No other comic described so accurately the people and attitudes of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene of the 60's. Every character in the comic resembles someone somebody knew. He captured the intense general paranoia and constant real fear of being busted that everyone felt.
Paul Mavrides, who teamed up with Gilbert Shelton and co-collaborator Dave Sheridan (now deceased) in the late 70's was available for comment. Mavrides is a respected and influential cartoonist who led and won the fight against the state of California's unfair tax on cartoons, and drew almost half the illustrations for the Book Of The SubGenius under the title "Lies."
Goblin Magazine: Was there still a scene of underground cartoonists in the late 70's?
Paul Mavrides: There was a fragmenting scene of underground cartoonists. I was uncomfortable with the term underground. By the time I was working with them it didn't seem underground ... it was more alternative at that point but even that has turned into a misnomer. The categories tend to shift and fly around because they're generally imposed from outside a scene rather than from within. A lot of people who had been working there, living together, and hanging out socially tended to drift apart and move away, but Rip Off Press was still a viable hangout. They had a studio and people would stop by and hang out. The whole scene was shifting. Ten years after they started up it was no longer cutting edge anymore.
GM: Did people have to get work in other areas? Like Justin Green was a sign painter.
PM: You have to. Even now, somehow the number of copies sold matched with the printing costs have matched tit for tat any inflation that's occurred, and the actual money earned. So basically you make less money off an underground comic now in exact dollars then you would have twenty years ago. The only reason anyone could live off it then was they were selling a little better, everything cost less, plus people didn't have the financial responsibilities that come when you get older. If you can only draw one page a week you're hardly going to live off twenty-five dollars a week in 1996.
GM: Does anyone, even R. Crumb?
PM: Everyone does various types of work. We're not talking sales here like you see Spawn getting or even a lot of the lesser mainstream comics. If an underground comic sold at levels that companies would cancel a super hero comic, (for being unprofitable) you'd be a king to your publishers.
GM: Is Gilbert Shelton as drug-crazed and temperamental as the Freak Brothers?
PM: No, you couldn't actually do anything if you lived liked the Freak Brothers. If you tried to live like them you'd probably be dead. Gilbert works hard, relaxes hard, a fairly even tempered fellow, kind of quiet.
PM: I imagine they were probably based on real people Gilbert might have known, plus a healthy dose of fictional influences, like the Marx Bros., the Three Stooges ... there are three of them, it's a classic comedy situation. Gilbert's main thrust in doing comics is doing humor. Also, implicit in his strips to various degrees is political and social commentary. Generally the jokes are grounded in something real. Gilbert is an extremely skilled story teller, he knows how to pace a story and unravel a punch line and control how the build goes.
GM: The Freak Brothers were frequently playing mean tricks on each other; was that a reflection of actual meanness and back-stabbing that went on between the so-called peace and love generation?
PM: It's a commentary on human nature which hippies weren't able to divorce themselves from. That would be a commentary on hypocrisy; which is a natural target for humor. It's safe to say that Gilbert would be hanging out and someone would come come by to visit, and say, "Boy, you know what just happened to me ..." and it would find its way into a comic strip. Because these things were happening simultaneously everywhere, Gilbert had a huge audience of people who were relating to what he was commenting on.
GM: The Freak Brothers have had enduring popularity since the seventies. Are they appealing to a niche of nostalgic baby-boomers or do they have a timeless counter-culture message?
PM: The age bracket for the readers varies. Some people get older and stop reading it while younger people are picking it up, so the audience keeps refreshing itself. It's distributed different ways now than it was originally. When underground comics first started they were basically promoted through lots of underground newspapers, through syndicates and shared information that was going on that time among that particular type of publication. Then they were sold through head shops. It was cutting edge, which added a glamour to it, but as time wore on there were other things going on and fresh innovations to catch people's attentions; so you can only be new so long, and then inevitably people get used to it. But by the end of the 70's the Feds and states were passing paraphernalia laws and shutting down head-shops. And head shops were afraid to carry comics because of the public misconception that if itŐs a comic book it must be for kids. So if you have comics in your head shop that meant you were trying to lure kids in to buy drug paraphernalia.
GM: Did you ever have censorship problems because of the frontal nudity?
PM: It was censored in some ways. It was illegal to ship Freak Brothers into Canada for a number of years. They had a law against any material that proselytized or did not attack marijuana in print. That law got overturned fortunately, so Canadians are safe to read comic books again. There was an attempt in England in the early 80's to have the Freak Brothers declared obscene by a really twisted attempt to redefine the obscenity laws there. One of the Prime Ministers got the cops to declare the Freak Brothers obscene because under English law obscenity is defined as something that tends to deprave and corrupt the receiver of the information -- whether the receiver is aware of it or not. It was thought that drugs made people depraved and corrupt, so anything else that had to do with drugs in speech was therefore branded obscene and repressed. The cops lost that one. However it did set the publisher over there back a few dollars fighting them off.
GM: Did you get poison pen letters?
PM: Occasionally a kid's mom would find his comics stash and write us a nasty letter about how horrible what we did was. That was always the high points of the mail, we could sit around and chuckle about that.
GM: How did you separate the work done on the strip?
PM: With me and Gilbert we both write and draw the strip, although there have been variations here and there on that. At one point me and Sheridan were drawing it and me and Gilbert were writing it, sometimes me and Gilbert would write the story and he'd draw it all, sometimes I'd come up with an idea and draw it up myself ...
GM: All the artwork is in the same style.
PM: Gilbert sets the tone of course because its his strip. We're not trying to create a jam situation for real art oriented people to try to pick apart. The whole purpose is to come up with something seamless that the reader just reads.
GM: How did you all get to be working on it? It seems like Shelton would just want to "do his thing."
PM: He was doing a lot of other things and had worked with a lot of people in various ways before we got together. One day we were attending some event and he gave me a ride back and asked me if I'd like to help him on the strip. Then there was the next and the next strip, and pretty soon we were working together regularly.
GM: The strip started off as a hippie sitcom and then progressed into outragaous epic fantasies. Did having partners move Shelton in that direction?
PM: Gilbert started taking it in that direction a little bit and when Dave Sheridan started working with him, they explored that end of it; kind of a hippie fantasy, surreal; acknowledging it was a comic strip therefore anything was possible in it.
GM: All the cartoonists refer to surrealism as a major influence in the 60's.
PM: Yes. People who were into psychedelic drugs felt a natural affinity towards surrealism. But who needs drugs, ordinary reality seems to be completely surrealistic at times. So you hardly need to get high to notice how public perceptions of reality have completely disintegrated from the collective viewpoints.
PM: He was commenting on it. Reflecting what was going on at the time. Would you say the Freak Brother are glamorous? "I wanna be like that when I grow up."
GM: Being a hippie why was Fat Freddy so gung-ho to get a gun and poach small animals?
PM: Because Fat Freddy's probably the one who's just reacting. He doesn't think things through. The characters don't have extreme psychological depths. We're not talking about Dostoevsky characters here. They're clearly malleable depending on what is needed for them to do in a given situation. Those guys are aging but they're aging at a relative speed to reality. They probably get a year older for every five years that pass by in real life. Since they are reflecting on what's actually happening, and they're not a nostalgia strip, they have to adjust to what's happening in the real world. That's our purpose, to reflect things that are really actually occurring, or attitudes that still stand.
GM: What struck me was the precise depiction of the paranoia level everyone had at the time.
PM: That's surprising considering there are more people in jail now than there were back then. There was good reason to be paranoid, the people that were busted got in a lot of trouble, like 14 years for a lid. And the authority people were a lot less likely to cut people slack back then too. All the trouble making that was going on was mostly on a lot lower level than now. If you had the right look you could expect to get hassled.
GM: Is the strip still coming out?
PM: We haven't done any in a while, mainly because of the legal battle I was fighting with the State Of California about comics. Since I won that I guess we can start working on the next issue. I won it with the help of thousands of people contributing money and a handful of very expensive specialized lawyers and political muscle from various politicians, and lobbying muscle from the California Newspapers Publishers Association. Fortunately I had some big guns on my side. Now comics are free to fail on their own problems rather than anything the state's going to impose on them. It's hard enough to do comics as it is.
GM: Zippy The Pinhead seems to be the most successful cross-over comic without actually sacrificing the tone. What makes it so appealing? Why don't the Freak Brothers have their own daily cartoon.
PM: Bill set out to do a daily strip so he slowly geared his material towards that kind of format. I don't know. I think it's a funny strip and I hope it's successful because other people recognize those qualities too. As compared to a lot of those crappy strips he's competing against. Gilbert and I just don't want to work that hard. You're talking about two guys that have only been able to put out twelve issues over twenty-six years.
But we put enough energy and content into these comics that you can go back and re-read them. There is some kind of timeless quality to his work because all his stuff stays in print. Gilbert's still selling strips with references about the Vietnam war, President Johnson, and politicians that have been dead now for twenty years. Kids now can't possibly know all the references, but they still seem to be funny.
GM: Why has Shelton moved to France?
PM: He probably got tired of living here in the good old U.S of A. He liked it over there. It's quiet and relaxed. Gilbert lives it in Paris. His wife, Laura, is a fairly successful literary agent there. He has a comfortable life. When he moved there ten years ago France was having a fairly big comics boom. Of course as soon as he got there the boom collapsed. I don't think he has any plans to ever move back to the U.S.
GM: Are there any plans to make the Freak Brothers into an animated cartoon?
PM: Various producers keep optioning the material and trying to develop the property and then the option runs out and somebody else options it.
GM: You contributed on the Residents CD-ROM. Do you think comics are going to move to computers?
PM: Certainly some comics are going to branch out into those areas. I'm not so sure it's going to wipe regular comics out because if you by a comic book printed out on paper all you have to do is open it up and read it for your two dollar investment. You don't need a three thousand dollar machine to play it on. However, stuff like CD-ROM's and the net and the way computers can fragment and re-organize information on a multi-hierarchal level ... there's probably going to be some interesting comic work done involving animation and various techniques that wouldn't be possible on paper. But I don't think that will supplant comics, it will just be another form. So far cover prices have risen so high that the young audience for comics is being choked off. They'd rather drop quarters into a machine. 'Cause at least the characters in Mortal Kombat move. And there's no plot or characters to muddy their little blank minds up with, just action. Comics have a lot to compete with in very glamorous types of media. Like all static art they're slowly being marginalized culturally. It's getting like Fine Art in a museum. It's just not as excitingly relevant as it once was 'cause there's other mediums commanding the same attention.
GM: Is the Church of the SubGenius an extension of the 60's paranoia, and the governments restrictions on personal liberties and freedoms?
PM: There is an element of that. You could say that everything in the 90's is an extension of the 60's. To get to the 90's you had to get through the 60's, it's a natural progression. It wasn't just the government we were going after. Of course our main foe is organized religion, our competition as it were. I have to say the basic agenda is "Think For Yourself." Which isn't a bad message no matter what decade you're in.
GM: What exactly was your contribution to the Church of the SubGenius?
PM: I had a lot of influence on the material. Some writing, some editing, a lot of design and illustration work. Ivan Stang's the main scriptural funnel. In the first book I designed every other chapter and the rest was designed by John Hagenbrenner, working with Ivan Stang. On the new book I was the main text editor and designed the entire book and illustrated about 40% of it.
GM: You have a superb design sense. No one's ever achieved that before in a religious book.
PM: We were trying for a psychotic Jehovah's Witness look. But none of that would have been possible without desktop publishing. That's the main difference between the first and the second book which were done about twelve years apart. I'm just old enough to be amazed all that type of work can be done sitting on table top instead of a huge dark room with large pieces of material. With the first book the material was being set for free in three different cities on the side by people who were working at composite shops. Then we'd get the text mailed to us and then we'd have to go through all kinds of insane contortions to do corrections on them. Now if you make a mistake in the text you just retype it and it comes out perfect.
GM: Are you a practicing member of the Church of the Subgenius, paying your dues and going to "devival" meetings?
PM: I try to avoid all that stuff. I do too much work on it to bother hanging out in cheap clothes going to religious meetings.
GM: There seems to be a strong influence of Taoism and anarchy in the philosophy. Was that a conscious decision?
PM: It is a real religion and working philosophy. It's not just cynical griping, there's a core of idea buried underneath all the bric-a-brac. But since the main message is "think for yourself" the last thing you should be doing is believing all we're telling you. We make it up as we go along.
GM: But when you think about it someone waking up from the dead and feeding a thousand people with a piece of bread isn't that much farther out than what "Bob" has done, and people believe that. The Catholic church has gotten incredibly wealthy off of that.
PM: Yeah, it works. Unfortunately Bob seems to keep all the money. That's the only part where itŐs too uncomfortably like a real religion. We didn't get too much money, we're just slaves like everyone else.
GM: At least "Bob" lets you Slack off.
PM: I tend to run away when I hear that word. I had more Slack before I ever heard of Bob.
GM: Was it a bunch of disgruntled office workers who started the whole thing off. What was the initial seed of it?
PM: "Bob" knew these two guys, Philo and Ivan and basically laid out the plans for them, and they launched the Church's public outreach program which basically is what the Church is.
GM: So a lot of people really do send in their thirty dollars. Stang said it was really popular on the East coast.
PM: Oh Yeah. It's been around long enough popularity shifts over periods of time. In the early 80's it was pretty popular here and then it got shifted to Northern Ohio and it seems to be fairly popular in parts of New York.
GM: I would guess in college towns.
PM: Yes, those are hotbeds.
GM: Is there a specific age group that's attracted to it?
PM: No, it attracts people from all age groups, categories, all economic levels and social backgrounds, all levels of intellectual pursuit. It seems to have a pan appeal going for it.
GM: There seems to be a big thing now about Slack. They call it relieving stress. And there's a major market for stress reduction, in communes especially.
PM: That's all false Slack. The people who are doing that are buying their Slack back, when in fact the Slack they're buying is so structured its not Slack at all. It's just a new way to consume and be told what to consume.
GM: Could you tell us about what current projects you're working on?
PM: Another Freak Brothers comic, naturally. Who knows when it will be out. I'm working on some stuff for the next Zap! comic which hopefully should be out by early fall. I'm trying to get up the nerve to get another project going that got stalled by my sales tax fight, called Sixty-Three And a Half. Which is six issue series about an alien invasion and the Kennedy assassination. We're toying with the idea doing a Subgenius CD-ROM, but we need financial backing to do that because it's only slightly less expensive than working on a feature film; we would like to be paid for our time for once. I'm also going to be working on some animation design for a documentary that's being produced in Canada, by the director Ron Mann on the history of anti-marijuana propaganda. I think it will be roughly like Atomic Cafe about anti-drug movies so there's a huge wealth of material to draw on.
All Pictures © Copyright 1996 Gilbert Shelton and Rip Off Press
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