Images and artwork courtesy of Gilbert Shelton
Exploding forth from the same psychedelic marijuana-smoke mushroom cloud that lit the world with the underground comic book visionaries on the order of Robert Crumb (Zap Comix), Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead), and Vaughn Bodé (Cheech Wizard), Gilbert Shelton created perhaps the most iconic cannabis-blasted cartoon characters of all: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.
For 50 years now, the titular trio — Freewheelin' Franklin Freek, Phineas Phreak, and Fat Freddy Freekowtski — have boogied and blasted their way through countless weed-wacked shenanigans that, no matter what the specific details, always come down to the Bros attempt to score schwag, charm the ladies, and outrun The Man… often with hilariously unsuccessful results.
Fifty Freakin' Years of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers is a Golden Anniversary compendium loaded with fresh Freak material that includes Gilbert Shelton's musings on a half-century of high, heady cartooning and FFB parodies by Crumb, Hunt Emerson, and other eyeball-bending giants.
Gilbert Shelton took time to talk to MERRY JANE about 50 years of fabulous, furry, freakiness. Any stoner library that's missing this milestone book can only be considered, at best, half-baked.
MERRY JANE: Fifty Freakin' Years of the Fabulously Furry Freak Brothers — what do you think about when you think about that reality?
Gilbert Shelton: Fifty years! How old we are getting! And marijuana is still illegal in most places. But there is hope.
How did the Freak Brothers initially come to be? Who do you see as their comic forerunners?
The early Freak Brothers were published in the Austin, Texas, weekly underground newspaper, The Rag. I was in agreement with the (leftist) editorial stance of this paper, but I saw it as being visually uninteresting, so I proposed putting in comic strips in order to bring in more new readers, like mainstream newspapers traditionally did.
Then one night I watched a double feature movie bill at the Austin rock venue The Vulcan Gas Company — one film of the Marx Brothers and the other with The Three Stooges. I walked out thinking, "I could do something that good."
So with the help of a film student at the University of Texas, Renée Tooley, I made a five-minute film entitled, Texas Hippies March on the Capitol. The first Freak Brothers strip was done as an advertisement for the film. But everyone liked the comic strip better than the film, so I gave up my film-directing career and went with comix. The only copy of the film itself has been lost, so we will never know.
The Freak Brothers have been hugely influential in popular culture. What's an example of where you think they've made a direct impact?
The Cheech and Chong film Up in Smoke dealt with the same subject, but it perpetuated the myth of marijuana being a drug sold to naive American kids (Chong) by wily Mexican dealers (Cheech).
What's the difference between the "freaks" of 1967 and the "freaks" of 2017 — not just the Freak Brothers, but the fans who love them?
The same big questions remain unanswered. The Freak Brothers appeal to the anti-authoritarian readers, as always.
Marijuana has figured profoundly in your work. How has that changed over the course of 50 years — not just for you, but as you see it in society?
It hasn't changed for me, except that I can't smoke as much of the stuff as I could in my twenties. The weed has gotten better and stronger over the years, I hear, but I can't afford that really expensive grass. I would still be happy with the quality of that ten-dollars-an-ounce boo that we had in the '50s.
Tell us your all-time dream cast of actors, from any era, to play the Freak Brothers.
Since the Freak Brothers are perpetually thirty years old, I am not familiar with any actors that age. All-time? John Belushi for Fat Freddy. Or Vic Morrow? Clint Eastwood for Freewheelin' Franklin?
My agent Manfred Mroczkowski in California is having ongoing discussions with film and television people. Manfred has sold the rights to the Freak Brothers seven or eight times, and each time nothing gets made and the rights revert to me. Maybe it's better that way — I don't have to worry about a bad movie being made.
Where do you, and the Brothers, go from here?
We're keeping on keeping on. As you will notice; none of the new stories in the Freak Brothers' fiftieth anniversary book have anything to do with marijuana. But the subject is far from over. Me, I'll be puttering in my garden in rural France.
Pre-order your copy of "Fifty Freakin' Years of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" here
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