It's brilliant. Stone cold brilliant. "Gilbert Shelton is as near as comics have come to producing a natural comedic genius," says Alan Moore and he's right.
It's from the underground comix scene and half a century old this year, but it's lasted. It's been published in 16 languages and sold over 40 million copies. I didn't discover it through comics archaeology or anything, but simply by seeing it on sale in the normal way at my comics shop in the 1980s and 1990s.
Issues 1-13 came out from 1971 to 1997, plus an issue zero in 1985 and a surprise issue with new strips by Shelton in 2017 (Fifty Freakin' Years with the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers). I only learned about the latter when writing this review and immediately ordered a copy. It stars three freaks (slightly different to hippies) who are constantly trying to score more drugs. They're amoral losers who theoretically hold counter-culture beliefs, but in practice are mostly just childish idiots who bring trouble on their own heads. They're also lovable. They make Laurel and Hardy look mature and well-behaved. Being underground comix makes a huge difference here, because the Freaks' misadventures will involve drugs, drugs, drugs, more drugs, pharmaceutically impaired judgement, sex, nudity, poo, theft, nuclear waste, the cops, cockroaches, international drug cartels and basically whatever the hell Shelton finds funny.
Our heroes are:
1. FAT FREDDY = the least intelligent Freak (which is saying a lot), often manages to lose all his money and/or drugs when attempting to score. Is prone to crazed eating frenzies when he gets the munchies. Has a near-afro that turns into a mutton chops moustache.
2. PHINEAS T. FREAK = the nearest to an actual hippy, being a politically aware idealist who believes in social change and the environment. (And, of course, in getting stoned out of his gourd.) His head is a fuzzy cloud of black hair, from which peeps a bespectacled face.
3. FREEWHEELIN' FRANKLIN = the grouchy one, but also the only Freak who'd probably survive more than five minutes on his own. Wears a cowboy hat and has a big, bulbous nose.
4. FAT FREDDY'S CAT = the hero of his own separate strips and much more intelligent than his owner. He shits in Fat Freddy's boots, headphones, etc. and sometimes has adventures that go into outright fantasy.
Rereading, I was really impressed by the art. Gilbert Shelton is damn good, whether or not he's drawing in his usual cartoonish style. Look at how chameleon-like he is when swiping the art styles of Chester Gould, Harold Gray, etc. There's a story that shows other comics creators at Fat Freddy's wake, including Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Spain Rodriguez... all drawn in that artist's trademark style. The "Idiots Abroad" three-parter is almost Herge-like in the detail with which he draws all these European cities.
At the same time, though, Shelton is an amazing cartoonist. He knows when to abandon realism, e.g. when drawing hysterical Nazi-like guards at Disneyland. "Set My Chickens Free" blew my mind in issue zero. It's just a silly one-pager with no plot, but it's comics perfection. (That's a lethal thing to say of a daft throwaway, obviously, and for goodness' sake don't have that in your head as you read it! It's also not quite true, because "seventeen billion chickens and me" doesn't scan. I'd have gone with either three or six, for the sake of the repeated vowels. I'm really nitpicking there, though.) Anyway, that one-pager's a musical comic. These don't always work, because the words need to suggest non-existent music. Secondly, it's making extreme visual choices. Everything comes together like a mad bastard, though, and it makes me laugh... the words, the art and that imaginary music.
Also, unlike Crumb, Shelton can draw women.
It hasn't dated at all, despite the odd reference (e.g. to presidential candidate George Wallace, the Vietnam draft or 1970s inflation). It never will. It really is a three-man comix equivalent of Laurel and Hardy, except less family-friendly. There's going to be an animated TV series, apparently, and I'm all for it if it means more readers for Gilbert Shelton.