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The Strange Comix of S. Clay Wilson

This is the second installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

In my previous blog post, I mentioned Ted Kooser’s friendship with underground comix creator S. Clay Wilson. Wilson is one of the original members of the Zap Comix collective, a notorious group that also included Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, and psychedelic poster artists Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso.

Wilson attended the University of Nebraska and earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1964. It was during this time that he met Nebraska bard and future US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Though Wilson has described his academic experience at UNL as tumultuous (one art professor painted over his work so freshmen could reuse the canvases!), he was a sharp student of anthropology and art history. At this time in UNL's history, the university required participation in the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps). While Wilson didn’t appreciate the culture of mandatory military drills, he trained to be a medic while simultaneously developing an appreciation for fire arms. Wilson’s contradictions fostered astute reflections on contemporary civilization which he portrayed in his art by juxtaposing provocative drawings with sophisticated dialogue. Feeling under-appreciated by the local art department, a graduated Wilson fled Lincoln on his Harley Davidson motorcycle, eventually landing in Lawrence, Kansas, where he began doing a series of full-page drawings for Grist, a literary magazine published and edited by John Fowler.

In 1968 Wilson went on a trip to San Francisco to visit Charles Plymell, the Beat writer who was helping Robert Crumb publish the first issue of Zap Comix. Wilson showed Crumb his artwork, which Crumb described approvingly as “something like I’d never seen before, anywhere--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 in the history of art!” (If notably licentious Robert Crumb can say this, you know it's bad!) Crumb immediately expanded Zap to include Wilson, who went on to premiere a recurring character, the Checkered Demon (pictured), in Zap Comix #2.

In addition to the subsequent issues of Zap! and various other comic books with dubiously appealing titles such as Snatch! and Bent, Wilson illustrated the books of William S. Burroughs. No doubt their friendship was based on their mutual appreciation for dope, guns, and fucking in the streets, in addition to Burroughs’ fondness for the humor and relevance found in Wilson’s art. During Burroughs’ residence in Lawrence, Kansas, Wilson would also serve as liaison between the literati of Nebraska and the famous Beat writer and his many friends and acquaintances.

S. Clay Wilson continued to produce comics, watercolors, and book illustrations until he suffered a severe brain injury in 2008. After attending a publishing event in San Francisco, Wilson left the house of a friend and was found by two passersby face down and unconscious between parked cars. It is not known if he was assaulted or passed out. Wilson will undergo surgery in late March; our well-wishes and thoughts are with him. Certainly a controversial figure, Wilson may have reflected the excess found in his comics, but he also portrayed the madness and villainy found throughout the world at large with much humor. Anyone wishing to contribute to his ongoing medical care may visit: http://www.sclaywilsontrust.com/.