Comic Creator S. Clay Wilson

S. Clay Wilson

Marquis Von Crank, Howard Arnherst, Crank Collingwood

(25 July 1941 - 7 February 2021, USA)   United States

S. Clay  Wilson

The Checkered Demon
Album cover for 'The Checkered Demon, Volume III', 1979. 

S. Clay Wilson was one of the most outrageous U.S. 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. Another long-running series was 'Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates' (1968), which features the most depraved pirates of the seven seas. 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." While most famous as a cartoonist, Wilson also illustrated novels by William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey and even an adaptation of Grimm's Fairy Tales. 

The Checkered Demon by S. Clay Wilson (1977)
'The Checkered Demon'. 

Early life and career
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 CrumbDori Seda 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. When one of his art professors painted over his work so younger students could reuse the canvases, Wilson challenged him. In general he also felt he didn't learning any useful graphic skills at the school.

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 recruits, 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, working in a split cowhide manufacturing store for a while.

Comic strip from Snatch Comics #2 (January 1969).

Underground comix
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 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. He 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 broken taboos a step further.

'Head First', Zap Comix, August 1968. 

Head First
Wilson was present in the second issue of Zap Comix (August 1968), 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 Checkered Demon
The second issue of Zap Comix also introduced Wilson's best known comic strip: 'The Checkered Demon' (1968) to a whole new audience. The character had debuted earlier 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 takes drugs and has sex with anything that moves. The comic also introduced his female companions Star-Eyed Stella and the lesbian Ruby the Dyke. Wilson said the demon was inspired by watching Federico Fellini's surreal movie 'Giulietta degli Spiriti' ('Juliet of the Spirits', 1965) on LSD. In the 1970s a comic strip starring the character ran L.A .Weekly and the underground magazine The Berkeley Barb. After three issues this 'Checkered Demon' comic was cancelled because the editors objected to a scene in which the demon rapes an intergalactic prostitute, much to her enjoyment. The comic was picked up by Last Gasp, who in 1977 and 1979 also made them available in comic books. 

'The Checkered Demon' (1978).

Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates
Another infamous comic appeared in the third issue of Zap Comix (Fall of 1968): 'Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates'. As the title summarized so well, it features a bunch of depraved buccaneers who apparently have 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.

Work in the late 1960s, early 1970s
Wilson additionally appeared in underground comix magazines like Yellow Dog, Insect Fear, Laugh in the Dark, Barbarian Women and Snatch Comics. In Snatch he used pseudonyms like Marquis Von Crank, Howard Arnherst and Crank Collingwood. 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, let alone distribute them. Naturally S. Clay Wilson was one of the biggest victims. 

'Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates' (Zap #3).

In 1974 S. Clay Wilson 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, instead of his nose, some other body part 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.

Work in the mid- to late 1970s and 1980s
A more succesful publication to which Wilson contributed was Arcade (1975-1976), an underground magazine founded by him, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Justin Green and Bill Griffith. Wilson's work additionally appeared in magazines like The Realist, Hugh Hefner's Playboy, Screw, Hustler and the L.A. Weekly. In the 1980s he was a natural to appear in Robert Crumb's sleazy alternative comic magazine Weirdo. 

Lorraine Chamberlain
In 1977 Wilson also met this future wife, Lorraine Chamberlain, whom he would eventually marry in 2010. Lorraine may ring a bell to long-time fans of musician Frank Zappa. She was the woman who in 1964 made a "pornographic audio tape" with Zappa. The tape was made on commission and purely featured her and Frank jumping up and down on a bed while making silly sex noises. Nevertheless, when Zappa handed the recording 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. 


Book illustrations
In the 1980s, S. Clay Wilson 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), 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.

In December 1991 the Royal Mounted Canadian Police seized copies of Wilson's 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.

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

Album cover designs
S. Clay Wilson designed album covers 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).

Graphic and written contributions
Wilson made a graphic contribution to the collective comic books 'Laugh in the Dark' (Last Gasp, 1971) and 'ProJunior' (1971), a tribute comic book dedicated to Don Dohler 's comic character Pro Junior. In 1984 Wilson drew a story for the comic book 'Queen of Hairy Flies', to which other underground artists like Spain Spain Rodriguez, Brad W. Foster, Michael Roden, Ed Dorn, Rory Hayes, Bill Shut and others also made contributions. The book claimed to be a loose interpretation of an 18th-century occultism book. In 1987 MTV asked him to shoot an "Art Breaks" short starring Wilson and the Checkered Demon at his local Dicks bar. This 40-second spot was rebroadcast several times on the channel for a few years. He wrote a personal homage to Robert Crumb in Monte Beauchamp's book 'The Life and Times of R. Crumb. Comments From Contemporaries (St. Martin's Griffin, New York, 1998).

In 1992 S. Clay Wilson was inducted in the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame. 

Album cover art by S. Clay Wilson
Album cover for 'More Fun Than An Open Casket Funeral' by The Accüsed.

Declining health and death
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. He was found unconscious between two parked cars with his face down in the pouring rain. Covered with bruises and cuts and injured with a fractured neck and left orbital bone, it remains a mystery whether he fell in a drunken stupor or was attacked. Wilson himself couldn't testify, as he suffered from brain trauma, leaving him in a coma for three weeks. His condition worsened when he caught pneumonia. Even though the medics feared for his life, the always unpredictable Wilson regained consciousness and was eventually able to breathe on his own again. Still, he was visibly changed. He told visitors to "get lost" and rambled on about people and stuff that seemed to have no basis in reality. After a while, his wife realized he was just describing ideas for comics, but since he was in such a bad shape, he couldn't explain it to outsiders, nor draw or write it down.

After a few months, Wilson regained his speech, as well as his ability to write and draw. But his short-term memory failed and, suffering from dementia and aphasia, he barely spoke anymore. This worsened in 2012, after he underwent two operations to remove blood clots in his brain and his leg. It left him wheelchair-bound and in constant need of help. His long-time girlfriend Lorraine Chamberlain took care of him, despite suffering from medical issues herself. To help him pay for his medical bills, Lorraine set up a donation trust at www.sclaywilsontrust.com. A positive note during these difficult times was the couple's marriage in 2010. On 7 February 2021, S. Clay Wilson passed away at age 79.

Legacy and influence
S. Clay Wilson was an influence on Robert Crumb, Spain RodriguezVictor Moscoso, Cal Schenkel, WillemPirana, Alan Moore, Pieter Zandvliet, Josh Alan Friedman and Drew Friedman. His work has received praise from novelists like William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey and Terry Southern, comics writer Harvey Kurtzman, Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio and art critic Robert Hughes. In 1995 the American rock band AFI recorded the tribute song 'The Checkered Demon' on their album 'Answer That and Stay Fashionable' (1995).

Books about S. Clay Wilson
For an overview of S. Clay Wilson's 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. 

The Comics Journal's S. Clay Wilson interview

Series and books by S. Clay Wilson you can order today:


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