To celebrate the 75th birthday of legendary underground comics creator Gilbert Shelton, Sequential, in partnership with Knockabout comics, is currently giving away a 100-page digital collection of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers for free (until the end of June). All you have to do is download the free Sequential app for iPad, and download the free comic to be transported into the rich satirical world of 1960s underground comix.
The Freak Brothers were published originally between 1968 and 1997, part of the new wave of American comics that took the energy of the counterculture to the comics medium. In brief, there would never have been a “comix” movement without the imposition of the Comics Code, greatly censuring the creativity of mainstream comics and relegating them to the world of superheroes and children’s stories, for the most part. The Code became yet another form of mid-century American authority and establishment against which the new generation could rebel, and underground comix eventually some of the most interesting work in the entire medium. Underground books did include characters like the Freak Brothers, who did fit into the stereotypical sixties stoner pattern and in fact revelled in it. But there were plenty of other underground comix, and they took daring chances, parodying mainstream comics (while at the same time celebrating them), examining the medium in “meta” ways unheard-of in the mainstream world and even (most daringly), celebrating female comics creators, telling realistic stories from a woman’s perspective.
All of this was, of course, terribly subversive, and these comics were generally sold in Head Shops or in other counterculture establishments. As time went on and the influence of these comics was felt by and reflected in the mainstream world, the names of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Harvey Pekar and their mentor Harvey Kurtzman became as famous as any in comics. Today, as Shelton, who now lives in Paris, like Crumb, celebrates his 75th birthday, his work is given serious artistic study, and appears in electronic applications for free (at least for a limited time).
But the great thing is, the Freak Brothers still makes for hilarious reading. It’s clearly a very knowing and loving parody of hippie culture, as well as a celebration of its values. The degree to which the Brothers will go to acquire a little bit of marijuana makes Cheech and Chong look like amateurs (and reminds us of how different that culture is today, with pot being fully legal in several states). But they’re also into all the other aspects of the counterculture. In one story, they revisit the 1950s, with the booze-fuelled sexually-repressed upper classes and the “greaser” fights, and literally give up on the story about 2/3 of the way in and exclaim, “Ah, screw the fifties! Let’s go back to the sixties!”, and thereupon flash to a splash panel of a nude, drug-fuelled orgy in which, by comparison to the miserable drunks of the fifties, feels like a whole lot more fun.
Happy Birthday to Mr Shelton and it’s a good time to enjoy some of his best work for free.