[25 June 2014]
Although some comix generally avoided the topic, many artists and writers signaled their opposition to the Vietnam War in creative and daring ways.
The understanding of the mutations of mainstream comics induced by the crisis brought forth by the Vietnam War and other social issues of the ‘60s-‘70s in America is a question that has often been asked, albeit more obliquely than directly, yet seldom answered at length in cultural or historical studies. In his work Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, Jean-Paul Gabilliet gives a very thorough overview of the market forces that allowed the industry to survive and particularly of the shift from readers to speculator-collectors, and the creation of the direct market. He went on to explain how the writers’ will to alter the feel of comics to allow for more mature content triggered a new debate on censorship in the late ‘80s.
Surely, then, for a medium to find ways to offer a renewal that would allow it to remain culturally important implies more than one evolutionary movement. One of these movements is found in the world of underground comic books. With the underground press offering a novel playground for new independent artists—most of them Baby Boomers who had connections with the hippie and counterculture movement of the late ‘60s—underground comix, as they became known, slowly started appearing and eventually established themselves as a viable, marginalized industry.
Comix were defined by their lack of censorship; the artists remained absolute masters over their works and used the medium as a way to express their ideas first and foremost. Several tropes were explored during the early years of this underground movement, but the proliferation of explicit sex and crude violence was one of the most influential. Described by Patrick Rosenkranz as “perceptive reflections of the anti-war, anti-establishment fervor of the times”, comix would go along with the anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam era.
As their success gradually declined from the early ‘70’s on, a combination of events undermined the fragile underground system. The Supreme Court allowed local authorities to define what pornography was, thereby granting them the right to censor any publication they would deem inappropriate. The head shops that served as main retailers for comix started to experience a complete collapse. Then came the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, which established a ceasefire in Vietnam.
One may notice, however, that histories or overviews of the American underground comix mainly introduce their readers to the general trends of the movement, thus leaving little place for specific, theme-based observations. In Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution for example, Patrick Rosenkranz mentions the Vietnam War 14 times, all of them in contextualizing sentences or quotes from artists doing exactly the same thing. Thus, even though he does mention some comix tackling or criticizing the war, he does not offer detailed descriptions, pictures, or analysis of these titles, even omitting that these comics are about the war at all. Similarly, in A History of Underground Comics, Mark James Estren mentions the Vietnam War and the Vietcong once, not dwelling on the matter at all.
The first underground comic that openly tackled the matter was Vietnam: An Anti-War Tale by Julian Bond and T.G Lewis (1967). Bond had a seat at the Georgia House of Representatives, but lost it after voicing his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the illustrated story tradition, he created an independent, black-and-white comic that combined the usual pictures with descriptive or developing narrative boxes. The layout remained extremely simple, dividing the pages in four-panel units that gave the book a very didactic and ultimately pedestrian feel.
The contents, however, are more ambitious, as Bond closely links the army’s involvement in Vietnam with the Civil Rights Movement, making the point that black people are the first to suffer from military conflicts while they are the last to benefit from America’s riches. “We should fight for free elections in Mississippi and Alabama, not in Viet Nam”, said one panel.
He continues by arguing that, proportionally, more black men die in wars than white men, and that the conflict against a people that “only want to be left alone” is pointless. A few pages were dedicated to a history lesson of how the war came about, and a comparison was made between black Americans and the Vietcong, both presented as wrongfully outlawed people. The very engaged tone of the book inevitably leads to a Manichean division that could not avoid some historical inaccuracies or exaggerations, like the idea that the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam had no interest in ruling the country and only wanted to set up democratic elections.
The War for Independence against the British is also used as a metaphor for the North Vietnamese’s fight against the Americans. In the end, Bond’s pamphlet was intended to incite a vivid reaction from its readers. Published the same year Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his opposition to the war, this comic was the first openly anti-war underground work to emerge, even before the comix movement started off in 1968. His work is also contemporary of Warren Publishing’s mainstream (and daring) Blazing Combat comic book. (Bond’s comic is available on the web in its entirety.)
In 1970, Rip-Off Press published the collective strip album Hydrogen Bomb and Biochemical Warfare Funnies, which allowed several artists to voice their opinion on the war. Among those stories, one can note the one showcasing the recurring character of Wonder Warthog, a super human pig who fights injustice. In this particular adventure—titled The Invasion of the Pigs from Uranus—Warthog is confronted with intergalactic pigs introduced in the following manner:
The year is 1975, and “advisors” from the highly advanced planet Uranus are arriving to guide the backward earthlings away from the evils of “Conservation”…
Of course, this setting is created in order to sarcastically hide the real characters and places: the year is 1970, and ‘advisors’, more likely troops, arrive in Vietnam to guide the North Vietnamese away from the evils of Communism. Uranus is also used with irony, as its inhabitants are overblown caricatures of Americans, describing themselves as coming from the “greatest planet of all”, and as “big, smart, famous, wealthy, witty and tall”. Once they land on Earth, the pigs kill Richard Nixon and force everyone to move to a prison-like building. In the process, people who resist are killed and women are raped and murdered, in an echo of the My Lai massacre that took place two years earlier.
In the prison, “guests” are forced to live in tiny rooms only accommodated with a television set and a toilet seat. After learning that the rules compel him to leave the television on at all times, the protagonist’s alter ego turns into Wonder Warthog and stops the invasion. In a desperate, vengeful act, the pigs release a pack of hydrogen bombs on Earth. Warthog fails to save the planet and immigrates to Uranus as this is the only place where beings are still alive. There, he is greeted as a foreigner and ends up working in excrement for practically no compensation. The lack of emotional empathy from the character might have been used to denounce the lack of commitment the artist thought Americans were displaying, and the gloomy ending worked as a warning to the apathetic citizens.
This comic is of tremendous importance, as it fully understands the codes used in superhero stories, and deviated them in order to create a striking, cynical parody of the genre while ferociously attacking the Vietnam consensus. Warthog’s civilian persona is a reporter who expresses no emotions and is incapable of seeing further than what his eyes show him. His transformation does not take place when mayhem occurs, but only when he is told that his free will to watch television or not is taken away from him—the ultimate violation of the American private property—and that he has to give up his hard-earned money. The graphic violence and the immorality of all parties in the story had never been seen before in a comic featuring a super-powered protagonist. This kind of treatment will give way, decades later, to mainstream comics based on these two ideas (like The Boys from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson).
In the same issue of Hydrogen, another story called Raw-War Comics, from Greg Irons, starts a series of Vietnam-related narratives only to stop them after a couple of panels in a metanarrative exercise that continually offers the reader a role as the artist’s accomplice in the deconstructive approach. Each story of American or Vietnamese soldiers is brutally stopped when the characters suddenly die horrible and grotesque deaths, seemingly despite the author’s own will: “God! This isn’t in the script at all!” Irons’ comic closes with a story starting and ending in the same panel of a nuclear mushroom, and the narrator gives up telling war tales. This experimenting with the hidden rules of the comic book narrative structure paved the way for mainstream writers, some of who will pick up the trend and apply it to deconstructive visions of the superhero genre a few years later.
Hydrogen Bomb and Biochemical Warfare Funnies also contained The Last Laugh, from Fred Schrier. This comic shows American soldiers fighting the war in military facilities, pushing end-of-the-world buttons while holding their reproductive organs in their hands, and feeling distressed as soon as they realize the newly ignited World War III will be over before they had a chance to kill with their bare hands. Adding political and media criticism to the recipe, Schrier delivered a strident pamphlet against warfare and effectively denounced the sexual undertones previous war comics had a habit of using.
A few months later, Greg Irons was back, this time with Tom Veitch, to sell The Legion of Charlies, a comix published by Last Gap in 1971. The name Charlies had a double meaning here: it referred firstly to Charles Manson, and secondly to the Charlie Company that committed the My Lai massacre, treated through the trial of Lieutenant William Calley, the man in charge of the American soldiers in question. The comic combined the two stories to create an analogy, and show the army as an augmented psychopath, only this one was let free around the world, even momentarily decorated as heroes. Veitch himself said the comparison was almost natural: “These two giant stories were happening at the same time… We made the connection pretty easily.”
The analogy, however, went further than this. Upon his release from prison, Calley (renamed Kali for the obvious religious metaphor) goes back to the city and has a vision of Manson. He then turns into a zombie-like creature that starts killing and eating people everywhere he goes. His condition is the same as hundreds of other Vietnam veterans, who join Kali in bringing chaos to the world. Richard Nixon is then shown trying to harness the powers of the legion of Charlies, and dies at their hand, albeit not before the point that the U.S government is trying to control any form of violence to suit their own agenda is made. This very engaged opinion piece on the atrocities committed by a group of soldiers was effective, to say the least, but might have slightly lacked perspective and given the impression that all Vietnam veterans were unstable murderers.
In 1972, the back cover of Deviant Slice #1 caricatured Time magazine with a picture of a Vietnam veteran showing basically every imaginable war injury, but still kept alive by medicine, along with a black humorous tagline “Johnny comes marching home”. All in all, the picture is a very striking, efficient way of getting the message of the absurdity and calamities of war across.
Meanwhile, artist Spain Rodriguez had been developing a character named Trashman in the East Village Other (EVO underground newspaper since 1968. While the character did not, to my knowledge, directly mention the Vietnam War, he was particularly influential over the superhero genre as Rodriguez turned the urban vigilante trope around to create the violent anti-establishment prototype that would eventually lead to the creation of characters such as Marvel’s Punisher.
With unethical methods, unconventional brothers-in-arms and a rebellious attitude, Trashman would fight corrupt politicians and impose his own definition of good in society. Some of these traits, like the untrustworthy government, would be used as a critical device in the superhero comics of the mid-seventies, particularly Iron Man and Captain America. Here again, the artist displayed a comprehensive understanding of the genre and bent its codes to create a compelling parody-oriented character that had a lasting impact on the mainstream industry.
Other parodies of superheroes could be found in the underground. Captain Guts, for instance, was an extreme-right-wing character that fought the Black Power movement and harnessed his superhuman abilities from drinking beer, while other issues featured bizarre caricatures of the genre, like Up From the Deep #1 and his super-priest in 1971 or Snarf #2 in 1972). In an issue of Drag CarToons dating back to 1966, that I was unfortunately unable to find, Wonder Warthog apparently went head-to-head with Vietcong soldiers.
In the end though, the final number of underground comix going against of even near the war was ironically low, even lower than in mainstream comics. As David Huxley explained in his essay, “Naked Aggression: American Comic Books and the Vietnam War”:
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Legion of Charlies is that it is extremely rare within the underground field. Despite the fact that the very fabric of the underground was anti-establishment, anti-violence, mainly pro-drug and thus implicitly opposed to the war, there is minimal reaction to it in its comics.
[…] So the reasons for this omission seem to be two-fold. First, the undergrounds were wary of looking too much like violent mainstream comics. Thus their violence, although much more explicit, was removed from a contemporary setting into fantasy or nostalgia. Secondly, the expectation that comics should be essentially humorous or satirical dominates the heyday of the underground comic. (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1988)
Although Huxley has a point to a certain extent, he omitted a few instances of contemporary violence in comix, like Raw-War Comics or the ones mentioned above, but especially those directed at Richard Nixon. The story Dick’n’Pat, for example, was published in EVO in 1968 and presented crude sex scenes between a man impersonating Nixon and his wife “Pat”, thus making her unfaithful and adding to the “Tricky Dick” nickname given to the politician. Granted, this was not the physical violence Huxley associated with war comics, but rather psychological violence, directed at a real-life, public person.
The underground did mainly avoid the matter of the war, even though one might have thought otherwise. The underground movement kick-started in 1968 and was already in financial danger by 1973, when the war officially ended, although all American personnel would leave for good two years later. This left a five-year window of opportunity to cartoonists for taking on the Vietnam issue at the peak of its unpopularity, but there were only a handful of attempts.
Topics like sexual liberation, Civil Rights, women’s rights, the media or establishment politics seemed to be more deeply rooted in the minds of these young artists. In his book The Hippie Trip: A Firsthand Account of the Beliefs and Behaviors of Hippies in America By A Noted Sociologist, Lewis Yablonsky suggested:
A dimension of government that is considered “complete insanity” by the hippies is the governmental power to make war and kill people. One of the most flagrant hypocrisies noted by the hippie leaders is the spectacle of an American government that talks peace and makes war. This governmental hypocrisy appears to be so deeply felt as an obvious indication of America’s spiritual bankruptcy that most hippies refuse to discuss the issue.
This hints at the possibility that most artists from the underground found the ideology and hypocrisy surrounding the subject too repulsive for them to enjoy expressing their positions on paper, even though most of them were in the age range the military would be looking at for their drafts.
By their own admittance, several underground artists had had to deal with the war at home, in some form or another: Gilbert Shelton avoided the draft by admitting to using LSD, Bill Griffith demonstrated against the War among his peacenik friends, Greg Irons imitated Shelton thanks to ‘mind-expanding’ drugs, and George Metzger was in the midst of the anti-war movement in college. Yet few of them dived into the issue when they were drawing underground comix.
Nevertheless, their works were not without consequence, and mainstream artists—particularly the ones working on superhero titles—would adopt most of their experimentations, in one form or another, sooner rather than later.