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.


*                        *                        *                        *                        *                        *


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.”


*                        *                        *                        *                        *                        *


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.


*                        *                        *                        *                        *                        *


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.