It started, as most searches do, by looking toward the end. “COVID taught us all just how precious and fragile time with family is,” reflected 34-year-old Charlestonian video editor/director/cinematographer Gavin Shelton.
“Someday I’m going to get a call from my aunt saying that my uncle’s gone, that his time has come. And when his time comes, I know people are going to want to celebrate him.”
Thus began Shelton’s pandemic project: a curation of the life and legacy of his uncle, underground comix icon Gilbert Shelton.
Gilbert Shelton, now in his 80s, may be best known for his stoner comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Now seeing renewed awareness with the animated adaptation, Freak Brothers is currently streaming on Tubi. But that barely scratches the surface of what Shelton’s nephew’s search has uncovered over the past two years.
Uncle Gilbert has been a presence throughout Gavin’s life, with the nephew bearing his uncle’s first name as a middle name. But it wasn’t until Gavin at age 6 traveled with his family to Paris for New Year’s Eve that he would first meet his dad’s brother, the famed underground artist. There, Gavin saw his uncle in his element, ringing in the new year alongside famed cartoonist Robert Crumb. While Gavin would later grow to realize the importance of the artists he met that night, his enduring memory is of his uncle’s invitation to toss firecrackers from a side street together.
The life of Gilbert
Over the course of his search through the years, Gavin has uncovered many facets to his uncle. There’s the musician who fronted the Gilbert Shelton Ensemble and befriended the singer/songwriter who would become Janis Joplin. The scholar who had multiple college careers studying history and art. The graphic designer who created psychedelic posters for Austin, Texas, music venue Vulcan Gas Company. The graffiti artist, whose “Poddy Rules the World” campaign took on a life of its own. The tourist who left for a yearlong trip to Paris and decided to just never return. But his biggest impact was as a prolific creator and publisher of underground comix.
Gilbert Shelton first tasted the power of social commentary through satire and cartoons during his time at the University of Texas, where he took the reins of the student humor magazine, The Texas Ranger. He further honed this power by developing the superhero parody comic strip “Wonder Wart-Hog” for humor magazines that included Bacchanal, Charlatan and Help! and publishing a collection of Frank Stack’s sacrilegious comic strip “Adventures of Jesus.” So when the pursuit of poster design work brought Gilbert to San Francisco wound up a bust, using his printing press to instead publish comics was an obvious direction. And as luck would have it, 1960s San Francisco was the right place and right time for a comic book revolution.
During the 1950s, comic books were put under the microscope of the U.S. Congress and made scapegoats for juvenile delinquency, thanks in part to psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s anti-comic treatise Seduction of the Innocent. This scrutiny led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which restricted the subject matter for comic books and abolished taboo topics ranging from sex, drugs and violence to zombies, horror and the occult. For Shelton and other San Francisco cartoonists like Crumb and Manuel “Spain’’ Rodriguez, this sort of censorship was the exact thing to rebel against.
While mainstream publishers culled or sanitized their output, Shelton and his cohorts spun up their own outfits to create comics that were definitely not CCA-approved. These comics, often sold at head shops alongside drug paraphernalia, became known as “underground comix” — “underground” in terms of alternative guerilla distribution, comics with an “X” for X-rated, “not-for-kids” content.
“Shelton and the underground comix crew represented the comics-reading public that cut their teeth on comics before the Code was in effect,” said Ed Piskor, Pittsburgh-based modern alternative comic creator and co-host of the industry podcast Cartoonist Kayfabe. “They were growing up and seeing the Senate subcommittee hearings, seeing communities burn comic books in droves and hearing yenta housewives talk about how comics were ruining the children of America. Of course, the sons of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and Humbug were going to grow up and release a lot of pent-up creative comic book energy.”
Together, this San Francisco collective would self-publish their work and contribute to each other’s projects, with Shelton creating stories for Crumb’s popular Zap Comix and other undergrounds. Shelton would publish his own comics Wonder Wart-Hog, Feds ‘n’ Heads, and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers under his own label, Rip Off Press, while also giving a platform to other cartoonists from around the globe.
The confirmation that comics aren’t just for kids would be integral in the development of direct market comic shops like West Ashley’s Captain’s Comics & Toys.
“As people began to rediscover comic books for teens and adults, there became a need for dedicated stores to support diverse new comic offerings and a growing interest in older comics,” store owner Michael Campbell explained. “That led to the distribution model for modern comic book stores from the ’80s to today.”
These underground comix and their DIY attitude, along with the accessibility created by the direct market they sparked, would also inspire generations of alternative comics cartoonists and publishers.
Piskor’s 2021 Fantagraphics published comic book Red Room wears its underground influences proudly. “These cartoonists, including Shelton, represent my biggest influences in comics,” Piskor said. “And I discovered them at a very early age.
“My library had a book called Comix by Les Daniels that reprinted some of their works, and it all blew my mind. From there, I discovered that comic shops existed, and that sent me off to the races as I developed a deeper understanding of the culture. It all begins with the underground guys for me, though.”
As admin of the Gilbert Shelton Underground Comix group on Facebook, Gavin has been in touch with many fans who share Piskor’s rabid appreciation of Gavin’s uncle. Several have even gifted him their own Gilbert memorabilia — from Freak Brothers sculptures to issues of The Texas Ranger and Rip Off Press comics — in the name of his search. “I’ve been extremely lucky,” Gavin acknowledged. “People have donated priceless artifacts to the effort, just because they know how much I’ll value them.”
Of all his uncle’s facets, Gavin seemed most interested as the student of a history his uncle has shown is prone to repeat itself.
“After everything we’ve seen the past few years — COVID, social unrest, racism, Trump — I just want to know what he’s experienced, what to expect. How does this all play out?” he said. To highlight the point, he opened an early 1960s-era copy of The Texas Ranger to a satirical piece on police brutality and asked rhetorically, “I mean, where have we seen this before? If I’ve learned one thing from Gilbert’s work, it’s that the shittier things get, the more you have to laugh at it.”
Once his curation of objets de Gilbert is complete, Gavin will aspire to create a traveling exhibit to celebrate and share Gilbert’s life. “To put his work in a cultural context and show how he used art to respond to the cyclical nature of civil unrest,” he said. “His stories are still good, the messages still relevant.”
Gavin also hopes to soon return to his uncle’s flat in Paris before any dire call from his aunt, so they can all spend more time together, as schedules and distance — and more recently, COVID — have kept interactions infrequent over the years. “Gilbert’s a quiet, super-smart guy,” Gavin said. “He talks in these succinct, distilled nuggets you just want to unpack.”
Though he wants to turn as much of the public on to his uncle’s work as possible, Gavin’s search is also, ultimately personal; an attempt to better understand and connect with the uncle who made a profound impression despite only sporadic in-person visits over the years. “There may be others better equipped, others more knowledgeable, to tell Gilbert’s story,” he admitted. “But I’m in a unique position: I’m family. He inspired me, had an influence. He taught me that if you pursue your art, or whatever you love, you can have a beautiful life.”
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