Born: July 25, 1941
Died: February 7, 2021
Steven Clay Wilson was born July 25, 1941, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he grew up. His mother was a medical stenographer who brought home paper for Wilson to draw on. By age 14, he was creating complete comic stories of eight or 10 comic panels on the backside of a piece of typing paper. By 16, he had produced 1,000 of them, according to Patrick Rosenkranz, author of a three-volume series titled
The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson.
He would sit on his front porch after school and draw these things one after the other and throw them on the ground to pile up like autumn leaves, his biographer Patrick Rosenkranz said.
Wilson majored in anthropology at the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1962. After a stint in the Army, he drifted to the Beat scene in Lawrence, Kansas, where he developed a portfolio called
S. Clay Wilson Twenty Drawings, which was published in an edition of 500. With that, he was on his way to San Francisco. By then, underground comix had surfaced as a rebellion to the postwar Comics Code Authority, which regulated content for comics - loosely defined as images that tell a story in sequence.
Underground comix changed comics forever Rosenkranz said.
It made them for adults again.
At the forefront was Zap, started by R. Crumb. This was what drew Wilson to San Francisco, in February 1968. He got an introduction to Crumb and that is how the Checkered Demon made its way into Zap, No. 2, along with another Wilson strip -
Captain Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates.
Within a year, Wilson was known all over the world, Rosenkranz said. Among his friends were Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs and various Hells Angels. But his best friends were the bartenders, always for a limited time.
Wilson was a one-of-a-kind original guy, said another one-of-a-kinder, Ron Turner, publisher of Last Gasp Books and Comics.
Nobody could imitate him. What looked like a jumbled mess on the page was always a smoothly told tale.Back in the maximum-outrage years of underground comix in the 1970s, S. Clay Wilson was known for the Checkered Demon, a short and stubby antihero who wore checkered pants as he busted the heads of bikers, pirates and lowlifes, to the delight of readers of Zap, Yellow Dog, Arcade and other anthologies.
A uniquely San Francisco character and brilliant illustrator, Wilson had a long career using Dicks Bar in the Castro as his mailing address, message center and appointment place. Wilson outlasted Dicks, and he outlasted underground comix before finally dying, on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 7, at his home on 16th Street, half a block from the Dicks location. In addition to drawing for Zap, Wilson wrote
Checkered Demon Adventures,
2 Squared. He also did album covers, book jackets, and illustrated punk and porn magazines. In his later years, he supported himself with private commissions, cash up front.
Wilson will go down as one of the boldest cartoonists in art history, Rosenkranz said.
He outdid all of his predecessors in his depiction of sexual deviation, mutilation and perversities of every stripe. But gallows humor was at the heart of all of it. There was something funny happening in the middle of the picture and you had to search to find it.
Wilson had been bedridden for two years because of the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury he suffered after either a fall or a mugging while drunkenly walking home on Nov. 1, 2008. At that time, he was found in the pouring rain, face down between two parked cars. He came out of a coma after three weeks and drew comics for Zap while still in the hospital. He lost his capacity for clever dialogue but kept trying to draw until his cognitive skills declined. He was 79.
Watch a tribute video by his friend, Patrick Rosenkranz here:
S. Clay Wilson tribute video
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