Longtime publisher Ron Turner of Last Gasp lets the red wine spill and herds some very wild cats
Interview by Eric Reynolds
Portrait by Joe Brook
Juxtapoz magazine March 2015
This winter saw the culmination of one of the great bodies of work of the past half-century: a deluxe, boxed-set collection from Fantagraphics Books of all seventeen issues of the legendary underground comic book series, Zap Comix, founded by Robert Crumb in 1968.
Zap Comix, which Crumb eventually expanded into an artist collective that included his peers Robert Williams, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Spain Rodriguez and Paul Mavrides, can legitimately claim a greater influence over the art form of comics than virtually any other, short of possibly MAD magazine. Though it has had a variety of publishers over the years, no one published the title for longer than San Francisco legend Ron Turner, whose Last Gasp Eco-Funnies remains a focal point for the underground comics movement, the San Francisco countercultural scene, and the West Coast lowbrow art movement, some 45 years after its founding.
Turner’s larger-than-life personality and Zelig-like relationship to his beloved hometown warrants a biography of its own. He can tell stories about people as diverse as Charles Manson, Norman Schwarzkopf, the Reverend Jim Jones and Lee Harvey Oswald. Many credit/blame him with a Bambino-like curse that has kept his city’s beloved Forty-Niners from winning a Super Bowl over the past two decades. But, on the occasion of The Complete Zap Comix, Fantagraphics Books Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds spoke to Turner specifically about his relationship with the influential comix anthology and his history of publishing underground comics.
Eric Reynolds: You were a graduate student at San Francisco State University when you founded Last Gasp Eco-Funnies in 1970. Can you tell us more about that period?
Ron Turner: I was studying allergies and emotions at Kaiser Hospital. I was finishing up my master’s degree in experimental psychology. The only problem was. we were in the midst of the longest student strike in U.S. history at SF State.
My roommate, Roger Alvarado, was head of the Third World Liberation Front, and every day we were out on the picket line being attacked by members of the police force on our little 19-acre campus. Roger looked a lot like Che. Myself and my then-girlfriend Fran Ryan were very political.
We were also involved in the first ecology center. To help fund it, I came up with an idea to make an underground comic with ecology themes and have them sell it to pay for the printing and artists. I strong-armed a bunch of dealers in Berkeley to loan the money for printing and royalties. It worked, and within three months we had a book, Slow Death Funnies #1. Crumb agreed to do what turned out to be a two pager. Also, I got Gilbert Shelton to do a page. I was, by that, time living in Berkeley and had all the Slow Death guys over. I learned to ban drinks in the room where the original artwork was. Some were careless (or jealous) of the others and would almost intentionally spill red wine on a page.
How did you get connected with the comics community?
Don Donohue and noted beatnik poet Charles Plymel printed the first Zap. and then Crumb moved it to Print Mint, which was run by two couples. Bob and Peggy worked at the poster store on Haight, and Don and his wife, Alice, were at the frame shop on Telegraph in Berkeley.
We knew Bob and Peggy Rita (of the Print Mint, publisher of Zap #0 and #1) because of our common connection to the Farm Workers Union. Fran had headed up the lettuce boycott and worked as Cesar Chavez’s secretary. We were members of a group called the Committee of Returned Volunteers. You had to have spent at least two years in a volunteer capacity in a foreign country (Peace Corps, American Friends Service Committee, etc.) We became the translators of cultural imperialism to the anti-Vietnam War movement.
You must have been familiar with Zap by this point?
I first read Zap at a New Year’s party around the end of ’68. I was completely stoned and the comic brought back my childhood fascination with that art form. I reread it for hours. I discovered Gary Arlington was a source [for this underground material] and went to his store in the Mission. It was a place that never changed over 40 years—stacked to the ceiling with comic books and artwork, although in the early days, seven or eight people could move around in there. Gary seemed to be a “true believer,” although later he became more delusional and thought he was Christ on a mission. That didn’t stop us from becoming friends. In early ’70, when I was putting together Slow Death #1, I had paid Don Donahue (who printed the first Zap) and Arlington the princely sum of $25 each to put them on retainer. They liked the sound of that.
I first met Crumb at Gary Arlington’s store. I let Crumb know that my dad had given me a lot of 78 records and he was over in a flash to look through them. I think I just gave him the records. My dad had been a country and western disk jockey in Bakersfield back in the late ’50s and ’60s and was involved in that business till his death in the ’80s.
Soon thereafter. I got Crumb interviewed on KPFA, the Pacifica station in Berkeley. He drew a pic of himself by a radio mike, sweating so profusely that the liquid was up to his calves. I took him to lunch and all he wanted was a hamburger. He was already a superstar in the counterculture and I felt honored to be in his presence. I visited him up in Potter Valley with his first wife, Dana. She passed last year. Crumb would retire after dinner to a little shack and was drawing Eggs Ackly and the Vulture Demoness. I was blown away on how fast he could fill in the panels: he obviously had the script down in his head.
At what point did Last Gasp stop being a side project to fund the ecology center and/or other social movements, and become your primary vocation or passion?
The first Slow Death appeared in time for a dozen friends and myself to get to college campuses around the Bay Area and hawk them on the lawns during the first Earth Day in 1970. In order to get rid of the garage-busting amount of boxes containing 20,000 comix, I had to contemplate distribution. I had beaten the draft and was fervently anti-war, and felt that I had been given a two year pass to do something. I always wondered about the concept of distribution. It seemed so mysterious. Also. I had some drug dealers to repay.
I was moving in more comic book circles and my radical college friends were not embracing the kinds of comix I was beginning to leave on their kitchen tables. The ecology center would only take ten copies at a time and not call when they ran out. Comix were not what a lot of people at the time felt were a proper item in a bookstore.
Our Committee of Returned Volunteers was continuing to be involved in various social justice issues. Trina Robbins asked me to visit to see a comic she was putting together called It Ain’t Me, Babe. It was the same name as a woman’s radical newspaper published in Berkeley by a collective. Trina did a cartoon strip called Belinda Berkeley in that paper. Women’s liberation was big at the time. The comic seemed a natural. So I said yes and paid Trina for it. Our third publication was Skull Comics #2. Jaxon [a.k.a. the cartoonist Jack Jackson], who was a partner at Rip Off Press, brought it to me. It had a great Gilbert Shelton cover and fantastic horror stories. The horror genre always seemed to have enough social activism in the form of morality tales and the unmasking of human foibles to interest me, so I gladly said yes. I still don’t know why Rip Off didn’t publish it themselves.
Before the end of the year, we had Slow Death #2 ready to go. We did the first front-to-back, wrap-around cover. After the first printing, it needed color, and so the second was done, and 100 copies were done on silver paper. I signed and numbered them and gave most of them away to the various artists. The next year. I had paid back the “investors,” and then was asked to be in a partnership by one of the investers. This is when it became a vocation.
The first two issues of Zap were published by the Print Mint, and you came in soon thereafter, I believe. How did that come about?
By 1970, Zap #1-4 had been printed, and having found the xerox copies of Crumb’s first Zap, it was added as #0 to keep artistic continuity. Posters were the big art movement of the social order of the ’60s and ’70s. Comix hitchhiked with the posters to head shops. At one time, there were over 40,000 head shops nationwide. Comic stores began, and another source of sales opened up.
Somewhere around ’75, Crumb confided in me his unhappiness with Print Mint. He was complaining about them not paying him all he was owed. I offered to print up Zap #0 and #1. He took the first two issues of Zap away and I began publishing them. The Print Mint was having a hard time, perhaps it was a decline in the [rock] poster business, I don’t know. But I needed the comix, so I proposed that one of us pay the printer and one of us pay the artists. They agreed, but the deal fell apart and Zap became a Last Gasp title in full by ’76-’77. There was no bad blood [between Last Gasp and Print Mint], although I’m sure Print Mint wasn’t happy. I think the contract stipulated 12% of the retail price for royalty. When a new issue came out, the guys got all their money up front.
By 1980, there were over 30 national distributors. Head shops, comic shops and a few alternative book stores were buying comix. As I sold more and more copies of Zap, it was apparent that it had become the premiere [underground] comic book, with [Gilbert Shelton’s] Freak Bros, a close second. Had Zap come out regularly, I’m sure it would have been no time before an issue could have gone close to a million-copy release, but as Crumb once said, one of the differences between undergrounds and above-grounds was that undergrounds were never on a regular schedule.
How does it feel to see it collected now, after all of this time?
I’m glad the book got done. After publishing it for almost 40 years, it’s great to see it in such a lush, robust presentation. I just wish that Spain Rodriguez and Rick Griffin would have lived to see this fine compendium of their work. I am humbled to have had a small part in the Zap artists’ careers. These guys were and are amazing.
The Complete Zap Comix is now available through