S. Clay Wilson, famed provocative early pioneer of undergound comix, has passed away at the age of 79.
Steve Clay Wilson, best known as S. Clay Wilson, one of the early pioneers in the world of underground comix and one of the most provocative comic book artists of the 20th Century, died on Sunday at the age of 79.
Wilson is best known for his work on Zap Comix, which led to Wilson’s own series, The Checkered Demon, and helped contribute to multiple obscenity lawsuits and a landmark Supreme Court case that effectively destroyed underground comix as a major form of comic book media in the 1970s.
Wilson was born in Nebraska in 1941. He was trained as a medic in the United States Army, which he later recalled gave him access to all sorts of medicine that he and his friends would use recreationally. In the late 1960s, Wilson moved to San Francisco where he saw the first issue of Zap Comix, an underground comic designed as a spotlight for the cartoonist, Robert Crumb. Wilson had previously done some comic work for the poetry journal, Grist, but he had no idea that there were avenues for his work out there like Zap. Wilson met with Charlie Plymell, he original publisher of Zap and Wilson was soon contributing to Zap from the second issue on. In Zap Comix #2, Wilson introduced his most famous creation, the Checkered Demon, a demon who would get into wild misadventures. Wilson’s work was marked by its sheer lack of any sort of filter. He would later recall, “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.”
Wilson’s work was a major influence not only on a generation of underground comix readers, but even on his peers. Crumb, for instance, later recalled seeing Wilson’s work for the first time and thinking, “The content was something like I’d never seen before, anywhere, the level of mayhem, violence, dismemberment, naked women, loose body parts, huge, obscene sex organs, a nightmare vision of hell-on-earth never so graphically illustrated before in the history of art…. Suddenly my own work seemed insipid…”
The problem for Wilson is that his work was so controversial that local communities kept trying to put Zap Comix out of business by charging the publishers with publishing pornography. In the end, in a case involving Zap Comix #4 (which had a number of Wilson comic stories in it), the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that local communities were allowed to determine what would be considered “obscenity” for themselves. Suddenly, almost all of the stores that sold underground comix were put out of business by local community groups (as these stories were primarily head shops, stores that sold paraphernalia for marijuana smoking) and the undeground comix market collapsed.
Wilson kept plugging away, even trying to do his own Checkered Demon series…
Since he was unwilling to tone his work down, he had limited sales success during the 1970s, but had better luck during the independent comic book boom of the 1980s that was based around the introduction of the direct market. Wilson was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 1992.
One of Wilson’s last major works was a collection of non-sanitized fairy tales, Wilson’s Grimm, in 1999…
Wilson suffered major brain damage in 2008 (by virtue of either a bad fall or being physically assaulted) and eventually began to suffer dementia from his brain injuries and was unable to draw or communicate in the final years of his life.
One of Wilson’s Zap Comix peers, Victor Moscoso, described Wilson’s legacy thusly, “He blew the doors off the church. Wilson is one of the major artists of our generation.”
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