Paperback Riders: Gilbert Shelton “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”

Hassle Free Press / Knockabout Comics

"Gilbert Shelton, creator of Wonder Wart Hog and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, interviewed at SXSW, at the Flatstock Poster Show." by jonl is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A sharply affectionate take on the counter culture and an accurately barbed dig at the establishment.

Gilbert Shelton, a key figure in the underground comics scene, created three characters, Fat Freddy Freekowtski, Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, and Phineas T Phreak – collectively the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Some argue that as freaks they were different to hippies but the reality is that the whole concept lampoons virtually everything we remember about hippies. The stories manage, at the same time, to ridicule and criticise the establishment – and if you think that the humour is too far fetched check out the grim reality that is the truth in the film, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, and the extrajudicial execution of black activist Fred Hampton.

Above all, it is that even-handed knowingness that makes the comics such an ongoing pleasure and not merely trapped in a time warp. Not surprisingly the brother’s chief occupation is the procurement and consumption of drugs, particularly Marijuana, as they live on the margins of society, jobless and scuffling from deal to deal and one property to another.

There were 13 original comics although there have been various compilations and collections over time, some of which relate to secondary characters such as Fat Freddy’s Cat, the source of much scatological humour. A quick internet search reveals that there is plenty of Freak Brothers material available today – although I’m lucky enough to have some originals dating from the early 1970s. I have an abiding memory of going into a book shop in Newcastle under Lyme and having found several issues asked if there were more. In a broad Scottish accent the assistant shouted into the rear of the shop, ‘Are there any more Freakies’, (you have to really imagine that pronunciation to get the full effect).

“fat freddy’s cat” by oddsock is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The three Freak brothers were in fact not related and each represents something of a stereotype. Fat Freddy is not so smart, obsessed with food (no surprise there), and usually gets burned on any drugs deal. He is constantly outwitted by his cat (who believes that he is smarter than all three of the brothers), wittily called Fat Freddy’s Cat. When Freddy does score he often loses the drugs or is the victim of some mishap. Despite that, the other two still send him out on this most vital of missions.

Freewheelin’ Franklin is the ‘cowboy’ in the team sporting a truly droopy moustache (or should that be mustache?) ponytail, boots and a stetson. He’s laid back but street smart and has a wonderful walk that seems to defy all natural laws – it has to be seen to be quite grasped as he eats yards at a stride. He seems to have lived on the streets and is old enough to be occasionally troubled by impotence – often brought on by unfeasibly nubile young women whose demands are more than he can ever satisfy. More of the role, or lack of it, of women later! Franklin’s look remains influential today and is clearly affected by many of the current cognoscenti – often augmented by a Brew Dog Pale Ale, a 2-foot beard, and a check shirt.

Phineas Phreak is the idealist in the group interested in politics and sufficiently knowledgeable in relation to chemistry to produce all kinds of pharmaceutical magic and sometimes less acceptable devices such as bombs. He sports a beard, glasses, a big bush of hair, and is tall and skinny – clearly no athlete. His nose looks curiously like a prime joint and he is described by Wikipedia as,

The stereotypical left-wing radical, bearing a superficial resemblance to Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin’   

An animated TV series adaptation, ’The Freak Brothers, was released on Tubi on November 14, 2021, and you can view the trailer and a short episode below. It’s strictly 18+ and includes bad language and advocates drug use which, as we know, is clearly illegal. Other than that it’s a reasonably funny take on the idea that the brothers have been transported to the present time. Of course, adventures ensue, but for me, it’s a bit noisy and rackety which is not the image I formed in reading the original comics.

Other recurring characters include Norbert the Nark a DEA agent who tries and continually fails to apprehend the brothers. Hiram “Country” Cowfreak, is a putative cousin and Marijuana Farmer. Dealer McDope is a shady figure and a drug dealer often mentioned but rarely actually seen. Tricky Prickears is a blind, deaf and reactionary Dick Tracy figure. Many of them have their own short cartoons within each comic.

“Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Comix Book by Rip Off Press, 1973” by France1978 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

So what do we get in terms of content?

I can only speak for issues 1,3, (pictured opposite) 4,5, and 7 so there may well be gems that I have missed. The cover of issue 1 sets the scene as the brothers are chased by a gang of men in blue looking rather like the Keystone Cops.  Fat Freddy has a stash under his arm and all three brothers are simultaneously indulging in a hookah of prime something or other. The chase is heading through a dirty litter-strewn backyard as the Cat looks on. Scene set. Just so you know how they got to this parlous state the back cover shows a before of 3 all American boy scouts with an after of three disreputable figures giving the finger, popping pills, reading a porn magazine and contemplating who knows what with a chemistry set – all whilst reading a little red book. Now there’s another thing – ‘The Little Red Book’.

Turn a page and we are right into an educational film, ‘The Truth About the Killer Weed Marijuana’. The three indulge to the point where supplies are exhausted and are driven to a frenzy by the lack of ‘pot’. They plot heinous crimes such as robbing a crippled little old lady and raping a four-year-old. A fight ensues about a small amount of money that might just buy the next deal – and the brothers kill each other. Killer weed indeed – well it’s a film that saved my life! The final image of this ‘terrifying’ story is that of the freaks confessing they were paid $200 to make this nonsense whilst their friends congratulate them on the superb comedy and convincing acting.

One of my favourite episodes is in issue 5 when having come across a stash of cocaine by various bizarre means the brothers sell up and head to the country – ‘Grass Roots’ – picking up three attractive females on the way. Females in the comics serve a limited purpose often revolving around being naked or semi-clothed, generally good-looking, although occasionally like Russian shot putters from the seventies. There’s a reasonable amount of sexual activity though in this case it often ends up that the brothers are the dupes. There are no central female characters in the issues I possess.

The illusionary country idyll disappears as the drugs run out and the brothers discover their dream house is a shack on barren land. There follow all kinds of adventures including meeting the local moonshiners, a gold rush, a flash flood, Phineas running for Sherrif and a final bacchanalia fueled by moonshine where the whole town gets ‘nekkid’ and dances with the devil. And then, it all comes to an end – the freeway arrives and a metropolis is built not far behind. You have to read it.

What you will find throughout are sketches that catch the times and lampoon them brilliantly – with an underlying affection for our three heroes. The forces of law and order are generally venal and corrupt and far more of a danger to society than ever the drug culture was. General Wastemoreland, Ronald Rayguns, J Edgar Hoover et al. One recurrent theme is the reporting of minor incidents the brothers are involved in as major moral panics or threats to civic safety. Phineas is prone to dreams that are potentially and ominously rooted in a worrying reality. There are meetings with topical figures of the time, Don Juan and a thinly disguised Linda Lovelace. There’s even a pretty funny Andy Capp skit wherein he gets his comeuppance courtesy of the IRA. I’m not quite sure where Hassle Free Press (issues 1345) meets Knockabout comics (issue 7) and Shelton’s copyright but It’s all pretty imaginative and amusing stuff.

Two favorites that cover no more than a page each are when a completely stoned Phineas is robbed in the park and ordered to hand over all his money. As he spends a considerable brain wasted time considering what all his money might be – the jar in the kitchen, the money Fat Freddy owes him, his savings account – the robbers become edgier and edgier at his weird behaviour and let him go – ‘I don’t know what this guy is fucked up on but I think we better get away from here’.

Freewheelin’ is stepping out as he does when two red necks shout some exceptionally dull abuse and then chase him. He trips and the amyl nitrate he is carrying does its stuff and he beats the crap out of the two bullies, ‘Lord god Billy Bob that was the meanest hippy you ever picked’! It might not sound that funny but the illustrations certainly add to the effect

Not to be left out Fat Freddy’s Cat spends some time telling his nephews about his meetings with extraterrestrials in, ‘Chariots of the Globs’, a take on the Erich von Daniken book. He also recounts his adventures as super-spy – F Frederick Skitty – in ‘I led 9 lives’.

Every one a gem!

About Gordon Sharpe 116 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts

2 Comments

  1. I really like the Freak Brothers cartoon books, they manage to take the rise out of everyone at the same time. The drawing is amazing, would recommend them highly. Thanks for the article, I have not managed to watch the new shows yet, hopefully soon.

  2. You’re spot on Jem – the great strength is that they take a poke at everyone. Personally I am not sure I like the FFB’s ’50 years in the future’ cartoons – but I suppose if it keeps the flame burning

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