A Remembrance of S. Clay Wilson: Robert Williams on the Passing of an Underground Legend
It would certainly be fitting to offer the late artist, cartoonist, painter, writer and philosopher, S. Clay Wilson the greatest respect that is due to him, his station and his many, many supporters. Having over fifty years to his credit as one of the internationally revered Zap comic book artists and underground cartoonists, he will surely be missed.
With these memorial platitudes said, we can dig a little deeper into the legacy that has been left by the self-proclaimed demon draftsman of the Barbary Coast. To put it plainly, Wilson was the most overt and outrageous artist and cartoonist of the last half of the twentieth century—period! Wilson was to the narrative arts what thermonuclear explosions were to July Fourth fireworks. If you are a well-mannered artist and have been raised in a warm, caring and conscientious family environment, your demeanor might exclude you from knowledge of the likes of S. Clay Wilson.
However, if your disposition has compelled you to search out more ribald visual stimuli, and you are cursed with adventurous, investigated skills, you most certainly have made the acquaintance and appreciated Wilson’s cast of imaginative cartoon characters such as The Checkered Demon, Star-Eyed Stella, Captain Pissgums, Ruby the Dyke, as well as an assortment of rotting punk zombies who are too inordinate to bequeath with names.
It might be of interest to understand that between the late ’60s and early ’80s it has been estimated that some 400 young newsstand dealers and bookstore clerks were arrested and jailed for selling underground comix—this with participating artists such as Robert Crumb, Art Speigalman, Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, myself, and of course, the eminently profane S. Clay Wilson. Many more artists were on the list but we all paled by comparison to Wilson. The movement was gigantic at the time, and Zap comix alone has issues that sold over a million print copies.
Wilson boltered his own bohemian authenticity by conducting himself much like his own cartoon creations. To put it politely, he was a “recreational dissipator” with a keen proclivity for habitual drinking and drug use. His heroes were famous beat poet barflies, some with whom he collaborated, such as Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, in addition to lesser luminaries.
Everybody in the underground community knew Wilson personally. Many people saw him for the imaginative genius he was, but a sizable amount of folks couldn’t stand him. His accident and death came as no surprise. He took a bad fall during a drinking spree, injured his head and survived in medical limbo for nearly 12 years. His beautiful and talented wife Lorraine Chamberlain remained devoted, steadfastly staying by his side until he passed away.
Wilson lived in the manner in which he created—another swig is never enough! The art world owes a lot to Wilson, an enormous amount, though regrettably, the current generation of artists aren’t going to honor that debt. But I do think history will. If you are interested in more information about Wilson and seeing his art, seek out the beautiful set of books just made available by Fantagraphic Books publishing company. This is an unequivocal must for any underground collector. You assuredly have not heard the end of this character.
Good-bye, Wilson, and tell the Devil I’ll be along a little later. —Robert Williams, March 15, 2021
Fantagraphics has a selection of books and collections featuring the works of S. Clay Wilson.