Pseudonyms: Crank Collingwood; Hank "Elephant Boy" Longcrank; Howard Arnherst; Howard Crankwood; Marquis Von Crank
Steve Clay Wilson was an American underground cartoonist and central figure in the U.S. 1960's counterculture's underground comix movement. Wilson attracted attention from readers with aggressively violent and sexually explicit panoramas of lowlife denizens, often depicting the wild escapades of pirates and bikers.
Wilson grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. 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. By 16, he had produced 1,000 of them, according to his biographer 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", Rosenkranz writes.
Wilson majored in anthropology at the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1962. After a stint in the Army, he drifted to the Beatnik scene in Lawrence, Kansas. Wilson's first published work was in The Screw, an underground newspaper, which was soon followed by drawings for Grist magazine, a poetry journal published by John Fowler. 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 in 1967.
By then, underground comix had surfaced as a rebellion to the postwar Comics Code Authority, which regulated obscene content. Underground comix artists intended their content to be for mature audiences. At the forefront was Zap Comix.
In San Francisco, Wilson met up with Charles Plymell, Zap's publisher. Wilson began collaborating with Crumb in late 1967, and all issues of Zap starting with #2 contain his work. It was in Zap #2 that Wilson widely debuted his most famous character, The Checkered Demon, a short and stubby antihero who wore checkered pants as he busted the heads of bikers, pirates and lowlifes. Wilson challenged censorship by depicting wild characters like the Checkered Demon, Captain Pissgums and Ruby the Dyke (to name a few) and made the world a more liberal environment for all artists and cartoonists.
As a Zap artist, Wilson achieved notoriety. Among his friends were Janis Joplin, William S. Burroughs and various Hells Angels. A uniquely San Francisco character and brilliant illustrator, Wilson had a long career using Dick's Bar in the Castro as his mailing address, message center and appointment place. 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.
"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."
In addition to drawing for Zap, Wilson contributed to Bent, Checkered Demon Adventures, 2 and 2 Squared, Yellow Dog, Arcade and Weirdo, Crumb's post-underground anthology published in the 1980s and early 1990s. 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.
S Clay Wilson was trying to get home from a friend’s house November 1, 2008, the night his life changed forever. It was never certain if he fell or was attacked, since he had no memory of it. The numerous injuries on his face and head made him look like he was beat up. Two good samaritans found him unconscious between parked cars, face down in the rain, and called an ambulance. The incident caused him traumatic brain injury. 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.
Wilson was lovingly cared for until his final days by his wife Lorraine Belcher Chamberlain. She created the S. Clay Wilson Special Needs Trust website in 2010 while caring for him to raise funds for his medical bills. The website contatins monthly blog entries (with photos) written by Lorraine describing Wilson's post-accident life in detail for family, friends and fans to read. Feel free to visit and make a donation here to offer Lorraine the additional support she greatly needs: