It is not right that everyone should read the pages which follow; only a few will be able to savour this bitter fruit with impunity. Consequently, shrinking soul, turn on your heels and go back before penetrating further into such uncharted, perilous wastelands. Listen well to what I say: turn on your heels and go back, not forward…
— Comte de Lautréamont (Maldoror and Poems)
The above quote, from Maldoror applies perfectly to this book, the full title being The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson, Volume 1: Pirates in the Heartland. You may consider the quote as a ‘Trigger Warning’ if you like, because I would advise anyone who is likely to be shocked or in anyway affected by tales or images depicting extreme violence and sexual (and sexist) situations should probably not read any further. Having said that, I have actually tried to choose images that aren’t too graphic – a difficult task with S. Clay Wilson.
Pirates in the Heartland is both a biography of S. Clay Wilson and a collection of his comic material. S. Clay Wilson is an underground cartoonist who was one of the early contributors to Zap Comix in the late 1960s. His work is notoriously violent and sexually graphic even when compared with other underground cartoonists. His most famous character is The Checkered Demon although his comics are also populated by pirates, bikers, drug addicts, pirates, dykes, drug addicts, aliens, pirates, murderers, beer-swilling psycopaths and pirates, pirates and more pirates. At no point do any of his characters show any of the ‘finer emotions’ of humanity, indeed they are all violent, debauched psychopaths who just want to drink beer, kill and fuck. Yes, S. Clay Wilson is the underground cartoonist’s version of de Sade…but, with one difference; Wilson’s work is very funny…sick, yes, depraved, yes, but still funny; though I must admit it’s sometimes difficult to know whether to laugh or retch when reading his work.
Funny? Well, you just have to read the titles that he gave to some of his ‘tableaux’ of fighting pirates, bikers etc., such as Ruby the Dyke and her Six Perverted Sisters Stomp the Fags, The Flyin’ Fuckin’ “A” Heads Stop for Lunch During their Cross-Country Run, Dwarf Snuffing Station #103, Deranged Doctors Perform Operational Experiments on Mutated Patients under the Antiseptic Incandescent Gaze of the Big Daddy Devil Doctor but the one that always makes me laugh when I read it is the strip called Captain Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates – the Cap’n gets his name from his own favourite perversion. In this story, originally from Zap Comix #3, the Cap’n and his gang have to break off from their debauched activities to fight Captain Fatima and her Dyke Pirates aboard the ‘Quivering Thigh’ – unusually for Wilson there is almost a happy ending, though not for Captains Pissgums and Fatima.
The book contains many reproductions of early material as well as his more well-known work. As I love his tableaux I was pleased to see the early collection of plates reproduced here from S. Clay Wilson Portfolio Comix which I had never seen in full; Wilson crams so much detail into each picture that you often find yourself straining your eyes just to see everything that’s going on. Because of the detail and the fact that the images very often stretch across the middle of the book it makes it difficult to scan them for this post, so you’ll have to put up with that I’m afraid; but if you double-click on the images they should be viewable at a reasonable size. These tableaux show Wilson’s artistic skill brilliantly and it made me realise that he would have made a brilliant book illustrator if he’d decided on a more conventional career path. In fact, from the Wikipedia page, it looks like he did start to illustrate some editions of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson which look great.
So you may have realised by now that part of Wilson’s ‘thing’ is to shock the reader and I guess it’s down to the individual to decide whether that is a good ‘thing’ or not. For me, being shocked in this way by art is similar to the effect that people get when watching a horror film or a murder mystery. And, as with a crude joke, there’s the thrill of seeing just how far they will go. This is more appealing to the young, but for some of us, this is still appealing when we probably should know better. Even the other underground artists at the time were shocked. Fellow Zap contributor Victor Moscoso said, when viewing one of Wilson’s strips:
‘Holy shit…Now I can imagine someone having this fantasy. I can even imagine someone drawing this fantasy. I could not imagine somebody publishing that fantasy. It was at that point I realized, not only I – all the other artists saw it too, that I had been censoring myself.
Now, I have appreciated Wilson’s work for a long time now but even I was shocked with the strip, previously unknown to me, called The Felching Vampires meet the Holy Virgin Mary (originally published in Felch Cumics – if you don’t know what Felch means then you may prefer not to know) which has to be one of the most disgustingly blasphemous and politically incorrect comic strips I have ever seen. It makes the strip called Pudocchio, a pornographic version of the Pinocchio story, seem quite quaint in comparison, and should probably not be read by any Christian.
The biographical detail in the book really becomes interesting once we get to the ‘underground comix era’. He defends his work and his approach thus:
“Art is therapy”, insisted Wilson. “And I don’t care if they hate it. I don’t care if they love it. Maybe I’m trying to culticize myself, but the whole impetus behind this is: draw anything you want. That’s the whole idea behind underground comix. It’s underground. Which means it’s pornographic. Underground means, you know, underground. I like to make it gnarlier and gnarlier and gnarlier and more horrific and more horrific, but with humor at the same time.”
One of the ‘wow’ moments of the book was when I came across the gruesome fight scene called The Psycopathic South Side Blade-freaks Confront Razor Annie and Her Cocaine Chorus of Cutters from the suitably titled Thrilling Murder Comics. It’s in glorious black & white & red – all the blood, and there’s a lot of blood, is in vivid red – there are hatchets digging into heads, knives gouging eyes out, entrails falling out, throats being slit…I mean it’s amazing, it’s a true work of art and I’d love to have a copy hanging on my wall. (I would have included it in this post but there were problems with scanning it as it stretches across two pages and my scanner doesn’t cope with that very well; a lot of it was just out of focus and it didn’t look too good so you’ll just have to buy the book…or try your luck googling the image.) There’s an amusing anecdote in the book where Wilson saw the comic being printed and the blood was a washed-out pink colour and the presses had to be stopped: ‘It had to be a blood red’ Wilson explained, and he was correct, it does.Well, volume two, called Demons and Angels (Fantagraphics Books) is due out about now so I’m going to get another fix of S. Clay as soon as I can. It looks like there may also be a third volume as well.
On a sadder note, Wilson can no longer draw as he suffered a brain injury in 2008. It is not known whether it was from an assault or a fall. Further details of his wellbeing can be found on the S Clay Wilson Special Needs Trust website.