Zap Comix is the best-known of the underground comics that emerged as part of the youth counterculture of the late 1960s.
The first issue of Zap was published in San Francisco in early 1968. It featured the work of satirical cartoonist Robert Crumb. Some 1,500-5,000 copies were printed by Charles Plymell, a Beat writer who shared a house with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady when LSD hit San Francisco in the early 1960s. Many of these first issues were sold on the streets of Haight-Ashbury out of a baby stroller pushed by Crumb or his wife. In years to come, the comic's sales would be most closely linked with alternative venues such as head shops.
Premiering in 1968, Zap #1 was unlike any comic book sensibility that had been seen before. Labelled "Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only", it featured the publishing debut of Crumb's much-bootlegged "Keep on Truckin'" imagery, the first appearance of unreliable holy man Mr. Natural and his neurotic disciple Flakey Foont, and the first of innumerable self-caricatures (in which Crumb calls himself "a raving lunatic", and "one of the world's last great medieval thinkers"). Perhaps most notable was the story "Whiteman", which detailed the inner torment seething within the lusty, fearful heart of an outwardly upright American. While a few small-circulation self-published satirical comic books had been printed prior to this, Zap #1 became the model for the "comix" movement that snowballed after its release.
The contents of the first Zap were not intended to be the debut issue. Crumb had drawn a completely different issue's worth of comics, but the artwork was stolen prior to publication. Rather than repeat himself, Crumb drew a new assortment of strips, which replaced the missing issue. Fortunately, Crumb had made Xerox copies of the missing pages, which according to fellow Zap contributor Victor Moscoco, successfully captured the linework but not the solid blacks. After being reinked, those cartoons subsequently appeared as Zap #0 (which was first published about the same time as Zap #3).
After the success of the first issue, Crumb opened the pages of Zap to several other artists, including S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, "Spain" Rodriguez, and two artists with reputations as psychedelic poster designers, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin.
This stable of artists, along with Crumb, remained mostly constant throughout the history of Zap, which published sporadically. It was typical for several years to pass between new issues; the most recent Zap (#15) appeared in 2005. Griffin died in 1991; a two-page story by artist Paul Mavrides appeared in issue #14. Mavrides was invited to contribute when Crumb announced that he no longer wanted to work on Zap.
While the origin of the spelling "comix" is a subject of some dispute, it was popularized by its appearance in the title of the first issues of Zap. "Zap" was also one of the books that put the "underground" in comics: Zap #4, in particular, was the subject of numerous "community standards" obscenity busts and court cases. That issue was most notorious for Crumb's satirical story Joe Blow, depicting an incestuous all-American nuclear family whose motto was "the family that lays together, stays together." San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore was raided by police, and the fourth issue of Zap was eventually prohibited from selling over the counter in New York. However, the case was as much about publicity as anything else, and the issue continued to be readily available for purchase, including by City Lights. The attention created a bump in Zap sales and elevated its reputation among counterculture types; it certainly cannot be argued that succeeding issues of Zap were any tamer in content.
Due to its unusual outside position in the comic distribution industry, a completely accurate count of Zap's circulation cannot be known, but overall sales for the comic's 16 issues are in the millions.