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brilliant writing
masterpiece art
historical bonus 5
total score 10
Zap Comix #4
Zap Comix 4 Wraparound CoverWraparound Cover
(click for larger image)

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2nd Printing / August 1969 / 52 pages / Apex Novelties
First Printing August 1969
By the summer of 1969, Zap Comix was selling out printing after printing and the phenomenon of underground comix was well underway, with Bijou Funnies, Radical America Komiks, Tales from the Ozone, Feds 'n' Heads Comics, Snatch Comics and Bogeyman in the marketplace. The mass migration of underground artists to San Francisco continued, with people like Greg Irons, Dave Sheridan, Fred Schrier and Roger Brand showing up, with even more on the way.

It seemed clear that underground comics were more than just a passing fad, like Nehru jackets or love beads, but Zap's key contributors were not about to rest on their laurels. They invited Spain Rodriguez and Robert Williams as the last two members into the Zap Collective and a specific agenda was set for Zap Comix #4. As Williams put it, "We decided to severely test the norm with this issue and to actually try to produce the most extremely disgusting periodical imaginable. We really wanted to push people's buttons."

With that goal in mind, all the other artists finally assimilated S. Clay Wilson's utter lack of self-censorship and produced outrageously frank, exquisitely lurid and violent comics that were bound to offend people from all walks of life and every political affiliation.

The book opens with Victor Moscoso's "Hocus Pocus," which is six pages of stylized animals, sex organs, humans and iconic cartoon characters engaging in a wild orgy in the middle of an M.C. Escher-like room with two floors, no ceilings and two doors. New characters enter or leave the room on every page and the whirlwind of an orgy becomes a gleaming mass of French-curve bodies and appendages. For someone who never dabbled in erotica before Zap, Moscoso quickly adapts to the genre.

The next story by Robert Crumb became the most notorious comic strip in the history of Zap Comix and led to the book being virtually banned from retail sale throughout America for almost a year. "Joe Blow" depicts an apparently middle-class family of four engaging in father-daughter and mother-son sexual relations. The fact that the children in the story were post-pubescent only made "Joe Blow" slightly less egregious. A limited number of "adult intellectuals" with open minds recognized that the story delivered a satire of a middle-American family taking Dr. Spock's liberal child-raising advice a few steps too far. But for everyone else, "Joe Blow" was the most shocking and revolting comic strip they had ever read.

Satiric intent notwithstanding, during this era of Crumb's career he was virtually incapable of producing comics that did not unleash his most honest, personal views of himself and those he observed, regardless of how noxious those views might be. As Crumb has stated, "I don't work in terms of conscious messages. I can't do that. It has to be something I'm revealing to myself as I'm doing it." This gives ammunition to critics who believe that Crumb consistently "gets off" on every comic he produces, which would diminish his credibility as a satirist, whether the satire is about racism, sexism or misanthropy (or incest).

Crumb did produce many masturbatory fantasies, but his candor wasn't limited to those. More often than not, he's just spilling emotional ink onto paper with blind justice, "revealing it to himself as he's doing it" and not caring who gets spattered with invective. Brutal honesty is a fascinating attribute for any artist, even if the net result portrays an ugly aspect of life. So is Crumb sick and demented? Sure, he admits as much himself. So were his brothers. The Crumb brothers were all social and domestic outcasts from the day of their first subconscious impressions.

But being fairly familiar with Robert Crumb's complete works, I would deny he is even close to being a pedophile; his most severe sexual proclivity is for women with physical attributes on the opposite spectrum from children. Even when Crumb portrays one of his "teenage" girls, they have thick legs and full boobs just like a mature woman, which made them more attractive to Crumb but dispels any notion that he was actually aroused by the slender physique of most little girls.

I could go on for miles writing about Crumb, but this is a comic review, not a biography or psychoanalysis. The last thing I'll mention is that Crumb has stated several times he regrets many of his early comics, which he now feels might've gone too far. But I don't believe any apology is needed. I usually sit in admiration when any comic artist has the balls to let his (or her) balls hang out.

It should be noted that none of the other artists in Zap #4 expressed regrets about what they did in this issue, and some of them came pretty close to matching Crumb's depth of debauchery. In "A Ball in the Bung Hole," S. Clay Wilson depicts a female servant who, while bent over to suck on some cock, gets shot in her pussy by another man with a flintlock gun; the "bullet ball" rips through her body and lands in the pee hole of the fellated dude's massive dick, while the woman's lifeless body falls to the floor.
Gilbert Shelton portrays Wonder Wart-Hog raping a woman with his snout, but then he sneezes and blows her body all over the street; Spain Rodriguez gives us a little woman-over-man sadism; and Wilson returns with a tale of a woman bound in a castle getting raped by monsters. Of course, context is everything and there's more to chew on than just my description of the money shots. But beyond narrative context, the point Zap #4 was making was "you can't stop us from drawing any damn thing we want to draw." This important motive about freedom of expression can't be separated from the substance of the book.
_ Zap Comix #0 Spine Scratch Comparison
(click for larger image)
Regardless of the artists' motives, the reaction to Zap Comix #4 was swift and harsh. Retailers on both coasts were arrested for selling Zap #4. The Print Mint was raided by local police, causing proprietors Bob Rita and Don Schenker to hide all copies of the book and refuse to distribute them, at least for a while. Charges were eventually dropped against The Print Mint and other west coast retailers, but in New York two booksellers were convicted in 1970 for selling obscene material, and Zap #4 became the first comic book in history to be found legally obscene. Worse yet, in 1973 the New York State Court of Appeals court narrowly rejected a motion to overturn the convictions. The only silver lining for the convicted booksellers was that they were fined just $500 each for their offense.

Not surprisingly, public demand for the issue rose exponentially with the publicity surrounding the trial and Zap Comix #4 sold hundreds of thousands of copies after the threat of further prosecution faded away. Within a few years, Zap and other undergrounds sold several million copies of comics, many of which commandeered the liberation of content realized by Zap #4 to even more extreme levels, and none of them were busted for obscenity.

Despite this apparent success, many underground artists were justifiably nervous about threats to their freedom of expression. Those threats would eventually culminate the 1973 Supreme Court decision on obscenity (Miller vs. California), which established subjective guidelines for determining what constituted obscene material. The consequences of that ruling essentially destroyed the head shop distribution system that underground comics relied on to reach their audience and was the most important factor in the end of the golden age of underground comix.

But that doesn't diminish the importance of Zap Comix #4. More than any single comic book in history, Zap #4 established that comic artists could explore and depict the full spectrum of human behavior without risk of being imprisoned. This achievement was not limited to exploring only the most extreme and deviant behavior, but any behavior or experience associated with human life, from having sex for the first time to suffering the death of a parent. From Zap Comix #4 forward, the capacity of comic books to convey the realities of life was enormously expanded.

Of course, there would prove to be limits to this freedom, demonstrated in 1994 when Mike Diana became the first American artist in history to be convicted for publishing and distributing obscene material. Diana's conviction (upheld through all appeals) attests that we should never take our freedom of expression for granted, which is exactly what Zap Comix #4 was trying to prove.
There are nine known printing variations of this comic book, though there are several more that cannot be distinguished from one another. Kennedy's Price Guide states there were 13 Print Mint printings for a total of 300,000 copies, and that was only through 1982 (and four identified printing variations at the time, which we now believe were five). The following describes the identified print variations:
1st printing - 50-cent cover price, no copyright on inside front cover, the upper prong of the staple is approximately 2 5/16 inches from the top edge of the book
2nd printing - 50-cent cover price, no copyright on inside front cover, any other staple placement
3rd printing - 50-cent cover price, copyright statement on inside front cover
4th printing - 75-cent cover price
5th printing - $1.00 cover price
6th printing - $2.00 cover price
7th printing - $2.50 cover price
8th printing - $2.95 cover price
9th printing - $4.95 cover price
Because there were easily identifiable changes on all of the printings except the first two, the most difficult issue of printing verification exists with those first two printings (which, as we know, may constitute many printings). The traditional method of differentiating the 1st printing from the 2nd printing had been the weight of the paper used for the covers of the book (as it was for Zap #3). That traditional way was established mostly because Jay Kennedy stated that cover weight was the only distinguishing factor.
However, extensive research and debate amongst underground comix historians and collectors has resulted in a collective debunking of the notion of using cover weight as a distinguishing factor. In other words, it simply doesn't exist. After comparing many dozens of cover thicknesses with a micrometer, only a minimal difference in cover stock thickness was confirmed (all 1st and 2nd printings had reasonably similar cover weights). The definitive determination of a 1st printing can only be made by the staple placement on the spine of the cover, as first defined by Don Donahue, who had received fresh copies of the early printings and cared enough to document their differences.
Several years ago, the historians and collectors (including me, aka over40artist) who helped debunk the concept of cover weight as the determining factor contributed to a message board discussion of this topic. The message board is now defunct, but I was able to preserve our debate on the 1st printing of Zap #4, which you may peruse if you are passionate about the subject. Those who were involved will recognize their user names, including Guy Borges (50Cent), one of the most persnickety historians in the underground.
Ultimately, our findings determined that the 1st printing of Zap #4 must have an upper staple placement of 2 5/16 inch from the top edge of the book, give or take 1/32nd of an inch. There is no other reliable determining factor. This means (like it or not) that there are some CGC-slabbed copies of Zap #4 that are erroneously certified as 1st prints or 2nd prints that are not legitimate. I recently saw a CGC-slabbed copy that declared it was a 2nd printing when it was actually a first. The distinction is of minor monetary consequence (maybe a hundred bucks), but if you truly want to own a 1st printing, you should understand the facts, at least according to Don Donahue and the most ardent aficionados of the undergrounds.
There were probably about 250,000 copies of Zap #4 with a 50-cent cover price and only about 20,000 of those were 1st printings, so the chances of finding a verifiable 1st printing from a random pile of Zap #4s with 50-cent covers is probably about 1 in 12. So keep an eye on those staple placements.


Victor Moscoso - 1, 3-8, 37-39 (collaboration), 52
Robert Williams - 2, 17-20, 51
Robert Crumb - 9-14, 28-31, 36, 37-39 (collaboration), 40
S. Clay Wilson - 15-16, 26-27, 32, 37-39 (collaboration), 41-50
Gilbert Shelton - 21-25, 37-39 (collaboration)
Spain Rodgriguez - 33-35, 37-39 (collaboration)
Rick Griffin - 37-39 (collaboration)
Zap Comix 4 1st
1st Printing
50-cent cover, heavy- weight cover stock