Paris:- Friday, 5. April 1997:- The little shop opposite the municipal gymnasium called Japy in Paris' 11th arrondissement looks derelict. Behind the dusty glass there are dim statuettes of Fat Freddy and Free-wheelin' Frank and some other odd odds-and-ends. The buzzer beside the door has masking-tape criss-crossed over it.
Without much hope, I tap the door. And behold! keys clink, locks turn and the door opens to reveal - the father of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers: Mr. Gilbert Shelton, himself, alive and in person, in Paris.
The afternoon sun hits him full in the face and I think he looks older, and he wearing a plaid shirt. If I ever looked in a mirror I'd probably be surprised at how old I look; annoying things, mirrors. Inside our old 'heads' we still think we are 20-something, and it is easy to forget we are wearing these old dude's disguises.
The first, small room of the shop is sort of a warehouse; there are tubes for posters and stuff piled up, but there is an irregular but clear path through the small room to the atelier behind. Just inside it, there is a round garden table, for visitor hospitality.Volume 1 of the French version of the 'Freak Brothers.'
Gilbert takes the drink order; water for me and coke for himself. It might have been cold coffee; it was that color. A large computer monitor is playing screen-saver number 147 and on the opposite side there is a drawing board with good light, but in a sort of a cubby-hole, with a counter to the right with all the usual tools necessary for doing little drawings by hand. There is nothing new in the room, but it is not as dusty as the outside window, and it has good, clear floor-space.
The walls are covered with many large version silk-screens of the comic book covers and major drawings. These are first-class printing jobs, far removed from the standard level of comic book production. There are also many souvenirs - mostly from the life of the Freak Brothers - statuettes, figurines, a large scale model of the red 1959 Cadillac convertible, posters, cards and there is pretty good light everywhere.
At the back, in a smaller area, there is a sink - this is an artist's must - and a huge white refrigerator - any artist's desire - and a vast collection of beers, all in full bottles and cans. There is a skylight overhead and a plant working its way up to it.
This is the world-centre headquarters of the continuing production of the world-famous comic, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Gilbert is the president of the corporation, and its only full-time employee. He must like the boss, because he's been on the job a long time.
The history, my version, is on an old and well-used 45-rpm single and I will now place the old needle - about the size of a spike - in a groove, and it goes like this:The first edition of 'Not Quite Dead,' by Gilbert Shelton and Pic.
I was moping around in my cellar room, sometime around the summer of 1960. To pass the time, uselessly, I was reading a year-old little hotrod magazine. As harmless as this sounds, I still managed to find something outrageously ridiculous in it, and I immediately wrote an insane letter of scorn and protest and fired it off to New York.
Weeks later, still moping - I think it was because I had a 'free' summer on account of a woodworkers strike - I got a letter from Bob Shea in New York, which more or less said, "If you're so damn smart, why don't you write something for us?"
So I did. This led to doing a answer-reader's-letters column once a month, and other occasional articles; all of which I illustrated. This was for two small-format monthly hotrod magazines. I was the only student in art school - there to learn how to draw and paint - who was published regularly in national US magazines.
For New York standards, these magazines were not the creme of the New York publishing world, and after 18 months Bob Shea moved on to either 'True' or 'Argosy.' Before going, he handed me over to - Gilbert Shelton. The work continued more or less as before, our offices separated by 3,000 miles of continent.
One day Gilbert sent me a letter, with a drawing of a Renault 4CV with a hugely overloaded roof-rack and puffs of smoke trailing behind, to say he was going back to Texas. From there, he sent me copies of two magazines - one of which contained the comic strip: 'Wonder Warthog - the Pig of Steel,' which was a hilariously funny mixture of left-handed superhero and Texas macho.
We went out of touch and history took over with the true beginning of wretched excess, and in 1966 everybody who was dissatisfied, intended to try to get to San Francisco, to 'be in' a festival of love and music. That's what it was called.
It was the time of the 'Haight,' the Hell's Angeles, the 'Magical Mystery Bus Tour,' and the rock at Bill Graham's Avalon Ballroom and the Greatful Dead played there and Janis Joplin sang; and it was the anti-everything polyester, anti-mid-American, anti-government time; and if you don't remember it or were not yet born, you can get a taste of it by reading the triology by Bob Shea and Robert Anton Wilson - 'Illuminatus!'Back cover of first edition of 'Not Quite Dead.'
Now the calendar reels off 11,315-odd worth of one-day pages, and chance puts me in touch with Gilbert. We meet in Paris for the first time, on a cold late afternoon in the winter of 1993, at the comics and tea shop, 'Thé-Troc,' in the rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, not far from the place de la République. Thé-Troc is a shop for buying or trading comics, for buying tea, and for drinking it on the spot, in a place of peace and quiet.
I worked for the guy over 31 years before. It was like a blind-date; neither of us knew quite what to say - we do have several things in common though. I am a fan of his, for one thing. But four years ago, I was hot on CD-ROM production, and Gilbert was indifferent to this, so after a few further meetings over tea, we went on with our separate lives.
On Wednesday, coming down from Belleville I chanced to pass the street of the shop and on impulse, I went to see if it was still in place. From the corner location, it had moved up half a block, but Teddour Ferid was still behind the counter. With Gilbert's phone number, the meeting today was arranged.
With a production of hundreds of comic books, now translated into many languages, as well as other, related products, Gilbert Shelton - as a cartoonist - is a 'famous person,' not only to hundreds of thousands of comic book readers, but also to hard-core comics fans. No matter what he does now, he is famous forever.
I have my fifteen minutes of fame once a week while you're reading this; but this is nothing compared to Gilbert's. Despite all this - glitter! - neither of us know how to 'be famous' with each other. All we really know is about putting the little lines on paper. The way this is done, in solitary, it means that we are like famous hermits.
Paris is a good town to be famous in. There are a lot of famous people, besides the President, who live here. But you never 'see' anybody - which is not exactly true, because I have - in the supermarket right across the street.
Just two nights before, I had seen one of his movies on TV, one of my favorites; and I'm right behind him in the checkout. I want to say, "Yo! Philippe, you were a really good mean guy in that..." but this is Paris, and here famous people have a right to be private. And so we are.
At the beginning of the 're-meet' today, Gilbert asked me some questions about computers and comics. He has what looks like a home-made PC, and besides the screen-saver playing non-stop, he said he does little with it. What he wanted to know, just as I want to know, is whether these things can be used for making comics.The window of the World Headquarters of Rip Off Press.
The answer is yes; comics were done on Macs a year after they first appeared, and probably on Ataris too. But you can't draw little lines with a mouse - not fast enough, anyway - and if the graphic tablets work, it takes about three months with one to get up to speed - and they're mainly good for painting. I suppose kids know better, and I've been thinking of looking for some of them to ask about it.
The main thing is that the 'Freak Brothers' are alive and well. The newer 'Not Quite Dead,' - besides being about an eternal rock band that never quite makes it out of low-rent one-night stands and party gigs - if you look at it closely, shows these Paris 'touches,' mainly in decor and backgrounds.
It leaves me thinking - can the 'Freak Brothers' be brought up to the new millennium, or should they be left where they are? Only Gilbert knows. I'll ask him. For all I know, next time I call, he'll ask me if I know how to turn off his screen-saver.
Since I know nothing about PCs, I'll tell him to pull the plug on the sucker.
To obtain information about the French versions of 'Freak Brothers' and 'Not Quite Dead,' or any information at all about Rip Off Press publications, please write to me. I will pass on any messages to Gilbert Shelton and Teddour Ferid, up until the time they get themselves online.
The three illustrations with this feature are by Gilbert Shelton, and Gilbert Shelton and Pic. They are copyrighted every which way, and are used here with permission. But to make it clear, one more time: Shelton and Pic©1997
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