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How Robert Crumb Changed Comic Books Forever
The Hays Code of comics, the worst thing that has happened to this form of art. The Comics Code Authority. This auto-censorship code suggested by the government and inspired by the book Seduction of The Innocent, written by the famous psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, transformed the industry. Although it was not obligatory, the enraged parents would not buy to their children any comic book that wouldn’t have it on its cover.
The code was extremely restrictive, to the extent that it banned the words “horror” and “terror” from the covers. This prohibition marked the future of horror comic books like Tales From The Crypt, that were canceled due to low sales and parents’ protests. One of the most intelligent and interesting works that comics industry had developed in the last years was dead (or undead), mature mainstream comic books wouldn’t appear until decades later and people came back to the only genre that could offer them a well-developed story while it kept the innocence of its characters. They came back to the superheroes.
Not every child read superheroes, of course. There was a grumpy kid in Philadelphia that always thought that they were stupid and preferred to read the MAD magazine and to lose his mind over muscled women. That kid was Robert Crumb.
That kid grew up to become a young man in the search of a job and new experiences. It was the sixties, the time of subversion, the time of hippies and LSD. And, speaking of LSD… well, let’s say that the Crumb from the first years got his ideas in an unorthodox way. He had the raw imagination and the brilliance of a sexually frustrated youngster who wanted to tell everyone how rotten the world has always been. But he didn’t have permission from the Comics Code Authority.
What did our brilliant and frustrated young man do? Tone down his work? Write a novel and forget about comic books?
Of course he didn’t. He just went and, along other artist, created the underground magazine Zap Comix. Yes, with an x. He wanted to tell all this other youngsters who were confused and looking for a place in a more complex world that his comic was different from all these superheroes with healthy morals. He wasn’t going to talk about people in spandex saving the world. He was going to talk about drugs, politics, sex, racism and all these things your parents don’t want you to know about. He couldn’t care less about political correctness. He couldn’t care less about publishers. That’s why he triumphed.
He went from writing short stories to establishing recurring characters like Fritz the Cat and Mister Natural, who were based partially on himself. These comics revolutionized the industry, changing forever what could and what could not be put on a comic’s pages. Their popularity increased heavily, so the next step was obvious. Fritz the Cat was going to have a movie. Although Crumb hated it, it was an important picture that launched the career of Ralph Bakshi and the first animated feature banned for children. Even in animation, Crumb was going to change the world.
He would later write about himself and his sexual behaviors, he would write about the problems of America, he would even adapt the Bible. But his most innovative work was developed in his beginnings as a comic book writer.
Years after the first issue of Zap Comix, Harry Osborn would be retconned as a drug addict. Superhero comics would forget about the Code and the time would come for Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison (among other writers) to tell more adult and profound stories. Even mainstream comics changed because of the underground revolution.
And none of this would have been possible without that grumpy kid.