Gilbert Shelton Interviewed by Frank Stack, excerpted from The Comics Journal #187Excerpted below are portions of the Gilbert Shelton interview from TCJ #187, conducted by Frank Stack. In the completed version, Shelton guides us through his history as a cartoonist -- from his early days at the University of Texas' newspaper, The Texas Ranger, right up to his current status as yet another expatriate American artist living in France.
Of the current incarnation of Shelton, interviewer Frank Stack writes: "He's mellowed some, though the truth is that, sharply critical of the society as he always has been in his published work, personally he's always been a calm, rational and emotionally mature person. With my questions in this interview I kept trying to get him to vent some anger and some passionate feelings against the kind of right-wing jerks and pontificating crooks that, I thought, he had every reason to hate. But he wouldn't take the bait. As you will see, reading this interview, he preferred to speak about things he felt positively about. Trash-talking is not Gilbert Shelton's game."
FRANK STACK: Well, we have to start somewhere. I assume that sometime in your early career you decided to be a cartoonist. But early on, were you thinking that you'd be a cartoonist, or a writer, or an artist, or what?
GILBERT SHELTON: I've never really been much of anything other than a cartoonist. I remember that when I was four or five years old I would copy the faces of cartoon characters out of the newspaper comic strips. I could do Dick Tracy, and Nancy, and Henry.
STACK: Not Mickey Mouse?
SHELTON: I don't remember Mickey Mouse being in any of our local papers.
STACK: Would you write your own stories?
SHELTON: I didn't have enough imagination. I could copy drawings, but I wasn't good at inventing things. I remember being in kindergarten at age five and having the teacher tell us to get out our paper and colors and draw a picture of anything we felt like drawing. I looked around to see what the other kids were drawing, and they all seemed to be doing a picture of a house with smoke curling up out of the chimney, a lollipop-shaped tree in the yard and the sun in the upper right-hand corner of the sky with lines emanating from it. So I drew the same thing. I knew that the windows of houses weren't supposed to be right up in the corners, but I drew them that way because the other kids did.
STACK: Accepting authority? The authority of the other kids?
SHELTON: Yes, I was the youngest in my class, I think.
STACK: Did you read comic books when you were a kid? Stupid question.
SHELTON: Yeah, I liked Donald Duck and Little Lulu. You know, Disney never allowed Carl Barks, or anyone else, to sign their names to the stories, but I could tell when a Donald Duck story in any given issue of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories was going to be funny, that is to say written by Barks, by looking at the lettering style. I learned how to read before I was in the first grade, mainly by studying Donald Duck.
STACK: Where did you go to school?
SHELTON: I went all the way through public school in Houston. I did best in reading and arithmetic at first, but after a couple of years I built up more confidence about drawing. I wasn't usually the best artist in my class but I was usually in the top two or three.
STACK: Didn't you tell me once that you didn't take any art classes in high school?
SHELTON: I never took art in high school, but I did go to private art classes given by a little old lady when I was 10 or 12 years old. In high school we had a cartoonists' club and I was a member. They gave the club a bulletin board in the front hall and each week we'd have a display of cartoons.
STACK: You told me the name of one of your characters...
SHELTON: Poddy. "Poddy rules the world" was his slogan. Outside of school I would deface local advertising billboards with Poddy graffiti. A sort of early eco-terrorist, you might say. I spray-painted Poddy on the billboards in my neighborhood with such persistence that eventually the billboard companies were unable to sell those spaces to any advertisers, and the billboards fell blank. That was just more space for me to paint on, of course.
STACK: Can you still draw Poddy?
SHELTON: Sure. [He starts drawing.] Let's see. He was always running from left to right, carrying a 23-cent piece in his left hand. He has a long, flexible tongue like an anteater.
SHELTON: I didn't make the nose long enough... In those days I would try to copy the style of VIP, Virgil Partch, who would do things like putting both eyes on the same side of the nose. Partch himself was copying the style of, or parodying, Pablo Picasso. That was the modern cartoon style of the '50s. Poddy's teeth I got from Ton Smits, a New Yorker cartoonist.
STACK: You said a local family showed you The New Yorker?
SHELTON: One family in our neighborhood had moved to Texas from the Northeast and they had a collection of bound volumes of cartoons from The New Yorker which I studied intently.
STACK: What high school in Houston did you go to?
SHELTON: Lamar. Named after Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, President of the Republic of Texas from 1838 to 1841.
STACK: I remember Lamar. I was going to W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi.
SHELTON: Lamar played Ray for the state quadruple-A football championship in 1954, as I recall.
STACK: And Lamar won.
SHELTON: High school football has always been one of the most important things in Texas.
STACK: Did you do athletics, or anything besides defacing local billboards?
SHELTON: No. This was a big school, with 3,000 or so students. There were plenty of outstanding athletes. And there were a lot of creative people too. Tommy Sands, for instance, was a student there at the same time I was. You remember him, the teen-idol singer who married Nancy Sinatra and never did another gig after he divorced her? He was about six years older than me, I think, but I had almost caught up with him in school because he spent a lot of his time doing his daily television show. Also Tommy Tune the dancer was in my class, and Max Neuhaus the sound artist.
STACK: What did you do when you finished high school? Did you go straight to college?
SHELTON: Yeah. First I went to Washington and Lee University. That's a small men-only school in Lexington, Virginia. It had about 600 students.
STACK: And why did you not continue there?
SHELTON: I was bored, and I wasn't doing well in my studies. The only thing to do there was join a fraternity, and I wasn't invited to join. Ninety-five percent of the students at Washington and Lee were in one fraternity or another, so that left me and a dozen or so other weirdos and eccentrics sitting in the local bar, Doc's. That's where I met Stanley Marsh III, later to be a renowned art patron, who commissioned the work of art now known as the Cadillac Ranch -- the row of Cadillacs buried nose-first in concrete with their tailfins sticking up, in Amarillo, Texas.
STACK: So did you finish a full year at Washington and Lee?
SHELTON: Yeah. Then I went to the University of Texas for a year, and then Texas A & M for a half year, and then back to the University of Texas where I got my bachelor's degree in the social sciences in 1961.
STACK: Why all that moving around?
SHELTON: I went to A & M because my parents had moved to College Station and I thought it would be a good idea to move back in with them and save money. It turned out to be boring there, too. I was driving to Houston or Austin every weekend. And Texas A & M didn't have a student humor magazine. It was the Texas Ranger that brought me back to the University of Texas.
STACK: You had contributed a number of cartoons to the Texas Ranger when I was its editor in the academic year '58-'59...
SHELTON: I did some cartoons, but I wasn't part of the social scene. I never went to any of the Ranger parties that year, even though I was invited. Most of the people working on the magazine that year were a couple of years older than me, and I think I was sort of intimidated.
STACK: I would never have guessed that you were intimidated. I remember thinking, me and the others, that you were a sort of cocky young talent, self-confident, ingratiating and funny.
SHELTON: I probably had had to drink two or three beers to build up the nerve to walk into the Ranger office and appear to be self-confident. But anyway, I started getting more involved in the following couple of years when Bill Helmer, Lynn Ashby, and Hugh Lowe were the editors, in the years '59-'60 and '60-'61.
STACK: You went to New York right after you got your degree?
SHELTON: Yeah, I moved to New York in September of '61 and started looking for a job. I looked in the classifieds under "historians" -- that's what I had mainly studied -- but there weren't any jobs in that category. I had one contact in the publishing business, Bill Helmer, who was now associate editor at Escapade and Caper magazines, and he helped me find an editorial job elsewhere. I probably would never have found a job if the Berlin wall crisis hadn't caused a lot of people to get drafted about that time.
STACK: I remember it well. I was one of them. I had to quit graduate school at the University of Wyoming and come to New York and spend my days sitting at a desk at the army base on Governor's Island.
SHELTON: The editor of two little automotive magazines, Speed and Custom and Custom Rodder, had been called back into active duty from the reserves, just like you, and I was hired as assistant editor to put the magazines together in his absence. It was easy, I just followed the editorial formula they had already worked out. I would sneak my own drawings into the magazines from time to time, saying they were drawings from the readers.
STACK: I remember you saying at the time that you did almost all of the magazine yourself, since the readers' contributions were so consistently dull and incompetent.
SHELTON: Yeah, the good automotive magazines, Hot Rod and Rod and Custom, were published in Los Angeles by Petersen Publishing Company. The New York car magazines were low-quality imitations. What do they know about cars in Manhattan?
STACK: There were several of us ex-Ranger people working in New York that year. Besides you and Helmer and me, there was Lynn Ashby, who was working as a reporter for the New York Times. We made lots of contacts, like the Help! magazine people, Harvey Kurtzman, Terry Gilliam, and Chuck Alverson.
SHELTON: I showed Kurtzman my cartoons from the Ranger at that time, but he wasn't interested in publishing them in Help!. I remember showing my stuff to Thousand Jokes magazine too. That was a big-circulation monthly collection of single-panel gag cartoons, as you might recall, and the editor, I don't remember who it was, had a curious comment. He said, "Personally, I hate your work, but I guess it's the wave of the future, and you'll probably do all right. We don't want it for Thousand Jokes, though." [laughter]
STACK: I remember you had tried to work with an old professional comic strip writer.
SHELTON: Yeah, I can't remember much about that, except that some guy gave me a written script for a daily newspaper strip that he wanted to have drawn up.
STACK: What was the theme?
SHELTON: High school athletics. I tried to do it but it took me a week to get one day's worth done, and I realized if I had to do an episode every day I'd be in big trouble.
STACK: You said you sold some stuff to Escapade or Caper?
SHELTON: No, I don't think so. I did sell a few gag cartoons here and there, but I can't recall specifically. The first national publication I ever sold anything to was a magazine called College Humor, back around '59.
Birth of The Hog
STACK: What was the genesis of Wonder Wart-Hog?
SHELTON: The idea for this character came to me one day as I was walking down the street in New York in '61. I even remember exactly where I was, it was the corner of Avenue of the Americas and 45th Street, not that that had anything to do with it.
STACK: I remember the early roughs you did, on yellow sheets of paper. In fact, I may even still have some of them stuck off in my files someplace.
SHELTON: I was working on the first Wonder Wart-Hog story in the fall and winter of '61, when you and I lived in the same neighborhood on the upper west side of Manhattan. The first story was actually written by Bill Killeen, the former editor and publisher of Charlatan, the student humor magazine at Oklahoma State University. I had shown Killeen my ideas for the Wart-Hog strip, which was to start with the origin of the hero, and he told me I shouldn't start with the origin, I should start with the fully-developed character and come back later to the origin. He offered to write a story himself, which he would then publish in Charlatan magazine, which he intended to start publishing in his hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts, now that he no longer attended Oklahoma State University.
STACK: So Wonder Wart-Hog was first published in Charlatan magazine?
SHELTON: No. There was a new college humor magazine that had been started back in Austin, called Bacchanal. The editor of Bacchanal, Dave Crossley, was one of a group of guys who had been fired from the staff of the Texas Ranger for sneaking obscenities into the illustrations and text. Bacchanal was going to be distributed at all the Southwest Conference colleges, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for this project. The magazine was well-done, with inside color and everything, but unfortunately it only lasted for two issues, March and April of '62. The first two Wonder Wart-Hog stories appeared in these.
STACK: You had gone back to Texas by this time?
SHELTON: Yes. It was looking as though I was about to be drafted, too. I had been called in for my pre-induction physical exam in New York and I had passed, so I decided I had better get back in school and get a student deferment. So I went back to Texas and enrolled in graduate school.
STACK: That was the fall of '62?
SHELTON: The summer session. By this time, it was apparent that Bacchanal was going to fail for lack of distribution, and the position of editor of the Texas Ranger had fallen vacant again, so I applied for the job and was appointed. I was the editor for all of the academic year '62-'63, and I did half a dozen Wonder Wart-Hog stories during this time. Some of the scripts I wrote myself, and some of them were written by Killeen, who by this time had moved to Austin.
STACK: The Texas Ranger had a big circulation. I think it had a circulation of 20,000 copies per issue at its peak in '61-'62.
SHELTON: I believe the maximum was 12,000, but it was still the biggest of the college humor mags. It went into a long, slow decline and finally died in the '70s. Anyway, after I was editor of the Ranger, I dropped out of graduate school in history and started over again as a freshman in the art department. The draft board didn't seem to care, though. They kept giving me the deferment. But after two years, I flunked out of art school and was finally drafted. The army only kept me for a couple of days, however.
STACK: And why did they only keep you for two days?
SHELTON: They said I was medically unfit. Maybe they didn't like the fact that I admitted taking drugs like peyote and LSD.
STACK: Were you humiliated or delighted?
SHELTON: I was glad to get off the hook. Vietnam was really heating up by this time, '64. I thought I was doomed. [laughter]
STACK: What did you do then? You had your character, Wonder Wart-Hog. Weren't there people interested in publishing it?
SHELTON: Bill Killeen was publishing it in Charlatan magazine, which he had re-started in Gainesville, Florida. That incarnation of Charlatan lasted until Killeen was sued for libel by some official of the University of Florida whose name had found its way into the joke column of the magazine. But I wasn't making any income from the Wart-Hog. I lived off my friends for a while. I published six or eight numbers of THE Austin Iconoclastic, all but the last two of which were pamphlet format. I also published a small edition of your Adventures of Jesus, at least I took credit for being the publisher. It was xeroxed clandestinely at the University of Texas law school by a law student named Brooks Alexander, and I stapled it together. One of these original editions, which is titled the Adventures of J. by F.S., is supposed to be very valuable today since there were only about 50 copies made, but I imagine it would be sort of difficult to distinguish a genuine original from a copy of the original.
STACK: One of the things in THE Austin Iconoclastic which was memorable was the regular "Austin's Monuments to Bad Taste" feature.
SHELTON: That was Jack Jackson's contribution. Some of the monuments he made fun of were the sculptures by your teacher and mine, Charles Umlauf, and I imagine if Jackson had tried to go to art school Umlauf would have killed him. [laughter]
STACK: If Charles Umlauf blamed you for that, that might have been one of the reasons you found art school difficult.
SHELTON: No, I thought Umlauf was friendly towards me. I had another art teacher who told me that he had wanted to give me a C but the other teachers on the jury had overruled his decision and forced him to give me a B-minus instead.
STACK: That's one of the first good stories I've heard about the University of Texas art faculty.Well, I thought at the time, and I think lots of other people thought too, that you had an extraordinary feeling for what's funny. You said earlier that you didn't know how to do jokes, but somewhere along you did learn. How did you know if it was funny? Did you just show it to somebody and say, "Is this funny?" Did you have sounding boards? Did you try things and change them? Did you talk to people about it?
SHELTON: If it makes me laugh, then I know my idea is funny. But I wasn't especially good at the single-panel gag-type joke, like Virgil Partch used to do. He was very funny with the single-panel gags, but after he started doing a daily comic strip it wasn't so funny.
STACK: You're talking about Big George?
SHELTON: Yeah. But in the '40s and '50s VIP was really funny.
STACK: Who else did you think was funny?
SHELTON: Let me see... Charles Addams. Cobean. George B. Price. Jules Feiffer. Shel Silverstein. Kliban. And in the newspaper comics, Chic Young, Charles Schultz, Mort Walker, Johnny Hart and Mel Lazarus.
STACK: I remember you saying you liked Dick Tracy.
SHELTON: I liked Dick Tracy because it was so weird. I don't know if Chester Gould was trying to be funny, but Dick Tracy really broke me up. I liked the names of the villains, like Flyface.
STACK: Why did you decide to leave Texas, where it seems like there was some kind of scene developing in music and other things, and go to California?
SHELTON: I left and returned to Austin several times. In '64 and '65 I spent some time in Cleveland, where my girlfriend Pat Brown was going to the Cleveland Art Institute.
STACK: Wasn't Robert Crumb living in Cleveland at this time, too?
SHELTON: I think so, but I never actually met Crumb until '68, in New York. In Cleveland I applied for a job at the American Greeting Card Company of Robert Crumb fame, but I was turned down. I did meet Dave Sheridan in Cleveland then, where he was a student at the Art Institute, and Fred Schrier too. During '64 and '65 I was shuttling around between Austin, Cleveland, and New York. Harvey Kurtzman had started reprinting old Wonder Wart-Hog stories from the Ranger in his "Public Gallery" section of Help!, and in '64 he asked me to start writing new Wart-Hog stories for his mag, for which I got $35 a page. Help! didn't last long after that. Then I went out to California for the first time in '65, in a truck with a bunch of guys in a motorcycle gang called The Cleveland Gooses. I stayed with friends in Venice and Summerland, California, and lived in Santa Barbara briefly. In March, 1966, Tony Bell and I started doing regular Wonder Wart-Hog stories in an automotive magazine published in Torrance, California, called Peter Millar's DRAG CARTOONS. Then Tony and I moved back to Austin and continued sending in the strips from there until Millar went out of business in '68. One of the reasons that Millar Publishing Company went bust, maybe, was the publication of two issues of Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly, done by me and Tony Bell and Joe Brown.
STACK: Wasn't it the second Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly that had "The Second Ugliest Thing in the World"? The portrait of Wonder Wart-Hog standing in the same pose as the rejected official portrait of Lyndon Johnson by Peter Hurd?
SHELTON: Yes. I imagine very few people remember that story now, how Lyndon rejected that portrait, calling it the ugliest thing he had ever seen. Tony Bell did the drawing for Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly, and there was a big poster done of it too. Probably not many of our readers got the allusion. I wonder whatever happened to that official portrait of L.B.J...
STACK: I believe somebody bought it and gave it to the National Portrait gallery in Washington, D.C.
SHELTON: Anyway, Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly failed after two issues. Millar had had 140,000 copies of each printed, and he had to sell half of them to break even. But the thing was too weird for the distributors and most of the copies stayed in the warehouses. Only 40,000 of each number were sold. I remember looking and looking for a copy on sale at various newsstands around Austin, and I never found one anywhere.
STACK: Was there anything being published at this time that anyone would recognize as an underground comic?
SHELTON: The format of Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly was modeled after Jim Warren's Creepy, with 64 pages in black and white and a cover price of 50 cents. The archetypical underground comic, Zap, didn't appear until a couple of years later. There had been some earlier things that could be called underground comics, like The Adventures of Jesus and Jackson's God Nose, back in '64.
The Vulcan Gas Company
STACK: So Wonder Wart-Hog Quarterly sounds like first a career break, then a career setback. What did you do then, in '68?
SHELTON: About this time a friend of mine, Houston White, and some other guys opened a rock dance and concert hall on Congress Avenue in Austin -- the Vulcan Gas Company -- and I became art director, in charge of getting the posters done each week. I did a number of posters, in a style influenced by the California poster artists, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Bob Fried, and others. These posters for the Vulcan Gas Company were similar in style to the California ones, but larger, since this was Texas. They were printed by an Austin printer named Johnny Mercer, and some of them were really beautiful, with split-fount inking. Only about 100 copies of each of these posters were printed, so they're quite rare now. I did this for about a year, until I moved to San Francisco in the summer of '68. Jim Franklin then became art director for the Vulcan Gas Company, and then for Eddie Wilson's Armadillo World Headquarters, which was more successful. A whole art and music scene grew up around the Armadillo World Headquarters, which I missed.
STACK: I remember being at a party in Austin and seeing you there with Janis Joplin, if my memory serves me right.
SHELTON: Yeah, Janis and I were close friends and it's entirely possible you saw us together. Janis started at the University of Texas in '62. She was studying drama, I think. These were the days of the big folk music revival, and Janis would sing each week at the regular hootenanny in the student union. She was a folk music purist at the time, and when I once suggested to her that she ought to try doing some rock and blues, she rejected the idea. But then she dropped out of school and moved to New York in '64, and then later went out to California with the Texan Chet Helms, and well, the rest is history.
STACK: Did the two of you go to California at pretty much the same time?
SHELTON: By the time I got to San Francisco, Janis was already a star. She'd been discovered at the Monterey Pop Festival, and she already had an album out with Big Brother and the Holding Company. The album cover was done by Robert Crumb.
STACK: Columbia Records didn't have the nerve to use Crumb's original front cover, so they used his back cover as the front. The original front cover was too raunchy, with Janis sweating and all.
SHELTON: [laughing] I didn't know that. But it makes a great front cover anyway.