The Boulevard Voltaire, a wide street with a canopy of shade trees, runs through Paris’ Bastille and République districts, and on this spring day, shops are selling lilies of the valley, which the French traditionally exchange on May Day. As is true nearly everywhere else in Paris, the four stories above the street level are apartments. A Portuguese concierge is responsible for the smell of fish that lingers in the foyer of one such building late on a Friday morning. A one-man elevator that resembles nothing so much as an upright coffin shoots up a couple of floors, but France ends at the doorway of the apartment. Inside are the home and studio of an artist who has come from the United States to Paris to pursue his art. That is certainly an old story. What’s unexpected, though, is that the artist is Texan Gilbert Shelton, no angst-ridden dabbler in oils but the creator of the sixties and seventies underground comic strips The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat, and Wonder Wart-hog.
What’s even more surprising is that the Freak Brothers and friends have survived the intervening two and a half de-cades. Shelton, who is now 51, has also managed to keep his edge, bringing his hippie humor into the nineties without being false to either era, which is pretty odd when you consider who the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are: three bachelor roommates whose lives revolve around smoking marijuana, grousing about the Establishment, and devising barely legal ways of making money.
Shelton was born in Dallas in 1940 and bounced around the South as a kid before his family settled in Houston, where he attended high school. Later he jumped from college to college, attending Washington and Lee in Virginia and Texas A&M before winding up at the University of Texas at Austin in 1959, where, playing the student draft-exemption game, he got a bachelor’s in history, worked on a master’s in history, then started all over again as a freshman in the art department. It was during this part of his college career that he fell in with the notorious crowd at the campus humor magazine, the Texas Ranger— a bunch of bohemians that included such seminal cartoonists as Jack Jackson (who went by Jaxon), Tony Bell, and Frank Stack (better known by his pen name of Foolbert Sturgeon).
Shelton was already becoming known as a cartoonist, contributing his Wonder Wart-hog strip both to the Ranger and to various hot-rod magazines, but his most famous strip came about by accident in 1967. Somebody had made a movie that Shelton recalls being entitled Texas Hippies March on the Capitol for the weekly film show at Austin’s pioneer psychedelic dance hall, the Vulcan Gas Company. Shelton drew a comic strip as an ad for the film, named it “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” and discovered that people liked the strip lots more than the film.
It was a good, loony time to be living in Austin, whose area of picturesque old houses near campus was a minor rival of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and New York’s East Village as a center of hippiedom. There was cheap Mexican pot, legal peyote, and bands like the Conqueroo and the Thirteenth floor Elevators to keep bodies moving and minds expanding. But Austin was also LBJ country, and all of this looseness in the president’s back yard was regarded by many as unseemly. A crackdown was inevitable, and when it came, Shelton joined an exodus of Texans (and specifically Austinites) to San Francisco in 1968.
The Texas cartoon contingent became one element in the emerging underground comics movement, which was centered in San Francisco. These “comix” (so called to differentiate them from the Mickey Mouse type of comic book) ran the gamut from the intensely personal (Robert Crumb’s psyche-baring confessionals) to the incomprehensible (Victor Moscoso’s talking neon blobs). Some were neurotic (Crumb again), others obscene (S. Clay Wilson’s biker fantasies), a few impenetrable (the multiartist, drug-fueled “jams” of Zap), and certain ones consistently hilarious (Gilbert Shelton). Many of them were produced by Rip Off Press, a printing press Shelton had helped start and of which he is still part owner.
The Freak Brothers were heroes of the counterculture. People said that Shelton modeled them on his friends, but in truth, they were universal. If you were under thirty in the sixties or seventies or you had kids who were—you knew Freewheelin’ Franklin, the skinny, cynicalhipster with a handlebar moustache; Phineas, the mad-scientist type with glasses and a bushy beard; and Fat Freddy, the dumb but lovable goofball, a slave to his appetites. The plot of virtually every episode was set in motion when the brothers discovered that they were out of marijuana and must send somebody (usually Fat Freddy) to score some more. The phrase “Gee, I hope he doesn’t get burned again” became almost as famous as the brothers’ philosophy that “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope,” a saying that has entered the mainstream vocabulary in various forms; it was even paraphrased in a recent Gasoline Alley daily strip, in which the word “dope” was replaced with “banjo.”
The story continued to unfold around the comic misadventures that befell Fat Freddy in his quest for dope. Our hero was usually so stoned that he was easily separated from his money by an endless stream of temptations and scams, and Shelton rang many a change on the old Jack and the Beanstalk theme. The brothers’ chief enemy was Notorious Norbert the Nark, an undercover agent who was very dedicated to his task even if, luckily, he was hardly brighter than Fat Freddy. A successful spinoff of the Freak Brothers’ adventures was Fat Freddy’s Cat, a Rip Off Press—syndicated series of comic books featuring Freddy’s scruffy pet, a sort of harder-edged Garfield who stood up for cats’ rights and more food.
Probably the most remarkable thing about the Freak Brothers is