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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Since I commented here that I didn't think that "the influence of confessional dramas" had been salutary for the development of artcomics, it behooves me now to state that I have sometimes wished that Gilbert Shelton had been more influential on the underground than Robert Crumb.

Back in some 1990s CEREBUS letters-page I commented that I deemed Shelton the "comic book version of Mark Twain," or words to that effect. Effusive though this might be, I still believe that Shelton's freewheeling mastery of both comic and ironic modes far exceeds that of his more ideologically minded contemporaries, such as Crumb, Jaxon, Skip Williamson, and, of course, the hyper-confessional Justin Green. Some of these artists attempted to work with the character-type called the "American naif," as represented by self-portraits like Binky Brown or fictional types like Flakey Foont and Snappy Sammy Smoot, but on the whole I found their attempts on this score superficial and phony.

The non-siblings known as the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers"-- intellectual Phineas, practical Franklin and chronic chowhound Fat Freddy-- were not deep characters, nor were they intended to be so. They had nearly no desires to do anything in life except to stay high on one set of drugs or another, but precisely because they were almost all "id," they became perfect mirrors to the many ways in which the "straight" members of  American society told lies to themselves, whether they were cops, revolutionaries, politicians or other "freaks" and fellow members of the "hippie" community.

Over the years I've seen a fair number of references to Carl Barks in the FREAK BROTHERS oeuvre. Without oversimplifying the matter of influences, I'm tempted to believe that Shelton simply inverted the pattern of Barks' duck-adventures, wherein Barks, like Twain before him, sent naive Americans out into a weird and mysterious world-- though, to be sure, neither Twain nor Shelton creates a regular character comparable to Uncle Scrooge, that daring yet comical imperialist.

Except-- sort of-- in 1975's "Mexican Odyssey," credited to Gilbert Shelton and Dave Sheridan. In one of the Freaks' usual no-brainer inspirations, the three goofballs decide to emigrate to Mexico to avoid their landlady, Franklin knows the way already, though he makes a weird Verne-ian reference at the start of the jaunt, telling Phineas and Freddy that they're driving "directly above the center of the Earth."

In contrast to some of the Freaks' adventures that follow the format of comic books, "Odyssey" is constructed like a series of Sunday comic-strip pages, even with the addition of a separate one-tier feature about  "Fat Freddy's Cat." This means that the story is set up as a series of joke-setups, many of which concern the three gringos encountering such south-of-the-border menaces as corrupt cops, Montezuma's revenge, and "the dreaded Mexican bus." That said, their main enemy is home-grown: a transplanted U.S. military man, Douglas D. Zaster, who initially pursues the threesome simply because he hates hippies. Later, it's revealed that Zaster is busily engaged in growing a crop of poppies for the opium market, and that he's working hand in glove with the American government in the heroin trade.

However, the three Americanos are befriended by the closest Shelton ever comes to an Uncle Scrooge figure: a mysterious shaman named Don Longjuan:

There's no question that the name is a spoof of the shaman Don Juan from the contemporaneous Carlos Castaneda books, but for once, the character is more than just a MAD-style play on words (though I confess that I did find myself wondering if Shelton was thinking of either Long John Silver or the "longjohns" worn by superheroes).  While most comics-farces would simply make Longjuan some sort of contemporary charlatan-- say, having him trying to sell the Freaks his books on shamanic enlightenment-- Shelton's magician remains an "enigma wrapped in a mystery." His penchant for helping the Freaks out of trouble and then leaving them to get into more is played for humor, as when he enchants Freddy to think that he's a pig.

And yet, the humor is not unleavened with mystery. During one sequence, when the Freaks have been unjustly condemned to the hell of Mexico's jails, Longjuan frees the hippies by taking them into vast subterranean caverns far beneath the modern city, making references to past civilizations of "giants" and "small people." Much like the better adventures of Barks' duck-heroes, Shelton achieves a maximum degree of mythic suggestion via minimal suggestion.

The entire "Odyssey" consists of just one splash page and 23 story-pages, not counting the minimally related accompanying strip about Fat Freddy's Cat. I would guess that the pages were meant to be serialized in underground newspapers before they were collected into comic-book format. But the sequence is much tighter than anything one finds in most of the commercial newspaper-strips of the "Classic Era." This is another aspect of Shelton's work that I could wish artcomics had assimilated to better effect-- the ability to tell linear stories, no matter how far afield they might choose to go thereafter. Perhaps linear stories reminded most of the underground cartoonists of the "sellouts" of mainstream comics, and so they tended to focus less on art and more upon the effects of "the arty."

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