Perspective — March 4, 2013, 1:00 pm

On Archer’s Underground Comix Roots

How underground comic books helped give rise to Archer

In my review of the animated spy show Archer (FX) in the March issue of Harper’s, I began by tracing the show’s sensibility back to The Simpsons, and to one sequence in particular, the infamous Rake Scene, in which Sideshow Bob steps on nine consecutive rakes (the clip shows only the first few):


By the time the episode aired, I wrote, “The Simpsons had permanently colonized the territory of the absurd and freewheeling.” The show was at the vanguard of the adult animated comedies that emerged in the mid-1990s, helping spawn the anticomedy movement before reaching its apex in Archer’s own razor-sharp, NSFW absurdism:


As you can see, Archer is so outrageous it’s hard to believe the show even airs. Beneath its filthiness, however, lies a recognizable anarchistic urge. To wit: the first-season DVDs of Archer came with an extra advertised as an “unaired pilot.” This was indeed the show’s pilot episode, except that series creators Adam Reed and Matt Thompson had replaced the show’s hero, Sterling Malory Archer, with a green velociraptor, and Archer’s dialogue with dinosaur roars. The second-season DVDs followed up with “Archersaurus: Self-Extinction,” a tone-perfect faux documentary that tracked a now-unemployed Archersaurus’s fall into addiction, homelessness and prostitution, and his eventual demise in a snuff film shot by one of the other characters:


The episode is hilarious and without boundaries, playing with its own forms, the culture, anything onto which it can latch its little mitts. And in its mixture of the crude and whimsical, it goes well beyond anything The Simpsons or even South Park has attempted. (Let’s be honest: filtering everything through childhood and using crude animation also dilutes South Park’s kick.) This isn’t to suggest Archer’s sensibility is entirely sui generis. By my reading, the show’s tone arises from an ancestor older than either of those shows: comic books. And not the ones involving radioactive spiders.

Comics Code Authority sealCartoons for adults — or, rather, for those above the age of consent — are a separate phylum from the one featuring tights and superpowers that was born, in 1933, with a certain do-gooding native of the planet Krypton. Adult cartoons began later, in the exploitative soil of the late Forties and Fifties — in the horror, true crime, and sex and splatter offerings of Entertaining Comics, which published titles like The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and A Moon, A Girl . . . Romance, and whose allegedly nefarious influence keyed the 1954 congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency. In 1955, the same year the World Series was first broadcast in color, the comic-book industry implemented a voluntary code of decorum for its issues. Adherence to this code was signaled by a square white seal of approval on the cover, and was mandatory for any drawn-and-stapled book that would be placed on any rack or near any counter where little Tommy might wait for his chocolate malted.

Mad (comic book), and Mad (magazine)

Mad vs. Mad

This move might effectively have killed off adult comics, but EC also had a satire title in its stable: Mad. To keep Mad outside the purview of the new code, EC’s owner, William Gaines, worked with an editor named Harvey Kurtzman to transform their nascent comic into a full-sized magazine: sixty-four pages, printed with black ink on a better grade of white paper. With its new business model (and a new grinning, pancake-faced mascot), Mad magazine quickly became required reading for delinquents, hipsters, schnooks, and weisenheimers, more than a few of whom later found their way into colleges and fancy art schools. By the early Sixties, Mad-influenced cartoons had begun popping up everywhere, among them Gilbert Shelton’s drawings in the University of Texas at Austin humor magazine The Texas Ranger; Rick Griffin’s strip “Murphy,” in Surfer; Jack Jackson’s self-published God Nose; and the work of nerdy Robert Crumb, who’d been doodling comics with his brother since they were teens, and who in 1964 put out a twelve-page booklet that included the tale of a horny cat named Fritz.

Mr. Natural, by R. Crumb

Robert Crumb’s Mister Natural

In 1967, Crumb came up with a bald, bearded guru named Mister Natural, a straight-shooting New Age mystic who rejected the material world yet embraced worldly pleasures. Mister Natural first appeared in a six-panel comic, drawn in a detailed but minimalist style with no color applied. “Mr. Natural — The Zen Master” opens with a drawing of a guy in glasses and a suit: “Mr. Natural,” he says, “what’s the answer?” Mister Natural asks what the question is. “All I want is THE ANSWER,” says the guy. “THE ANSWER.”

“Very well you fool!” Mr. Natural answers, turning to walk away. “Go fuck yourself.”

Comix. That sudden x. In 1958 the Motion Picture Association of America slapped Xs on what it determined to be adults-only fare. In the late Sixties, the x provided the fledgling cartooning genre with separation from “legitimate” comic books, the crossed final letter offering both warning and thrill. Inked almost exclusively in black (instead of the usual four colors) and framed by hand-drawn borders, if any (instead of the usual well-defined boxes). Realistic renderings. Surrealistic freakouts featuring weird metaphysical or drugged-out bullshit. Stories about Vietnam, protests, love-ins, biker bars, hallucinogenics, racial hang-ups, the absurdity of the straight world, young men and women trying to get along, the whole God deal, just what it meant to be alive during the Sixties. The young artists were ravenous to test their abilities; like the era’s emerging postmodern fiction writers, they were fluent in their chosen medium and knowledgeable about contemporary art and art history. They were also tripping balls.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, by Gilbert Shelton

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, by Gilbert Shelton

At the same time, an underground press was emerging in metropolitan centers and college towns. Papers like Chicago’s The Realist, New York’s East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press, and the San Francisco Oracle provided artists with sympathetic venues for their drawings. As their work spread, the definition of comics expanded until finally, in 1968, Crumb put out a full-length comic, Zap #1, that made him the genre’s first breakout star. Soon, he was drawing an album cover for Janis Joplin, and turning down the Rolling Stones’ request that he do one for them. Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers — three brothers on the prowl for “weed, women, and whatever” — soon followed, as did others, published by a network of small presses selling the work in head shops, record stores, on the street, and by mail order.

In 1973, as the Vietnam War was ending and Sixties counterculture was winding down, the Supreme Court ruled, in Miller v. California, that local police could enforce community obscenity standards. Various municipalities took this as a green light to harass vendors, while post offices took it as license to confiscate parcels suspected of containing “obscene” material. Many head shops, frightened by the possibility of litigation, stopped stocking comix, but by then the underground-comix movement had been established. Cagey editors, distributors, writers, artists, and friends of friends provided contact info for each other; letters of mutual appreciation led to road trips during which everyone got baked and stayed up all night writing and drawing, then crashed in some back room. The scene congealed in San Francisco, with writers and illustrators contributing to one another’s books, creating crazy one-off titles together, sometimes by forwarding pages to one another and contributing a panel apiece per page. “All the magic of being in Paris for the post-Impressionist moment did feel,” said Art Spiegelman, “like being in San Francisco in the early Seventies.” It was during this era that Spiegelman published a three-page story, set in a concentration camp, that portrayed Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs.

As the Eighties proceeded, the wall between high and low culture continued to crumble, courtesy of figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Madonna, as well as cultural phenomena like MTV. Superhero comics, too, began absorbing new influences. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing were much darker and freer than their forerunners. Spiegelman’s mouse tales, inspired by his parents’ stories about life in a World War II concentration camp, continued to appear, mostly in Raw, a magazine he started with his wife, Françoise Mouly.

Underground comix were tackling subjects like estrangement from mainstream middle-class life and the dangerous reaches of censorship and the right wing, but probably the most interesting strain of work was personal, including Spiegelman’s work and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, which followed an outcast’s daily life in Cleveland. Raw encouraged and published a new generation of artists with a similarly intimate sensibility, among them Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware. Spiegelman’s work was featured as part of the Comics Show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1983. (“Some of the best American paintings of the late 1950’s and early 60s,” wrote New York Times art critic John Russell.)

The show served as both a review of the past and a glimpse of the future — for with the 1990s came legitimacy, acclaim, and popularity. Spiegelman received a special Pulitzer citation for the first volume of a two-volume MAUS collection in 1992. Crumb, meanwhile, became the subject of a feature documentary in 1994. Both men saw their work published routinely in The New Yorker, alongside other artists from the underground era, after Mouly became the magazine’s art director in 1993. Burns and Clowes each had graphic novels made into critically acclaimed and financially successful films, while Ware’s first graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, won the American Book Award in 2001, and his most recent collection, Building Stories, was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. With these successes, the newly respectable genre was renamed — dubbed “art comics” by critic Douglas Woulk — and granted its own canon.

Matt Groening's sketch of the Simpson family.

Matt Groening’s sketch of the Simpson family.

The genre’s artistic evolution alone would be enough to warrant being called a success story. But it also set in motion another major cultural development. In the late 1980s, television producer James Brooks began searching for animated shorts to run on a variety show being developed for British comedian Tracey Ullman on the new Fox Network. He’d had his eye on a cartoonist named Matt Groening, whose Life in Hell strip had been running in underground newspapers like the Los Angeles Reader and the Village Voice for more than ten years.[*] Brooks set up a meeting, and, standing outside Brooks’s office, Groening sketched out for him a family. Cue the iconic musical theme, Bart writing on the blackboard, and a show that tapped into the whimsy, informed sarcasm, and screwball mayhem of underground-comix culture.

[*] Groening has on occasion been prickly about being connected with comix, but as a Los Angeles Reader editor in the 1980s he was a key influence on the genre.

Still, though it provoked some family-values outcry initially, The Simpsons observed certain limits, in part because the show was on network television, and also because it was a big-tent show, designed to be popular among both children and adults. Archer, by contrast, is the underground fully realized — or as thoroughly realized as is possible on a corporate network. It is thoroughly for adults, and without compunctions or restraints, at least no restraints that I can see.


Works consulted

Mark James Estren, A History of Underground Comics (Ronin, 1993).

Patrick Rosenkranz, Rebel Vision: The Underground Comix Revolution (Fantagraphics, 2008).

James Danky and Denis Kitchen, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix (Abrams ComicArts, 2009).

John Ortved, The Simpsons: An Unauthorized, Uncensored History (Faber and Faber, 2009).

Single Page
is the author of the novel Beautiful Children, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

More from Charles Bock:

From the September 2015 issue

Joint Ventures

How sneakers became high fashion and big business

From the March 2013 issue

Rake’s Progress

Adult animation grows up with Archer

From the June 2011 issue

For love or money

Youth basketball comes of age

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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