REVIEWS

The Best of Wonder Wart-Hog

best-of-wonder-warthog-gilbert-shelton-knockabout-628x888In the lore of comic art and its transformation, not only in the Bay Area epicenter of counterculture “comix” but across North America and, at the very least, Western Europe, few figures stand higher than Gilbert Shelton.

For artists born from the end of the 1930s through the middle 1940s, the saga of comics rested upon the vast circulation of comic books and the sudden suppression of the most artistic varieties during the McCarthy Era. Not only anxious mothers sought to keep kids from what was considered a vice–at best a time-waster, at worst an inspiration to juvenile delinquency–so did the government! Or at least congressional committees, interrogating publishers, and local governments, occasionally joining citizens’ committees in comic-burning ceremonies.

The artists who came of age from the middle 1960s onward set themselves upon revenge: they might not have steady mainstream jobs hacking out superhero (or Richie Rich) strips, but at least they had dignity. From the earlier pre-Underground strips, appearing in Berkeley, Austin, and elsewhere in college humor magazines, they thumbed a collective nose at censors. Sex (and drugs, only maryjane for the moment), were definitely on the subversive agenda, resentment against campus ROTC and parietal rules at large close behind.

Here comes Gilbert Shelton, a Houston native who was already publishing cartoons in the magazine of the University of Texas by the early 1960s. Headed for New York then back to Texas, he got the genius idea of a Superman parody. Not that this had never been done: Mad Comics (preceding Mad Magazine) had hit Supe (“Superduperman”) and Captain Marvel (“Captain Marbles”) hard and hilariously a decade earlier. But that was old news, forgotten except for in Mad paperback reprints. Shelton would bring the satire up to date with a long-snouted warthog, whose alter ego Philbert Desanex (named after the popular brand of foot powder then used in locker rooms across the country) worked at the Muthalode Morning Mungpie with Lois Lamebrain. By contrast to the original Clark Kent, this intrepid reporter lusts for Lois shamelessly.

Shelton managed to get his work into HELP! magazine, the brilliant but financially unsuccessful satire publication edited by Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman until its folding in 1965. Kurtzman got a glimpse of Shelton’s promise, encouraged and befriended him (along with another promising lad named Robert Crumb). Shelton got the money together for a whole comic book in black and white about the “Hog of Steel” in the middle of the decade and somehow, in Madison, Wisconsin (the northern version of Austin, Texas), I managed to get my hands on a copy in 1967. By 1969, I had published Radical America Komiks, a special one-shot issue of the magazine that I had created for Students for a Democratic Society (aka SDS). It was a double triumph because RA Komiks launched Rip Off Press in San Francisco, the beginning of a long and fruitful run with Underground Comix even as they became Alternative Comics and finally (if we use the term) the Art Comics of today.

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The rest is history, although obscure history by now, because a full appreciation of the changes brought in comic art has yet to be made. Not only was there sex and plenty of it, dope in the fashion of the day, but antiwar sentiment and a general rejection of the military-macho foolishness as strong under Kennedy and LBJ as it had been under Republicans.

Shelton’s famed Texas-style characters, the Freak Brothers, were unique, and their Austin-ness was little grasped elsewhere in the country. But Shelton was also unique in his story-telling genius. Because the sense of opposition to the existing society was so unquestioned in the underground genre, satire often overwhelmed the storylines. The dopey ambience of the protagonists, frequently stoned-out, didn’t help either.

So much is delightfully told, by word and image, that WWH has lost little over all this time, even if the counter-culture may need a little unraveling for younger readers. A wonderful piece from the later 1960s, “Wonder Wart-Hog Meets the Elusive, Chimerical Chameleon!” has an art thief disguising himself as a Norman Rockwell painting (an acute embarrassment to this criminal!), then an old lady, and then a section of a brick wall, causing poor WWH to swing wildly and hopelessly until Warty traps the rascal in a psychedelic rock concert, where the changing colors of a light show naturally drive him berserk. This strip is especially treasured because Gilbert Shelton’s real life friend Janis Joplin makes a one-panel guest appearance (affably reflecting, “Philbert Desanex, You Old Son of a Bitch!”), and on another page, a blown-away wall reveals four dope-smokers, at least one of whom looks suspiciously like Freak Brother Freewheelin’ Frank.

Another favorite from about 1970-71, “Wonder Wart-Hog and the Invasion of the Pigs from Uranus”, reveals Shelton’s ecological observations, often but not always present in his other work. On a distant planet, the piggish Emperor “owns three diesel-engineered helicopters and a 47-room, coal-heated mansion” and struts around, apparently untroubled, in what can only be called industrial slime. His citizens, each of whom “consumes twice his own weight daily in beer and teevee dinners,” are too sluggish to even think of revolt. Threatened by the very existence of Earth’s conservationists, the Uranians make a deal with eco-hating vice-president Spiro Agnew and ultimately destroy our planet, despite the Hog’s best efforts to save us. Not a happy ending, this may have been Shelton’s distaff response to the orchestrated enthusiasm of the first Earth Day.

From "The Wart-Hog Who Came in From the Cold", Zap 15

From “The Wart-Hog Who Came in From the Cold”, Zap 15

It is interesting to speculate that Shelton, born in 1940, was older than nearly all his peers, except his friend born the same year, the late Spain Rodriguez. Their styles were set before the comix began appearing in dozens, soon hundreds of underground newspapers. This pair were central to the creation and proliferation of the genre and not only as artists. They got the gang together for more collective works, comic by comic, for years.

Then things began to fade as the head shops were closed by the cops and the lure of the counterculture disappeared almost as suddenly as it had appeared. Robert Crumb moved to the foothills outside Davis, California (only a decade later to Provence), and Gilbert shifted his base to France. Books drawn by the two of them, in Shelton’s case with a series of collaborating artists, were published with huge distributions across Europe in the 1970s-90s. In a sense, they “educated” new generations of artists there, and beyond Europe, the rest of the world.

Readers of The Best of Wonder Wart-Hog will enjoy an abundance of old strips from the first, somewhat crude WWH of the early 1960s onward to the middle of the 1990s. The volume would have been better with an introduction, and with dates as well as location assigned to the original publication of the various strips—but works wonderfully for Shelton readers new and old regardless. Thirty color pages in the center offer up Vintage Shelton Plus. As it turned out, the Hog of Steel was not even the main figure in Shelton’s oeuvre, but he still gives us pleasure, and no one will understand or appreciate the artist fully without diving into these pages. Reader, Dive Away! ##


Paul Buhle, a retired professor living in Madison, Wisconsin, now edits nonfiction comic books. The latest and most improbable is titled
Radical Jesus.

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12 Responses to The Best of Wonder Wart-Hog

  1. R. Fiore says:

    Wonder Wart-Hog was my favorite superhero from the age of about 10, when I found “Wonder Wart-Hog, Captain Crud and Other Super Stuff” in a drug store. Unfortunately, if it’s like the Knockabout Freak Brothers books, much of it will be reproduced from scans of comic books. Does it have the unreprinted material from Drag Car-Toons, or is lack of that why it’s merely the “Best of”?

  2. Oliver says:

    Another big fan of WWH here. Here’s hoping this volume gives credit where it’s due to collaborators Tony Bell and Joe E. Brown Jr.

    Ridiculous, really, that we can find the director’s cut of ‘Metropolis’, lost for 80-plus years, on the shelf of some faraway film laboratory (not to mention an entire John Ford feature), but so much of Shelton’s superpig seems lost.

  3. george says:

    R. Fiore: You found Wonder Wart-Hog in a drug store? I thought you had to go to head shops for comics like that.

    Oliver: But LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT is still a lost film!

  4. R. Fiore says:

    It was a regular Fawcett paperback, cashing in on the interest in superhero sendups that came with the Batman TV show, and on “college humor,” which is something that’s always coming back. Vaughn Bode was in the book too. Those were different times.

  5. R. Fiore says:

    The strips Shelton did for Peterson Publishing are nearly the only things he’s ever done that he doesn’t own. I don’t know whether it’s that Peterson is really tight-fisted with intellectual property or that Shelton just isn’t that proud of that material. Somebody published a couple of books of Alex Toth material which I believe came from CARtoons not that long ago, so it would seem it’s possible.

  6. Doug Skinner says:

    It was sort of a spinoff from “Help!” magazine; it was edited by associate editor Charles Alverson, with a forward by Kurtzman. It was all stuff from college humor magazines, regularly featured in “Help!” A fun book!

  7. Goodman says:

    There were also those 2 Wonder Warthog magazines that were available on newsstands back in the mid-60′s…think it was the same company that did the Car-Toons or Drag Cartoons mags…WWH was taken underground later, if I recall.

  8. Bill says:

    I got my Wonder Warthogs from Jimmy’s Smoke Shop in New Britain, CT. It was also a Greyhound station and it had the most amazing selection of comics, magazines and paperbacks. In the Sixties there was also a record shop that had bootleg albums less than a block away. Jimmy’s is still there but it changed ownership 4 years ago.

  9. george says:

    I grew up in the South. The most radical thing we had on the magazine racks was Vampirella. And, a bit later, National Lampoon. The first time I saw undergrounds was at a combination head shop/record store in Memphis.

  10. Oliver says:

    Picked this up over the weekend. As entertaining as ever, with some stories new to me, though indeed in need of a scholarly detailing of WWH’s convoluted, intermittent publishing history (and the volume’s out-of-order reprinting hardly helps). Are we supposed to entrust everything to Wikipedia these days?

    (On a porcine-related note, if Rocket Raccoon can appear without shame in a multimillion-dollar blockbuster, can Marvel at least give us a mini-series starring another Bill Mantlo-created animalistic character, namely Razorback? Provided, of course, that they resist the obvious ‘dark and gritty’ temptation to reinvent him as meth-addled Tea Partier.)

  11. Tony the pitiful copywriter says:

    I wanted to show my adult daughter what WWH looked like and found this. I just realize now that I was exposed to underground comix at the age of 11 with every issue of CARtoons, a humor mag for motor heads. Talk about sweet nostalgia, does it get any better than this? I read issues at the Rex-all drugstore downtown in Central Islip, NY. I even bought some!

  12. Warts and all says:

    A bit late in the day, but here are the stories’ original publication dates and sources. There are at least 23 Wonder Wart-Hog stories NOT included in the collection, mostly from the Drag Cartoons era.

    “Fearless, Fighting, Foulmouthed Wonder Wart-Hog” (Bacchanal Mar 1962)
    “WW Meets the Merciless, Menacing Masked Meanie!” (Texas Ranger, Oct 1962)
    “WW Meets Super-Hypnotist!” (Texas Ranger, Sept 1962)
    “The Return of the Masked Meanie!” (Charlatan Vol 3 No 3, 1965)
    “The Wird Ones!” (Help! No. 23 , Mar 65)
    “WW Goes A-Freedom-Riding!” Help! No. 25, July 65)
    “WW Meets the Merangsters!” Help! No. 22, Jan 65)
    “WW and the Merciless, Menacing Masked Meanie!” (Drag Cartoons No. 29, Jul 66)
    “WW Goes to Jail!” (Drag Cartoons No. 35, Jan 67)
    “WW Builds A Dream Car” (Drag Cartoons No. 36, Feb 67)
    “WW Opens a Concession Stand…” (Drag Cartoons No. 43, Sept 67)
    “WW and the Comet Insurance Man…” (Drag Cartoons No. 44, Oct 67)
    “WW Meets Supercop!” (Texas Ranger, Oct. 1963)
    “The Year They Blew Christmas!” (Drag Cartoons No. 46, Dec 67
    “WW Meets Pie Man” (Drag Cartoons No. 49, Apr 68)
    “WW Meets His Maker” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #1, 1968)
    “WW Visits the Ghetto” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #1, 1968)
    “WW Meets the Mafia” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #2, 1968)
    “Strike Fever” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #2, 1968)
    “WW Meets the Zymotic Zookeeper! (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #2, 1968)
    “Phibert Desanex’s 115th Dream…” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #2, 1968)
    “The Adventures of Philbert Desanex” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #2, 1968)
    “WW and the Battle of the Titans!!!” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #1, 1968)
    “WW and the Battle of the Titans Part 2” (Wonder Wart-Hog The Hog of Steel #2, 1968)
    “WW and the Battle of the Titans Parts 3-5” (Rip-Off Comix #10, #11, #12, 1984; the title pages are missing)
    “WW Meets the Elusive Chimerical Chameleon!” (Feds ‘N Heads, 1968)
    “WW and the Invasion of the Pigs from Uranus!” (Hydrogen Bomb Funnies, 1970)
    “The Parable of Philbert and the Pusher…” (Wonder Wart-Hog Magazine #2, 1968)
    Cover of ZAP #15 (2005)
    “The Wart-Hog That Came In From The Cold” (Zap Comix #15, 2004)
    Cover of Wonder Wart-Hog Magazine #2
    Cover of Wonder Wart-Hog Magazine #1
    Covers of Rip Off Comix #1, #2, #3, #4
    Covers of (Not Only) The Best of Wonder Wart-Hog #1, #2, #3
    Cover of Wonder Wart-Hog El Superserdo
    Cover of Wonder Wart-Hog Book One
    Cover of Wonder Wart-Hog and the Battle of the Titans!
    2011: “WW and His Faithful Sidekick Chernobyl Chicken”
    “Wonder Wart-Hog Meets Super-Fool” (Bacchanal, Apr 1962)
    “WW Encounters Super Granny” (Help! No. 24, May 65)
    “WW Meets Super-Patriot!” (Texas Ranger, Nov 1962)
    “WW Goes on Welfare!” (Rip-Off #1, 1977)
    “Epidemic!” ((Rip-Off #2, 1977)
    “Return from the Planet of the Pigs” ((Rip-Off #3, 1978)
    “Sudden Death!” ((Rip-Off #4, 1978)
    “The Famous Superheroes School” (Rip-Off #5, 1978)
    “Philbert’s 100,000th Dream” (Rip Off Comix #6, 1980)
    “Escape from Planet Squootpeep!” (WW and the Nurds of November TPB, 1980)
    “Philbert Gets a Job” (WW and the Nurds of November TPB, 1980)
    “Philbert’s 99,998th Dream” (WW and the Nurds of November TPB, 1980)
    “Philbert’s 99,999th Dream” (WW and the Nurds of November TPB, 1980)
    “Wonder Wart-Hog Runs at Indy” (WW and the Nurds of November TPB, 1980)
    “A Day in the Life of Philbert Desanex” (WW and the Nurds of November TPB, 1980)
    “WW and the Nurds of November (Winnipeg “Rag” #1, May 1979)
    1999: “Millennium Fever”
    ??: “Philbert Buys a Television”
    “WW Breaks Up the Muthalode Smut Ring” (Zap Comix #4, 1968)
    “WW’s Believe it or Leave It!” (Zap Comix #5, 1968)
    “WW Blows an Easy One…” (Zap Comix #3, 1968)
    “Philbert and the Street Entertainer” (Knockabout Comics #11, 1980)

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