More Freakin' Freaks

photo: the troc, r j-p timbaud

Ground 'zero' of the 'underground' in Paris -
east of République.

'Underground' Surfaces In Paris

Paris:- Saturday, 10. November 2001:- About the same time as the curtain came down on 'Indian Summer' here I thought I detected smoke signals in the air carrying the message that it was time to check out the 'Freak Brothers' again.

I ignored the first two smoke signals because they are not easy to read. When I thought I saw two more, they added up to four or five. One was an email announcing a change of address, and another was a phone call suggesting that I drop into a rock session at the Utopia.

Having Dimitri introduce me to Robert Crumb in the café Le Bouquet one night, was reinforced by seeing him again a week later. That settled it - it was time to go to east Paris and see Gilbert Shelton - and see how east Paris is doing these days as well.

This turned out to be as easy as picking up the phone, a frustrating instrument of communication that I findphoto: shelton, cadillac, in studio is totally unreliable. After talking first to some perplexed lady in Charonne - who sounded as if she gets a lot of strange phone calls - the second try got me Gilbert in person.

Gilbert Shelton - from 'underground' in San Francisco to 'underground' in Paris - in only 33 years.

According to people who are closer, Gilbert is only in the 'Freak Brothers' studio on Wednesdays, if he is in at all. Since he was 'in' on Wednesday, according to what he said on the phone, I got to the Boulevard Voltaire just over an hour later.

This was on the day of the day-early 'baloney' part of last week's 'sandwich' weather. It was the last day of the fading 'Indian Summer' heat wave. Leaves on the trees are still resisting, they are still green and they are hanging on. People waiting for nude trees are going around in a proper snit.

Gilbert was in the studio because he had to get 26 framed cartoon drawings together, to get them ready to send to his publisher in Britain, to go with the launch of the 500-page 'The Complete Freak Bothers' at Foyle's bookstore on Monday, 19. November.

First thing, he made me a huge quadruple-jolt of café. For a change, the 'Freak Brothers' studio was very tidy. Gilbert told me the reason for this, but I failed to note it - although I havephoto: shelton comic panel in construction noticed it getting tidier over the past few years. A sign of less industry?

"I'm a café addict," he said, "But I can stop any time." He thought this over for a moment and added, "If I do, I sleep all the time."

'Not Quite Dead' cartoon 'in construction' ©Gilbert Shelton.

The huge keyboard synthesizer had its red 'on' lights lit, and the stereo was rocking and rolling its way through the studio's endless mid-'50s rock and blues collection.

There was no sign of the 'urgent' 26 drawings to be framed. There was an unfinished comic-strip page resting on his drawing board, and a ready-to-color cover drawing for an upcoming 'Not Quite Dead' edition hanging from a clothes line.

'The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' began as a comic strip that appeared in 'underground' newspapers in the last half of the '60s. Gilbert had already created 'Wonder Wart-Hog' earlier in the decade in Texas, and he usually fixes his year of arrival in San Francisco as 1968 - so this gives the 'Freak Brothers' an age of 33, at least.

If you are not old enough to remember the 'underground' newspapers of the '60s, you might be surprised to learn that comics originally done for them have continued to live until now and new production continues.

One reason for this is called 'attention to detail.' For some reason, there are some comic book readers that can't get enough of it. A little 'detail' like the Haight-Ashbury days of San Francisco being long over - for 30 years! - can be overcome by living in Paris, whichphoto: cover, freak bros, tome 8 keeps most of its 'leftovers' in place and in everyday use.

For example, Gilbert is still worrying about the drawing of the '59 Cadillac Eldorado that is on the cover of one of his first 'Not Quite Dead' comic albums. This series involves a rock band that is not very good, but keeps on playing through thick and thin - with Paris details substituting for the Fillmore district of San Francisco.

The latest 'Freak Brothers' album to be published in Paris. ©Gilbert Shelton

In order to get the Cadillac exactly right, Gilbert has a model of one, about 60 centimetres long. He points out its unusual windshield that not only wraps around, but wraps up as well too. He says no other car ever had a windshield like this.

He explains the trouble he and Pic went to, to get its lighting right for the drawing. Now he wants to know - can it be captured with a digital camera, rendered by a computer - and rendered into line?

We set a piece of carton on top of a photocopier and I try a couple of shots of the Cadillac. We don't bother with lights or a tripod for stability, so we get the expected crummy results - but they are an indication of the way to do it. A sunny day and the sidewalk outside will do the trick.

In addition to the book-signing in Britain, volume eight of the 'Les Fabuleux Freak Brothers' - with a cover drawing by Gilbert, after Delacroix - has just come out, and Gilbert says he will be at his French publisher's place on Saturday to sign copies for the French version's fans.

At the same time, volume three of 'Les Aventures du Chat de Fat Freddy' has just come off the presses too. And as a sort of a 'by-the-way,' Gilbert shows me new copies of 'El Supercerdo' - Wonder Wart-Hog in Spanish - that have just been published in Barcelona by Ediciones La Cúpula.

This is a lot of stuff to pack back to the 14th arrondissement. At the Bouquet later - 'hello again, Mr. Crumb!' - I ask Dennis to come along with me on Saturday to the book-signing at the 'Thé Troc,' which is a tea room and storefront for the publisher, 'Tête-Rock Underground.'

Meanwhile on Friday, Gilbert 'I-Hate-Driving-In-France' Shelton drives carefully up to Calaisphoto: cover, chat de fat freddy, no 3 to deliver the 26 framed drawings to Tony Bennett of Knockabout Comics, who has come across the channel by ferry to take them on to London.

In Calais all the umbrellas are popping inside-out and the ferry arrives 45 minutes late. On its turn-around, it needs a plucky tug to get it clear of the harbor. And then the first thing it has to do is turn sideways to the monster waves to clear a sandbar, and everything moveable in it tumbles to the decks.

'Fat Freddy's Cat' is not quite as relaxed as Paris cats. ©Gilbert Shelton

After I've written to him asking for a copy of the cover of new 'The Complete Freak Brothers,' Tony replies with "Je suis desolée de n'ecrirer pas en Français mais je suis tres fatiguée aprés un voyage extraordinaire hier - de six heures! - sur la Manche pendant une tempete." Tempest indeed!

This brings us up to today. Dennis agrees to meet me later at the Thé Troc shop in the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, while I go over there by myself so I can give the quartier a once-over.

The Rue Oberkampf, despite being 'in' for some years now, has not lost its essential east-Paris neighborhood character. There are bits of the whole quartier that appear as 'Freak Brothers' background, because it is suitably funky.

There are more large cafés now, and even the Café Charbon has added a dance-club joint to its rear, or cellar. The café itself is pretty much unchanged from a few years ago, except for having found a way to put many more tables in it. Today, late lunch-types fill it up.

I take the Rue Saint-Maur the block over to the Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, and give it its small tour, going up as far as the former 'Maison des Metallos.' Timbaud must be like Oberkampf was before Paris-funk decided to water its camels in it.

In not quite this situation, Thé Troc has felt comfortable on Timbaud for a long time. Just after the beginning of book-signing time, there is no big line of eager fans outside, but Gilbert Shelton is installed in the tea-room area of this 'underground' shop.

A customer-fan wants a drawing as well as a dedication on the title page of the new 'Freak Bothers.' Gilbert does both, both with care. This takes a bit of time, and other fans show up and take seats in booths around the tea room. None of these appear to have been born when the Freak Brothers were first appearing in the 'underground' papers.

Thé Troc is a treasure trove for comic albums, especially for ones by Gilbert and Crumb. Teddourphoto: shelton signing freak comic in the troc Ferid is Gilbert's publisher in France, and aside from having this very street-level shop, is quite 'underground' when it comes to opposition to censorship.

In Ferid's 'Thé Troc' on Saturday, Gilbert signs a 'Freak Brothers' album for a French fan.

Each year a comic author-artist is chosen to be 'president' of the annual comics show at Angoulême, and part of this distinction involves doing the official poster drawing for the festival. Crumb was persuaded to do it in 2000, and as Ferid foresaw, Crumb's poster was not used.

Its censored version graces Thé Troc's door. White stickers cover the 'offensive' areas, which the text points to as being merely 'lines on paper,' and not at all what the viewer thinks they really are. Inside Thé Troc, you can buy the original version - and what do you know - what was hidden is really 'lines on paper.'

Dennis comes strolling along eventually. He took his hippie fling in San Francisco in the mid-'60s, but kind of drifted into the theatre, where he still is except for excursions to see all the Marx Brothers movies playing in Paris.

Meeting Gilbert inside Thé Troc, it happens that both know certain cartoonists - one of whom also switched to theatre. Dennis also meets Ferid and swaps some 'underground' stories with him.

Practically the whole tea room is full of Freak Brothers fans waiting patiently for their signatures and original drawings by Gilbert when we leave to go up Timbaud to a Russian shop I've spotted.

In addition to its big Saint-Petersburg 2002 calendar, the LibraiRusse is full of Russian videos, for sale and rent. There are some new and used books too, but I see no Moscow street maps on offer.

After this, we take a café and a pastis in the Au Chat Noir, which is the sort of café Dennis would like to see in our quartier - but are common around here. This Au Chat Noir place is without the shipwreck decor of the Café Charbon, but its other characteristic of ample space is similar.

It is a good part of Paris. It isn't what it was but it hasn't gone too far to what it will become. The Paris magazines are interested mainly what is new, and the Oberkampf scene has been around a bit too long to be in this category. 'Oberkampf' has spilled over a small bit into Jean-Pierre Timbaud. A very small bit.

One other thing, there are no downtown name-brand shops around this part of the 11th arrondissement. You don't have to squint hard to think you've gotten yourself into some 'underground' part of Paris here.

In Paris - Tête-Rock Underground HQ

Available now, Gilbert Shelton's latest Freak Brothers comic album. Also, volume three of Fat Freddy's Cat. Both in French, which means a great way to learn new words notphoto: cover, the complete freak bros, vol 1 normally used in language schools. Some titles available in Spanish. At Thé Troc, 52. Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris 11. Métro: Parmentier. InfoTel.: 01 43 55 54 80.

Here's the cover of the 'Complete Freak Brothers,' just about to be launched in London at Foyle's Bookshop and Gallery.

In London - Booksigning and Expo

Gilbert Shelton will be on hand to sign copies of the just-published 500 page collection in black and white, 'The Complete Freak Bothers.' Concurrently there will be an exhibition of original drawings, and some Freak Brothers figurines, and 'other' stuff. From 9:00 to 19:00, from Monday, 19. November until Friday, 30. November. To be at Foyle's Bookshop and Gallery, 113-119. Charing Cross Road, London. Nearest tube stations: Tottenham Court Road or Leicester Square. InfoTel.: 207 437 56 60.

The 8th volume of 'Les Fabuleux Freak Brothers' is also ©2001 Téte-Rock Underground for this version in French. 'The Complete Freak Bothers' has been published by Knockabout Comics in Britain. All books mentioned here are ©Gilbert Shelton. Additional authors of 'Les Fabuleux Freak Brothers' are Dave Sheridan and Paul Mavrides. 'Wonder Wart-Hog,' aka El Superserdo, ©Gilbert Shelton and Ediciones La Cúpula. Copyright of the Cadillac is unknown, but it certainly has one.

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