Belgian Lace from Hell: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 3

Belgian Lace from Hell: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 3

Belgian Lace From Hell, the third and final volume of Patrick Rosenkranz’s “The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson,” has landed.

Rosenkranz is our leading historian of underground comics. His Pirates in the Heartland (Fantagraphics. 2014),[1] took Wilson from his birth in 1941, through his ground-breaking, taboo-shattering work in the glory years of the UG. His second, Devils and Angels (2015), carried the narrative from 1977 into 1989. Now Lace brings readers to Wilson’s diminished present, in which a traumatic brain injury has left the once charismatic, Hell-rattling artist unable to care for himself.[2]

The book is generous in its display of Wilson’s art. It is rich with quotes from past interviews of Wilson,[3] who was among the most engaging interviewees known to man. It is replete with anecdotes from his friends, fellow cartoonists, and women that capture his color and complexity, his genius and his impossibilities. It features a tender, brilliant, heart-breaking introduction from his wife, the unsinkable Lorraine Chamberlain, and extracts from a journal (or diary) she kept that honestly, bravely, painfully details the quality of their post-injury life. Lace is, at once, rewarding, both in the comic and the tragic sense.

And it left me often feeling like a crabby shit.


I blame some of this on production short-comings.

Much of the full-color art which “Lace” reprints – about which I will say more later –  previously appeared in Ten Speed Press’s “The Art of S. Clay Wilson” (2006). While Rosenkranz correctly notes Wilson’s displeasure with the quality of Ten Speed’s reproductions, all concerned should be happy he has not expressed his opinion of Lace's. Put the two books side-by-side, shift your gaze back and forth, and it make you feel  like the optometrist has thrown the switch on the lenses and your vision has blurred. Brightness dips. Contrasts smudge. Images shrink. (Even the paper feels inferior.) Impact has “Yuch”-ed!

Then there is a textual oversight so dislocative it suggests Fanta had either employed a proofreader descended from the navigator aboard the Titanic or decided affronting its readers was less trouble than correcting a printer’s gaffe as big as the Ritz. Page 69 concludes, “There is a direct”; page 70 begins, “to tell him he was in New Orleans.” Huh? What? Did words fall out?  Sentences? Paragraphs? How far did this time-transport carry? One moment Rebecca Wilson, a girlfriend of Wlson’s is comparing his drawing habit to a Tourette’s symptom. The next, somebody named Ashmun is rattling on about two fellows named Elliot and Roy, high on pills, inside a former police car.

And as with the earlier volumes, Fanta saved the expense of footnotes or  index. The omission of the former means that a reader has no idea when in the last half-century the speaker being quoted spoke, which would seem important for purpose of relevancy and reliability. The absence of the latter becomes a problem in “Lace” as early as paragraph four, when Rosenkranz introduces a Robert McNown without indicating who he is. If, like me, you don’t know this already, unless you possess a memory which can recall McNown from when he was introduced in an earlier volume (if he was) or feel like thumbing through 450 pages to find him, he might as well be the guy at the next café table.[4]


But the primary reason for my disgruntlement lies with my and Rosenkranz’s differing philosophies about writers’ responsibilities.

Originally presented as a “documentary-style biography,” (or so read the back cover of Heartland), “Mythology” became, with Angels, a “biography retrospective” and, by Lace, a “retrospective” only. The result is that it often reads like a slightly textually enhanced, cut-and-pasted oral history. Take Lace's first (“The Art Biz”) and last (“Legacy”) chapters. By my count, “Biz” has 15 paragraphs written primarily by Rosenkranz and nearly double that (28)  quoting others speaking about Wilson. (Additionally, there are seven paragraphs from letters written by Wilson and 15 paragraphs quoting him speaking to unidentified interviewers.) In “Legacy,” a final assessment of Wilson as an artist and person, Rosenkranz provides one brief, introductory paragraph, followed by 21 paragraphs quoting members of Wilson’s circle – and three paragraphs I wrote 22 years ago

I would expect a writer who has spent years grappling with a subject to commit the results of his tussle to the page or, where discussion would benefit, seeking input from outside experts he could accept or question. After I made a similar point in my earlier review, Rosenkranz  explained that he preferred to interview only “eyewitnesses to (Wilson’s) life” and, thus, limit “his story... (to) primary sources.” This leads readers to learn in “Legacy”, among other things, that Wilson was “a wild man,” “a gentle soul,” “a pain in the ass,” and “very well-educated, well-spoken..., (and) bright.” This may all be true, but it would seem to call for someone – if not the author, someone – to attempt to synthesize these contradictions and, maybe, more importantly tie them into Wilson’s art. But since Wilson “never cared to interpret” his work, Rosenkranz explained, he also left it to readers to decide “his motivations and meanings.” With the limitations he placed on those called to the stand, the result is that the help these readers gets in achieving this understanding comes in the form of insights like it is “hard to articulate what it is that’s important about (Wilson’s) work” or “there’s something in Wilson... that you connect with... you can’t explain.”[5]  

As one who, both as an attorney and a writer, has learned to trust eyewitnesses about as far as pig flight, I find Rozenkranz’s reliance on them regrettable.[6]  I think the way to truth is to collect as much information as you can, measure it, weigh it, grab it by the ears and shake it; then judge it. I think these judgments become the challenge – and the fun of writing. They also offer the reader the most bang for her buck. I hate myself for becoming one of those critics who complains because the book before him is not another book entirely, but I feel, in Lace, the pang of opportunities lost.

Here are two.

By the 1990s Wilson had already achieved that for which speakers quoted by Rosenkranz praise him. He had “destroyed all censorship.” He had liberated “the American public.” He had  proven the truth of his credo that, at least when it came to sex and violence, “You can draw anything you want in a comic book.” But with those dams long burst (and the countryside long flooded), some of Wilson’s work reprinted in “Lace,” it seems to me, does not extend his artistic/social contribution in any valuable direction, but instead raise questions worth discussing. Once Lester Gass has “hacked to bits” Sabrina,” “whacked off” a breast from Tilly, and “opened.” another woman “like a can of beans,” in a story printed originally in“Zap” and reprinted in “Pirates,” there seemed little necessity for Wilson, 23 years later in “Cadaver,” in a story reprinted in “Lace,” to have The Gruesome Twosome eviscerate Prudence, lop off her head, and eat her heart.  As Peter Schejdahl wrote in “The New Yorker” about Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, there are certain things that “Once done – needn’t – mustn’t really – ever be done again.... (T)hey are neither good nor bad art. They complicate what art has been, is, and can be...” Or as Voltaire put it, “Once a philosopher; twice a pervert.”

Even more problematically, once Wilson put the offensive African American caricature Meadows into Weirdo 14, it seemed uncomfortably duplicative to deposit him in Weirdo 15 and 19. (And it seems less defensible for Rosenkranz/Fantagraphics, after reprinting the first Meadows story in “Angels,” to reprint the other two in “Lace,” since their  original publication occurred several years before this volume begins.[7]) Isn’t there a point, after certain freedoms have been established, that such repetitions normalize – even import an approval of the ideas represented by them?  

Wilson’s work courted controversy from the jump. He was criticized for being “crude,” for being misogynist, for having “contempt” for humanity, even for fearing sex and finding “life itself... disgusting.”[8] That we now inhabit a period of calls on college campuses for “safe zones” and “trigger warnings” and in the art world the questioning of what images which artists are suited to render, makes it seem a good time to debate the challenges posed by his art again. But Lace does not quote a single person objecting to a single Wilson.[9] I am a great fan of Wilson’s – and of the First Amendment – but I believe neither he nor it are served by this head-in-the-sand approach.

The second issue arises from what I consider to be Wilson’s most significant work of the last 25 years, the aforementioned full-color, non-sequential illustrations he did, usually on commission or as a gift or for a gallery to market. They displayed his signature characters – The Checkered Demon, Star-Eyed Stella, Ruby the Dyke – or his personally customized zombies, pirates, witches, ogres, aliens, beatniks – or his take on cultural/historical figures: James Joyce in a bar with cocked revolver; the Marquis de Dade, bound-and-gagged, his penis threatened by a cutlass. There were even brushes against random social issues: homelessness; sadistic drill sergeants; anti-pornography feminists. (Better you don’t ask what Wilson put the latter through).

Lace”notes that Robert Hughes admired Wilson’s work. And one friend or another compares him to George Grosz and Hieronymous Bosch. I was eager to hear those more knowledgeable than myself trip on Wilson. How did he compare – nuts and bolts – to these artists? If he was not their equal, why? (How the Hell can you compute his “Legacy” otherwise?)[10]  But neither Rosenkranz nor those he quotes took the subject on, leaving it to me, with my 12th grade art history course and one visit to SF MOMA per annum. When I looked them up, I learned Bosch and Grosz are valued for their attacks on  immorality through their grotesque imagery. Which seemed to sum up Wilson pretty well. So how come, I wondered, the Guggenheim wasn’t bidding for, say, “The Checkered Demon, One of Santa’s Rebel Elves, and a Reindeer Anal Parasite Kidnap the Baby Jesus”?

Wilson’s work is not without the stuff of High Art cred. As my fine artist/art critic friend Robert, who is about as comfortable in these heights as Sherpas on K-2, said, after casting a reluctant eye upon “Lace,” “There is a certain ‘overallness’ that reminds me of Pollack and even a ‘decorativeness’ – an odd term to apply given the subject matter. But if you take off your glasses, so you don’t see the content, and let the colors and forms do their thing...”

 Ah, the content...

That is certainly a starting point.

But museums have housed rape (group and solo), and homicide (crucifixions to firing squad), and even Jeff Koons boffing Cicciolina (in three-dimensions and full-color) without undue disruption in the halls. In “Angels,” Rosenkranz quotes an (apparent) collector/art dealer as saying Wilson’s outrageousness made others “utterly fearful” to hang his work. I find this explanation only partially satisfactory.[11] What content offends – and to what degree – varies with time and place. (Recall that when “Deadwood” aired, David Milch defended the use of “motherfucker” as a dialogue staple because it registered with contemporary audiences as taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain did with 19th century South Dakotans.) In other words, Wilson’s blow jobs would not necessarily put more lives at risk than Bosch’s potential heresies or Grosz’s inner degeneracy. Neither Wilson nor his patrons have been threatened with excommunication or a prison camp. (It isn’t even like he was working in cow dung or replicating Allah when it comes to public outcry.) In fact, I think Wilson’s stature is undermined less by the “fear” factor in his portrayals than by his humor. I suggest he isn’t getting into museums for the same reason Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen didn’t win Best Director Oscars. He is too damn funny. It is hard to look at Wilson without bursting into a grin, and you don’t see much grinning inside the chambers where acquisition committees convene.

For another thing, Wilson’s spin on the “immoral”[12] has  not been softened by a century or more’s remove. It remains so contrary to the norm it continues to rub poo-bahs raw. Basically, he states, loud and clear, “What you have been passing off as ‘moral’ is fucked.” (I mean, who else would devote a series, “Just Say ‘Yes’...,”[13] to celebrating individually each of the Seven Deadly Sins, Anger through Sloth.) And Wilson spends most of his energy trashing 1500 years of post-Augustinian Christian doctrine – that man has been damned since Eden by Adam’s and Eve’s sexual arousal.

Basically, every work of Wilson’s is an erect  middle finger – if not a penis – smack in  convention’s eye.            


The good thing about oral histories, it is said, is that they “obtain information from different perspectives... (which often) cannot be found in written records.” A downside is, unless the obtainer of this information makes an effort, none of it is verified. And whether you are compiling a “biography” or “biography retrospective” or “retrospective,” if you only interview people who are personally close to your subject, the “perspectives” you obtain will be narrow and the depth you achieve scant. Without analysis or plumbing or divination, you have an assemblage of voices from those standing on each others’ toes in the shallow end of the pool.

“Mythology,” from start to finish, was fun. I was glad I read it. I was happy Wilson received such attention and tribute. Most folks of good sense and breeding, having read Angels, will call for the firing of cannons and launching of balloons.

But cranky old Uncle Bob wanted more.


[1].Reviewed by me (“What’s Mything”) at July 3, 2014.

[2]. I was chastised for my previous review’s failure to remind readers that The S. Clay Wilson Special Needs Trust (POB 14854, San Francisco, CA 94114), provides for many of his household needs. So I acquit myself better now.


[3].Okay, let’s get this off my chest since it may be fucking with what I write. Rosenkranz has identified me as a “source” from which he “borrow(ed),” without saying what (I counted 14 paragraphs) and citing only one of the two works he sampled. (At one point, he acknowledges that I twice published “conversations” with Wilson, though what he then quotes is not part of one.) This underwhelming recognition struck a portion of my ego in which I am about as vulnerable as Gentleman Jim Corbett was to Ruby Bob Fitzsimmons’ solar plexus shot.


[4].The book’s final chapter drops twenty-some names, only two which come tagged with ID bracelets: Bob Levin, “a journalist”; and Diane Blackmer, “Kinder’s wife.” This “Levin” character I knew, but “Kinder,” himself, was one of a dozen about whom I didn’t have a clue.

[5]. So as not to seem totally negative, I should say that, among those quoted, I thought Sabeth Thomas and Mark Dalton offered keen insights into Wilson’s work and character. (Also, those three paragraphs of mine were nothing, if not a stab at divining “motivation and meaning” – and Wilson loved them.)

[6].As V.M. Varga told Agent Burgle in “Fargo,” “We see what we believe, not the other way around.”

[7].It may also be unfair to Wilson, who seems to have outgrown such imagery. At least, none executed more recently than those presented in this book.

[8]. Attributions for these complaints, and others, can be found in Levin.“Sicken ‘Em or Enlighten ‘Em.” “Pirates, Rebels, Free-Thinkers, Pirates & Pornographers.”

[9].In “Angels,” Rosenkranz noted Meadows’s racial offensiveness. But on the topic, he quoted only Peter Bagge, who, as “Weirdo”’s editor, had printed all three stories in the first place, and felt anyone upset by them “over-sensitized,” and Sabeth Thomas, who lived with Wilson when he created the stories and considered any objection the result of “political correctness.”

            Both Bagge and Thomas are, of course, white.

[10].I don’t understand this omission. Rosenkranz seems to have had the chops. He had already demonstrated in “Angels“ a, impressive familiarity with Wilson’s predecessors in the art of perversity.

[11]. Let me note that a multi-image Wilson poster denoting two acts of sexual perversity and one of sadistic violence greets anyone who enters our front door. (Of course, we don’t get that many visitors.)

[12]. See: Levin supra.

[13]. Not reprinted here but available in the Ten Speed collection.