If there is an anecdote that defines Gilbert Shelton (Houston, Texas, 81 years old) well, it is the strenuous efforts he made for years to avoid being sent to the Vietnam War. Shelton was theoretically recruitable from the time he came of age, but he circumvented that risk by successively enrolling in a series of college graduate courses, in New York, Cleveland and his native Texas, to obtain extensions of studies. He barely attended class, he was already dedicating himself to subversive journalism and comics, but his official student status kept him away from the army.
Exhausted all extensions, finally requested an exemption for health reasons. The medical tribunal that judged his case was simply told that he was a hippy, who had been using psychedelic drugs for several years and believed that this habit had caused serious mental disorders. He was declared unfit without further questioning. After resorting to all kinds of stratagems and trickery, it was a desperate act of sincerity that saved his skin.
Because Shelton, as he confessed years later in an act of homage dedicated to him by the Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture, would not have survived “not even a quarter of an hour” in the jungle of Vietnam: “I am clumsy, indolent, neurotic, and I would have gone to that blind madness of marijuana and LSD. My own teammates would have had enough of me and would have cut my throat at the first opportunity.
The Freak Brothers travel to the future
These days, Shelton, the man who saved himself from a war thanks to drug use, is back in the news because of The Freak Brothers, an animated series based on his work produced by the Tubi channel and which has been released in Spain by HBO Max. The first season of the series has been successful and its creators have just confirmed that a second is being worked on, with a premiere scheduled for the end of this year.
The Freak Brothers of the title are an endearing trash gang, a quartet of counterculture survivors hippy toxic, messy and filthy that Shelton created in 1968 and that accompanied him until 1997. They appeared for the first time in the flyer advertising for the premiere of an underground short, The Texas Hippies March on the Capitol (Texan hippies storm the Capitol), and a few months later they became secondary characters in Feds n’ Headsa comic strip self-published by Shelton himself.
Since the founding in 1969 of pirate comic book publisher and distributor Rip Off Press, Freak Brothers they had their own seriesThe Fabulous Freak Brothersin Spain) and even a popular spin off dedicated to the most hilarious and cynical of his characters, Fat Freddy, a polydrug cat with a tendency to defecate in inappropriate places. The original strip was, of course, a monument to political incorrectness whose philosophy is summed up in an unforgettable phrase, uttered by one of its characters, to which Shelton fervently subscribed: “Drugs make lack of money bearable, while that money does not make the lack of drugs bearable”.
Tubi’s series somewhat lowers the dose of madness and transgression of its original reference, but starts from a frankly funny premise: Shelton’s creatures smoke marijuana from a magical strain and take a time jump of more than 50 years, from the San Francisco from the late sixties to the present day. Against all odds, our time not only puzzles them, but also intrigues and fascinates them, so from the second chapter they strive to repeat the experience by incubating a marijuana seed in Freddy’s butt to see if it produces again the wonder herb.
Emilio Bernárdez, director of La Cúpula, the publishing house that began to publish in our country the vignettes of the Freak Brothers in 1979, he has only seen the first chapter of the Tubi series, which seems to him “a somewhat sweetened and decaffeinated approach to the world of Shelton”. He considers it praiseworthy that they have made “an ambitious production with a certain packaging, including, for example, the voices of famous actors such as Woody Harrelson.” But he is disappointed that “much of the bad blood and the subversive and Martian sense of humor of the old Freak Brothersthe authentic ones, have been left out”.
To the comic writer and screenwriter Hernán Migoya, who was chief editor of The Viper, the magazine of La Cúpula that edited Shelton, seems to him excellent news that “the American author is making a fortune thanks to one of the modern platforms of capitalist television entertainment”. Beyond that somewhat belated act of justice and the “shot of revival retro that can cause an increase in the sales of his comics”, Migoya considers that Shelton does not need Tubi, HBO or anyone else to recognize his place in the culture underground contemporary: “Just as Hatredby Peter Bagge, reflects the United States of the nineties, at the height of aesthetics grungyShelton’s Freak Brothers reflect the period hippy, from the sixties onwards”. Another legend of underground comics, Robert Crumb, Shelton’s good friend, chose to “torpedo the make love and not war of that time”, but Gilbert’s gaze is on the side of those lovers of the flower power and cannabis without ceasing to be hooligan, fun and mischievous”.
For Laura Sneddon, literary critic of the newspaper Guardian, it is very difficult for a contemporary audiovisual product to do justice to Shelton, Crumb, Trina Robbins or “any of those generational hooligans of American comics who took the heritage of the counterculture and turned it into cartoons”. Shelton was a “hedonist, a radical, and a rake”, Crumb “a neurotic mortified by sexual desire”, and Robbins, “a poet of the grotesque and the excessive”. But all three shared “an almost childlike enthusiasm for provocation and an intense (and very fertile) hatred of censorship and conformism.” Art critic Jonathan Jones referred to Shelton’s generation as “the transgression-turned-cartoon artists” and wondered, in a magnificent article, “at what point did the comic book universe lose all that revolutionary momentum? and lived banal?
Houston, we got a stoner
Before creating Fat Freddy and his mostly stoned roommates, Gilbert Shelton was a freak brother. His strips feed, to a large extent, on autobiographical substance, memories of his youth in environments as stimulating as the San Francisco of the summer of love, that 1967 in which everything was to be done and everything seemed possible.
Born in Houston, in the state of Texas, in 1940, he gave himself up to the bohemian life from a very young age, during his stays at the universities of Lexington, Virginia, and Austin. At just 20 years old, while studying Social Sciences, he began to publish his cartoons in the university humor magazine The Texas Rangerswhich he would end up directing.
In Austin he had the opportunity to meet people as fascinating and as unrecommended as an energetic, alcoholic and free blues singer, Janis Joplin, whose footsteps he would follow years later to that countercultural mecca that was then San Francisco. Also a member of the social circle of the Californian band The Grateful Dead, the cartoonist went on to form his own rock band, The Gilbert Shelton Ensemble, and with them he recorded songs of insane avant-garde toxicity such as If a Was a Hell’s Angel (If I were an angel from hell).
In his most fertile period, he wrote articles for the alternative press, composed songs, drew posters and album covers, and, above all, churned out subversive cartoons at a frenetic pace. His are characters like Wonder Wart-hog (in Spain, superserdo), a lysergic and porcine parody of Supermanthe failed musicians of Not Quite Dead and, of course, the bearded and disheveled intellectual Phineas T. Phreak and the rest of the fabulous Freak Brothers.
A Barcelona yet to be brand new
In 1981, Shelton moved to Spain with his wife, literary agent Lora Fountain. Emilio Bernárdez had regular contact with him at that time and remembers him as “a discreet guy, always correct and super friendly, but rather introverted, with a tendency to sit in his corner and not give his opinion unless he asks.” you asked”. It reminds him of the first comic halls in that effervescent Spain but still in sepia tones, “taking an hour or so to return from the bathroom, because he was already a legend, the kids approached him to take photos, ask for autographs or give him the thumbs up. ember and he was simply unable to say no to anyone.
In the winter of 1981, after the assault on the Congress of Deputies by Lieutenant Colonel Tejero, “The Viper he edited a ‘special coup d’état’, one of those hooligans that amused us so much back then, and Shelton was there, supporting the young Spanish democracy with his cartoons”, recalls Bernárdez.
The American artist loved Barcelona: “He thinks that he landed in the craziest years of the transition, and found himself in a country that was launching freedom and in which rock, psychedelia and punk, hippies and the new wave , they all landed at the same time, so that all those countercultural moves that fascinated him so much and that in the United States were already a somewhat old thing, here they were in full swing.
For Crumb and Shelton, moreover, it was a pleasant surprise that “there was a Spanish publisher willing to pay them decently for their work and reissue their oldest material in good conditions: they were used to being pirated, without further ado, they were the perks of the trade of the comic underground”. Shelton was particularly amused “that his Freak Brothers were sold here in normal newsstands, not in underground stoner bookstores.”
In 1984, Lora and Gilbert settled in Paris. “They are still there”, says Bernárdez, “because Barcelona, with all that point of madness that she had at the time, fascinated them, but Paris is Paris”. Migoya remembers the frequent visits of a Shelton already established in France to the Spanish comic salons. “He responded to the stereotype of a pacifist, relaxed and calm Texan. Rolling a joint alongside him was one of the must-do feats for any self-respecting local underground comics fan.”
It seems to Bernárdez as positive as to Migoya that the American entertainment industries are now remembering Shelton (in addition to the Tubi series, there is also a project underway for a Broadway show based on the Freak Brothers), but prefers not to have illusions: “It will be, in any case, a passing fashion. Shelton is a legend, but also a relatively marginal author. We are making a complete restored edition of all the material from the Freak Brothers. We are going through the third volume and it is being an almost archaeological work, because Shelton hardly conserves originals and we have to work from published material and photolithographs. It won’t sell much, but we are especially excited that the best edition of the Freak Brothers of the world is ours. The new generations of comic fans in our country deserve it. And Shelton too.”
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