Death is sad. Sadder still, when the dead represents one’s own youthful prime. These days there are plenty of exemplars from my ’60s generation who have dearly departed. Whether I knew them or not, their passing leaves a personal and cultural void. I felt this emptiness when, the other day, I learned about underground comix artist S. Clay Wilson (born 1941), who died on Feb. 7 from a long-lingering brain injury. Wilson was among an ever-dwindling band of rebellious counter–Comics Code comix artists whose X-rated strips liberated the genre and its audience from censorious repression. In Wilson’s obituary for The New York Times (Feb. 9), J. Hoberman wrote, “Violent, obscene and scatological, Mr. Wilson’s hyperbolic stories—full of corny puns and incongruously decorous dialogue, and populated by such unsavory, anatomically distorted characters as the Checkered Demon, Captain Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates, the Hog Riding Fools and Ruby the Dyke—are all but indescribable in this newspaper.” He added that, “His drawings were so outrageous in their humorous depravity that on first encountering them in 1968 his fellow cartoonist R. Crumb recalled feeling that ‘suddenly my own work seemed insipid.’”
I met Wilson briefly, only once. He was hanging at The East Village Other. I was in my late teens. EVO was one of the early portals for underground comics before the “comix” blossomed into full-blown comix books, mostly published in San Francisco. I was in awe and intimidated by these pioneer artists (R. Crumb, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez (see tomorrow’s Daily Heller), Gilbert Shelton, who filled the Other and the affiliated Gothic Blimp Works with irreverent (and what the establishment would argue, irredeemable) social and political work served in a toxic brew of dirty sex, excessive violence and tortured erotic abandon. Wilson’s intricate pen-and-ink work work spread like mold on newsprint pages. When he began publishing lengthy stories in the era-defining “Adults Only” Zap 2 comics and most issues thereafter, his work was so irrepressibly and preternaturally vulgar that it met with incredulity even from his fellow artists. In this sense he helped push the boundaries of what was and was not taboo through his luridly dark comic depictions.
“Like the pirates he relied on in his art for metaphors of unbridled, lustful grime and ridiculousness,” says Brian Doherty, author of a forthcoming (2022), as yet untitled book on underground comix from Abrams, “Wilson’s role in underground cartooning was a buccaneer’s sense of having his own fun and damn the proprieties of those who would never know the joys—or the squalor!—of chasing their own ids into a fantastically cluttered madhouse of human cravings.”
Although R. Crumb has been the most celebrated comix artist in books and films, more than his co-conspirators for his rabidly ribald prolificacy, “Wilson showed him the way, as Crumb has granted, showed him that you really can, and should, do whatever you feel compelled to do with ink on paper,” Doherty adds. “To use expressive freedom for things that might have been less gross or shocking, but still occupied aground blown clear by the gross and the shocking.”
Steven Clay Wilson was arguably the most fearless and shocking of a rollicking band of alternative cultural insurrectionist comix rabble-rousers. In his take-no-prisoners approach, his comics, among other underground heroes, inspired me to escape the grip of Comics Code faves, like Archie and Sgt. Rock, and the puritanical conformity that held American culture tightly by its balls.
(Wilson's archive resides at the Columbia University Library. for “The Art of S. Clay Wilson,” go here.)