S. Clay Wilson, taboo-breaking underground cartoonist, dies at 79

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S. Clay Wilson, taboo-breaking underground cartoonist, dies at 79
In an image provided by the publisher Fantagraphics, a 1987 drawing by S. Clay Wilson. Wilson, the most scabrous and rollicking of the underground cartoonists who first achieved notoriety as contributors to Zap Comix in the late 1960s, died at home in San Francisco in Feb. 7, 2021. He was 79. Fantagraphics via The New York Times.

by J. Hoberman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- S. Clay Wilson, the most scabrous and rollicking of the underground cartoonists who first achieved notoriety as contributors to Zap Comix in the late 1960s, died Sunday at his home in San Francisco. He was 79.

His wife, Lorraine Chamberlain, said the cause was deteriorating health arising from a traumatic brain injury more than 12 years ago. He had experienced a number of serious health problems in recent years.

Violent, obscene and scatological, 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.

Interviewed in the early 1990s for The Comics Journal by underground-comics aficionado Bob Levin, Wilson called comics “a great visual art form,” adding, “Primarily, I’m trying to show that you can draw anything you want.”

What Wilson wanted to draw was densely packed scenes of mayhem, dismemberment and grotesque sex acts that, in their allover style, suggested both the abstract expressionist paintings that were at their height of prestige when Wilson was in art school and the splash panels drawn by comic book artists like Jack Kirby and Wally Wood.

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.”

Steven Clay Wilson was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on July 25, 1941, the first child of John William Wilson, a master machinist, and Ione Lydia (Lewis) Wilson, a medical stenographer. Inspired by EC horror comics like “Tales From the Crypt,” he began drawing as a child.

After leaving the University of Nebraska, he served in the Army, then joined a circle of Beat Generation artists and poets in Lawrence, Kansas. His first published work — in a Lawrence underground newspaper, The Screw, and a small literary magazine, Grist — showed his style fully developed.

In 1968, Wilson relocated to San Francisco, where he quickly became one of the leading underground cartoonists as well as something of a counterculture celebrity, partying with Janis Joplin and other local rock musicians.

He contributed to Zap Comix No. 2, a 14-page comic strip concerning the misadventures of a befuddled biker gang along with two single-page strips. It was the short work — one scatological and the other, titled “Head First,” a shockingly graphic joke on cannibalism and castration — that made his reputation. According to “Rebel Visions” (2002), Patrick Rosenkranz’s history of the underground comics (or comix) movement, other cartoonists like Victor Moscoso and Jay Kinney were stunned.

“‘Head First’ blew the doors off the church,” Rosenkranz quoted Moscoso as saying. “When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it. This guy wants to actually print this?”

Zap Comix No. 3 featured a cover by Wilson in addition to a 10-page Wilson story introducing his scurvy pirate crew. His work appeared in every issue thereafter, and his influence on other contributors was evident and ubiquitous. Zap Comix No. 4, which featured Crumb’s post-Wilson evocation of happy incest in the suburbs, triggered a raid on Zap’s publisher by the Berkeley police.

Like Crumb and other underground cartoonists, Wilson was frequently accused of being a misogynist. His defenders preferred to think of him as a misanthrope, pointing out that the male characters in his strips were also subject to rape and abuse and that the female characters were their equals in brutality.

In addition to Zap, Wilson’s cartoons were published in other underground comic books, alternative newspapers like The Berkeley Barb and Paul Krassner’s satirical magazine The Realist, as well as, somewhat trepidatiously, in above-ground publications like Playboy. In 1971 Wilson published Bent, a comic book whose single issue was exclusively devoted to his work, mostly a frenzied 22-page story, “Thumb and Tongue Tales,” involving a mad scientist, a private eye, a band of lascivious female pirates and the Checkered Demon.

Wilson also contributed to Arcade, the ambitious if short-lived comic book quarterly edited in the mid-1970s by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. The fourth issue featured a story by William S. Burroughs that was illustrated by Wilson and that led to a long association with him.

Burroughs wrote introductions for the catalog to Wilson’s 1982 show at the Museum of the Surreal and Fantastique in New York and to an anthology of Wilson’s comics, “The Collected Checkered Demon,” in 1996. Wilson subsequently drew illustrations for German editions of two Burroughs novels, “Cities of the Red Night” and “The Wild Boys.” Modulating his content a bit, he also illustrated collections of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

Some of his fans compared Wilson to William Hogarth and George Grosz. But while his work matched theirs in savagery, he had little interest in social satire or social restraint. At heart, he was a formalist.

Reviewing a show called “Imaginary Beings” at the alternative New York gallery Exit Art for The New York Times in 1995, Pepe Karmel singled out the Wilson drawing “Lady Ogre Pukes Up a Junkie” and wrote that Wilson’s “combination of brilliant draftsmanship and perverse subject matter makes him into a kind of Aubrey Beardsley for teenage boys.”

Reviewing “The Complete Zap,” a 1,000-plus-page boxed volume, for The Times in 2014, Dana Jennings characterized Wilson’s work as a “cross between Bosch and Walt Kelly’s ‘Pogo,’ by way of the most gruesome EC comics.”

In November 2008, Wilson, who had a formidable reputation as a heavy drinker, suffered severe brain and neck injuries resulting from either a fight or a fall; lying unconscious on a San Francisco street, he was discovered by two passersby. He never fully recovered.

In addition to Chamberlain, he is survived by his sister, Linda Lee Schafer.

Despite occasional gallery shows, mainly in California, Wilson never achieved the art-world respectability of Crumb or younger cartoonists like Chris Ware. Not that he would have wanted it. He lived in his own world.

Levin’s description of Wilson’s apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District suggests the impacted quality of his drawing as well as his exuberantly outré sensibility:

“The first thing you notice is the alligator skull, since it sits flat-out on the coffee table in front of the sofa. Then you realize the coffee table is a coffin; and the sofa is a church pew, occupied by a clutch of grotesque shamanistic dolls; and, at the far end, in front of the window, is a lectern with a sign, ‘Rev. S. Clay Wilson.’”

Levin also took note of a skeleton, a statue of Jesus, some ceremonial masks, a hat tree with a dozen hats, and a two-headed stuffed bird.

“I’m just a big kid,” Wilson told him. “I like toys, firearms and hats.”

His advice to would-be cartoonists was simple: “Don’t let the page be gray. Make it jump! Make it crackle! Blister their irises!”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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