Steven Heller | Essays

Where Have You Gone R. Cobb?

Cartoon by Ron Cobb, 1966

In 1968 the two most influential underground newspaper cartoonists in America were R. Crumb, who most everyone knows today, and R. Cobb, who sadly many do not. Crumb devastated establishment pieties while Cobb attacked the establishment’s devastation of rights and liberties. Both made an indelible impression on my impressionable generation.

Crumb, who lives in the south of France today, survived the Sixties to become a bone fide culture hero, with films, books, and exhibitions celebrating his creative madness. Cobb, who lives in Australia, left the ephemeral art of cartooning for a career as a concept designer and art director in television and films, including The Abyss, Aliens, True Lies, Total Recall, Rocketeer and many more. But for me, Cobb’s weekly single panel cartoon with its bold pen line and intricate cross-hatching featured in the Los Angeles Free Press has the most resonance. His blunt portrayals of scowling helmeted LA police branded this breed of law enforcer as robotic instruments of raw power years before the film Robocop while his bearded everymen, survivors of nuclear winter who find shelter amid the post-apocalypse rubble of LA, are cautionary comic beings that underscored a collective fear of the endgame.

"Scenic Drive Next 2 Miles," 1968

Los Angeles native Ron Cobb (b. 1937) was the Vietnam War and civil rights-era’s Herblock (the editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post who courageously attacked McCarthyism and the Cold War). Herblock made the H-Bomb a specter of horror through depictions of a sneering, menacing bomb with a five-o’clock shadow. Likewise, Cobb underscored America’s growing environmental crisis through a repertory of dazed lost souls, like the one holding the plug of a broken portable television, aimlessly looking for an electrical outlet against the backdrop of total environmental annihilation. He also designed the widely used Ecology symbol made from the lower-case letter e combined with an o (e for environment and o for organism), which he explains in analytic detail in an October 25, 1969 cartoon. 

A detailed description of the ecology symbol, 1969

Cobb, a former inker for the Disney Studios and later a US Army signal corps artist in Vietnam, emerged into the underground in 1965 when he started contributing cartoons to Art Kunkin’s Los Angeles Free Press (Freep) that were quickly picked up by the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) and distributed free to other undergrounds (including a couple I worked on). The cartoons, reminiscent of MAD’s Will Elder, were not funny in the goofy sense, although some of his characterizations were comically exaggerated in the prevailing style, but decidedly serious in tone and texture. Still, they were nothing like Jules Feiffer’s shorthand renderings or Robert Osborn’s expressionist visuals. They did, however, elicit uneasy laughter from the viewer. His 1968 cartoon addressing postwar real estate development shows a sign in a forest of ancient trees that reads: “Soon to be erected on this site. Sequoia Square. Shopping Center and 300 Unite Hotel-Motel Complex.” In light of all the forests and parks that have succumb to speculation this was a prescient warning. A jarringly poignant issue that conflates race relations and the environment shows an Apollo 58 landing craft on the moon with two black men in space suits cleaning up all the debris left by the previous 57 missions. And a detailed rendering of man-made waste along a highway reveals rows of billboards showing bucolic scenes with a sign that reads: “Scenic Drive Next 2 Miles.” 

Two of Ron Cobb's book covers

I still have his album cover for the Jefferson Airplane’s “After Bathing at Baxter’s” and recently rediscovered two of his three books (published in 1971 by Price/Stern/Sloan) Raw Sewage, cartoons about the environment and My Fellow Americans, “patriotic cartoons,” which serve as jaundiced but nonetheless precise histories of the late sixties and early seventies political and social angst and attitudes. While the book cover lettering suggests the period when they were published (and the musty smell of decaying pages is palpable), the images have not lost their potency. In “Progress” two cave men in one panel are threateningly brandishing bones at each other, while in the second, a man in a suit shoots another through the heart with a gun. In another cartoon, a working GI Joe-like replica of a “Leatherneck” which the toy box says “Puts you in the Action” walks away with a bloody bayonet after stabbing the little boy who was playing with it. And in a futuristic vision of the law and order state, two men on a bench marked “for B Citizens Only” under the watchful eyes of both surveillance camera and police officer in a tank are talking: “Well, at least we don’t have to worry about anarchy anymore. . .,” says one to the other.

Crumb’s comics were brilliant comedies, but Cobb’s cartoons brilliantly distilled issues into icons, and served as rallying points for those engaged who questioned government and its leaders. They were right for the times, but when the epoch came to an end, when the LA Freep closed down in the early 1970s, Cobb’s cartoons ended too.

“Well, at least we don’t have to worry about anarchy anymore,” 1968

“Soon to be erected on this site. Sequoia Square. Shopping Center and 300 Unite Hotel-Motel Complex,” 1968

"United States Apollo 58," 1969

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Illustration

Comments [23]

Perhaps it is because Crumb's work is the sort of perversion that this new society feels is worthwhile. With the putrid new "art" and the immense popularity of the "graphic novel" (comic book in old lingo), there is little place for quality work, graphic or otherwise.
Laurence King

Excuse you, there's room for just about everything in the word "art." Cartoons, political and otherwise have held a spotlight for generations. They just released a leather bound hardback edition of Peanuts for crying out loud. Crumb is perverse, but really no more shocking than Cobb, and there's plenty of room for both.
Josh Kramer

Little place for quality work? Whoa, man... be reasonable. There's plenty of amazing art and comic books being made today. And people still do call them comic books, as far as I've noticed (I go to the comics shop once a week). I've always thought the term "graphic novel" referred to the rather massive, lengthy, and less comic works. But whatever.

These R. Cobb cartoons are amazing! I'd much rather look at these than R. Crumb cartoons, though... which I think was kind of his point.

Interesting, never heard of this guy and I'm pleasantly surprised by his acumen nearly 40 years ago! Nice essay - definitely an artist that I'm going to look into more and I agree with JW - much more interesting than R. Crumb.

Laurence - it's a bit presumptuous to assume that you are the ultimate arbiter of "art" when you don't even know the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book. It's also insulting to claim that there is no room for quality work when every day, men and women produce the very thing you say doesn't exist. I'd also like to know where this "new society" exists because unless you are Rip Van Winkle and you just woke up after a century, societies don't pop out of nowhere, they evolve in a multitude of different ways.
Brian FitzSimmons

I was a kid reading Starlog magazine when I came across Ron Cobb. They had an interview focusing on his film design work, but also reprinted a couple cartoons. I was fascinated that he could switch from detailed renderings of sci-fi sets to loose political cartoon style. He's one of the older guys that I wish would dive into the new-fangled-graphic-novel-thing that all the kids are doing.

I co-authored that interview with Ron Cobb in STARLOG. He had lots of ideas he wanted to do. He had an idea for a science fiction parody of scientology in which they flew jets called "Hubbards." He was supposed to direct a film for Steven Spielberg in 1981 but the project collapsed and the script was heavily rewritten, revised and expanded into something very different. In gratitude for all the work Cobb had done on the project, Spielberg gave Cobb a couple points of profit participation in the film he was making instead. A little film titled E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
James Van Hise

I encountered Cobb's editorial work in the early 1980s-- because I read through my college library's microfilmed issues of the L.A. Free Press, mainly to read Harlan Ellison's columns. Loved Cobb's work, and when I found a browning copy of _Raw Sewage_ I _grabbed_ it.

Many of my friends are SF fans who know his movie work. They're floored when I show them this collection.

The two best things about Cobb's work: his level of craft was leagues beyond nearly anything else in the underground press, and it never dates. You could run these today and they'd be every bit as potent.
Brian Siano

'With the putrid new "art" and the immense popularity of the "graphic novel" (comic book in old lingo), there is little place for quality work, graphic or otherwise.'

Seems Mr. King's statement is causing quite the stir. It isn't often I become infuriated enough to reply on message boards, but I have always found such statements about 'comic book art' highly insulting. It seems that often such statements come from those too pompous and blinkered to understand the medium. Comic book art is as much a part of the world of art and design as any other medium - and should be taken just as seriously. Do we criticise Egyptian art and hieroglyphs in the same way? Why should a 'cartoon' be looked at with similar appreciation. They are statements and observations about a society and time period - voices that are heard and Cobb's voice in these pieces still have relevance. I think that is to be credited.

I've always been astounded by conceptual art, Cobb being one of many I have enjoyed the work of in his films. It's only within recent years I've been made aware that he was once a political cartoonist. Only adds to my appreciation of his talents and especially his level of detail.
Richard Johnson

Mr. King your comments are ignorant. There is always room for more "high art" and "low art" in the world. (Attn Artists: Keep Creating!) I respectfully prescribe you open your eyes and judge less. Cobb's work is worthy of much praise and I'm sorry you can't see it. Thank you for this article DO.
Brett Engle

I'm glad to see Cobb's work celebrated here. When the Berkeley, California police busted Moe's bookstore in 1968 for "obscenity" for selling R. Crumb's _Snatch Comics_, they also seized copies of Cobb's cartoon book _Mah Fellow Americans_, even though Cobb's cartoons contained no sexual content. Besides being confiscated together, Crumb and Cobb's work also shared in common that they attacked industrial culture as an ecological disaster and they made visible the widespread anxiety about an atomic holocaust.
Leonard Rifas

Wow, really nice article. I've honestly never heard of either of these guys (I guess I'm too young and naive) but the work I can really appreciate. I'm a huge fan of societal satire. I wish more commercially artistic works had this kind of feel and emotion.
Corey Freeman

Along with Jules Feiffer, Ron Cobb is the biggest reason I grew up to become an editorial cartoonist myself. The man's work is both brilliant and timeless. It breaks my heart he didn't do more editorial cartooning. A couple years back he launched a Web site announcing he was returning to cartooning; sadly, it's remained under construction ever since. It does have some nice bio and other examples of his toons, though:


Finally, Cobb actually had several other collections of work. In addition to the two mentioned in this post, there are:

RC-25 (1967)
Mah Fellow Americans (1968) (different than the one above)
The Cobb Book (1975)
Cobb Again (1978)
Colorvision (1981) (included some of his film work)

All of the books are a bit tough to find and a little spendy -- but well worth the time and effort!


Andrew Wahl

Picked up a few of his works at a second hand bookstore (in Australia) a few years ago and wondered why I hadn't heard of this guy before.

I think it's high time the brilliant ecology logo received it's revival.
Daniel Neville

I saw my first R. Cobb cartoon in one th early "Mother Earth News" magazines and immediately responded to his power of line. The image of the dead gas guzzler on it's back with little economy cars lapping up the spilled gas and the Thanksgiving family saying grace in a cutaway house exposing the bones of Native Americans under the foundation will forever be etched in my visual memory. As an illustrator in college who devoured R. Crumb for his freewheeling view of the crazy counter-culture of the sixties and it's effects on my conscienceness, I now had a direct line to my conscience. I bounced back and forth emulating the drawing styles and content of these two contemporary heroes of black and white line work. Today my love of drawing in pen and ink can be attributed to these two artists with a little dose of Gibson and Whistler. Some four decades later these images still hold the power of a great concept executed extremely well. Ron, where ever you are, thank you.
william padgett

As a 12 year old growing up in suburban South Australia in the 70's, I somehow came to own a book on R. Cobbs work. It was one of the few books I owned and I spent hours copying his illustration style. That book essentially taught me how to draw.


Stunning. I too was one of those kids poring over Starlog every month... (and doing political cartoons for the high school newpaper, to boot) These cartoons look fresh in 2008 and are amazingly on-topic. Time for someone to republish his work, I think.

Shawn Wolfe

R. Cobb was a huge influence on my work. Growing up in my parents art studio, his political art was clipped up all over. Had the privilege to exchange a few emails with him too. His work- concepts, craftsmanship and thoughtfulness- are still the best.

Good day!
It is very informative and has a very good quality in it.
I like it...

Self Improvement
Modern Rifle
Happy Halloween

Thank you very much for your time.

I bought Cobb and Cobb Again in the 70s at university in Australia. I still had the two books until 3 years ago when I moved to Indonesia. I think they may be still in a box in Australia. I hope so, because I'm working on an international project related to forestry and climate change, and those cartoons are more to the point than anything I've seen since. So many of his images are still fresh in my mind.
Jen Richardson

While Googling for a digital copy of "After Bathing at Baxter's" (my album cover for the Jefferson Airplane) I found your kind comments on my cartoons. I am here in Sydney having a second go on mounting a web site after terminating the first one (It's a long story).

Now that I am working with more competent people I hope to make available a selection of the older cartoons along with newer ones not widely seen, cartoons I just had to do, but put in a drawer, and a few New Yorker rejects. Of course the film designs will be there as well.
The new site: roncobb.net
Thank you,
Ron Cobb

John Thompson mentioned recently that he thought you were in Santa Monica where I'm located. Looking forward to checking out the new site. Was waiting to order a copy of Colorvision from the old site..-Guy

Love Ron Cobb. I found My Fellow Americans in a used book store in 1996. Great stuff.

Ron Cobb is truly one of the great cartoonists, reminiscent of Honore Daumier's illustrations inclusive of expanded wry humor. Oddly or not, both exemplary cartoonists from the 60s, Cobb and Crumb, are expatriates.
Mitch MacKay

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