Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Fantagraphics' Zap The Interviews (2015)

Zap: The Interviews
Maybe it wasn’t the first underground comic book, but Zap Comix was undeniably the most important and influential title to emerge from the 1960s. Zap’s free-wheeling storytelling and frequently anarchic artwork – which ranged from cartoonish to crude, and from psychedelic to carefully-crafted fine art – shattered the limitations of what a comic book could be. Unabashedly adult in nature, with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll filling its pages, Zap opened the door for comic artists to experiment in the pages of mainstream titles published by DC and Marvel as well as influencing a generation of young creators like Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets) and Daniel Clowes (Eightball), among many others.

Zap Comix

The first issue of Zap was published by artist/writer Robert Crumb in 1968, Crumb and his wife selling copies of Zap #1 out of a baby stroller on the streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The book kick-started the underground comix business and it wasn’t long until head shops and other counter-culture retailers were stocking titles like Zap Comix, Dopin’ Dan, Young Lust, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Given the popularity of Zap #1, Crumb decided to open up the book to other artists, enlisting talents like Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, and Victor Moscoso to bring creative diversity to the book. This visionary group of creators became known as the Zap collective and they shared equally in the subsequent success of the book, which saw new issues published sporadically every few years. Even after the underground comix “boom” fizzled out during the mid-1970s due to too many books and not enough talent to sustain them, Zap just kept on truckin’…

Zap Comix #1
Artist Paul Mavrides, known for his incredible work for the Church of Sub-Genius, was brought on board after Rick Griffin’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident in 1991, and Crumb himself left the title in the 1990s. Spain Rodriguez succumbed to cancer in 2012, and health problems have left S. Clay Wilson unable to draw, so it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another new issue of Zap Comix. Over the course of 15 mind-blowing issues, however, Zap influenced not only mainstream and alternative comics, but also concert posters, album covers, animation, and even fine art as well as introducing timeless characters like Crumb’s incorrigible Mr. Natural, Wilson’s Checkered Demon, and Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog to readers.

Zap: The Interviews

In 2014, Fantagraphics Books published an ultra-deluxe box set that includes beautiful reproductions of all 15 issues of Zap Comix as well as a previously-unpublished 16th issue. While the set includes an extensive oral history of Zap as well as an artist portfolio and other heretofore unseen goodies, its hefty $500 price tag puts it beyond the reach of all but the most well-heeled of comics and art collectors. Hopefully Fantagraphics will see its way clear to reprint the comix themselves in paperback versions for those of us of more modest means.

While The Complete Zap Comix box raised the title to fine art status, the set garnering an impressive amount of publicity upon its release, another Zap-related title was published by Fantagraphics around the same time but to much less fanfare. The ninth volume in the company’s acclaimed “Comics Journal Library,” Zap: The Interviews is a highly-collectible tome in its own right. An oversized (10”x12”) trade paperback running some 264 pages, the profusely-illustrated volume collects previously-published interviews with the eight different Zap artists from the pages of The Comics Journal, as well as a number of unpublished interviews, conversations that range from as long ago as 1972 (the first Gilbert Shelton interview) to as recent as 2012 (including what may have been Spain Rodriguez’s final interview).

There’s a lot of meat in the 264 pages of Zap: The Interviews. One might think that Robert Crumb as, perhaps, the most famous of the Zap artists, would receive a lion’s share of the book, but that’s not the case. The erudite and outspoken S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez receive nearly as much or more ink than Crumb, and only Gilbert Shelton – at a mere fourteen pages – seems to be shorted here. Plenty of each artist’s work is reproduced in the extra-large volume, providing a visual touchstone for readers unfamiliar with an individual Zap contributor’s work.

Robert Crumb & Spain Rodriguez

Crumb’s lengthy interview, from 1988, is both informative and entertaining, and while I personally would like to have seen a more updated conversation with the artist included here, there’s plenty of other material available for those wanting to discover more about Crumb (and, in fact, Fantagraphics publishes numerous Crumb collections worthy of spending your hard-earned coin upon). Other Zap contributors haven’t achieved nearly the level of fame and notoriety of Mr. Crumb, so it was particularly gratifying to find several interviews with Spain Rodriguez – one of my personal faves – by The Comics Journal’s Gary Groth and underground comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz.

Covering Rodriguez’s childhood in Buffalo NY through his time with the Road Vultures motorcycle gang and his eventual move to the West Coast and Zap Comix, there are 50+ pages here on Spain, providing invaluable insight into his art, his left-leaning working class politics, and the overall unique worldview which colored his gritty, often ultra-futuristic art. The section on S. Clay Wilson is also lengthy, but nowhere near as interesting, as multiple interviews spanning a couple of decades tread a lot of same turf, with Wilson often repeating his stories, sometimes with interesting flourishes, and while these conversations do open a window to Wilson’s blood ‘n’ guts style of artwork, they also become exhausting to read.

Rick Griffin & Victor Moscoso

Zap Comix No. 16
The initial interview with Rick Griffin is also somewhat mundane, although subsequent conversations offer some fascinating nuggets. Griffin was already a well-known psychedelic concert poster artist and surfer legend when he hooked up with Zap, but he seems somewhat reticent in sharing himself with his interviewers in the same manner as Rodriguez or Wilson. That’s definitely not the case with Victor Moscoso, whose brash manner and confidence were a refreshing change of pace after slogging through the Griffin material. The oldest of the Zap collective, Moscoso’s psychedelic-tinged fine art style stood out on Zap’s pages, and his conversations here provide a lot of information on both the man and his art.

As mentioned above, Gilbert Shelton – the legendary creator of such beloved comix characters as the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wonder Wart-Hog, Oat Willie, and others – definitely receives the worst coverage in Zap: The Interviews. With a mere handful of pages, Shelton isn’t given a lot of room to talk compared to the others, a sin considering his status as probably the second-best known and popular underground comix creator. Ditto for the infamous Robert Williams, whose unique vision and style has made his artwork extremely collectible (and with the prices to prove it!). Williams gets only a dozen pages here and while they touch upon his lengthy history and include a smattering of artwork, the brevity of the section doesn’t do the artist justice. Last but not least, several Paul Mavrides interviews not only provide a lot of back history on the influences found in his art, but also showcase the artist’s indelible sense of humor and intelligence.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Those minor cavils about Shelton and Williams aside, Zap: The Interviews is a fascinating, informative, and entertaining collection that serves as an invaluable companion to the collected run of Zap Comix itself. By looking under the hood and gazing deeply into the inner mechanics of the book and its artists, Zap: The Interviews provides important context for each creator’s work.

With individual copies of Zap Comix readily available from eBay and comics shops at not-too-obscene prices; books by Williams, Rodriguez, and Wilson are easy to find with a little digging; and with Robert Crumb’s nearly entire artistic milieu available in multiple paperback volumes, comix fans can patch together an impressive collection of art and stories in no time. Zap: The Interviews is the place to begin, however, the book introducing the larger-than-life talents that created the comix revolution and proving a place in history for their art and efforts. Grade: A (Fantagraphic Books, published January 4, 2015)

Review reprinted from That Devil

Buy or die, bunkie!: Zap: The Interviews

Got money to spend? Buy The Complete Zap Comix Boxed Set from

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