The Checkered Demon

S. Clay Wilson was one of the most outrageous underground comix artists. He created extremely wild illustrations, full with violent and sexual imagery which crossed every boundary of taste. His signature series was 'The Checkered Demon' (1968-1994), about a hedonistic and invincible devil. Wilson was a strong influence on many artists, among them his own colleagues in the underground comix scene. His comics are so completely off-the-wall that they inspired several artists to jump over their personal artistic barriers and draw whatever they wanted. It's been said that once you've read S. Clay Wilson's comics nothing will shock you anymore. Or as the man explained it himself: "You can draw anything you want. Reach down and grab some in the murky recesses of your psyche, the dark side of your subconscious, the last rotting grandfather cell."

The Checkered Demon by S. Clay Wilson (1977)

Steve Clay Wilson was born in 1941 in Lincoln, Nebraska, as the son of a machinist and a medical stenographer. He grew up in a tough neighbourhood where students frequently fought one another. One of his older school mates was Charles Starkweather, who later became an infamous spree killer, executed by electric chair in 1959. From an early age Wilson enjoyed drawing. He loved George Herriman, Reed Crandall, Jim Osborne, Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, Mad Magazine, Hieronymus Bosch, William Hogarth, but particularly EC Comics. In a 2008 interview with Bob Levin for The Comics Journal Wilson explained that EC appealed to him because they published in different styles, which were more artistic than other comics at the time. It proved to him that one could follow countless creative directions. Later in life the artist also expressed admiration for Robert Crumb and Bill Watterson. Wilson studied art and anthropology at the university of Nebraska. He published his first cartoons in the university newspaper. Back then Wilson already had a rough image. He enjoyed drinking, smoking, taking drugs and drove around on a Harley-Davison motor bike. His teachers saw him as a troublemaker. Wilson once challenged one of his art professors who painted over his work so younger students could reuse the canvases. Wilson also felt in general he wasn't learning any useful graphic skills. To his horror every student was required participation in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and had to wear a uniform during the drill. Wilson rebelled by not cutting his hair and claiming he couldn't wear his uniform because he threw up over it. At a certain point they didn't believe him anymore and threw him out of school. Wilson was forced to join the army, but chose a training as a medic to avoid parading around. Another advantage was that he had easy access to various medicines, which he passed around to his fellow recrutes who used them as drugs. After six months of active duty Wilson joined the Nebraska National Guard. Thanks to a Jewish psychiatrist who sympathized with his anti-war stance he received a medical excuse which relieved him from military service. Wilson returned to his former school where he eventually obtained his bachelor degree. He moved to New York City, where he worked in a split cowhide manufacturing store for a while.


Comic strip from Snatch Comics #2 (1969)

In 1966 Wilson moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he worked as a model in art schools. He got involved in the hippie scene and published his first drawings in the literary magazine Grist. Wilson made various one-shot comics around this time, such as 'Ivan and Igor', 'War and its Men', 'Samurai Warriors' and 'Cute Animals'. In 1968 he moved to San Francisco where he discovered the first issue of Zap Comix. The magazine brought him in touch with Robert Crumb, whose work was a huge revelation to him and made him realize comics could be intended for mature audiences as well. Likewise Crumb and Charles Plymell (the original publisher of Zap) were equally impressed with Wilson's deranged comics. They told raunchy tales about perverted and sadistic pirates, bikers, drunks, junks, prostitutes, transvestites, sexual molesters, and so on. Wilson once explained in an interview that he had a "morbid fascination with deviancy": "I'm sure a shrink would have a field day trying to figure out why I did it. I just find it fun. People can take it or leave it." Crumb and several other underground artists found Wilson's audacity refreshing. Wilson had the attitude to let his imagination flow without holding himself back. As he once explained: "I think a comic strip, like jazz, is pretty American. The variations of how much stuff you can cram into a comic strip or how far you can stretch the envelope in a form of music or a comic strip is pretty endless, you’re limited only by your imagination. You get aesthetic debates and nuances of details and shit. But just draw the motherfucker and argue later." Many felt the urge to out-do him and take their own demented ideas and taboo-breaking even a step further.

Soon Wilson was present in the second issue of Zap Comix, where he drew an infamous comic named 'Head First'. In one scene a pirate whips out his gigantic penis on a bar table at the request of another homosexual buccaneer. To his horror the buccaneer then takes out a knife and chops off the glans penis to eat it! Victor Moscoso described the impact of this particular story as follows: "Head First blew the doors off the church." The same issue also introduced Wilson's best known comic strip: 'The Checkered Demon' (1968), who had made his debut earlier on in the magazine Groulish. The Checkered Demon is a lewd, red-skinned and pot-bellied devil who wears checkered pants. His gap-toothed grin is a tribute to Norman Mingo's Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad Magazine. The devil often fights the sadistic and perverted scum which inhabit Wilson's comics. After his duty is done he consumes drugs and has sex with anything that moves. The comic also introduced his female companions Star-Eyed Stella and the lesbian Ruby the Dyke. The demon was inspired by watching Federico Fellini's movie 'Giulietta degli Spiriti' ('Juliet of the Spirits', 1965) on LSD. In 1977-1979 a comic strip starring the character ran in the porn magazine The Berkeley Barb. After three issues this 'Checkered Demon' comic was cancelled because the editors objected to a scene where the demon rapes an intergalactic prostitute, much to her enjoyment. The comic was picked up by Last Gasp, who also made them available in comic books. In 1995 the American rock band AFI recorded the song, 'The Checkered Demon', on their album 'Answer That and Stay Fashionable' (1995), as a tribute to the character.


The Checkered Demon (1978)

Another infamous comic appeared in the third issue of Zap: 'Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates'. As the title summarized so well it featured a bunch of depraved buccaneers who apparently had been at sea for so long that they lost all sense of decency. The comic featured orgies, gangbangs and decapitations between homosexual and lesbian pirates. Wilson also made a graphic contribution to 'Laugh in the Dark' (Last Gasp, 1971) and 'ProJunior' (1971), a tribute comic book dedicated to Don Dohler's eponymous comics character Pro Junior. He furthermore appeared in underground comix like 'Yellow Dog', 'Insect Fear', 'Laugh in the Dark', 'Barbarian Women' and 'Snatch Comics', for the latter using pseudonyms like Marquis Von Crank, Howard Arnherst and Crank Collingwood.


Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates (Zap #3)

However, in 1973 the court case Miller vs. California made the U.S. Supreme Court broaden prosecution of "obscene material", making it impossible to publish underground magazines with the same amount of freedom, left alone distribute them. Naturally S. Clay Wilson was one of the biggest victims. In 1974 he tried launching an underground comix magazine of his own named Pork. It featured a pirate mutiny story named 'Balls and Box', as well as a pornographic parody of Pinocchio named 'Pudocchio', in which some other part of the puppet's anatomy keeps growing when he starts lying. The rest of the issue was filled with material Jay Lynch originally published in The Realist. Pork nevertheless lasted only one issue. A more succesful publication to which Wilson contributed was Arcade, an underground magazine founded by him, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Justin Green and Bill Griffith. Wilson's work furthermore appeared in magazines like The Realist, Hugh Hefner's Playboy, Screw, Hustler and the L.A. Weekly. In 1977 Wilson also got together with his future wife, Lorraine Chamberlain. Lorraine may ring a bell to long-time fans of musician Frank Zappa as the woman who in 1964 made a "pornographic audio tape" with Zappa. The tape was made on commission and nothing more than a recording of her and Frank jumping up and down on a bed while making silly sex noises. Nevertheless, when Zappa handed the tape over to his client it turned out to be a trap set up by a police officer. He was promptly arrested for "peddling pornography". Zappa was able to keep Lorraine out of jail, but he had to spend six months in the penitentiary.

In 1980 Wilson became a contributor to Robert Crumb's underground magazine Weirdo. Later in his career he reinvented himself as a book illustrator, livening up the pages of William S. Burroughs' novels 'The Wild Boys' (1980) and 'Cities of the Red Night' (1982). Wilson had adapted a story by Burroughs before in the fourth issue of Arcade named 'Fun City in Bandan' (1975). The artist was also asked to illustrate Ken Kesey's book compilation 'Demon Box' (1986) too, but after creative differences his cover eventually wasn't used, though Wilson still got paid. In the 1990s he also illustrated the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, collected as 'Wilson's Andersen: Seven Stories by Andersen' (1994) and 'Wilson's Grimm' (1999), both published by Cottage Classics. Long-time fans were surprised that the legendary underground cartoonist was now drawing fairy tales. Yet Wilson explained he was attracted to the gruesomeness of the original stories as opposed to the more bland and child-friendly versions.


Babbs Crabb and her Friend Bernice Meet the Male Chauvinist Peg! (Barbarian Women #2, 1977)

He was also very much in request as an album cover designer for musicians such as Gurk ('Schaperklackdack', 1985), The Accüsed ('More Fun Than An Open Casket Funeral', 1987) and The Mekons & Kathy Acker ('Pussy, King Of The Pirates', 1996). MTV asked him to shoot an "Art Breaks" short in 1987 starring Wilson and the Checkered Demon at his local Dicks bar. This forty-second spot was rebroadcast several times on the channel for a few years. In 1992 S. Clay Wilson was entered in the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame. His comics and illustrations have been frequently exhibited in both the United States as well as Europe. Yet, despite all this praise some authorities still didn't appreciate his work. In December 1991 the Royal Mounted Canadian Police seized copies of his comic 'This is Dynamite', published in the fifth issue of Taboo, because the imagery was considered too violent and obscene to be imported to Canada.

Album cover art by S. Clay Wilson

Sadly Wilson's later years were spent in bad health. In 2008 he attended the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco, but never returned home. People found him unconscious between two parked cars with his face down in the pouring rain. He was covered with bruises, cuts and both his neck and left orbital bone were fractured. It remains a mystery whether he merely fell in a drunken stupor or was attacked by someone? Wilson himself couldn't testify, as he suffered from a brain trauma which left him in a coma for three weeks. In the first week he was taken off the ventilator, but as he still failed to breathe the doctors had it reattached. To make matters worse the patient then suffered from pneumonia and the medics feared for his life. But the always unpredictable Wilson eventually regained consciousness and started breathing again. Still, he was visibly changed. Wilson often told visitors to "get lost" and rambled on about people and stuff that bore no basis to reality. Eventually his wife realized her husband was just describing ideas for comics, but since he was in such a bad state he couldn't explain it to outsiders, nor draw or write it down.

After a few months Wilson eventually regained his speech and ability to write and draw. But his brain no longer worked as it should have. His short-term memory failed and suffering from dementia and aphasia he barely spoke anymore. Most of the time he had trouble expressing himself, which worsened when he underwent two operations in 2012 to respectively remove a blood clot in his brain and his leg. It left him wheelchair-bound and requiring help from others to survive. His long-time girlfriend Lorraine Chamberlain takes care of him nowadays, despite suffering from a painful botched spinal surgery of her own. The only good thing to come out of Wilson's medical problems is that he and Lorraine finally decided to marry in 2010. She also set up a trust at www.sclaywilsontrust.com, where people can make financial donations to help him pay his medical bills.

For an overview of his career the book 'The Art of S. Clay Wilson' (Ten Press, 2006) is highly recommended, as well as the multi-volume biography 'Pirates in the Heartland: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson' (2014) by Patrick Rosenkrantz. S. Clay Wilson was an influence on Robert Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Cal Schenkel, Pirana, Alan Moore and Josh Alan Friedman. His work has furthermore received praise by celebrities like William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Harvey Kurtzman, Terry Southern Leonardo DiCaprio and art critic Robert Hughes.

www.sclaywilsontrust.com
The Comics Journal's S. Clay Wilson interview

Series and books by S. Clay Wilson in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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