The Sun Sets on Pervert Pirates and Horror Vacui Bikers: Remembering S. Clay Wilson, 1942 – 2021

While R. Crumb pounded on the doors of propriety, it was Wilson who ripped them off their hinges, set them afire, and pissed on the ashes


“Make it jump! Make it crackle! Blister their irises! Fuck their minds up!” —S. Clay Wilson

Heaven, Hell, or whatever cosmic recycling station we’re all ultimately destined for became a more raucous joint on February 7, when the seminal underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson crashed through its portal, having passed away at his home in San Francisco, at age 79.

In tribute, we have gathered a few Village Voice takes on this most uninhibited purveyor of what remains one of the most outré art movements America ever — just barely — countenanced.

Pirates in the Heartland: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics, $34.99) surveys the early, graphically fecund years of the most outrageous of the original cadre of underground cartoonists. Wilson, born in 1941, turned his id inside out and vomited forth exquisitely crosshatched panels for such tales as “Captain Piss Gums and His Pervert Pirates.” His massively hung fellas and meaty chicks alternately battle and fuck, with orifices of all sexes and species fair game. The best drawings coalesce into orgies of entwined, bulging, wriggling lines — the grotesque tickling the sublime. (2014’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels Put the Real in Surreal)

Willem de Kooning once said it was Jackson Pollock who “broke the ice” for abstract artists. Similarly, while R. Crumb certainly pounded on the doors of propriety, it was S. Clay Wilson who ripped them off their hinges, set them afire, and pissed on the ashes. The two artists met at the printer’s loft as Crumb’s Zap Comix #1 was rolling off the presses. Wilson had just arrived from Kansas and was looking to peddle his horror vacui drawings of pirates, bikers, cops, and all manner of lurid ruffians engaged in mortal combat. Born in 1941, Wilson came by his fascination with violence honestly: While at the University of Nebraska he had been obligated to partake in mandatory ROTC training. After asking himself, “What am I doing with this fucking rifle? I don’t need ordnance to learn the humanities, do I?”, he switched to medic training, where movies documenting sucking chest wounds and shrapnel lacerations lent a grotesque verisimilitude to his later artwork. The final panels of “Wanda and Tillie” — a rollickingly compressed tale of “two AC/DC nympho tramps” on a violent rampage, from Zap #6 (1973) — confirm Wilson’s place as a front-rank spelunker of the id: A haloed Jesus delivers oral pleasure to Satan’s flaming penis, mirrored by a woman forced to finish fellating her just-murdered lover, a masterfully cross-hatched diptych pairing orgasm with balls-out blasphemy. (Zap Atcha: How Underground Comix Spelunked America’s Id)

In the 1954 book Seduction of The Innocent, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham referred to a pirate drawing copied from a comic book by a patient, describing its “phallic symbols — the sword … the big gun.… The actual genitals are extremely accentuated.” What would this anti-comic-book crusader have made, then, of S. Clay Wilson, the apex/nadir of an underground comix movement that, in the mid-’60s, rose up like a moldering corpse from an old Vault of Horror comic, as if in revenge for what Wertham had done to the medium that this new breed of cartoonists had loved as kids. Boldly rendered characters such as Captain Pissgums and strips such as “Head First: A Tale of Human Pathos on the High Seas Below Deck” (wherein one sailor admires, then chops off, then eats the massive penis of another) bristle with graphic extremity. Wilson’s richly detailed, big-foot cartoon style lends such scenes a morbid hilarity. In a published interview, Wilson pointed out, “Just because you depict evil, doesn’t mean you are evil.… People show up in leathers and shit, looking like my characters, I won’t let them in my house.” Influenced by Jackson Pollock, Wilson’s densely packed narratives of pirate slaughter and brawling bikers battle for coherence amid his chockablock compositions. He once told a doctoral student, “I think cartoons can be art!… Let history sort it out after it’s all done, when we’re all dead.” (Protruding Breasts! Acidic Pulp! #*@&!$% Senators! McCarthyism! Commies! Crime! And Punishment!)   

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