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 their longevity. “The Freak Brothers are part of a tradition of characters who live on the edges of society,” Shelton explains. “Dope is only part of it. Sometimes I’ll just take an old joke from beatnik days and change ‘alcohol’ to ‘marijuana.’” The universal appeal is illustrated by the fact that most of the strips these days are coauthored with Paul Mavrides, a San Francisco artist who was an important figure in that city’s punk scene in the late seventies and who still lives there. “My readership has remained constant,” Shelton says, “with some young people added to the hippies. Rip Off Press has always been surprised by the fact that the Freak Brothers have kept selling.”
The place the strips have sold most consistently, however, is Europe; in the U.S. underground comix slowly vanished as the sixties and seventies became passé. R. Crumb (who also recently moved to France) continued to enjoy success with his books, and there was a new Freak Brothers title from Rip Off every year or so, but many of the other artists went so far underground that they nearly disappeared. By the late seventies, the only place an aficionado could find the books was in the increasingly dingier head shops, among the drug paraphernalia and grow-your-own-pot books. (I bought the four most recent Freak Brothers books for this article, and I realized when I got them home that they reeked of incense. They also set me back $2.50 apiece instead of the 50 cents they origin-ally cost.) If you didn’t feel comfortable at a head shop, you had to go hang out with the superhero worshipers at comic book stores, which usually carried underground titles as well.
In Europe it has been a whole different scenario. There, comics are one of the forms that serious fiction takes, and French and Belgian kids who have grown up reading Hergé’s classic Tin Tin tales are as likely as not to graduate to Jean-Claude Denis’ books about Luc Leroi, scam artist with a heart of gold, or Jean-Claude Claeys’ hard-boiled photorealistic thrillers like Magnum Song. Thousands of copies of the comic magazines L’Echo des Savannes and (à Suivre) fly off the newsstands each month. Most Germans I know agree that the best commentary on reunification so far has been Gerhard Seyfried’s novel-length comic Flucht aus Berlin (“Flight From Berlin”), which has already sold almost 150,000 copies (and in which Gilbert Shelton makes a cameo appearance, both as a character and as an artist). While Americans read about guys in tights and pursue power fantasies, Europeans meditate on life and love. One thing the Europeans owe to the Americans, though, are innovations in style and content. The loose graphic style favored by Crumb and Shelton revitalized the European scene, as did stylistic approaches, such as Shelton’s broad, satirical tales and Crumb’s tendency to tell all even when it made him look awful.
After Gilbert Shelton fled San Francisco in 1979, he spent a couple of years in Barcelona (“I liked that—Barcelonans sure know how to party!”). Then he and his wife, Lora Fountain, returned to San Francisco. In 1985 they moved to Paris. “I knew a lot of people in Paris,” he says. “I was tired of San Francisco and afraid of the earthquake, the French franc was ten and a half to the dollar, and my wife liked it because she’s one of the few French-English literary agents. I can live anywhere, but Paris is like an amusement park.”
Today the Freak Brothers’ antics appear in America, England, Canada, France, Spain, Denmark (“probably my best market, per capita,” Shelton says), Sweden, Norway, Finland, Brazil, and Italy, providing a modest but steady income. (How modest, Shelton won’t say, but his French sales are less than 20,000 copies per title, which regrettably has kept him from getting a contract with a major comic publisher there.) He’s content with life as it is at the moment, though. If nothing else, Taco Loco, a Mexican restaurant, is only a short walk from his apartment.
Shelton is not jumping on the bandwagon of Europe’s recent sixties revival. Earlier this year in the French comic magazine flag (short for the French flagrant delict), Shelton introduced a sextet of new characters, the members of a rock band called the Not Quite Dead (“the most advanced rock band in the world”). They apparently are to serve as spokespersons for some of the cultural changes that have gone on since the Freak Brothers first appeared. In a brilliant centerfold poster in the third issue of flag, the band’s drummer—who looks like Fat Freddy with a Mohawk but is not nearly as intelligent—is seen beating the skins with a dazed expression on his face. Above him, in a thought balloon, he imagines himself sitting at a desk, wearing a suit, beaming as he stares at a computer screen and talks on the phone in a room with dozens of other faceless people.
But then, in that same issue, there’s a short Freak Brothers cartoon in which Freewheelin’ Franklin calls the cops to pick up the host of the Tele-vigilante television show, a law-and-order type who has been urging citizens to call a toll-free number to turn in miscreants. The officers responding to the call look strangely familiar; there’s a tall skinny one, a dark-haired one with a moustache, and a fat blond one. Some things may have changed, Shelton seems to say, but others never will.