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Notes on S. Clay Wilson

Ryan Standfest has just edited a very interesting anthology called BLACK EYE 1: Graphic Transmissions to Cause Ocular Hypertension (Rotland Press), devoted to comics done in the tradition of black humor. To my way of thinking S. Clay Wilson is a pivotal figure in this tradition, although like most of the underground cartoonists Wilson is woefully underappreciated or misunderstood these days. In the hopes of encouraging a new generation to take a fresh look at Wilson’s work, I wrote a long essay for BLACK EYE trying to explain his centrality in the tradition of outre comics. Below are some excerpts from that essay, which give the gist of the argument:

Crumb’s Crumb. In innumerable interviews and autobiographical essays many underground and alternative cartoonists talk about the Crumb epiphany. The first time they see Crumb’s work, it hits them like a hammer over the head. “You can draw anything you want,” they think. Crumb’s audacity liberates them to be equally daring and expressive. Monte Beauchamp’s 1998 oral history The Life and Times of R. Crumb contains many accounts of Crumb’s inspirational power. One way of describing S. Clay Wilson is to say that he is “Crumb’s Crumb”: seeing Wilson’s art awakened Crumb’s artistic id. “Wilson had all these drawings full of cocks and cunts and chopping and slicing and stuff,” Crumb told an interviewer in 1970. “He was into drawing anything he felt like and pushing all those things as far as he could.” Prior to seeing Wilson’s work, Crumb’s comics were heading towards greater sexual explicitness but these early strips also tended to be giddy, light-hearted, and even Disney-esque in their winsome cuteness. Crumb hadn’t yet shaken off his training as a greeting card artist. As Crumb admitted in that same interview: “I had always had this kind of built-in censor in my head because I was always trying to do something that had popular appeal, you know? And this censorship was so deeply ingrained in me that I never even thought about it. It was just there.” Wilson changed all that.

A Central Artist. If we acknowledge that Wilson was the artist who unchained Crumb’s unconscious, who gave the final push for Crumb to shove aside his internal censor and be utterly honest, who gave permission for Crumb to become Crumb, then it’s clear that Wilson was the central artist of the underground generation. Of course, there had been transgressive artists of all sorts before Wilson as well as a tradition of black humor in comics (witness Tijuana bibles or EC Comics or Gahan Wilson). But still, Wilson created something radically new. There was something furtive, ashamed, under-the-counter about earlier transgressive artists, the most shocking of whom often did their work covertly for a small audience; what set Wilson apart was that there is never a hint that he’s embarrassed about what he’s doing; his strips weren’t printed for a coterie, they appeared in Zap Comix which had a print run in the hundreds of thousands. Wilson is not a dirty old man who occasionally flashes his cock out and then quickly hides it with a trench coat: he’s more like an unabashed exhibitionist who is not afraid to walk nude along a busy city street. Wilson’s gleeful depravity, his jaunty nihilism, his open-faced perversity were liberating. He opened up the floodgates and pouring out came Rory Hayes, Ivan Brunetti, Johnny Ryan, and countless others. I’d hazard a guess that most of the artists in BLACK EYE are, in one way or another, Wilson’s descendants.

A Visual Stonewall. On June 28, 1969 the New York Police Department launched an early morning raid of the Stonewall Inn. They met with unexpected resistance as the patrons of the bars – gay men, bull dyke lesbians, transvestites – started fighting back. The ensuing riot was the spark for the modern gay rights movement. The Stonewall riot occurred a year after the publication of Wilson’s “Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates” which showed a lusty battle between gay and lesbian (or “dyke”) pirates which ends in a giant orgy. Is it venturing too far to see an affinity between Wilson’s comic and what happened at Stonewall? Wilson art isn’t, God forbid, advocating on behalf of gay rights or any other sort of politics, conservative or progressive. But still, the very act of representing queer sexuality in such a blunt, ferocious way – without the smirk of camp or the winking coyness of earlier gay art – speaks to Wilson’s contribution to the new spirit of freedom. Aren’t his comics a kind of visual Stonewall? The message of the Stonewall riot was: “We won’t be pushed around anymore, we won’t hide our desires in the shadows anymore.” The message of Wilson’s work is “Anything my mind can imagine, my pen will draw. I will not hide in the shadows.”

Note: for information on the S. Clay Wilson Special Needs Trust, go here.

15 Responses to Notes on S. Clay Wilson

  1. RobClough says:

    I don't disagree that Wilson was central to the underground movement, or that he inspired Crumb (I'd argue that the body of work that followed for Crumb in the early 70s was the least interesting of his career, but I might be in the minority). That said, I like the idea of Wilson's comics more than actually reading Wilson's comics. Sure, he's an exhibitionist boldly walking nude down a city street, but after five minutes of that one thinks "Oh, there's that naked guy again." Wilson's comics, in my view, are every bit as juvenile as the average superhero comic–just more honest in its depiction of adolescent power & sex fantasies. I find them incredibly difficult to read; his pages are cluttered and crammed with images and there's little storytelling flow. In other words, he's possibly the most important underground figure but has the least compelling body of work, especially by today's standards.

  2. bhagen111 says:

    I agree, S. Clay Wilson's work is difficult to read from a story-telling point of view. I enjoy him in a different way – every panel of his mature work is like standing in front of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The overwhelming detail and confusion is the strength of his art, just as some painters concentrate predominantly on color, not story-telling. And, damn, he is fearless. Indefensible from a moral point of view, and at the same time a pure expression of self.

    As W. H. Auden said about Lord Byron's poetry, "I don't feel like reading it very often, but when I do, it is the only [work] I want to read: no other will do."

  3. patford says:

    One thing which impressed me from the start with Wilson is his powers of observation. He's really an excellent draftsman. While the perspective or proportions of his drawings are in a cartoon mode, the things he is drawing are clearly well understood, and accurate. This goes for things like motorcycles, human anatomy, and other hardware (no pun intended) which make up his settings and cast.

  4. Ray Davis says:

    S. Clay Wilson is funny as shit. Funnier!

  5. vollsticks says:

    I hope his condition continues to improve to the point where maybe we'll be seeing new art from Mr. Wilson…that last interview he did with The Comics Journal was great and made me re-appraise his work, somewhat.

  6. inkstuds_ says:

    When i was at Stumptown over the weekend, I saw a really good panel by Patrick Rosenkranz were he talked about how Trina Robbins was a fan of WIlson's because of the way he was equal horrible to men and women. No one was safe.

  7. patford says:

    I wonder if Trina has ever rethought her early opinion of Crumb?
    Her comment about Wilson is just the same way I've always see Crumbs work, with the exception that Crumb is hardest of all on himself. He's always shown himself as an ugly, out of control, drooling creature.
    In fact if anything, on the whole Crumb is far harder on men than women.
    This is as it should be. We men as a whole are rabid dogs walking around pissing on fire hydrants.

  8. Ali_Almezal says:

    I don't strictly agree with your logic of raising Wilson to a higher pedestal. Crumb was the central figure of the underground movement not only because of his content, but also because of his output. I'm too young to know Wilson's work, but your logic is like saying Nietzsche is the father of the Objectivist movement. You are stressing the importance of influences a little too much.

  9. patford says:

    Jeet doesn't in any way appear to be raising Wilson to a higher pedestal than Crumb. As much as I like Wilson he (like almost every cartoonist who has ever lived) isn't remotely in Crumb's league.
    Crumbs greatness is so overwhelming that he comes across (to me) as an individual who signals the apex of cartooning. It's as if he's an accumulation of the form rolled into one.
    What Jeet seems to crediting Wilson with is smashing down barriers. Wilson was a radical, liberating force.
    Without Wilson's example Crumb and others would never have dared to barge out of the trenches. When they saw a man leap forward streaking through "no-mans-land" untouched, with shells bursting all around him, it was an inspiration.

  10. Ali_Almezal says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I'm still young and getting underground works is pretty expensive, so I have little idea of what I'm talking about. I always feel like I have no right to say anything about comics because I know so little.

  11. ryanholmberg says:

    Jeet, maybe you deal with this in the full essay, and maybe it's been said by someone somewhere, but it seems to me that the natural comparison here is with Samuel Delany's Hogg, which was written just around the Stonewall Riots. Much much much more than Wilson, Delany's image of male homosexuality is essentially one of erotic filth and sexual aggression. The humor is super black. I am not sure if Delany was trying to take a certain form of sexual desire to its limits, or was caricaturing mainstream criminalization of homosexual acts. Whatever the case, Wilson looks like an amateur in comparison.

    As for no-camp in Wilson. Really? What's with the pirate costumes then?

  12. Jeet Heer says:

    @Ali_Almezal. Exactly what Pat Ford said, I'm not saying Wilson was greater than Crumb but rather that Wilson had a huge influence on Crumb and via Crumb had a huge influence on underground comics (and culture at large). Wilson's centrality is a matter of his liberating power but Crumb of course remains the greater cartoonists (really, aside from Herriman, Schulz and arguably Kirby, no other American cartoonist is in Crumb's league).
    @Pat Ford. From fairly recent comments she's made I'd say that Trina Robbins has exactly the same opinion on Crumb that she had in 1971. She likes Wilson though. I talk about this in the longer essay.
    @Ryanholmberg. The Delany comparison is interesting. I don't think Wilson's pirates are quite camp; as I talk about in the longer essay, Wilson pirate related work comes out of a prepubescent obsession.
    Anyone interested in this topic should seek out the longer essay in Black Eye!

  13. Ray Davis says:

    Delany does make an interesting comparison but his first porn novel, Equinox, is closer to Wilson's best-known work both in time and attitude, even including an approximation of a pervert pirate.

    I've noticed what may be a generational shift in crude humor since (let's say) the combo of Reagan and AIDS: Johnny Ryan and South Park seem dreary stuff to me, whereas my younger friends seem downright offended by Wilson and Vaughn Bodé. It's almost as if dumbing down of craft has become a formal necessity, like affecting a moronic voice for an embarrassing thought. Although much less of a humorist than anyone else we've mentioned, Delany's unapologetic showiness and the posthumous exaltation of Philip K. Dick's more-or-less functional prose may be related as well.

  14. J.T. Dockery says:

    I’m 35 and just in the past few years have I really been getting a more firm grasp of the context of the undergrounds. For one thing, growing up in Kentucky, I struggled to find any back issues of undergrounds (the local comics shop simply didn’t stock them), unlike I’d imagine a previous generation who either by proximity to time or geographical proximity to larger, urban, more well-stocked comics shops, were able to read the work in its original context (I know from talking to older folks that they read underground comics in the big KY in the head shop days, but that was before my time).

    I’m still largely absorbing the work in reprint form (which is still scant). And when I do see original pressings of undergrounds it’s a bit of a revelation. That said, looking for superlatives is misleading. Crumb is Crumb and there’s nothing any of us can do about it (I resent him at this point, haw!).

    S. Clay Wilson is liberating for me. He is not a story-teller in a big way. I, for one, enjoy his manic crammed but well-executed pages, and don’t judge his work for lack of narrative; it’s simply not about narrative. It works for me like an out of tune nodding off Heartbreakers song with Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders (“Pirate Love,” anybody?). And as much as comics have descended into this polite, academic blah blah blah, the shake rattle and roll of Wilson’s outrageousness rings true and acts as inspiration, even if it’s not directly apparent in my own work, just as a sentiment.

    Speaking of music, there is an analogy to punk here….getting past the dinosaur pretense academic trying to be Salinger with a dip pen mentality in comics and getting back to the raw burst of anything goes and anything we can get away with (and more) energy that begat undergrounds, just as musicians sometimes skip back to history to discover the raw independent sides lost to pop music’s larger history to get at the stupid energy that begat rock and roll and have that end up informing their own music moreso often than the big billboard obvious and obviously lauded “artists.”

    I’d like to see a younger generation latch on to Bode, Griffin, the black and white work of Williams more than I would like to see people emulating Clowes, Ware, etc. (more resentment!). But this is also simply where my biased head is at right now.

    @Jeet: looking forward to reading the essay in an unabridged version. Thanks for writing it. Cheers!

  15. steven samuels says:

    Jeet, what do you make of Robert William’s comic work? Wilson may have been first, but Williams surely matched him in the mind-bending lunatic go-for-broke department. One gets the same bracing buzz from either. But I bet Trina doesn’t like him….

    FYI, for you youngers guys looking for some undergrounds at a reasonable price, Last Gasp’s web site still has a certain number available. These days, that’s about the only source left for those periodicals……

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