That Gilbert Shelton's name isn't immediately recognized by everyone who reads these words is a shame, one Knockabout Comics has spent the past half-dozen years working hard to correct. In 2008, the UK-based publisher issued The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus, followed a year later by a collection of the delightful spinoff series, Fat Freddy's Cat. The company took a couple of years off from the Shelton racket, issuing books by, among others, the cartoonist's better known peer and fellow French transplant, Robert Crumb.
Late last year, however, the company returned with the final piece in Shelton's puzzle: Wonder Wart-Hog. Like Shelton himself, the bestial hero is mostly forgotten outside of sequential art faithfuls and those who followed his skewed super heroics in sporadically issued comics collections throughout the 60s.
That the Warthog never skyrocketed to mainstream comics super stardom, shouldn't be regarded as a surprise. Shelton, to his credit, never fell into the common trappings of anti-hero comics. He created a countercultural response to superhero books that remained just that. Throughout the four-plus decades of stories collected herein, Wonder remains crude, aggressively bizarre, and wildly inconsistent in such superhero cornerstones as origin stories and secret identities.
As the publisher notes in its admittedly anemic contextual notes,
Our hero somehow manages to squeeze himself into a 5'7" Philbert [Desanex] suit — or at least that seems to be the case most of the time. Other times, they are two separate entities, Wonder Wart-Hog commenting on Desanex's life from inside his stomach.
It's hard to say how much of the character's elasticity was intention and how much was a simple disregard for self-imposed canon for the sake of storytelling, but whatever the case, such inconsistencies work out in favor of the character, who flies in the face of nearly every trope that dominated superhero books at the time of his genesis. Keep in mind, for a moment, that the 1962 publication date of the first WW story pre-dates the debut of the X-Men by a year and even edges out Spider-Man's Amazing Fantasy debut by a couple of months.
And hey, while we're constructing a timeline here, let's mention that Crumb's Zap, the comic book that's generally considered the definitive statement of the underground comix ethos (to which Shelton and Wonder were a contributors, naturally) was still another half-dozen years off. It's not surprising, then, that the hero's earliest appearances were quite rough in nearly every sense of the word.
As Wonder Wart-Hog first began popping up in Texas-based humor magazines, Shelton was a grad student attempting to cement a style and voice well before any semblance of an underground scene had truly taken hold. Still, throughout the decades, the art does continue to bounce around far more than on the Freak Brothers' strips, owing, perhaps, to the cartoonist's frequent collaborations. But again, it's clearly the elasticity Shelton afforded the swine that had him returning to the hero time and again.
In Wonder Wart-Hog, Shelton found something evergreen, and that goes a ways toward explaining why these works hold up as well as they do. There's also a lot to be said for the layers of grit the cartoonist piles onto his creation, finding his comedy by wallowing in the depths of drugs and dirt and crime that are so often wiped clean in rose-colored retrospects of the decade of peace and love. And indeed, the book is quite funny, quite regularly — though it never hits the heights of Shelton's Freak Brothers output, the high water mark of the cartoonist's catalog, in terms of art, narrative and jokes. For that reason, it's probably safest to start with the 2008 collection and migrate over here, if you like what you find.
And hey, after scoring a copy of the latest collection, you'll probably find yourself revisiting its predecessors as well. Really, it's quite remarkable just how much has been crammed into these collections — the latest alone is an impressive 464 pages, comprised entirely of stories and the occasional color cover. That means, sadly, that contextual details are limited almost entirely to the book jacket.
If there's a major shortcoming to Knockabout's Shelton collections, it's that. As lovingly compiled as these books are, additional biographical details, artwork, interviews and the like would have given readers a much more complete insight into an artist who finally getting a long overdue retrospective. But with three recent volumes collecting 1,200 pages of Shelton's best work, it's hard to quibble too much with what Knockabout has done.