In 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.
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.
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.