Me and Gilbert Shelton: A Memoir
By Ramsey Wiggins / The Rag Blog / March 8, 2010
Legendary underground artist Gilbert Shelton will be Thorne Dreyer’s guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, March 9, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.
Shelton is the creator of such iconic comic strips as the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat, and Wonder Wart Hog. His comix have sold over 40 million copies in 15 languages. Born in Houston, Shelton developed his art in Austin and then San Francisco. He now lives in France, where he is collaborating with French artist Pic on a strip called Not Quite Dead.
I. The Texas Ranger and Wonder Warthog
“Bright college days, oh carefree days that fly
To thee we sing, with our glasses raised on high.” — Tom Lehrer
In 1960 at the University of Texas (at Austin: that was the only one back then), if you helped to sell the Ranger, the student humor magazine, you got to attend the keg party that was held the weekend after the issue hit the streets. If you were only 20 years old and looked like you were 14, access to many kegs of beer on a Saturday night was a more than reasonable payment for hawking the magazine on campus for a couple of hours.
One of the other perks was that you got to hang out with the people who created the magazine. That’s when I met Gilbert Shelton and the others who brought forth the prize-winning best college humor magazine in the country.
The Rangeroos, as they called themselves, were an extraordinary bunch. Creative, smart, hard-drinking, and somehow older and more worldly-wise than the rest of us, they were the best of the best. We who were less than pretty, less than rich, or, despite being both, still disaffected, were drawn to the like minds of this social and party axis.
This was where I met people who knew stuff: music to listen to, authors to read, how to write, what was funny, and how to drink a lot without throwing up. I also met Janis Joplin, Bill Helmer (later a senior editor at Playboy), Dave Hickey, Billy Brammer, Tony Bell, Lieuen Adkins, Joe Brown, Hugh Lowe, Pat Brown, and all the others who couldn’t settle for life in the herd.
These were heady times. The glacial epoch of the early cold war era was transitioning into Camelot; crewcuts, panty-girdles, Eisenhower, and communist witch hunts were yielding to Ivy League, leotards, the Kennedys, and the Playboy philosophy. We joined the Civil Rights movement. We danced the Limbo, drove MGs and Volkswagens, and listened to The Kingston Trio, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, and Bob Dylan’s acoustic incarnation. We read poetry and angry young men. It was rumored that women could have orgasms, and that love might be free. Revolution wasn’t in the air yet, but the possibility of joy extended to the horizon.
One of the newer joys back then was to pull the king’s beard. Marching and demonstrating for civil rights had been righteous, but dreadfully serious. Mockery and satire, when served up with a deft hand, were much more cool. A put-down, especially when the target remained clueless about the damage done, was the coolest of all.
The Ranger served this up and more. In 1960 the entire staff was fired three times in the course of a semester for hiding various put-downs and obscenities in successive issues of the magazine. After that, the infighting became more and more elegant, as a blustering and clueless Texas Student Publications office was outflanked again and again by subtlety, irreverence, and skill.
He had already appeared in 1962 in the Bacchanal, an off-campus commercial attempt by Bill Killeen — and several of the staffers fired in 1960 — to escape the strictures of a college publication. The threat of the draft drove Gilbert back to graduate school 1962-63 where he became the editor of the Ranger and further polished the Hog of Steel.
WW sent up superheroes, arch-villains, beatniks, LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, and most concepts of morality extant at the time. Gilbert, who has nearly always had a collaborator or two, worked off and on with fellow Rangeroos Tony Bell, Lieuen Adkins, and Joe Brown to produce the first drafts of what would become world-class social satire.
Wonder Warthog later took Gilbert and friends to a wider audience, but back then the Fearless, Fighting, Foulmouthed alter ego to mild-mannered Philbert Desanex, ace reporter for the Muthalode Morning Mungpie was all ours. Frat boys might have money, cars, and high-maintenance girlfriends, but we had Wonder Warthog. Comic books had a whole new meaning.
Things change, and everybody moves on. One day I looked up and I was married, a father, a graduate student, and wore a suit to work at the Graduate Dean’s office. The summer of love came and went. John Kennedy had been assassinated, then Robert, then Martin Luther King, Jr.
Janis died of an overdose, then Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones. Woodstock had turned into Altamont. The Civil Rights movement had turned into a shooting war. Vietnam was turning teenagers into post-traumatic heroin addicts by the thousands. We all marched after Kent State; My Lai revealed us as torturers, rapists, and murderers. The ship of hope was dashed on the rocks of the military-industrial complex. I drank too much and every night before I fell asleep had the terrifying thought that my life would be the same until I died.
Meanwhile, I heard stories. Gilbert had joined Pat Brown, then a student at the Cleveland Art Institute in Cleveland, where he had tried to work for American Greeting Cards, but it hadn’t taken. Back in Austin, he did psychedelic posters for the Vulcan Gas Company, then he joined the general exodus to the west coast, hoping to do rock posters.
His new strip, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, had begun to appear in The Rag, an off-campus production with low production values and a serious antipathy for the Vietnam War. The strips in The Rag would be reprinted in rags all over the world
In 1971, my college friend Dave Moriaty showed up and told me how he, Gilbert, Jack Jackson (whose art carried the moniker “Jaxon”) and Fred Todd had bought a printing press and were publishing comic books as Rip Off Press. I wanted to die from envy. He was thinking of starting a magazine, and suggested that I might want to join them.
II. Rip Off Press
“The term ‘drunken printer’ is redundant.” — Men’s room wall in Rip Off Press
I wanted in the game. The degree was finished, the marriage was over, my boss was about to retire, and I had more old friends in San Francisco than I did in Austin. The party wasn’t over yet. I had already stopped cutting my hair, so in May of 1972 I quit the job, took out my retirement money, and headed for the coast.
Rip Off Press had relocated from the increasingly dangerous and expensive Haight-Asbury area into the warehouse district at the bottom of the north side of Potrero Hill. There was a trucker’s bar across the street (The Bottom of the Hill Bar, now famous as a music venue), and my friend Moriaty had a flat up the hill on Arkansas Street. You could see Berkeley and Oakland from his back porch and Mount Sutro from the front window. The flat downstairs could be had for $100 a month. Jack Jackson and his old lady lived across the street. Deal.
Rip Off Press was hot. Gilbert wasn’t just an artist, he was now a franchise. He lived with a very, very smart woman, Laura Fountain, and they had a big house on a cul-de-sac that had a block party every Bastille day.
The Freak Brothers were worldwide. A German lawyer with a Polish name, Manfred Mroczkowski, had come up with the idea that all the bootleg European editions of the Freak Brothers could be licensed and made to pay royalties. The first official publication had just come out in German. Rip Off and their main competitor, Last Gasp Eco-funnies had come to détente; each sold the other’s material in their mail-order operations. Serious business.
Rip Off was begun to print rock posters, but the ancient press wasn’t good enough for close-register poster work. It was, however, good enough for underground comic book covers, and was soon augmented by a better, smaller press. Gilbert’s office/studio/playhouse was upstairs, the press, shipping office, and a cavernous, mostly empty warehouse were downstairs. In the summer, the roof was festooned with sunbathing naked hippies. The truckers loved us. At 10:30 and again at 3:00, Fred Todd would ring a bell and we would troop into the walk-in safe for a smoke break. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
I wasn’t good enough to be on the creative team, but Art can always use another handmaiden. I went to work as a dogsbody in the job printing shop we ran as a sideline and was given the nonpaying title of Managing Editor for the short-lived Rip Off Review of Western Culture.
It was the end stage of the best of times. In 1972 the summer of love had come and gone, but there were still affordable places to live, the counterculture was alive and well, and San Francisco was — well, San Francisco. Robert Crumb was there, along with S. Clay Wilson, Dave Sheridan, Ted Richards and all the other underground comic artists.
Rock stars came and went. Chet Helms, grand poobah of the near-defunct Family Dog, appeared from time to time to try and get us to print posters on the cuff. Eddie Wilson, who had started Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, stopped off at our house to have a shower.
The great circus that was Berkeley was across the bay, and Marin County was across the Golden Gate Bridge. Occasionally a young woman would find it interesting that I worked at Rip Off Press. I got tongue-kissed by a Hell’s Angel at the Garden of Earthly Delights, and had enough class to give him some tongue back. We parted with mutual respect. I was, after all, from Texas.
Once at a party I stepped between Robert Crumb and a large, angry woman who took offense at his Big Ass Comics, keeping her at bay while he escaped down the stairs. I ate with artists, and I drank with giants.
Every morning I would drink a pot of strong coffee and walk down Arkansas Street to the bottom of Potrero Hill, arriving at the press at the civilized hour of nine o’clock. Company president Fred Todd would be in the office, pacing up and down, throwing the point of his buck knife into the floor and swearing as he waited for the mail and the daily receipts to see if we would be able to buy paper and ink or, on Fridays, meet the payroll.
The shipping clerks would already have popped their white crosses and begun packing up orders. Moriaty got us to work burning plates for the printers. By 10 the head printer, a part-time rock organist and full time drug addict, would arrive and begin his morning routine of two cups of coffee, two joints and two Desoxyns before cranking up his press. (Our motto was “Quality is not our bag”)
Gilbert would arrive around eleven and, depending on the company that showed up, work, play ping-pong, or otherwise amuse himself. Jack Jackson worked at home but would pop in, usually late in the afternoon. Various print shop customers, artists, artist wannabes, and plain delusionals would come and go through the day.
At noon we would troop across the street for a sandwich and a beer, then back to the press for the afternoon, then back across the street for beer, eighty cent highballs, and a game of pool. Then back up the hill for dinner or out into the night, depending on the amusements available for the evening.
Life was good. I worked in the print shop with a future mayor of Marble Falls and a future Austin real estate developer. One day the drug addict printer got his right arm stuck in the press. He was in a cast for a long time.
Eventually a woman joined me from Austin, and we were together for quite a while. We later had a son who became famous. The Rip Off print shop invested in a worn-out magazine web press that we could never get to work right. I almost fell into the folder.
Things, change, and everybody moves on. After I had been there for about a year, the job printing shop, never a profit center, was declared a failure, closed and the equipment was sold off except for one press used to print comic book covers. The Rip Off Review of Western Culture wasn’t cultured enough and ceased publication. I was out of a job and out of Rip Off Press.
I stayed on in San Francisco for awhile, but after three days transcribing numbers at a nut and bolt manufacturing company for a temp agency, I had had enough. I was a revolutionary, god damn it. I spent two weeks in my basement rebuilding the engine in my 1966 Volkswagen, then packed the woman from Austin and what else would fit and headed back to Austin in September of 1973: The last to come to San Francisco, and the first to go back. I was sad for a time.
Time passed. Rip Off Press prospered without me, and I without it. The chance meeting with Eddie Wilson in my San Francisco living room turned into a three-year rock and roll marathon as the Advertising and Public Relations Director at Armadillo World Headquarters. After I burned out at the Armadillo, I made a Faustian bargain and sold ads for the Austin Sun, and, after that I really floundered for awhile. Doug Brown took pity on me and I started one of several stays at Oat Willie’s, Austin’s oldest headshop. The Sixties were officially over, even in Austin. It was confusing for awhile.
Meanwhile, more and more comic books came out of Rip Off Press. Dave Sheridan continued to collaborate on the Freak Brothers, and Fat Freddy’s Cat became its own publication. Paul Mavrides also began collaborating on the Freak Brothers in 1978.
Foreign-language editions came out officially in every European language except Russian. I’ll bet there is at least one unofficial version there, too. So far, no one in China has offered to make a deal, nor have the African languages stepped up, but long after the counterculture had lost its currency in the U.S. it remained alive and well in Europe, and The Freak Brothers did well. The Freak Brothers appeared in High Times magazine, and Universal Studios bought the license to produce a live-action Freak Brothers movie. Gilbert did an album cover for Doug Sahm, and then one for the Grateful Dead. Money rolled in.
Then, the logical next step for the Freak Brothers: A coffee table edition.
III. Oat Willie’s Campaign Headquarters
Ok, so I’m a clerk at Oat Willie’s, in 1978, leading the simple life, when the word comes out that Rip Off Press has done the first Freak Brothers collection, a coffee-table sized perfect bound book, for a respectable price and at a respectable investment in production costs, which Gilbert is going to go on tour to promote. One of the places he wants to do this is Austin, and since Oat Willie’s sells more Freak Brothers comics than any place in Texas, he wants to do an autograph party here.
Did I mention spending three years flogging rock and roll at the Armadillo? Anyway, Doug asked me to help a little with the publicity, so I started calling around and, a few days before the event went around to visit a few disc jockeys at a few radio stations. It turns out that the Freak Brothers are about as famous as Jerry Garcia. Everybody talks it up on the radio, and Gilbert gets to do an on-air on the top-rated FM station in Austin.
Came the day, and the place was a mob scene. Gilbert signed autographs until his hand hurt. TV stations showed up, then more people showed up. At one point a cop showed up in a patrol car, and everybody was nervous until it turned out he just wanted a signed copy of the new book like everybody else. He went to the head of the line.
I’m pretty sure that was the biggest-grossing day in Oat Willie’s history. It was the first really good day for me in a long time, anyway. I remember it fondly.
Things change, and people move on. Gilbert and Laura escaped to Europe in 1979, first for an extended visit, and then permanently to Paris in 1982. Robert Crumb and his wife Aline Kominsky live in France, too. Two American national treasures, expatriated to France. Hmm.
Dave Sheridan, Gilbert’s first collaborator, died of cancer in 1982. The Freak Brothers continued with collaborator Paul Mavrides. Universal Studios bought two more licenses to produce a Freak Brothers movie, and another company, bolixbrothers in Bristol, England, has been trying to produce an animated feature since 2003. The latest, but hopefully not the last, Freak Brothers collection is the full catastrophe, the Freak Brothers Compendium, which is the complete collection, all under one cover.
Gilbert’s latest undertaking is Not Quite Dead, the adventures of the world’s least-famous rock band. It’s also a collaboration, this time with the French underground cartoonist Pic. Three issues of this comic are out so far, and two have been translated into English.
Me, I stumbled around like a bull in a china shop until I had a spiritual awakening in 1989, and have been remarkably clear-headed since then. I live sedately in Austin with my wife, who understands me.
We’ve both done well, Gilbert and me.
I’ll get to see him one more time at Oat Willie’s on Friday, March 12th, where he’ll be autographing his works one more time. I’m doing a little publicity for this one, too, but maybe the lines won’t be as long. Or maybe they will.
He’ll host an art retrospective on Saturday the 13th at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture if you miss the autograph party. If you see a tall old guy with a glass of club soda, it’ll be me.
- Cartoonist and underground artist Gilbert Shelton’s work is being featured in an exhibit at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture, 1516-B South Lamar Blvd. in Austin. Shelton’s work will be on display from March 13th-May 8, 2010. An opening reception, featuring the artist, will be held on March 13, starting at 7:09 p.m. Original art and prits will be available for sale.
- Gilbert Shelton — whose published work includes The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat, Wonder Wart Hog and Not Quite Dead (with French cartoonist Pic) — will autograph copies of his work at Oat Willie’s Campaign Headquarters, 617 West 29th St. in Austin, beginning at noon on Friday, March 12, 2010.
- Shelton — whose Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are to be featured in a movie now under development, will appear in “A Conversation with Gilbert Shelton” at South by Southwest (SXSW), at the Austin Convention Center, Monday, March 15, 2010, at 3:30 p.m.
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