S. Clay Wilson, the most scabrous and rollicking of the underground cartoonists who first achieved notoriety as contributors to Zap Comix in the late 1960s, died Sunday at his home in San Francisco. He was 79.
His wife, Lorraine Chamberlain, said the cause was deteriorating health arising from a traumatic brain injury more than 12 years ago. He had experienced a number of serious health problems in recent years.
Violent, obscene and scatological, Wilson’s hyperbolic stories — full of corny puns and incongruously decorous dialogue, and populated by such unsavory, anatomically distorted characters as the Checkered Demon, Captain Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates, the Hog Riding Fools and Ruby the Dyke — are all but indescribable in this newspaper.
Interviewed in the early 1990s for The Comics Journal by underground-comics aficionado Bob Levin, Wilson called comics “a great visual art form,” adding, “Primarily, I’m trying to show that you can draw anything you want.”
What Wilson wanted to draw was densely packed scenes of mayhem, dismemberment and grotesque sex acts that, in their allover style, suggested both the abstract expressionist paintings that were at their height of prestige when Wilson was in art school and the splash panels drawn by comic book artists like Jack Kirby and Wally Wood.
His drawings were so outrageous in their humorous depravity that on first encountering them in 1968 his fellow cartoonist R. Crumb recalled feeling that “suddenly my own
work seemed insipid.”
Steven Clay Wilson was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on July 25, 1941, the first child of John William Wilson, a master machinist, and Ione Lydia (Lewis) Wilson, a medical stenographer. Inspired by EC horror comics like “Tales From the Crypt,” he began drawing as a child.
After leaving the University of Nebraska, he served in the Army, then joined a circle of Beat Generation artists and poets in Lawrence, Kansas. His first published work — in a Lawrence underground newspaper, The Screw, and a small literary magazine, Grist — showed his style fully developed.
In 1968, Wilson relocated to San Francisco, where he quickly became one of the leading underground cartoonists as well as something of a counterculture celebrity, partying with Janis Joplin and other local rock musicians.
In addition to Zap, Wilson’s cartoons were published in other underground comic books, alternative newspapers like The Berkeley Barb and Paul Krassner’s satirical magazine The Realist, as well as, somewhat trepidatiously, in above-ground publications like Playboy.