The Fabulously Freaky Comics of Gilbert Shelton

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Gilbert Shelton is a cartoonist, and one of the pioneers of the Underground Comix movement, whose most famous creations, the three Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, burst onto the scene in the late 1960s as archetypes of the pot-enabled lifestyle.  Their motto: “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.”

Shelton is also well-known for Fat Freddy’s Cat, the malevolent demon in cat’s fur who owns one of the Freak Brothers and who is undoubtedly the great-grandfather of the Grumpy Cat making the Internet rounds these days.  And he brought to life Wonder Wart-Hog, a bumbling and rather dense superhero, a deliberate anti-Superman whose extremely “mild mannered” secret identity, Philbert Desanex, reminds you of Stanley Ipkiss in “The Mask.”

Wonder Wart-hog

Wonder Wart-hog

Shelton is from Texas, and has lived in Austin, New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, and now Paris, where he claims that a bankrupt charter airline landed him and his wife.  He is fascinated by architecture and loves music, having been friends with, among others, fellow Texan Janis Joplin.

At his draft physical, Army doctors declared him unfit for military service when he admitted taking psychedelic drugs, so it is likely that he knows a bit about the things he portrayed in his Freak Brothers comics.

He was kind enough to allow Ladybud to “interview” him, via email, from his “Fortress of Solitude” in Paris.

LADYBUD: Did you ever inhale?

Gilbert Shelton: Yes.

LB: Do you think marijuana should be legal?  Why? 

GS: I think it should be legal, not legalized but decriminalized.  If the government legalizes it and collects taxes on it then the government has a vested interest in promoting marijuana, which is not a good thing.  All the laws concerning marijuana should just be taken off the books.  Well, maybe not the laws against driving stoned.  But allowing everyone to grow their own would put an end to the criminal marijuana trade.

Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Cartoon

The politics of Phineas

LB: Do you feel that the bumbling but intrusive and ham-fisted US government portrayed in the Freak Brothers still exists? 

GS: Yes.

LB: What do you think the Freak Brothers are doing today, 40-odd years later? 

GS: The Freak Brothers haven’t changed at all.  They’re still young, this quality belonging to certain comic book characters.

LB: Are comics a way of telling a story, providing a message, in the same way as short stories and novels? 

GS: Comics have certain things in common with short stories and novels, but also with cinema, theater, illustration and poetry.  A lot of my stories are like theatrical skits, but without the physical limits of the stage.

LB: Was Freak Brothers a “tract” as well as an entertainment and a satire?  If so, were you saying that people should “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” because after all, the Freak Brothers lived a hand to mouth existence that revolved around drugs? 

Reefer Madness

Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ “Reefer Madness”

GS: I can’t say that I was very much influenced by Timothy Leary, but rather by the general ambience of the times.  At Rip Off Press we worked every day, only for an alternate system.  We preferred to call our book “alternative” comics rather than “underground” comics.  I personally was not so concerned with what people should do, but with what they actually did.

LB: Do you think of yourself as a writer, an artist, or both? 

GS: In France, I am officially a writer.  In comics, I think the writing is more important than the artwork.  A good story with bad drawing can be a good comic strip, but not a bad story with good artwork.

LB: Your Comics Journal interview noted that you’re at work on a new Freak Brothers strip.  Do you think people can relate to the Freak Brothers today? 

GS: Yes.

LB: Does “Not Quite Dead,” your new strip with collaborator Pic, have a message, a moral if you will, and how is that different from the message/moral of Freak Brothers?

GS: “Not Quite Dead” is basically about the relationship between musicians and their employers, if there’s any moral there.  I used up all my marijuana jokes with the Freak Brothers, and I was hoping to find some humor in the world of musicians.

LB: Given all the super hero movies (X-Men, Avengers, etc.), do you think there could be a Wonder Wart-Hog movie? 

GS: There could.  Nelvana in Toronto had the rights for Wonder Wart-Hog for a while, many years ago, but nothing was produced and the rights reverted back to me.