This master of the 70s underground comix movement still keeps his lines sharp in Paris
Gilbert Shelton lives in France and still has his Texas accent. He moved there in 1984 after a tour of duty in San Francisco’s free love scene. Along with his buddies at Rip Off Press they restored old printing presses in order to self-publish raunchy and lewd content that reputable shops wouldn’t touch. They screen-printed psych rock posters for local bands and political causes but the franchise that kept the lights on for decades was the “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” a comic strip Gilbert Shelton had published in alternative weeklies from Austin, Texas to the Big Apple.
His work had become a mainstay in High Times Magazine by the late 70s, during the period when that magazine employed such heavyweights as William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson on the editorial side. It was also in the late 70s that Shelton had begun collaborating with the cartoonist and fine artist Paul Mavrides. This combination was an unmistakably dynamic duo and their fame grew as even Playboy Magazine came knocking at their door to license some stuff.
“I find it difficult to do things by myself. I’m too slow,” Shelton mentioned from his flat in Paris earlier this year. “And I’m better if I have a collaborator. It makes me feel like I should show up for work.”
One of the most famous Freak Brothers comic strips appeared in High Times, and was set in Holland. Shelton made himself a character for the first time, along with Mavrides, and they joined his now famous characters Freewheelin’ Franklin, Phineas and Fat Freddy on a houseboat in Amsterdam.
“That was the last one we did. Mavrides and I were invited to be the judges for a marijuana seed grower’s contest,” Shelton recalls. “When we arrived in Amsterdam they gave us each thirty samples to smoke in five days. Six per day. By the time I’d smoked three puffs of the first one I was so stoned that I couldn’t tell the difference and I gave them all the same score. But Mavrides smoked all of the samples and wrote a lengthy critique of each one.”
Shelton is just as comfortable talking about the architecture of Hector Guimard and why it is hard to drive in France at night because people wear too much black and don’t stop for traffic lights. He is working on a new comic strip “Not Quite Dead” with French artist “Pic,” about an aging rock band.
“Moving here was sort of an accident,” Shelton explains. “We had come to France for a comic book signing tour, and while we were here our charter airline went bankrupt, stranding us. I used to tell people that I’m in the publishing business. But here I can say that I’m a cartoonist, or a “dessinateur de bande dessinée.”
Despite the stigma of being a comic book artist that he experienced in the States, the “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” have never been out of print. There were enough strips from the newspaper publications that within a few years an anthology book came out. That same book is available today, the same as it was in 1972. He still dabbles with new stories for his Freak Brothers family, pulling together a few pages when inspiration strikes. Most of them are just pencil outlines at this point.
“It’s always been a hassle for me,” Shelton admits candidly. “I’m the opposite of someone like Robert Crumb. He’s a compulsive worker. I’m a compulsive shirker.”