Revered Zap Comix, Now in a Coffee Table Boxed Set

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The cartoonist Gilbert Hernandez still recalls vividly the first time he saw Zap Comix as a boy. It was issue No. 2, and it oozed with druggy phantasmagorias, sex, over-the-top violence, sex, demons and, yes, sex. It was funny, too, 52 pages of, as the cover promised, “Gags, jokes, kozmic trooths” — all for 50 cents.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to go to hell for reading this,’ ” said Mr. Hernandez, who created the much-praised independent comic Love and Rockets with his brothers in the 1980s. “The Zap artists, they’re like these crazy children. The naughtiest kids in the world. But I enjoyed Zap in a weird, lurid way.”

And while it never really went away — the most recent issue came out in 2004 — Zap, born in late 1967 in the fever dreams of R. Crumb, is emphatically back in a big way. Fantagraphics Books of Seattle in November is publishing “The Complete Zap,” a strikingly designed $500 hardcover boxed set of more than 1,100 pages. Not bad for a black-and-white comic book series whose first issue cost a quarter in 1968.

While the early issues stand as rowdy documents of the 1960s counterculture, Zap was also more. In reinventing the comic book, it set off legal battles and conversations over censorship, brought attention to cartoonists as artists, and set an example for generations of alternative comics creators like Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Joe Matt and the Hernandez Brothers.

The five volumes in “The Complete Zap” include Issues 0 to 16 — the final issue, No. 16, is being published for the first time — a portfolio of Zap covers, and an oral history as told by Zap’s artists. But as the underground comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz writes in his introduction to the history: “Be warned. These books contain an incendiary collection of radical propositions and unsettling notions. Do not confuse them for a quaint relic from the long-gone Age of Aquarius.”

Countercultural comics had appeared in alternative newspapers, but the arrival of Zap No. 1 in early 1968 — with its “Kozmic Kapers” and “Freak Out Funnies” strips — was the moment comic books got psychedelicized and became comix, aimed at an adult, if stoned, audience.

Within four issues, Zap grew to a collective of seven artists and became the unofficial flagship of the comix movement, inspiring the publication of hundreds of undergrounds. But none approached the quality of Zap and its all-star lineup. As Mr. Crumb says in the oral history, they were “the baddest gang of cartoonists ever to wield their crow quills together.”

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The Seven Samurai of Zap: from left, Rick Griffin, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson and Victor Moscoso. 

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