Gilbert Shelton, the creator of Wonder Wart-Hog and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, made a rare appearance at Comic-Con International in San Diego, where he was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame, and stuck around for a one-on-one panel with Fantagraphics co-publisher Gary Groth that focused on his life and times.
Groth began by discussing Shelton’s childhood, which is a good lesson in the law of unintended consequences: The cartoonist’s parents wouldn’t let him read superhero comics, so he turned to other comics for inspiration. “I could only have animal comics and Little Lulu, but Donald Duck and Little Lulu are great stuff,” Shelton said. “Dick Tracy” was his favorite newspaper strip, and he was also fond of the work of Virgil Partch and Charles Addams. “Then, when ‘Mad’ comics came along in 1952 — this was really a revolutionary thing. At recess time in junior high school, dozens of us would gather around if someone had brought a new ‘Mad’ comic to school and read it till the bell rang.”
While he was in high school, Shelton invented a mascot, Poddy, and went to war. “I mounted an anti-advertising campaign in my neighborhood in Houston. I defaced billboards with my character Poddy. ‘Poddy rules the world’ was my slogan. I kept it up until the billboard company was no longer able to sell these billboards and they all fell blank — so I had a much larger canvas.”
Shelton started his college career at Washington and Lee, an all-male school (it has since gone co-ed) in Virginia, because, he said, “Someone gave me a scholarship. It wasn’t my idea.”
After a year, he returned to Texas, where he went back and forth between the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. While he was at the University of Texas, Shelton sold some cartoons to the school’s humor magazine, the “Texas Ranger.” Frank Stack, who would go on to be an underground cartoonist himself, was working at the magazine, and he bought the cartoons despite thinking they were derivative of Don Martin.
Shelton graduated in 1961 and moved to New York City. “At the time, that was where everybody went who wanted to be in the publishing business, before people went to California,” he said. A self-described “car fanatic” — he liked racing stock cars on a figure-8 track — Shelton got a freelance job at an automotive magazine.
“You have been quoted as saying these magazines in New York you were responsible for were second-rate versions of magazines in California, because what the hell do people in Manhattan know about cars?” Groth said.
“That’s right,” Shelton responded. “The quality magazines were published in LA by Petersen publications.”
The idea for Wonder Wart-Hog occurred to Shelton on Sixth Avenue in New York, and writer Bill Killeen helped him refine the comic. “I had written the story of Wonder Warthog, and [Killeen] said, ‘You don’t want to begin at the beginning. First establish the character, and then have flashbacks.’ That didn’t occur to me.”
The very first magazine to publish Wonder Wart-Hog was “Bacchanal,” an off-campus magazine at the University of Texas, where Shelton had returned to escape the draft. (The publisher of “Bacchanal,” Kerry O’Quinn, was in the audience for the panel, as were his old colleagues from Rip Off Press.) The magazine only lasted for two issues, and then Shelton returned to the “Texas Ranger,” where he became the editor for the 1963-4 school year. ” I guess I was the only one qualified,” he said. “It paid $100 a month. I was supposed to be studying social sciences, but my real education was a humor magazine… It was hard work, but I learned a lot about humor magazines. In those days, it was everybody’s ambition to have a national humor magazine. This didn’t happen until years later with ‘National Lampoon.'”
After graduate school, Shelton returned to New York, where his work was published in Harvey Kurtzman’s humor magazine “Help!.”
“He published some of my gag cartoons from the University of Texas magazine and finally led me to write and draw nude Wonder Wart-Hog stories for ‘Help!.’ which I did a few of before ‘Help!’ went bankrupt,” Shelton said. “When I started, Gloria Steinem was the assistant editor at ‘Help!’ Then Terry Gilliam was his assistant, then Terry decided to go to England. Then Robert Crumb was supposed to be next, and when he reported to work, there was a dejected looking Harvey Kurtzman, because ‘Help!’ had gone bankrupt.
“Kurtzman did the first 30 issues of ‘Mad,’ then he left and ‘Mad’ froze,” Shelton continued. “It didn’t change for 30 years. He was very helpful to us young cartoonists. He edited and made us make changes and so on. He was a strict editor but very helpful.”
Shelton then took his cartoons to a gag magazine called “Thousand Jokes.” “The editor invited me over to his office. He invited me to look at some cartoons and he said, ‘I hate this stuff, but I imagine you are going to be the successful wave of the future,’ and then he gave me a bunch of original artwork by famous cartoonists.”
Pete Millar, who had been a house artist for the automotive publisher Petersen, bought some of Shelton’s work for his own magazine, “Drag Cartoons.” “I contributed Wonder Wart-Hog adventures for a couple of years, and then Millar published a couple of issues of ‘Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly,’ which bankrupted him. He had to swallow his pride and go to work for Petersen.”
Groth noted that Killeen wrote the first Wonder Wart-Hog comic. “You are a big collaborator,” he said. “You draw a lot of your own strips, but you also have other people contribute work to them. Frank Stack once said you enjoy the collaborative process, you enjoy banging back and forth.”
“I don’t mind using other people’s ideas,” Shelton said. “I always try to find collaborators who are better artists than myself. They are not hard to find.”
“Are you being unduly modest?” Groth asked.
“It’s hard work for me,” Shelton responded.
“You have exquisite panel to panel timing,” Groth said. “Did you listen to radio shows?”
Shelton said he learned timing from the works of Carl Barks and John Stanley. “I and my friends would dramatize comic strips. We would do Donald Duck and Charles Schulz. This maybe helped my sense of timing to actually do it onstage. I was Donald Duck and my friend was Gladstone Gander.”
In 1968, Shelton moved to San Francisco. Fellow Texans Janis Joplin (a college friend) and Chet Helms were out there already, and he had ambitions of drawing rock posters like Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. (Of Joplin, Shelton said, “She had a cool sense of humor — maybe she picked that up from me.”)
Later that year, he returned to New York, where he met Robert Crumb and contributed to the East Village Other, an alternative paper, then drove back to San Francisco with Kim Deitch and Trina Robbins, stopping off at Stack’s house on the way. “About that time, all the cartoonists from New York moved out to San Francisco,” Shelton said.
In San Francisco, Shelton got together with Fred Todd, Jack Jackson and Dave Moriaty to found Rip Off Press. “Fred was the press,” Shelton said. “He took care of business. The four of us chipped in $75 apiece and bought a printing press. Unfortunately, no one knew how to work the printing press. Dave Moriaty eventually figured out how to do it. We were going to print out block posters and beautiful stuff like Moscoso’s and Bob Fried’s.”
The press was located in a loft over an old opera house. “Jackson was supposed to be the accountant, he had a college degree,” said Shelton, “but I never saw him do anything but work on his own comic strips… We published several of Crumb’s early comics, ‘Motor City Comics,’ ‘Big Ass Comics,’ ‘Robert Crumb’s Comics and Stories.’ But he didn’t hang out with the cartoonists so much. He kind of kept to himself. ”
Shelton created the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in Austin, before he moved to San Francisco, when he saw a double feature of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. ” I thought I could do something like that, so I tried to do a little film,” Shelton said. “The first Freak Brothers strip was actually an advertisement for this film, but everyone liked the strip so much I gave up my ambition to be a filmmaker. Fat Freddy’s Cat was inspired by ‘Cicero’s Cat,’ a small strip at the bottom of the strip ‘Mutt and Jeff,’ by Bud Fisher. It was in the Sunday papers.”
After a while, Shelton began collaborating with Dave Sheridan on the Freak Brothers. A few years later, Paul Mavrides joined the team. After Sheridan’s death in 1982, Mavrides became Shelton’s sole collaborator.
The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers began running in “Zap Comix” with issue #3, at the invitation of editor Robert Crumb. The Zap cartoonists were friends outside the office: “We would party together and do jam sessions together,” Shelton said, although he admitted, “I didn’t enjoy those jam sessions very much. There was no organization. I would tell a story and they wouldn’t fill up all the white space.”
During the question and answer session, Shelton pointed out that the underground comics movement helped advance the cause of creators’ rights. “They forced the mainstream comics publishers to allow the artists to own the original artwork, for one thing,” he said.
Shelton’s latest work is “Not Quite Dead,” about a band of the same name, created in collaboration with the French artist Piq. “He is a good, funny cartoonist,” Shelton said. “We sort of wrote this one by committee, and then we drew it page by page, and then Piq and another French guy did the color.”
Although he occasionally draws for pleasure, Shelton said, “Drawing is still difficult for me, a matter of trial and error…. Robert Crumb draws all the time, and he has a big vocabulary of images. When he wants to draw something, he can draw from memory. Me, when I want to draw a picture of a hat, I have to look at a hat, take of my hat and look at it, because I can’t remember what a hat looks like.”
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