Chances are, if you know anything about underground comix (occasionally “comics”) at all, what comes to mind is something along the lines of R. Crumb: male-dominated, drug-influenced, heavily heterosexual counterculture comics from the 1960s and 70s, critical of the materialism and manners of mainstream post-war society, populated by dropouts, burnouts, leering men, and exaggeratedly sexual women. You’re not wrong, and you can certainly find those in the Underground Comix Collection (MS 636), including some issues of ZAP, considered an outstanding example of the form.
Underground comix, however, are a medium, not a genre, and one which marginalized creators from a range of backgrounds and countercultures embraced as a way to express themselves free from the editorial oversight of commerical publishers and Hays-code style censorship of the Comics Code Authority. These presses started as early as the late 1950s and some of them ran well into the 1980s and 1990s: some comics bounced from press to press, or went through periods of being entirely creator-produced; some presses collapsed and were reopened, or only managed a few issues before folding. The history of underground comix is long, complicated, and rich, reflecting a diversity of opinion and experience that’s often absent or erased from the mainstream form of the medium.
No surprise, then, that there are a few flashes of rainbow among the boxes and folders of the Underground Comix Collection. These comics date mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, and provide a look at what gay men, lesbians, and others in the LGBT community (as these creators identified themselves and their community) were thinking, reading, and doing between the watershed of Gay Liberation in the late 1960s and the mass mobilization in response to the AIDS epidemic. They run the gamut from raunchy to goofy to angry: from multi-page stories to single-panel cartoons, these comics were created by and for LGBTQ+ people, unconcerned with a straight audience (and excluded from mainstream publishing by virtue of their subject matter). They talk about sex, both before and after AIDS, about coming out, starting new, building community, breaking up, grocery shopping, and getting hassled.
As much as could be written about the LGBTQ+ comics in the collection, though, it’s probably better to let them speak for themselves.
Looking for more LGBTQ+ comix in ISU’s collection? Check out No Straight Lines, a hardcover compilation published in 2012 which features excerpts from four decades of gay, lesbian, and queer life, in America and around the world.
The images in this post were sourced from:
- Come out Comix
- Gay Comix and Super Gay Comix
- Gay Heartthrobs
- Homo Patrol
- Rainbow Funnies
- Strip AIDS USA
- Wimmin’s Comix