Fifty Freakin’ Years with the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

By Gilbert Shelton & various (Knockabout Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-261-6 (TPB)

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 first appeared in Texas local paper The Rag, shambling out of the gradually burgeoning Underground Commix counter-culture wave in 1968. They jumped to Berkeley Print Mint’s Feds ‘n’ Heads, and New York tabloid The East Village Other before creator Gilbert Shelton and a few friends moved to California and 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 (as well as 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 latterly Paul Mavrides and others, the disjointed strips (sorry; drug-humour is just irresistible…) 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 equally fine and 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 and born storymaker. His ideas are always enchantingly fresh yet deviously skewed, 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. is a wildly romantic, educated and dangerous (to himself) intellectual, whilst Fat Freddy is you and me; 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…

This commemorative paperback album – now also available digitally – celebrates the trio’s astounding popularity and longevity, opening with a little look back in astonishment via Shelton’s Introduction ‘Fifty Freakin’ Years’ which offers fascinating historical insights and context in an Authorised History that wonderfully shares and captures the tone of those times, augmented by commentary, sketches, posters and found art, candid photos and loads of wry reflections.

Combining classic tales with 28 pages of new material by Shelton, plus loving spoofs and parodies from select cartoonists, the parade of seditious smut and filth opens with full-colour fiasco ‘Phineas Becomes a Suicide Bomber’, wherein the sensitive soul seeks to impress a rabble-rousing feminist icon and accidentally disrupts a glitzy convocation of smug one-percenters…

A pin-up of ‘Flora & Fawna the Jailbait Twins’ (don’t fret; these drawings admit they’re actually over 18 and only look younger…) is followed by more uproarious mayhem when one of our heroes is mugged by kids. Not at all overreacting, ‘Franklin got his Gun!’ when he stumbles into a right wing (aren’t they all?) Gun Show and accidentally triggers a bloodbath…

Following a transcendental moment from 2013 when ‘Mr. Natural meets Fat Freddy’, eternal quester Freekowtski goes on an all-out quest for enlightenment in the hilariously blasphemous ‘Fat Freddy Gets Religion’ revealing the holy power of alcohol – specifically ‘Tall Toad’ beer…

First seen in 2009, ‘The Adventures of the Fabulous Fat Freddy’ combines his search for love and understanding with an unsuspected appreciation of great art before diverting to a beguiling illustrated prose anecdote about storytelling from Shelton.

A selection of homages spoof and parodies follow, beginning with ‘Geek Brothers!’ by Jay Lynch from Bijou Funnies, backed up in stark monochrome by ‘The Feminine Furry-Legged Freek! Sisters’ and its accompanying bottom strip ‘Fat Frieda’s Ass’; both courtesy of Willy Murphy & Ted Richards from The National Lampoon Book of Comical Funnies.

In living colour, the cover of Shelton tribute book Fabuleux Furieux! is followed by Hunt Emerson’s parody ‘Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ as seen within it, preceding original strip ‘Scotland Yardie vs the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ by Bobby Joseph & Joseph Samuels.

Unused art for a Flash animation, ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brother’s Strut March’ opens a selection of found art and commissioned works, including 2008 art by Shelton for the 40th Anniversary of comic phenomenon Lambiek; Freak Brothers bank notes; illustrations of Mort Walker’s Comic Strip Lexicon, an Amsterdam Street Scene, Armadillo Rodeo, Street Freaks, poster for a Paris music store and more.

Other stuff includes personalised birthday cards, posters, film festival graphics and covers, sticker art, excerpts from Shelton’s Motoring Tips series, a tribute page to the many artistic co-contributors who added to the grubby lustre of the Freaks over the First Fifty Years and much, much more.

Anarchically sardonic and splendidly ludicrous, the madcap slapstick of the Freak Brothers is always an irresistible and joyously innocent tonic for the blues and this book – available in paperback and digital editions – 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…
© 2017 Gilbert Shelton. All rights reserved.