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As was revealed during today’s Fantagraphics panel at San Diego, the Seattle-based company plans to publish The Complete Zap Comix. The book, which will collect every issue of the seminal underground comics series to date, is tentatively scheduled to be released in the fall of 2012. It will be a hardbound, two-volume slipcase, similar to their collections of Harvey Kurtzman’s Humbug magazine and Bill Mauldin’s Willie & Joe series.
One of the most influential comics ever published, the first two issues of Zap were created entirely by Robert Crumb, who then invited other artists to contribute, including Spain Rodriguez, the late Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Gilbert Shelton and Robert Williams. The series quickly not only catapulted Crumb and the other artists to stardom (or a relative stardom at any rate), it quickly became seen as one of the more prominent symbols of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, along with LSD, rock music and head shops (where issues were usually sold). While it was not the first underground comic, it was viewed by many both inside and outside the counterculture movement as the lodestone for the underground comics scene, and its existence and influence directly led to the development of the alternative comics scene in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fantagraphics was kind enough to share today’s revelation with Robot 6 prior to the start of the San Diego con, and we took the opportunity to talk to publisher Gary Groth about the project, its origins and the comic’s significance.
Q: How did this come about? What was the impetus for this project?
A: I know all the Zap artists. I’ve interviewed most of them for The Comics Journal. And we’ve published a lot of them in their own individual books: Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Spain. Victor is sort of the honcho at Zap. He’s the one who keeps it organized and yells at all the other artists about their deadlines and keeps the Zap machine running.
We published a book of his a few years ago and at some point one of us mentioned the possibility of doing a Zap collection, I forget whom. It might have been me or it might have been him, I’m not sure. Anyway, we’ve been talking about it on and off for at least a few years now. Just talking about what format to use, when the best timing would be, etc. He was always receptive to the idea; he wanted to do it, it was just a matter of him corralling all of the artists and getting them all together to agree to do it, because all of the Zap artists have to sign off on everything. Which is the way it should be.
So that took awhile, as you might imagine. My impression is it was like herding cats. Finally we just hammered out the agreement and signed it recently. No big mystery about it.
Q: So it’s going to be every issue of Zap Comix thus far, correct?
A: That is correct. It would be about 16 issues. It’s approximately 515 pages. I haven’t written any of this down yet, we haven’t gotten to that stage of production. I think it’s about 550 pages of material. Some of the issues were about 32 pages, most of the issues were 48 pages.
We’re going to reproduce it in a facsimile form, the book will have the covers interspersed throughout, so it will be each issue of the comic chronologically published in the same format as the comic itself, but simply in book form. We’re going to be printing it a little larger than the comic, I don’t know the exact dimensions. It will be oversize, a little larger than the comic itself. The covers will be reproduced in full color, as they were in the original comics. There was a small jam comic that they published called Zam that was approximately 6 and a half by 5. It was published in 1974 and we’ll be including that. And the book will include an oral history of Zap.
Q: You’re going to be talking to all the surviving artists for that?
A: That’s correct. We have a tremendous amount of conversations by the artists already on tape. All of the artists living are willing to talk some more so we’ll put together an oral history of Zap from their individual points of view. That should be an amusing Rashomon-like feature.
What else can I tell you? It will be a hardcover, two volumes in a slipcase.
Q: Similar to the Humbug collection?
Q: Are you spearheading this project? Are you going to be the main editor on this?
A: Yeah, I am.
Q: Are there any other undiscovered rarities or things that fans would be eager to see?
A: Well, the oral history. I think all the artists will be happy to give us whatever they may have in their archive, so I assume [the oral history] will be sprinkled in with photographs and whatever archival material they might have. I’m sure they have some great photos from as early as the late ‘60s. The book will probably have a little bit more Crumb material. Crumb will be featured a little bit more because he did the first two issues by himself. And we all know what a cultural landmark it was.
One additional fact is we’re scanning everything from the original negatives. That’s as close as you can get to the original art. Victor is an amazing archivist. He saved all of that stuff. [The negatives] were in his safekeeping. The reproduction should be better than it’s ever been reproduced before. We’ll reproduce it better than it was in the comic book.
Q: It’s funny, you were saying how the Zap collective is an ongoing entity and I think for most people, even though I knew they were publishing into the ‘90s, a lot of people weren’t aware they were still working together and still active.
A: Yeah, they’ve slowed down obviously, but they’re working on the next issue. I think there will be another issue as long as Victor’s alive and lashes the whip. They’re devoted to it. I think they like the institutional nature of it, the fact that they started so long ago and have maintained a friendship and continue this artistic synergy.
Q: Obviously it’s an important piece of comics history. Do you feel like the work is still vibrant? Does it still have the ability to draw in modern readers?
A: I think so. It’s hard for me to say having read it since the early ‘70s. All the artists that are alive and still working are still doing vital work. We’re publishing a new collection by Spain in four to five months. I think the work is not only historically significant but contains its vitality. Each of these artists was distinctively their own man. One of the strengths of the comic is that no one artist overrode another or overshadowed another. They all equally had their own vision and their own distinctive voice. I think it retains its relevance and vitality.
Q: I realize as we’re having this conversation we’re making the assumption that readers are going to know the importance of Zap Comix. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of the series?
A: Right. I suspect it’s one of the most significant comic series ever published and for an unusual reason. Because not only is it a cultural landmark like Superman or Batman or Spider-Man but also based purely on its artistic merits it’s a significant comic series. It’s a comic series that is most identified with the beginning of the underground comics revolution, whose significance cannot be overstated relative to where we are today. And then just based on pure aesthetic merits, as I said earlier, each artist had his own vision and held his own. That was true of all the best underground stuff. It was a comic that spearheaded the underground comics movement. It wasn’t the first underground comic but it was the one most identified with underground comics. And it has maintained its vitality and the artists have maintained their vision, which is a tough thing to do in this world. I think it’s got to be one of the most significant comics titles ever published.
Q: The thing about Zap is that it defined a movement, which not even icons like Superman can say. It became as much a part of the counterculture ‘60s movement as love beads and rock and roll and LSD did. There were comics that were more popular or more prevalent in the cultural consciousness but not that were a symbol of a particular time and place in American society.
A: I think that’s true and the artists inside really reflected the spectrum of underground work being done too. You had Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin doing work that was more psychedelic, quintessentially ‘60s counter-culture, you had Crumb taking from funny animal comics from the ‘30s and ‘40s and re-imagining that in his own style. You had Spain with more politically aggressive comics. You had Wilson who was so out there that he inspired Crumb to be more out there. Wilson was probably doing the most audacious work of the entire group. And even visually they were all completely different from each other. They really represented the best of what underground comics were about.
So I think that’s true. I think the title symbolized underground comics in the best possible way. You look at other important comics like Superman or Batman or whatever and they’re important for vague cultural or sociological reasons, but the work was mostly crap. But I think the important thing about Zap is the work itself was so inspiring. It inspired another generation of artists that came up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Zap was a model – a business model as well in the sense that all the artists owned their own work. And the artists regarded themselves as artists, which was a break from how most comic book artists saw themselves. The underground comic artists asserted their artistic persona, which even great artists in the past like John Stanley tended to suppress.
Q: What is your hope with this book? Do you feel like Zap is due for a critical re-evaluation?
A: Well I think that will be a benefit of putting out the book. I’m not sure it’s specifically a goal, but I think it will be a side benefit. I think all the work all in one place is going to be so impressive it’s going to knock people out. I think it’s going to get a tremendous reception. I’d like it to be reappraised in the public mind. Like you said, a lot of people probably aren’t even aware that Zap is still being published because it’s only coming out every four years.
Q: Yeah, I know what I’m anticipating is looking at the later issues, because I’m familiar with the first couple, especially those two all-Crumb issues that are so iconic.
A: It might open people’s minds. There was that recent issue where they had that famous Rashomon-like jam where they were all talking about the next Zap and Victor Moscoso slugged Crumb.
Q: That’s one where Crumb refused to do Zap anymore and then Paul Mavrides did the parody of the Death of Fritz the Cat.
A: Exactly. I don’t know why that came to mind, but I guess there’s a sense where they’re all still in there slugging away, literally as well as figuratively.
I think a big collection like this will draw a lot more attention than the periodical which is as you know in a coma. I’m hoping that this book will reach a much wider audience — those readers that grew up reading Zap as well as other who find it a pain in the ass to buy back copies, most of which are out of print at this point.
Q: I was going to say I wasn’t sure how many are out of print. I know Last Gasp keeps them in stock.
A: Well I think a lot of Last Gasp’s issues are out of print, which might have to do with financial considerations because it’s harder and harder to keep a periodical in print.
Q: Do you know when the publication date is?
A: We’re going to try for the end of next year but I can’t guarantee that. We have eight different artists, all of whom have to be consulted along the way.
Q: I wonder if it will lead to a re-evaluation of artists like Griffin and Moscoco because – I don’t want to say they’ve been ignored but certainly in the comics world they get overshadowed by people like Crumb and Spain.
A: I think it’s going to get a tremendous amount of attention. It wouldn’t surprise me if it led to more attention not only to Zap but to the underground comic artists in general, like Kim Deitch or Bill Griffith or Jack Jackson. Many of whose work will be available. We’ll be publishing a 400-page collection of Bill Griffith’s work in five months. And we’re reprinting all of Jack Jackson’s work. The first volume will combine Los Tejanos with Lost Cause. That is scheduled for spring of next year. We’re publishing a complete collection of Diane Noomin’s work. This [Zap] doesn’t represent any change. We’ve printed these guys work for some time now.