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In the First Circle of Hell with S. Clay Wilson

S. Clay Wilson by Tim Forcade, 1969.

Dante’s Limbo–technically the first circle of hell–includes many of the great heroes, thinkers, and creative minds of ancient Greece and Rome as well as such medieval non-Christians as Saladin, Sultan of Egypt in the late twelfth century, and the great Islamic philosophers Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroës (Ibn Rushd), along with many of the major figures from the Hebrew Bible.

He’s now a “kinder, gentler S. Clay Wilson” according to his wife Lorraine Chamberlain, not the loud, boisterous, hell raiser he once was.

“He’s more tender and sensitive and loving now and more demonstrative than he was before,” she says. “I make sure he knows that I love him. I try to make him laugh. It’s my goal every morning at breakfast to crack him up, or tell him an interesting story about something, or read him poems, postcards or emails people have sent. It’s one of the times of day I try to engage him and make him feel happy and get his brain going, make him feel good.”

Wilson’s favorite word is still “No!” He used to be a motor mouth but now he’s mostly monosyllabic. After a long life dedicated to being the baddest boy in comix, he’s become a grand old man, but he’s no longer in his right mind. He used to be able to out-talk, out-booze, out-cuss, out-draw, and outrage almost anyone but he doesn’t drink, smoke, snort or draw dirty pictures any more. He doesn’t walk much either and seldom leaves the house, and only in a wheelchair. He used to start each day answering a stack of correspondence with a variety of pens, rubber stamps and assorted collage materials, and then spend each day listening to talk radio while diligently drawing comics and commissions in his small home studio. Now he watches movies on TV while lying on the couch or in his hospital bed. The last drawing he did was over two years ago. He hasn’t been out to a comic convention or art gallery or movie theater for a long time. Once an active, exuberant, larger than life phenomenon, he is now a shadow of that former irrepressible self. There’s a pall of depression in his jam-packed man cave on 16th Street, where he’s made his home for more than thirty years. Nearly everything he’s ever owned is in that place, including his Cub Scout uniform and his favorite Raleigh bicycle. Everything except his artwork. He usually sold it and shipped it off as soon as it was completed. Only a few of his last pieces remain. Hardly anyone stops by to visit these days and it’s definitely not as much fun as it used to be.

 

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In 1968 Wilson’s friend Gus moved him and his lady Nadra to San Francisco in a VW bus, but in Wilson’s imagination, he was roaring into town with the Checkered Demon and the Hog Riding Fools to kick start his career in the underground movement. He’d been an anomaly in his native Nebraska, and he couldn’t rustle up the large audience he craved in Lawrence, Kansas, but after years of honing his chops and formulating his attitude, he was ready to “let slip the dogs of war” in the big city. By the end of his first year in the Bay Area, he and his bold new artist friends Crumb and Moscoso and Griffin had achieved worldwide fame with Zap Comix, which succeeded in shocking, delighting, and dismaying readers everywhere, thanks in part to Wilson’s psychotic comic landscapes, peopled with pirates and perverts, dicks and dirks – the complete antithesis to common decency and restraint. He just didn’t listen to that same inner censor that lets most of us know when we’ve gone too far. That was a valued asset in those days of rebellion.

“I have this morbid fascination with deviancy and I like drawing it,” Wilson once said. “I find it entertaining. I’m sure a shrink would have a field day trying to figure out why I did it. I just find it fun. People can take it or leave it.”

1977 Wilson image from Zap.

Over the next forty years he created a copious stream of work that continually explored the extreme boundaries of human nature. His draftsmanship and literary skills increased in complexity and subtlety, as his fertile imagination guided his archetypal characters through lustful intrigues and convoluted plotlines set in a mythic place somewhere between the Wild West and the Barbary Coast.

Wilson felt an affinity for tall tales and yarns, a trait he claimed he inherited from his hillbilly ancestors. “I think a comic strip, like jazz, is pretty American. The variations of how much stuff you can cram into a comic strip or how far you can stretch the envelope in a form of music or a comic strip is pretty endless, you’re limited only by your imagination. You get aesthetic debates and nuances of details and shit. But just draw the motherfucker and argue later.”

Wilson led a celebrated life as an iconoclast cartoonist of the first rank, but it all came to a bad turn on a dark and stormy night on Landers Street, a few blocks shy of making it home safe just after Halloween 2008. Some Good Samaritans discovered him lying in the rain gutter between two parked cars and called an ambulance, but never identified themselves. At the hospital they diagnosed him with massive brain trauma and he spent a few weeks in a coma on life support. Some people said he was mugged, others thought he fell down and hid his head. He had his wallet and watch and only his head was injured, so a mugging seems less likely. He rallied, and his friends thought he was going to recover, but the progress didn’t last and his health deteriorated. “He got better for a while and then that was the end of getting better and now it’s a slow decline,” said Lorraine.

Some of his visitors saw signs of his sense of humor returning. When Grux Faustini visited him at the hospital he took note of some of Wilson’s odd new expressions.

“You have great skin, don’t let ‘em talk you out of it.”

“Where do you usually get your pens?”

“I build them, they gotta be about 8 feet tall!”

“Can you get me one?”

“There’s the rub. I need to get 10 pieces of lumber, a crate of ink and most importantly  MOHNAY. I need the bread up front sister. See what you can do.”

Wilson asked Lorraine to bring his art supplies to Laguna Honda Hospital and he made a few drawings – some watercolors and a ten-page Checkered Demon story for Zap #16.

“The talk bubbles were real odd,” she said. “Sometimes they didn’t make any sense, but some of the drawing was really fantastic. I was amazed.” In Wilson’s new compositions his characters stood around wondering what to do. His muscle memory put them on paper, but they stood in silent rows, holding their dicks in their hands.

After a year of slow and difficult physical rehabilitation, the doctors finally said he could go home with Lorraine. “When I brought Wilson back he said, you have a very nice home here. He didn’t recognize it and I realized he wouldn’t have noticed if I moved anything. It’s sort of like an old museum of Wilson. Even though I would like to change it and clear off all these surfaces I don’t have the heart to do it because it’s Wilson’s stuff. I try to treat all this with respect for him. I only want him to have a comfortable happy life as long as he can.”

The Wilson – Chamberlain wedding.

S. Clay Wilson and Lorraine Chamberlain were married on August 10, 2010. “We’ve always really liked each other,” she said. Sparks flew when they first met at the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle in 1969. “I always thought he has the funniest, most interesting fertile mind and I kind of like it that he’s sentimental too. There’s a whole side to him that’s very sweet. He was always saying that he’s asked me to marry him a thousand times, and I’ve always said I wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on the planet. He liked that challenge. I decided to get married to him because it’s always something we talked about and because I wanted him to know that I would always take care of him. Marrying him meant I wouldn’t just up and leave him. I would take care of him.”

 

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Wilson’s boldness and artistry inspired artists of his own generation as well as countless younger cartoonists who came after him. He enjoyed telling stories, celebrating life, and holding forth and always had opinions as audacious as his sexual imagery.

“I love that aspect of him, especially considering he’s a cartoonist,” said Jim Blanchard. “You look at the young modern cartoonists and none of them are anything like that. He’s this boisterous big tall drunkard guy, party animal. The Zap guys and the underground people in particular were so different from your alternative cartoonists nowadays. They’re all so mild and meek. They’re not beer drinking fun loving guys. They would never get on a Harley or get into a fistfight or anything like that.”

Jim Blanchard and S. Clay Wilson.

“Sex sells and I like drawing dirty pictures,” Wilson told High Times in 1983. “I think some people who are offended are reacting to their own reactions. The drawing they see is a key that goes to the eyeball keyhole. Click! A door flies open and stuff they’ve been suppressing flies out, right? It unlocks their own repressed bogeyman or skeletons in their mental closets and this is upsetting to them, because they’ve been repressing it and the drawings are a springboard for that chain reaction. Sidewalk psychology, but I think it’s true.”

In an application for a Guggenheim grant in 1999 he wrote “Throughout my career I have had to constantly defend my art work against critics who wish to censor it because of its depiction of aberrant imagery. My work, for example, was seized and burned in December 1991 by the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (This is Dynamite in Taboo #5) because its imagery was considered too obscene and violent for importation to Canada. It upsets me that some critics wish to censor and go so far as to destroy my artwork because of its subject matter. People are shocked that I, as an artist, would choose to depict the themes that I do. I am not the characters I draw, I am the artist that draws the characters or, in other words, just because I depict evil does not mean that I am evil.”

In a 1998 interview with me he talked about the legacy of his underground comix. “I think this stuff will become more important. I think history will sort it out and give it its proper place, primarily on how it’s influenced people’s thought and artwork, other artists. I think that’s the crux. That will make it historical or pivotal by the influence it has had, or the innovations it’s created, or the inspirations it’s caused. I think it’s already in gear, but how far do you go back? To EC? It’s like we’re carrying it on.  EC did it for me, like we’re doing it for the next batch of cartoonists, like passing the baton in a race. Here’s the historical big pen or whatever you want to call it. It’s passed on.”

He was a gentleman and an intellectual when he was sober. He was hell on wheels when he started doing shots with a beer back. There was very little middle ground in Wilson’s world. You loved him or hated him, but if he decided you were his friend, he was loyal to the end. He didn’t keep records or plan far ahead. He didn’t see a rainy day as an opportunity for savings, but as a chance to wear one of his many stylish hats. He was a creature of habit who could sometimes be totally unpredictable. He was able to make a decent living as an artist but now he’s dependant on the largesse of bureaucratic agencies and the kindness of his friends and fans who donate to the S. Clay Wilson Special Needs Trust. (www.scwilson.com)

Lorraine cooks, cleans, and cares for Wilson 24/7. She had a botched spinal surgery a few years back but doesn’t have time to take care of her own painful medical problems. When Wilson got back from the hospital last summer after his recent brain surgery, he’d lost much of his mobility, she said. She hired a part time caretaker so she can get out of the house to run errands, buy groceries, and meet appointments at Medicaid and Social Security offices. Wilson doesn’t like strangers in the house. “Get away from me,” he shouts at a woman who comes twice a week as she tries to get him to take his medicine. When Lorraine arrives back home with the groceries, she greets him warmly. “Hello Darling. Do you still love me?” “Yes,” he answers, reaching for her. “As long as we love each other, nothing else matters,” she tells him. True romantics until the cows come home. If only life were that sweet and simple.

“It’s become a difficult activity to envision the future now because Wilson is not getting better,” she admits.

 

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I’m currently writing S. Clay Wilson’s biography and editing his retrospective. I thought I knew a lot about him when I started on this a year ago, but I’ve discovered much more about the real Steven Wilson behind the bluster and theatrics after talking to so many of his buddies, colleagues, former girlfriends, school chums, publishers, etc. He was still on an upward spiral when his life changed and his art ended – and his income with it. As with many tragedies, we may ultimately only have ourselves to blame, but it’s a sad last act for one of the 20th century’s great artists, who ought to be recognized in his lifetime for his contribution to art and artistic freedom.

“I guess I’m going to remain cult all my life and never cross that bridge to chic-ness, but I’m still selling artwork. What would be nice is some medical insurance or a cottage someplace, you know.” - S. Clay Wilson

Photo by Rebecca Gwyn Wilson.

 

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26 Responses to In the First Circle of Hell with S. Clay Wilson

  1. jim mccrary says:

    Nice work, Patrick. Look forward to the forthcoming scribbling. Cheers from Lawrence, Ks and keep yer powder dry.

  2. Eric Reynolds says:

    Thank you, Patrick.

  3. Thanks for writing this terrific article, Patrick. You managed to paint a vivid Before and After portrait of my complex, brilliant, often maddening man. Of course, I long for the Former Wilson, but have had to learn to live more in the present than I ever thought possible….especially since the future isn’t my favorite topic now, either.
    I hope your readers will notice the correct address of our website! It is www,sclaywilson.com….not scwilson, as it is written here.
    Again, thanks. Great job!
    Fondly,
    Lorraine

  4. Groth says:

    Great profile, Patrick. Blanchard really nailed it.

    I wish I had some of Wilson’s riotous message he’d leave on my voice mail. One day it would be sweet and charming, the next day he’d be in a rage. By the end, he’d have calmed down and just asked for a return call.

    And Lorraine should be sainted.

  5. Great beginning, and synopsis, though, of course, tragic. Wilson WAS one funny, funny, man. Looking forward to the book.

  6. Tim Forcade says:

    Thanks Patrick. Looking forward to the next installment. Best

  7. RL Crabb says:

    Great article. For years I had trouble talking to Wilson, mostly because we were both shitfaced but he was always more shitfaced and beligerent. But as the years passed we got to know each other better and had some interesting encounters. The last time I saw him was at Jim Mitchell’s wake at the O’Farrell Theatre in SF, where we discussed various German firearms.
    Wilson is an American original. Here’s hoping he continues to recover and outrage us for years to come.

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  9. Dan Wasil says:

    Thank you, Patrick. Great article, including your frank appraisal of their current situation. Thank you more for posting that website where folks can make a donation to help. Keep reminding Lorraine that she needs some respite time of her own!

  10. Gerard Malanga says:

    Patrick Rosenkranz’s profile essay on S. Clay Wilson is lovingly succinct and says so much about the guy & artist that I didn’t know; but certainly can relate to. Wilson is a trailblazer and has always been one, or so it seems. His John Simon Guggenheim application (for wch I doubt they’d allowed him across the threshold) says it all: “just because I depict evil does not mean that I am evil.” Cheers, Gerard Malanga.

  11. justin Green says:

    Patrick,
    Thanks for the insightful narrative about my dear old friend Wilson. Not one word was wasted or untrue, nor were any typos spotted. Let’s hope your piece spurs some wider interest in his work and sparks some donations.

    Justin Green

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  13. Dale Ashmun says:

    Fantastic article Patrick. I’m from Lincoln Nebraska, Wilson’s home town. I’m ten years younger and didn’t meet him until the early 80s when he was in NYC for an art show set up by a guy named Kirby McCauly (I’m pretty sure that was his last name). I interviewed Wilson with a group of friends for a magazine called STOP!, a great little mag published in New York by John Holmstrom and J.D. King. I have about three hours of that interview on tape which I would gladly send you for research. The interview took place in a Greenwich Village Bar, and gets funnier as we all get drunker and louder. Wilson also was my house guest for a week during Mardi Gras of 2001 and I could share some very wild stories of the visit if want to hear them. You can reach me at 504-261-0223 if you want more info. By the way, Wilson calls me “Homie Dale” as we are homeboys from Lincoln. I own two pieces of original art inscribed “To ‘Homie’ Dale” and would gladly forward images of them to you possible inclusion in the bio you’re working on.
    One of my biggest thrills was posing as the Checkered Demon for Wilson in his back garden. The art was of Checks and his nephews on the moon swilling the dregs from beer cans littered about. After he completed the page, he gave me a high quality color copy along with the polaroids he took for reference. My fat body in the six photos was replicated exactly in the six figures he drew. You’ll have to see this one to believe it, cuz I doubt Wilson has any memory of this event in his present state. By the way, be sure to ask Lorraine about how she saved Wilson’s art work and “neat stuff” from his sister and brother-in-law when they came to S.F. to pillage his apartment after his accident. I do believe Wilson would still be in that hospital (or dead) with Lorraine’s love and loyalty. I visited him there with Lorraine and that place made the hospital from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” look like Disneyland.

    • Dale Ashmun says:

      Second to last sentence of my previous post should read “I believe Wilson would…….WITHOUT Lorriane’s love and loyalty.” Should have proofread my comments before posting.

  14. Leebeaux says:

    Isn’t ironic that someone who drew so much violence was ultimately brought down by violence? (I have always been fascinated by his work, just a thought I had)

    • R. Fiore says:

      More like someone who drew so much that was fucked up being brought down by being fucked up. I’d say on balance he’s doing well to have lived this long.

  15. steven samuels says:

    “and he made a few drawings – some watercolors and a ten-page Checkered Demon story for Zap #16.”

    This has been in the works for a while, hasn’t it? Is it still on?

  16. Patrick Rosenkranz says:

    Will Zap #16 be released as a comic book or as part of the two volume deluxe anthology? That is the question.

    • Anthony Thorne says:

      The other question is, when is it coming out? “Fantagraphics will be publishing the The Complete ZAP Comix in Fall of 2012.” says the Fanta site, still.

      • Patrick Rosenkranz says:

        Alas, the first question must be resolved before the second one can be addressed. Fall 2012 was overly optimistic.

      • Anthony Thorne says:

        Got it. It’d be an odd state of affairs to have the Collected Zap missing an issue of Zap upon release, so with that in mind I’m (now!) happy to be patient.

  17. brad moore says:

    I’ve known S. Clay Wilson since 1986, when we started a looonnnngggggg coorespondence after I had become a comic book artist, right out of college. He and I went to several comic conventions together, and the standout memory would have to be in Chicago, at the , then, Underground Cartoon Hall of Fame, with S. Clay, and Skip Williamson. Wilson proved he could down a bottle of Guiness in 7 seconds, the band played “Fire Down Below” when he recieved his achievement reward, artist Tim Conrad and I both agreed that Wilson, and Williamson needed seat belts to remain sitting at the bar, and we rode back to the hotel with Larry Welz, and his wife Sharon, for further debauchery!!

  18. One of the most brilliant and talented illustrators of our time!

  19. I had a note from Lorraine last week … If you’ve got a few doubloons you can spare, it would be a great time to visit the trust site and hand ‘em over.

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