Faboulous Freak Out

 

IN THE CARTOONIST HALL OF FAME: Bona fide counter culture icons are rather thin on the ground these days, so when one receives an invitation to join Mister Gilbert Shelton for pints at the last bastion of Dublin bohemia - that's Grogan's Bar on South William Street - you come running. Indeed, on this particular sunny afternoon, the cream of Irish cartoonists have turned out to pay tribute to one of the greats; today the likes of Graeme Keyes and Tom Mathews share the snug corner, exchanging war stories from the toon trade.

To any comic book consumer of discerning taste, Gilbert Shelton's place in the Hall Of Fame is a given. His hysterical Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics - produced at a rather irregular rate over the past three decades (the last issue was in 1997) - continue to attract thousands of new readers yearly, reprinted countless times in every imaginable corner of the globe.

For the uninitiated, the Freaks are a trio of perpetually wasted hippie desperados - brothers Phineas, Freewheelin' Franklin and Fat Freddie Phreak - with a penchant for landing themselves in perilous situations, messin' with The Man and doing nothing in particular, really. Add to the line-up the nonchalant hi-jinx of Fat Freddie's cat, whose adventures adorn the bottom of many a Freak Brothers page, and you've got some of the finest and funniest big stoopid comics ever written. They're also one of the few lasting phenomenons of the original US underground comix scene, a revolutionary 1960s mini-movement that also introduced audiences to the work of Shelton's contemporary, Robert Crumb.

Like Crumb, these days Shelton resides in France. Unlike Crumb, however, he's managed to largely avoid the media's steely glare - and he's more than happy to keep it that way. "Thankfully, people appreciate my work and aren't concerned with me personally," he muses. "Poor old Crumb can't walk out on the streets these days without people recognising him, wanting to talk, whatever. Personally, I can walk the streets anonymously - well, as long as I'm not wearing a fluorescent green shirt [which he is today\]. I'm not a star, a personality, any more than Crumb is. Crumb hates it. I'm flattered by the attention I receive, but I don't want to be a public figure."

Originally from Texas, land of George Dubya ("I'm kinda embarrassed by that one. He's a moron."), Shelton earned his chops on student humour mags before setting his sights on a career as a cartoonist. "For most people it's a dead end," he says, "I was very lucky. I became a publisher, editor, author, artist, letterer, inker. I'm probably the only guy that's been everything," he laughs.

A stint in New York (where he roomed with fellow budding scribbler Terry Gilliam) working on various publications led to a breakthrough of sorts, the publication of his first solo comic, superhero spoof Wonder Warthog. Success, however, remained an elusive proposition. "In America there's only one or two big distribution companies, so it can be really hard to get your work out there. That was true then, and it's true now. With Wonder Warthog magazine we had a national distributor, the publisher printed 140,000 copies - which was a lot - and he only sold 40,000. So he went bankrupt. I don't think he held me responsible. That said, I haven't seen him since."

In 1968, he moved to the west coast, where he soon drafted the initial Phreak family outings. "I arrived in San Francisco just in time for the official death of the Haight-Ashbury period," he says. "They didn't blame me for it, though. They didn't know me. Californians are extremely unwelcoming to outsiders. 'What are you doing here - we've got enough people in California already.' That's the general attitude."

The following year, he and three old college buddies from Austin - Jack Jackson, Fred Todd and Dave Moriarty - decided to "buy a printing press and Rule the World". The rest, merrily embracing the cliché, is history, as Rip Off Press has gone on to corrupt the minds of a generation.

WHILE never the most prolific of comic book talents (throughout the 1990s, for example, he averaged one new comic every three years or so), Shelton has remained one of the most consistently brilliant; his epic Freak Brothers saga The Idiots Abroad, produced between 1982 and 1987 in collaboration with Paul Mavrides, was recently voted one of the 100 "Greatest Comic Book Stories Of All Time" by industry bible The Comics Journal. Indeed, he continues to make a very comfortable living off the ceaseless reprints of the 17 Freak Brothers comics to date.

"Most stuff just disappears into the ether," he muses, "and to have created something that's stuck around for a while is a nice feeling. I'm very happy to do what I do. I'm not a language guy, I'm not witty, but I'm a storyteller. There's not a lot of feedback in the comic book industry, so you've got to take a certain satisfaction in just doing it. The work just disappears, then 15 years later, 30 years later, somebody says 'Hey, when I was a kid I used to read your stuff and I really liked it.' And that's about it. I did a good traditional comic book series, and it's still selling. That's the surprising thing."

With their appetite for illicit substances (Freewheelin' Franklin succinctly coins the Phreaks' life philosophy: "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you times of no dope"), the artist has been responsible for some of the most gleeful pro-marijuana propaganda of the modern age. While making no bones about his fondness over the years for the occasional spliff, in reality Shelton's somewhat of a lightweight. "Mavrides and myself were asked to judge this homegrown competition in Holland, and we were given six joints and asked to discuss the quality. We went away, Mavrides took things very seriously and smoked his six - I was so blasted after the first one that I just couldn't tell the difference. I ended up giving them all the same marks."

While the Freak Brothers remain alive, well and living in Auburn, California (albeit in a time warp stretching back some 30 years), their creator - a quiet, dignified fellow in his early 60s - whiles away his days in his Paris studio: drawing, painting and occasionally publishing. "The French are wonderful people," he says. "They have a lot of likeable characteristics. One of the best ones is that they're the only people willing to stand up to the Americans. That said, French drivers are a bunch of swines." And with that, the legend takes his leave.

Gilbert Shelton's work can be seen as part of the cartoon strand of the Cat Laughs Festival in Kilkenny over the June Bank Holiday