comes Out”, the first-ever comic strip featuring an “out” lesbian.  Regular contributors included;  Penny Van Horn, Carol Tyler, M.K. Brown, Diane Noomin, Phoebe Gloeckner, Carol Lay, Caryn Leschen, Leslie Sternbergh, Dori Seda, Mary Fleener, Krystine Kryttrewas, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb.  Wimmen’s Comix was a launching pad for many cartoonists’ careers, and inspired other small-press and self-published titles like Dyke Shorts and Dynamite Damsels.

The Comics Journal: An Oral History of Wimmen’s Comix Part 1

Small Press Publishers

Kitchen Sink Press Mom's Homemade Comics No. 3

Kitchen Sink Press Mom’s Homemade Comics No. 3

Denis Kitchen was a self-published underground cartoonist in Milwaukee WI.  In 1969 he published Mom’s Homemade Comics, inspired in part by Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix. The success of selling out of the print-run for this title inspired him further, and in 1970 he founded Kitchen Sink Press in Princeton WI.  KSP was initially one of the pioneer underground comix publishers, producing titles like Bijou Funnies, Mr. Natural, Gay Comix, Bizarre Sex, Mondo Snarfo, Death Rattle and Home Grown Funnies featuring artists such as R. Crumb, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Art Spiegelman and Kitchen himself.

KSP evolved into an eclectic house that published a variety of classic and underground artists such as; Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Harvey Kurtzman’ Kurtzman Komix, Mark Schultz Xenozoic Tales, Don Simpson’s Megaton Man and Bernie Wrightson’s Captain Sternn. One of their best known publications was the first total reprinting of Will Eisner’s The Spirit.  Will Eisner was an American comic book illustrator, cartoonist and writer best known for his iconic creation, The Spirit, first published in 1940. The Spirit was noted for its experiments in content and form. Eisner popularized the term “graphic novel” with the publication of his book A Contract with God in 1978.

As the underground comix movement evolved many artists wanted to explore deeper social and urban issues that didn’t find a voice in this publishing phenomenon.  One such artist, Harvey Pekar, wanted to explore an autobiographical approach in a comic book narrative. Pekar’s friendship with Robert Crumb led to the creation of the self-published, autobiographical comic book series American Splendor in 1976. Crumb’s work in underground comix led Pekar to see the form’s possibilities.  Soon Pekar’s story “Crazy Ed” appeared in Crumb’s The People’s Comics, and Crumb became the first artist to illustrate American Splendor. The comic book documents daily life, his job, relations with family and friends, troubles and general anxieties in the aging neighborhoods of Pekar’s native Cleveland.

Comic Anthologies

Heavy Metal  May 1978

Heavy Metal May 1978

By the mid-1970s, artists within underground comix felt that the environment had become less creative than it had been in the past. In an attempt to address this, creators moved to start magazines that anthologized new, artistically ambitious comics appearing on the scene.

RAW, founded by Art Spiegleman and his wife Françoise Mouly in 1980 was a lavishly produced, large format anthology that was intended to be seen as a work of art.  Robert Crumb followed founding a similar magazine, Weirdo published by Last Gasp in 1981. These publications began highlighting the work of European and other outsider artists.  Greater emphasis was placed on the craft of comic book art.  Artists focused more on the illustration and storytelling aspects of their work.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus was serialized in RAW from 1980 to 1991. It depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The story telling is simply expressed in black and white ink and its narrative uses postmodern techniques—most strikingly in its depiction of races as different kinds of animals: Jews as mice and Germans as cats.   In 1992 Maus won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a work as a graphical novel.

World War 3 Illustrated was an American comics anthology magazine with a left-wing political focus, founded in 1979 by New York comic book artists Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman, and painter Christof Kohlhofer.  The magazine initially began as a home for comic book work and graphically illustrated storytelling that was anti-establishment and aggressively critical of the social and political right-wing conservatism. World War 3 Illustrated was a predominantly black-and-white anthology that also featured full color covers and occasional special color sections.  Much of the work created for the magazine emphasized broad visuals, half-tones, gray scaling and fine line work alongside photo collage to express its political and social agenda.

Heavy Metal is an American science fiction and fantasy comics anthology magazine, known primarily for its blend of dark fantasy, science fiction and erotica. In the mid-1970s, publisher Leonard Mogel, discovered the French science-fantasy magazine Métal Hurlant which had debuted January 1975. Mogel licensed the American version of the magazine and chose to rename it Heavy Metal.  It began publishing in the U.S. in April 1977 as a glossy, full-color monthly.  Initially, it displayed translations of graphic stories originally published in the French version. Some memorable ongoing series include; Enki Bilal’s  Exterminateur 17, Philippe Caza’s  Sanguine, Guido Crepax’s Valentina The Pirate, Philippe Druillet’s  City of Flowers , Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella, Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) Arzach, Vaughn Bodē’s  Sunspot, and Tanino Liberatore’s RanXerox.


Aardvark-Vanaheim Cerebus The Aardvark No.1

Aardvark-Vanaheim Cerebus The Aardvark No.1

By the late-1970s, artists and writers continued to explore social and political issues in comics and embraced the media for personal expression.  As more avenues for printing and publishing were opening up, artists and writers were increasingly drawn to the idea of self-publishing in the comic books industry.  Dave Sim is considered an early pioneer in this area.  Starting in 1977, Sim primarily wrote, drew and published Cerebus the Aardvark, under the Aardvark-Vanaheim Inc. Imprint.  The title character of the series was an anthropomorphic aardvark who takes on a number of roles throughout the series—barbarian, prime minister and Pope among others. Over its run the series explored power and politics, religion and spirituality, gender issues, and more.  The series stands out for its experimentation in form and content.

Wendy and Richard Pini founded WaRP Graphics, one of the early American independent comics publishers, in 1977 and released the first issues of their long-running series, Elfquest, in February 1978. It is a fantasy story about a community of elves and other fictional species who struggle to survive and coexist on a primitive Earth-like planet. The comic book was published magazine size with glossy full color covers and a character portrait print on the back cover by Wendy Pini.  It was highly praised not only for its innovative themes but the fact that a female artist/writer was the creative principal of the series.  As an alternative to most of the masculine-themed comics of its time Elfquest became enormously popular among female comic book readers.

WaRP was also the original publisher of A Distant Soil by Colleen Doran.  A Distant Soil is an epic space opera comic book series combining science fiction and fantasy with Arthurian themes. The story centers on a young girl who is born heir to an alien religious dynasty, and explores issues of politics, gender identity, and tolerance.  A Distant Soil is among the first US comic books created solely by a female writer/artist and is also notable for being among the earliest comics to feature openly gay characters.

WaRP Graphics paved the way for many independent and alternative comic book creators who came after them. At its peak in the mid-1980s, Elfquest was selling 100,000 copies per issue in the initial print run, attracting one of the largest followings of any direct-sale comic.  It was the noted success of Elfquest that inspired many other writers and artists to try their own hand at self-publishing.

Alternative Comic Books

Fantagraphics Eightball No. 13

Fantagraphics Eightball No. 13

By the early 1980’s alternative comic books were attracting a new generation of publishers and creators. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a huge success story of the self-published comic book. Using money from a tax refund, and a loan from Eastman’s uncle, the young artists self-published a single-issue comic intended to parody four of the most popular comics of the early 1980s: Marvel Comics’ Daredevil and New Mutants, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Frank Miller’s Ronin. Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles premiered in May 1984, at a comic book convention. It was published by Mirage Studios in an over-sized magazine in black and white on newsprint, limited to a print run of only 3,250 copies. Through a clever press release campaign the public’s interest was piqued and the Turtle phenomenon had begun. The small print runs made these early comics instant collector items, and within months they were trading for over fifty times their cover price.

Fantagraphics was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth and Mike Catron in College Park, Maryland. It became a publishing house for two leading comic book trade and fan based magazines The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes.  In 1982, Fantagraphics began publishing comics, starting with the Hernandez brother’s Love and Rockets, and moving on to such critically acclaimed and award-winning series as Daniel Clowes Eightball, and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.

Love and Rockets is a comic book series by Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers produced stories independently of each other. Gilbert and Jaime produced the majority of the material.  Those of Gilbert usually focused on a cast of characters in the fictional Mexican village of Palomar; the stories often featured magic realist elements. The stories produced by Jaime centered on a social group in Los Angeles, particularly the Latin-American friends and sometimes-lovers Maggie and Hopey. The brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez self-published the first issue of Love and Rockets in 1981. In 1982, Fantagraphics Books republished this issue with a color cover. The series was published at magazine size, larger than typical American comic books.

Eightball is a comic book by Daniel Clowes published in 1989. The first issue appeared soon after the end of Clowes’s previous comic book, Lloyd Llewellyn in 1986. Eightball had been among the best-selling series in alternative comics. Early issues of Eightball feature a mixture of very short, often crudely humorous comics, topical rants and longer, more reflective self-contained stories and extended serialized works such as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and Ghost World.

Usagi Yojimbo or “rabbit bodyguard” is a comic book series created by Stan Sakai. It is set primarily at the beginning of the Edo period of Japanese history and features anthropomorphic animals replacing humans. The main character is a rabbit Ronin, Miyamoto Usagi.  Usagi wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage. Usagi Yojimbo is heavily influenced by Japanese cinema and has included references to the work of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1960) and to icons of popular Japanese cinema such as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi, and Godzilla. The architecture, clothes, weapons, and other objects are drawn with a faithfulness to period style. There are often stories whose purpose is to illustrate various elements of Japanese arts and crafts. Those efforts were successful enough for the series to be awarded a Parents’ Choice Award in 1990.

Direct Market Distribution

Eclipse Comics Miracleman No. 1

Eclipse Comics Miracleman No. 1

By the mid 1980’s independent publishers began taking advantage of the growing direct market of comic book distribution.   Prior to the 1970s, most comics were found in newsstands, grocery, drug, and convenience stores. A handful of early comic book specialty shops first appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970’s, stocking back issues as well as sourcing new releases from newsstand distributors.  In the late 1970’s and early 1980s, the development of the direct market allowed a widespread network of comic shops to flourish.   Once the potential growth of the direct market manifested itself independent publishers began producing a number of titles geared specifically for that market.  This had the effect of attracting a number of writers and artists from DC and Marvel to produce creator-owned titles, which were not subject to the Comics Code, and thus were free to feature more mature content.

Pacific Comics began as a chain of comic book stores owned by Bill and Steve Schanes in San Diego California. In the Late 1970’s comic or fantasy related specialty shops rapidly grew in numbers, partly to the success of such blockbuster films like Star Wars and Superman the Motion Picture.  Pacific Comics was already a major distributer of comic books on the West Coast and in 1981 it became a publisher.  The company understood that the market for independent publishing was growing and it wanted to take advantage of it.  The brothers Schanes turned to the legendary comic book artist and writer Jack Kirby who had effectively quit comics in 1977.  Pacific Comics published Kirby’s Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and gave the artist full ownership and copyrights royalties.  This attracted the interest of other notable comic book professionals to the publisher including Mike Grell’s Star Slayer and Sergio Aragone’s Groo The Wanderer.

Vortex Comics was a Canadian independent comic book publisher that formed in 1982.   Under the supervision of president, publisher, and editor Bill Marks, Vortex was known for such titles as Dean Motter’s Mister X, Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss, and Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, which became was another notable anthology of alternative comic book work.

Blackthorne Publishing, Inc. was a comic book publisher founded 1986. They were notable for the Blackthorne 3-D Series and their reprint titles of classic comic strips like Dick Tracy.  Blackthorne’s first title was Jerry Iger’s Classic Sheena, Queen of the Jungle reprints featuring a Dave Stevens cover.

Eagle Comics was a short lived comic book publishing company that to reprinted comic stories from the UK’s 2000 A.D. Magazine for distribution in North America. They existed from 1983 to 1986 and were based in London, England with product production and distribution located in Canada.  Their most successful title and character was 1983’s Judge Dredd written by John Wagner with art by Brian Bolland.

Eclipse Comics was founded by brothers Jan and Dean Mullaney in 1977.   In 1978, Eclipse published one of the first original graphic novels, Sabre: Slow Fade of an Endangered Species by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy. It was also one of the first publisher to offer royalties and creator ownership of rights.  Some notable Eclipse publications include Michael Gilbert’s Mr. Monster, Chuck Dixon’s Airboy, Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Tim Truman’s Scout, Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle’s Crossfire.

The company also published the American reprints of British author Alan Moore’s series Miracleman. Miracleman was Alan Moore’s revamp of the classic British hero Marvelman. The realism of the storytelling and setting, the lack of flamboyant super heroic gestures, the mundane conversations going on between characters, the strong female character who questions everything about the genre in which she exists,  were not techniques that had been employed in superhero comics before. To this day it is one of his most celebrated works, pushing the comic book medium to a more mature level of writing and into the modern Age of superhero comics.

In 1988, in partnership with Viz Communications and Studio Proteus, Eclipse published some of the earlier Japanese manga titles translated into English, ultimately expanding this line as its popularity grew.

Continuity Publishing, also known as Continuity Comics, was an American independent comic book company formed by veteran comic book artist writer Neal Adams in 1984.  Adams ventured into publishing as a way to maximize his creative freedom.  Continuity’s comics tended to be grittier than the mainstream Marvel or DC comics of their day and was also part of a trend towards more eroticism. Adams’ signature art and scripts were the basis of Continuity’s “house style” and is unmistakable in some if it’s most popular titles including; Armor, Crazyman, Megalith, Ms. Mystic Toyboy and Zero.

In 1982 Gerry Giovincio and Bill Cucinotta founded Comico comics on Norristown Pennsylvania. At its peak it was one of the top independent publishers in the United States. Its best-known comics include the adaption of the Japanese Amime series Robotech, the Hanna Barbera Cartoon Jonny Quest.  Comico’s bestselling original comics series included: Bill Willingham’s Elementals, Matt Wagner’s Grendel and Mage: The Hero Discovered.