Following up on news of a signing by Gilbert Shelton at London’s Gosh Comics to mark the launch of the new collection Fifty Freakin’ Years of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers from Knockabout Comics, we’ve got an exclusive extract of a feature by this amazing creator, which features in full in the book. Plus – a sneak peek at some of the pages!
The full feature reveals many of the crazy antics behind the scenes at Rip Off Press, home for many years to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Fat Freddy’s Cat creative team.
Knockabout‘s Fifty Freakin’ Years of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comes out on the 23rd November, and takes a look back over Gilbert Shelton’s pioneering work as well as brand new strips, including: “Phineas becomes a Suicide Bomber” (so, no pulling punches anytime soon, then…); “Franklin got his Gun”; “Fat Freddy gets Religion”; and more Freak Brothers short strips, illustrations and advertisements.
The book also includes an up to date interview with Gilbert Shelton, a gallery of Freak Brothers parody strips by Robert Crumb, Hunt Emerson and more.
If you grew up reading and falling over laughing to these terrific strips then this is a collection you’ll be mentioning to friends and loved ones in the run up to Christmas… but let’s leave the rest of this article to Gilbert, right? It’s what you came here for!
For those who’ve been in a green haze since 1960, Gilbert Shelton might be considered one of the godfather’s of stoner comics, starting with the Superman parody strips Wonder Wart Hog, in 1961 followed by the equally iconic Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the spin off Fat Freddy’s Cat in 1977.
He never made it to Vietnam (as was considered unfit after admitting to having taken LSD), but his cartoon creations did, becoming a significant part of the cultural and emotional resistance that defined the era. He was also active in San Francisco music scene, after moving to the city in 1978, designing LP covers, for the Grateful Dead’s 1978 Shakedown Street among others.
At the end of 1984 Gilbert and his wife Lora moved to Paris, France. They were intending to stay just for one year, but it’s been thirty-three years now. Lora started a literary agency and is the agent for Robert Crumb and has sold the rights to Crumb’s Genesis in a number of countries.
Fifty Freakin’ Years by Gilbert Shelton
When I started drawing the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in 1967, I imagined them as being the same age as myself; that is, approaching thirty. So now we are all pushing eighty. Me, my hair has all fallen out and I can’t walk without limping. But Phineas, Fat Freddy and Freewheelin’ Franklin are still the same as they were in 1967, prancing and strutting. Forever young! Well, that’s the way humorous cartoon characters need to be. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be funny.
In 1967 I was the art director for the Austin, Texas, blues and rock venue, the Vulcan Gas Company, on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin. The weekly posters I did for them are now exceedingly rare due to the fact that the Vulcan could only afford to print about a hundred posters each week. I was paid in posters, which I would sell for a couple of dollars apiece. Today, one of these posters might cost you several thousand dollars.
The Vulcan Gas Company also had a classical film program once a week. One night there was a double feature, one with the Marx Brothers and the other with The Three Stooges. As I left I thought, “I could do a film as good as those!” So with the help of a friend, Renée Tooley, who was a film-making student at the University of Texas and had access to a 16-millimeter camera, a five-minute film was made, entitled “Texas Hippies March on the Capitol.” The first Freak Brother page was done as an advertisement for this film.
Almost everyone liked the comic strip better than the film. One cannot know, since the only copy of the film has been lost forever, but I decided to stick with cartooning rather than movie directing.
The Origins of Rip Off Press
In January of 1967 I and my girlfriend Noël plus Trina Robbins and Kim Deitch piled into the decrepit Chevrolet and drove back to San Francisco. At this time a number of the “underground” cartoonists were moving to San Francisco. Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Dave Sheridan, Fred Schrier, Jack Jackson, Roger Brand… There was a vigorous underground publishing scene, with Apex Novelties, The Print Mint, Last Gasp and Rip off Press, my own company. Rip Off was founded by me and three of my classmates from the University of Texas: Fred Todd, Dave Moriaty and Jack Jackson, each of whom threw in a hundred and fifty dollars to buy a printing press, which none of us knew how to work.
I drew weekly Freak Brothers strips for the tabloid weekly The Los Angeles Free Press. During this time, I had the brothers revisit their families. Fat Freddy’s family lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was one of ten or so children. Phineas visits his parents in Texas. His mother looks like Mel Lazarus’ cartoon character Mama, the typical Jewish mother. Phineas’ father turns out to be part American Indian. Freewheelin’ Franklin doesn’t know who his parents are. Perhaps his father was Popeye.
I met my wife Lora on the beach at Venice in 1970. I was sitting on the beach drawing my weekly Freak Brothers strip, and she picked me up. Lora had been a student at U.C.L.A. where she had gotten a master’s degree in public health administration and was now working at a hospital in Los Angeles, and she moved in with me at my apartment in Venice on Grand Canal. When Governor Ronald Reagan cut off all the money for public health Lora lost her job. She then became a business partner of my agent Manfred Mroczkowski, and then an independent literary agent herself, a profession she continues to this day.
By 1971 Rip Off Press had moved into a big warehouse at 1250 17th Street in San Francisco and was selling huge numbers of the comicbook Freak Brothers No. 1. We took possession of the huge enormous printing press of the Los Angeles Free Press, which had gone out of business, and Dave Moriaty soon mastered it and was able to print a hundred thousand comic book insides per day (although we didn’t do that every day). After a year or so, however, we realized that the printing business was taking all the cash flow from the publishing business, and we let the sheriff repossess the giant press, and thereafter we printed only the covers on our original small press and a larger Ebco press that we had bought.
These presses presented a danger for the long-haired hippie pressmen. More than once one of the press operators got their long hair caught in the rollers.
Party Pooping Police?
In the seventies the Rip Off Press was a fun company to work for (except for the “work” part). We had an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial area of San Francisco where it became the social centre of the cartoonists with its monthly parties which might attract four hundred or so people. One such party with its live band and huge crowd attracted the attention of the police, who arrived to find a shoebox full of marijuana in the entryway. The police demanded to know who was in charge.
Fortunately for me, I had left the party early, and the police were directed to Rip Off’s president Fred Todd. There was a long line of people waiting for the only toilet, so the police took Fred to the head of the line and let him pee first before they took him downtown to the station. He had to spend the night at the station but they let him go the next morning without locking him up or charging him with anything. The San Francisco police were pretty liberal about marijuana.
The Freak Brothers go International – and what happened to that movie?
By the mid-seventies foreign editions of the Freak Brothers began to appear. The first foreign translation was in Italian, published by Arcana Editrice in Rome. Later editions appeared in German, Spanish, French, and a dozen or so other languages. In Great Britain, the American editions were being distributed by Hassle Free Press, which later became Knockabout Comics. But then British Customs declared that the book could no longer be imported. In the ensuing confusion over whether the Freak Brothers comics could be imported into Great Britain, Rip Off Press allowed Hassle Free/ Knockabout to publish their own editions of the Freak Brothers.
Now, in 2017, after Rip Off Press died, Knockabout in London remains the sole English-language publisher of the Freak Brothers.
At the end of the seventies Universal Studios in Los Angeles purchased an option to produce a Freak Brothers feature-length film They had the rights for six years, but nothing actually got filmed.
I sold my rights to the Brothers to Rip Off Press for ten dollars and moved to London and then to Barcelona to avoid the hassle of dealing with the movie people. They hired Sheridan as a technical consultant. Sheridan, Mavrides and I did a number of new Freak Brothers stories for the Spanish magazine El Víbora, published in Barcelona. I moved back to San Francisco at the beginning of 1982, just in time for Sheridan’s death. Mavrides and I continued doing more stories.
I bought back the rights to the series from Rip Off Press, for a hundred dollars. My California agent Manfred Mroczkowski would continue selling movie-rights options to various people and organisations, and each time nothing would happen and the rights would revert to me.
This has happened seven or eight times. Maybe it’s better just to keep selling the rights and having nothing happen; that way I don’t have to worry about a bad movie being made.
You can read the full feature by Gilbert in Fifty Freakin’ Years of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers! – out on 23rd November 2017 – available from all good book shops
Our thanks to Tony Bennett and Knockabout Comics and Gilbert Shelton for permission to feature these extracts from the new collection, on sale 23rd November 2017
• Gilbert Shelton: Fifty Freakin’ Years of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers 1-2pm Saturday 25th November 2017, GOSH Comics, 1 Berwick Street, Soho, London | Web: www.goshlondon.com
• Knockabout Comics: http://knockabout.com
Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers © Gilbert Shelton