Tripwire’s 101 Greatest Comic Artists Of All Time: No.76 Gilbert Shelton

No.76 Gilbert Shelton

Underground comix maven Gilbert Shelton was always the joker in the pack of the San Francisco cartoon counterculture – unlike his peers, such as Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso and others, his focus lay not in the desire to shock, reveal the darkest corners of his psyche or push the envelope. His directive in fact was to both satirise and celebrate hippie culture, primarily through naturalistic humour and surrealism, and his work from 1968 onwards has proven to be a hugely accessible and compulsive document of the period. Shelton brought the cool to comix.Words: Andrew Colman

Having worked on early material at college, including his first major character, Wonder Warthog, Shelton crisscrossed the States looking for work in various underground publications before arriving in San Francisco in the late 1960s. With early title Feds and Heads, Shelton premiered his most famous characters, the Freak Brothers, archetypal hippies whose adventures were an immediate hit. The three “brothers”, the idealistic boffin Phineas, the feckless, lazy yet loveable Fat Freddy (who may have been a faint prototype of Homer Simpson) and the street wise, curmudgeonly Freewheelin’ Franklin, along with Freddy’s mercenary cat soon appeared in compilations from Rip Off Press, detailing the woozy, drugged-up, flaky lifestyles of the threesome. The stories veered from unhinged slapstick (such as Shelton’s personal favourite story, The Freaks Pull a Heist) to satire (The Freak Brothers go to College) to pseudo-valedictory (Scenes from the Revolution) to acid-tinged, Kafkaesque paranoia (the brilliant A Mexican Odyssey), dystopian police brutality (many stories) and bizarre science-fiction (The Chariot of the Globs).

All of these stories are gloriously witty and entertaining, not just because of the situation but also due to all three characters being palpably real and humorous in themselves – constantly navigating the burnt out, seedy landscape of California’s underbelly but also handling severe adversity, they rapidly became iconic, with Shelton ensuring that there was always a humorous undertow. Shelton’s storytelling and artwork also became far more assured and virtuoso-level, his apogee being reached in the magnificent Grass Roots, from Freak Brothers #5. From one odd scenario to another, the three brothers epitomised the hippie dream here, despite at times being hilariously unreconstructed opportunists. This tale in particular illustrated Shelton’s key strengths as a storyteller, with deft characterisation, painstakingly delineated art, sinister yet believable antagonists, noir-infused threat and what would later be referred to as “rubber band reality”.

 

Shelton’s later efforts for Rip Off Press (The Idiots Abroad) were also terrific, self-referential stories, even though they leaned more towards knockabout satire, hyperbole and even polemic, while his Wonder Warthog tales were exceptional parodies of super-heroes and science fiction, the tone even more off-kilter and apocalyptic than his main works. One wonders how many later television animators may have been influenced by Shelton’s work, but one thing is certain, his timeless, evocative vignettes of a long-defunct era are must-reads, even if you have no particular interest in that period, as they are classic comics regardless of context. Check them out.

 

 

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No.76 Gilbert Shelton Underground comix maven Gilbert Shelton was always the joker in the pack of the San Francisco cartoon counterculture – unlike his peers, such as Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso and others, his focus lay not in the desire to shock, reveal the darkest corners of his psyche or
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