“It was an era of tea rooms and card readings, horoscopes and spells. And, under it all, a seething political revolution in the making.” – Peter Levenda, Sinister Forces
The following is a selection from an essay I wrote while a member of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a group of writers and others who shared their interest in H.P. Lovecraft by way of an Amateur Press Association. The group was (and still is) moderated by noted Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi. It was a very fulfilling experience and I had the great fortune of Joshi selecting one of my essays (“Lovecraft and the Polar Myth”) for inclusion in his The Lovecraft Annual (2009).
While this essay focuses on Lovecraft in the comics, it is at its heart a short history of underground comics, and in particular, Last Gasp’s SKULL COMICS, an underground title that provides an excellent example of what writers and artists could do with horror comics if left to their own devices.
This is the first in a series of posts that discusses the history of SKULL COMICS, H.P. Lovecraft, and horror comics in general.
LOVECRAFT’S LAST GASP
By the late 1960s, the fabric of mainstream society had been stretched thin by the hippie counterculture on the one hand and liberal activists on the other. The line between them, however, was easily blurred, and their ostensibly divergent paths often crossed, usually on the grounds of the universities that were the Petri dishes of the youth culture of the times. The pot-smoking, music-loving, sprout-munching land of the hippy commune and “crash pad” was also often the breeding ground for the more extreme in revolutionary expression, and from seeds sown from the “flower power” way of life sprang the infamous Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Yippies, Black Panthers and the like, supported by such radical figureheads as Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Abbie Hoffman. It became increasingly evident that even the Love Generation had its own black sheep of the family.
The counterculture itself assumed many of the aspects of conventional, contemporary life, albeit with an LSD-induced twist which added the necessary measure of “counter” to the culture. In a milieu that was part Land of Oz, part Alice’s Wonderland, the hippies ate organic food instead of the processed food found in grocery stores, drank carrot juice instead of the hormone-laden stew sold for milk, and dressed in clothing more befitting of a century before -- or even earlier -- as if one were a citizen in good standing of fabled, sunken Atlantis.
Eventually, as is the fate of all quasi- and pseudo-Utopias, the bitter breeze of reality began to dissipate the purple haze surrounding the hippie movement.
By the early 1970s, a few of the various industries of the subculture were still hanging on, and even going strong; in particular politics and publishing. Indeed, the profitable business of underground independent publishing was not lost on a number of industrious people. Newspapers like The San Francisco Oracle, The Los Angeles Free Press (1), The Staff, and The Berkeley Barb, all had varying degrees of longevity on the corner news racks of the day. Even comic books, known as “comix” in their counterculture guise, enjoyed a healthy circulation, and were read among both hippies and straights alike.
Irreverent, politically-charged, and teeming with sex and drugs, characters found in the "undergrounds", from R. Crumb's Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont, to Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, to S. Clay Wilson's Checkered Demon, were more likely to say "F*#k You" than "Thank You", albeit in a perversely cynical and satirical way. To anyone remotely possessed with a sense of humor, one couldn't help but to at least snicker at some of the wry pot shots that were taken at the institution of The Great Society in the pages of the undergrounds.
This attitude was further fueled by the copious use of the most populare mind-melting drug in town, known in short as LSD, by many of the creators of underground comix, most notably by the most famous of underground comix artists, Robert “R.” Crumb:
Ironically, many of the creators of underground comix were proud to admit they cut their artistic teeth on the mainstream comic books of the late 1940s and 1950s, and even before, literally drawing upon the inspiration of the masters that came before them. Names such as Winsor McCay, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, and Basil Wolverton are often mentioned as inspiration. A good many of them were also impressed by the wave of horror comics that deluged the "Hey Kids! Comics!" spinner racks of the day. Titles like Beware! Terror Tales, Tomb of Terror, Ghostly Weird Stories, Horrific, and Weird Terror, all promised many a blood-and-gore drenched page to the reader, and especially the budding comic artist.
In an essay from the pages of a current day E.C. fan magazine, Horror From the Crypt of Fear, author “The Old Witek” offers a very astute observation that describes both the reason why kids loved E.C.’s and why opponents abhorred them:
So, it can be safely said that comix assimilated both the irreverent humor of Mad and the dark, sardonic wit found in titles such as Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, incorporating them into the most extreme examples of each. In some ways, comix were the next logical step, albeit one drenched in Boone's Farm and pot smoke.