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Monday, December 5, 2011

The Freak Brothers - Still Furry and Still Fabulous

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the most popular underground comix is a trio of freaks - Fat Freddy, Freewheelin' Franklin, and Phineas.  The Idiots Abroad, one of their stories, was voted as one of the top 100 comics stories of the century by the Comics Journal (that's all comics, not just underground comix).

Introduced in the late 60s, this trio was created by Gilbert Shelton and were anti-heroes, defying authority and symbolizing the drug culture lifestyle.  These freaks (slang for hippies) lived in San Francisco, and quickly became popular in the underground comix scene.  They first appeared in 1968 in an Austin, Texas underground newspaper called The Rag.  That year they made their first comix book appearance in Feds 'n' Heads published by Print Mint in Berkeley.  A year later Shelton founded Rip Off Press in San Francisco.  Forty-three years later, they are still in print and still popular.

Well, how about four decades plus....

Shelton collaborated with Dave Sheridan from 1974-1982, and then with Paul Mavrides (in glasses above) since 1978.  In an interview Mavrides imagines that Shelton based them on people he knew, noting that the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges - other famous trios - may have influenced him.  It's true the comix have a slapstick quality to them.  The three main characters are slackers, without concern of employment and always searching and procuring drugs and marijuana.

Fat Freddy Freetowskis seems to be the least intelligent, and as his name implies the one who eats the most.  He usually gets burned on his transactions and when he does successfully score, often loses his procurements.  Another character, Fat Freddy's Cat - known by that moniker - most often appears in his own separate strip at the bottom of some strips, reminiscent of how Krazy Kat got his start.  He is contemptible of humans, and regards them, especially Fat Freddy, as dumb.  Think Garfield as a freak.

Freewheelin' Franklin is the smartest, or at least street-smartest.  He grew up in an orphanage which explains it all.  His hair changes color from red to light brown to blond, depending on the strip.  He is tall and skinny with a huge nose and moustache, and he sports a ponytail and cowboy hat and boots.

Phineas T. Freakears is a left-wing radical, the most politically motivated of the three.  He comes from Texas born of an open-minded mother and John Bircher father.  He has a thick mass of black hair, is also tall and skinny with a long nose like a splif.  I would guess he was inspired by Abbie Hoffman.

There are other minor characters such an Norbert the Nark, an inept DEA agent. Hirma "Country" Cowfreak is often referred to as a cousin - he grows marijuana on his isolated farm.  Dealer McDope is, obviously, a dealer.  Tricky Prickears is a blind and deaf detective, a play on Dick Tracy.  My favorite minor character is Governor Rodney Richpigge, whose son is a cocaine dealer, and who is himself a rich, corrupt public servant - a stereotype that rings true no matter what era.

Cousin Country Cowfreak

Most of the stories revolve around drugs and marijuana, their use and procurement.  It is significant that heroin is NOT one of the drugs the characters use.  It is mostly marijuana, although in Grass Roots they find a year's supply of cocaine which only lasts them two days.  Along with the drugs come the munchies, making food another topic.  The Brothers live in an impoverished, seedy grunginess along with a mass of cockroaches.  This is all part of the squalor that makes up their lifestyle.  A lot of the stories begin realistically, but on their way to insanity become rather surreal, often using the bromide of the "it was all a dream" formula.

The leader of the cockroaches, President-Commander-Pope Swellguy.

Many of their utterances have become catchphrases, the most famous being Freewheelin' Franklin's "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope."  In a poster featuring Freewheelin' Franklin, the Los Angeles County Library paraphrased it to read:  "Books will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no books."

In 1972 the Brothers appeared in the full-length, unauthorized X-rated adult film "Up in Flames".  Names were changed, the movie characters didn't resemble their comic counterparts, and instead of drugs and marijuana, the Brothers were focused on procuring sex, in keeping with the porn theme.  A claymation movie called "Grass Roots" was supposed to be released this year, but nothing yet.

A still from "Grass Roots" courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the original readers of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers may not still be fans, newer and younger readers have taken their places.  The Collected Adventures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was first printed in 1971 and has been continually in print ever since.  They are symbolic of an era that may be stereotyped, but not forgotten.  Long may their freak flags fly!

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Rip Off Press.
This site sells the comix in the U.K.


  1. A few comments here. First, Gilbert's alive and well in Paris, and as much fun as always. For a while he was doing a similar strip called Not Quite Dead, the world's unluckiest rock band, with a French collaborator named Pic, but I think that's over. Grass Roots is stalled, as far as I know -- a friend is supposed to be voicing Fat Freddie's Cat. All three were based on real characters, including my former neighbor across the street in Austin, who was Frank. Fat Freddie's model died quite young. And there's a complete FFB available in two volumes from Fantagraphics.

  2. Thanks, Ed, for sharing! I knew Shelton was living in France - do you see him often? How fascinating that you were in on this scene! If you hear any more about Grass Roots, let me know.

  3. They're kissing cousins to Robert Crumb's cartoons. You've written another wonderful article and given me another artist to follow.

  4. It's so great to see their fabulous freaky faces again! And how many times over the years have I agreed that: "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope." !