The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in “Grass Roots”

– a Knockabout Deluxe Edition

By Gilbert Shelton & Dave Sheridan (Knockabout Comics)
ISBN: 0-86166-015-3

Because you’re all decent, deity-fearing, upstanding citizens you’re probably utterly unaware of the extensive sub-culture which has grown up around the recreational abuse of narcotic pharmaceuticals – and so, of course, am I – but it must be said: those counter-culture chaps certainly know how to craft a comic tale.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers shambled out of the Underground Commix counter-culture wave in 1968; initially appearing in Berkeley Print Mint’s Feds ‘n’ Heads, before creator Gilbert Shelton and a few friends founded their own San Francisco based Rip Off Press in 1969. This effective collective continued to maximise the madness as the hilarious antics of the “Freaks” (a contemporary term for lazy, dirty, drug-taking hippy folks) captured the imagination of the open-minded portions of America and the world.

In 1971 they published the first compilation: The Collected Adventures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers – which has been in print all around the planet ever since – and soon assorted underground magazines and college papers were joined by the heady likes of Rip Off Comix, High Times and Playboy (and numerous foreign periodicals) in featuring the addictive adventures of Freewheelin’ Franklin, Phineas T. Freakears and Fat Freddy Freekowtski (and his cat): siblings in sybaritic self-indulgence.

Always written by Shelton and, from 1974 illustrated by Dave Sheridan (until his death in 1982) and Paul Mavrides; the disjointed strips (sorry; just could not resist) combined canny satirical cynicism, surreal situations, scatological sauciness and an astounding grasp of human nature in brilliantly comedic episodes that cannot fail to amuse anyone with a mature sense of humour.

All the strips have been collected in various formats (in Britain by the fabulous folks of Knockabout Comics) and have been happily absorbed by vast generations of fans – most of whom wouldn’t read any other comic.

Despite the hippy-dippy antecedents and stoner presentiments, Shelton is irrefutably a consummate professional. His ideas are always enchantingly fresh, the dialogue is permanently spot-on and his pacing perfect. The stories, whether half-page fillers, short vignettes or full blown sagas, start strong and relentlessly build to spectacular – and often wildly outrageous, hallucinogenic yet narrative-appropriate – climaxes.

And they’re so very, very funny.

Without Shelton and the Freaks the whole sub-genre of slacker/stoner movies, from Cheech and Chong’s assorted escapades to Dude, Where’s My Car? and all the rest – good, bad or indifferent – wouldn’t exist. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you…

Freewheelin’ Franklin is the tough, street-savvy one who can pull the chicks best, Phineas T. Freakears is a wildly romantic, educated and dangerous (to himself) intellectual whilst Fat Freddy Freekowtski is us; weak-willed, greedy, not so smart, vastly put upon by an uncaring universe but oddly charming (you wish…)

One last point: despite the vast panoply of drugs imbibed, both real and invented, the Freaks don’t ever do heroin – which should tell you something…

‘Grass Roots’ has slowly been adapted into a “claymation” movie for as long as I can remember – and still not completed yet – but the tale it is based on has been a favourite for even longer (since first produced serially in 1976) and this luxurious full-colour hardback edition from 1984 is the very best way in which to enjoy it…

After a cartoon introduction from Shelton the intoxicating entertainment begins with a series of shorts strips ‘The Mellow Cab Man’, ‘Violence on the Bus’, an untitled culinary escapade, ‘Fat Freddy Demonstrates How to Use Rolling Papers’ and ‘Phineas and the Organic Mechanic’ after which the main event commences.

After being evicted again for not paying rent, the Freaks luck into a caretaking gig at a palatial “haunted” mansion where the hapless fools find a huge stash of cocaine. After selling most of it to legendary independent vendor Dealer McDope they have enough cash to buy a forty acre farm, pick up a bevy of hitchhiker babes and set up in the agricultural narcotics game. They also have an entire year’s supply of cocaine for personal use…

Their rural idyll suddenly turns painfully real when they blow all that coke (sorry: I’m just incorrigible, me) in two days and, stranded miles from the city, have no choice but to make the far-fetched farm pipe-dream work…

It’s hard, unrewarding labour, the friendly locals aren’t and without drugs the girls are finding the boys less and less appealing. As the joys of getting back to nature pall things temporarily turn around when they “discover gold” on the property and the farm turns into the lawless boomtown of Rush City overnight.

As picturesque Boondock County slowly succumbs to the imported blandishments of Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, things seem to going great for the furry ones, but then the rains begin to fall on the desiccated, over-excavated soils of mining town.

It rains and rains and rains…

Anarchically sardonic and splendidly ludicrous, the madcap slapstick of the Freak Brothers is always an irresistible and joyously innocent tonic for the blues and these tales should be a compulsory experience for any fan of the comics medium. However, if you’re still worried about the content, which is definitely habit-forming, simply read but don’t inhale…
© 1984 Gilbert Shelton. All rights reserved.