“It looked like folk art, like old-time tattoos, like some demented high school hot rodder’s notebook drawings. The drawings were rough, crazy, lurid, coarse, deeply American, a taint of white-trash degeneracy. Every inch of space was packed solid with action and crazy details. The content was like something I’d never seen before, the level of mayhem, violence, dismemberment, naked women, loose body parts, huge, obscene sex organs, a nightmare vision of hell-on-earth never so graphically illustrated before in the history of art. After the breakthrough that Wilson had somehow made, I no longer saw any reason to hold back my own depraved id in my work.”
– Robert Crumb
The thing about S. Clay Wilson’s comics is that, by all normal ways of thinking about morality, they’re wrong. In his stories of bare breasted pirate women, checkered demons with giant dicks, and graphic tales of rebel bikers, there’s a deeply rebellious spirit; no, more than that, there’s a deep spirit of “I don’t give a fuck about your middle-class values. I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want.”
That rankles. That runs against the grain. That offends bourgeois, middle-class, middle-American, early 21st-century ethics. It’s out of step in our world. We’re not (strictly speaking) a conformist society – at least as long as you fit inside the social norms — but in many ways we police our own moral codes these days, vilifying those who step outside of our specific limits of morality versus immorality. I’m as guilty of that as anyone else.
But S. Clay Wilson’s comics are all about the opposite of bourgeois decency. They’re profoundly underground creations, works by a man who doesn’t give two fucks about society, and that frustrates and annoys, offends and angers, brings bile to the throat while also bringing a thrill to the soul.
Wilson’s art is the tonic for what ails ya, even if you’re not aware that you’re ailing.
The comics included in this first volume of Patrick Rozenkranz’s outstanding collection of vintage Wilson work, Pirates in the Heartland, were created by the artist mainly between the late 1950s and mid-1970s. The ’50s and early ’60s were, of course, profoundly conformist times in America, when stepping outside of the normal ways of thinking were a sure ticket to ostracism and worse.
But Wilson didn’t give a fuck about conforming. He was a rebel, an outsider, a charismatic man who loved his pirates and his drinking and his women and his friends, a singular man in a time of men who conformed. From his home in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas (later in San Francisco, earlier in Nebraska), Wilson hosted the famous and obscure, the brilliant professors and the speed freaks. He was the man at the crossroads, influencing peoples’ lives, always there at the parties and events where the freaks lived.
And he was a larger than life presence wherever he went; as his mid-‘60s roommate John Gary Brown remembers:
“[Wilson] was very much involved in creating a mythology around himself, and in some ways he was kind of an egomaniac – and in some cases, he deserved to be an egomaniac. He was brilliant and incredibly articulate and iconoclastic. He had that common paradox of somebody who has a huge vision of himself combined with a feeling of inadequacy or persecution. As successful as he was in the counterculture world, he had been a complete washout in the so-called normal world. People didn’t take him seriously. He was kind of ostracized and so on. He was a serious artist, but I think people were distracted by the outrageous subject matter. They couldn’t quite get past the crazy perverted things that were going on and think of it in terms of art.”
Brown hits the paradox of S. Clay Wilson perfectly in that quote: the iconoclastic art that forces a reaction that’s both viscerally frightening and tantalizingly intense, imbued with an almost obsession passion for detail and for exploring his own very specific and fascinating and repulsive perversions.
It’s temping at first to completely dismiss Wilson’s work as perverted and worthless when you read something like “A Ball in the Bung Hole” (reprinted in Pirates of the Heartland from Zap Comix #4, 1969) for its unpolished art and disgusting plot points. But in doing so the importance of the work, its rebellious spirit and its improvisational energy, are summarily dismissed as being somehow unworthy of being considered as Art. (That same issue contained R. Crumb’s notorious “Joe Blow” strip, so the whole issue is a cavalcade of offensiveness to bourgeois values — which explains why that issue was actually banned and only distributed hand-to-hand for many years).
Pirates of the Heartland is the best kind of biography of an artist because it gives readers both context and classics. Patrick Rosenkranz, the unparalleled chronicler of the undergrounds, delivers yet another outstanding biography, one that presents the life of one of the most idiosyncratic artists of his era in ways that illuminate S. Clay Wilson’s life, his art and his own perceptions of himself. Rosenkranz reprints many of Wilson’s letters to his friends, reproduced in high fidelity from the actual paper, and they make the reader yearn to go back to the days when people still sent hand-written and –illustrated letters in the mail, with loose sketches and quirky page arrangements because that’s just what you would do.
That sort of thing is priceless and shows us how Wilson saw himself, which is not that different from how the outside world saw him, except that he was generous and kind to his friends, a delightful correspondent who lived a brilliant, odd, sometimes improvised life that verged at times into genius.
There’s also lots of remembrances of Wilson, all of which seem to involve drugs, motorcycles, beautiful women, comix or some combination thereof. He was a powerful, original force; unique, Sui generis, truly himself. Even Crumb acknowledges in this book that “I see him as a total original, coming from his own inner source.” Thus the tales told about Wilson are unlike those told about any other person. Just hearing these stories and reading the old correspondence makes this book worth reading.
And all these great yarns about Wilson lull a reader into a comfortable feeling that they’re OK with ol’ S. Clay’s world, that he’s a freak but a great guy who loves his pals – and then you wander into one of the sections of Pirates that includes full comics stories (most every page includes a comic of one sort or another – this book is almost absurdly generous with the comic art) and the reader is struck again by the awkwardness of the art style, all rough-hewn and hand-created in obsessive and seemingly improvised detail, as it shows dismembered cocks, demons grabbing biker chick breasts, bare-breasted pirate women performing unspeakable acts on men; page after page after page of that material that repulses and delights both high and low.
For me, at least, an exemplar of bourgeois values and middle-class attitudes, Pirates of the Heartland is liberating. It frees me from my societal prejudices of right and wrong, at least momentarily. It shows me a life in full, the life of a complex, intense, amazing artist whose work illuminates and terrifies and delights in ways both perverse and beautiful. That’s what Art can do to a person. S. Clay Wilson’s comics are wrong and that’s what makes them so right. As Wilson often stated, “Don’t water down your whiskey”.
I leave unspoken here that there’s a price to be paid for that rebel life. Wilson was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He spent more on cocaine than on rent. His life was fucked up, crazy, weird, intense. It’s fascinating to visit S. Clay Wilson’s world but I’m not sure I would want to live there.
S. Clay Wilson suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury in 2008, and his partner and he need help with the daily needs of everyday life. Read more about Wilson’s injury and the S. Clay Wilson Special Needs Trust here, and please consider contributing. Anybody who loves comics owes a debt to this incredible creator, no matter your opinion of his work.