Thursday, 6 September 2012

Books: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus


The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus
Written by Gilbert Shelton
Art by Gilbert Shelton, Dave Sheridan and Paul Mavrides

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Growing up in Brixton my next door neighbour was a bald Scottish guy called Chris [1] who was - frankly - amazing. He had a job supplying comic books to shops or people (or something) which meant that he was big into comic books (which I guess (no duh) is why he got the job in the first place) which meant for me: my own personal comics library one door away with a crackling expert librarian who was always willing to recommend me the best selections of comics the world had to offer. "Oh Joel - read this." "Joel -  I think you should try this." "Joel: I think you'll find this interesting." And thus was I introduced to: Judge Dredd, 2000AD, Alan Moore, Frank Miller (Sin City and Martha Washington I remember particularly), Garth Ennis' and the teenage delights of Preacher and - most especially: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Most people would call this "corrupting a minor." Needless to say: I'm eternally grateful. (And Chris - if there's any small chance you're reading this: get in touch - I owe you a drink!).

Thanks to my upbringing: reading this big fat door-stopper of a book [2] was a bit like coming home
and a bit like rewatching Saturday morning cartoons: only now realising how strange it is that home if full of hippies sitting around taking various assortments of drugs and that the main storyline of the cartoons you enjoyed as a kid was based around a mean guy in a cowboy hat (that would be Freewheelin' Franklin) exhorting a bumbling, fat dope (that's Fat Freddy) to go out and score some dope (and hey - wouldn't it be great if there were more stories where the main catchphrase was:"Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope."?) Because of that: it's kinda hard for me to get much perceptive into how most people are going to react to meeting this loveable group of social-misfits: for me they're kinda up there with Mickey Mouse or Charlie Chaplin: beyond the passing whims and tastes of us mere mortals and more like permanent fixed point of the universe - just a sorta part of how things are: and not knowing about them is a bit like not knowing who Santa Claus is [3].

But hell: ok - if reading this is the first time you've ever even heard of "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" let me try my best to clue you in: coming from a lineage that stretches all the way back to The Three Stooges and in slightly more modern times has resulted in such things as Up In Smoke [4] The Young Ones, Dumb and Dumber, Bottom, Kingpin, Red Dwarf, Dude, Where's My Car? and The Mighty Boosh. So yeah: that should give you some idea of what sorta thing we're dealing with: a group of stupid guys constantly battling against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune - falling into scrapes, falling out of scrapes and doing all sorts of strange stuff but (altho of course this will depend on your own preferences and tastes): doing it all in a funny way.

For me it's kinda hard to pinpoint what particular decade the Freak Brothers live in (although maybe that's just because I'm not so great telling my historical periods apart). They first appeared in a publication called Feds 'n' Heads all the way back in 1968 but didn't really take off until The Collected Adventures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers had its first printing in 1971 (from wikipedia: ". In addition to underground and college weekly newspapers, new adventures appeared in magazines such as Playboy, High Times, and Rip Off Comix; these too were collected in comic book form."). One of the closet reference points that spring to mind is Withnail and I: even if the sense of humour isn't really the same (Withnail and I being a lot more sly and subtle about things while the Freak Brothers (I guess in part because they're drawn and not played by real humans [5]) were always a bit more board and prone to fantastical situations and various kinds of slapstick) that whole dudes lying around and taking various types of drugs [6] with a sort of general malaise just floating over the top of all their heads. But then Withnail and I is kinda about the end of the 1960s so does that mean that's where the Freak Brothers best fit too? Or are they more creatures of the 1970s? Or does any of that really matter? Hell - it wouldn't really be too much of a stretch to imagine them somewhere around now: sitting in a bedsit somewhere and getting up to various types of no-good.

I guess that all this somewhat relevant as one of the things you should try and brace yourself for is that - especially during the first 100 pages (it gets better after that) some of the opinions and attitudes are a little - well "retrograde" would be one way to put it - "hopelessly backwards" would be another. I mean - I know that it's just a comic book but it's still a little much to read something where women are just "chicks" to "ball." and at one point there's someone called "General Gaylord" who has a "Homosexual Battalion!" It's the kind of thing that you just accept when you're young - but looking at it with older eyes it did make me feel a bit uncomfortable. The climax of this was a Freak Brothers story that basically climaxes with the punchline "and then everyone got raped." [7]: altho maybe that makes it sound much harsher than it actually comes across and (well this doesn't paint me in a great light) I've gotta admit that it did still make me laugh. So. I dunno [8]: maybe I'm just being a little bit too sensitive - it's not as if anyone really comes out with strong positive role-models: the freak brothers themselves aren't really people that you'd want to ever emulate: (not unless sitting around and smoking dope all day sounds like your idea of fun...). Plus: it does get better the further on you go: like when the female characters band together and use the democratic process to overthrown the Freak Brother's miniature version of the patriarchy.

One of the things that make it more than just about the ever-so slightly dodgy sexual politics and slapstick mucking about is the artwork [9]. At the start - yeah - it's all pretty basic and a little big ugly looking in it's bluntness. But stick with it for the first 100 pages and it soon blossoms into something else entirely. These aren't the kind of stories that short-change the reader with the lack of background detail - everything is always meticulously filled in and worked out and made to feel like a real place ("Hedgehog Stout Won't Kill You") and they're always willing to spend time getting the little things right - like the way that the hot air from a jet engine makes wavy lines.I didn't manage to keep track over who was doing the art (and there's three different artists on rotation: Gilbert Shelton, Dave Sheridan and Paul Mavrides) but whoever does what: it's all really beautiful especially when it gets to the big epic stories and switches to colour (unlike most long-running tv shows which tend to jump the shark [10] when they decide that it would be a good idea to move the characters to a new location ("The Simpsons are going to London!") pretty much all of the best Freak Brothers stories come from when they decide that they need to go somewhere: be it a bus tour across America (The Bus Line), a trip to the country  (Grass Roots) or - for me the highlight of the whole collection - a trip around the world (The Idiots Aboard [11]]).

Coming slightly just before the halfway mark The Idiots Aboard is the point where the Freak Brothers go wide screen. It's like the rest of the time they're a black and white TV show built up out of five or ten minute sketches: and then with the Idiots Aboard they switch into glorious panoramic technicolor with a big-budget 3 hour movie epic that (somehow) manages to retain all the things that make them so much fun to read. I remember the first time I found The Idiots Aboard: it was a bit like discovering that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had made an action-comedy together back in between Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and I dunno - something else. In fact - maybe that Tintin film is a good example: only instead of a goody goody two shoes and his little white mutt (sorry Tintin) it's three dope smoking idiots trying to make their way to Columbia and getting hopelessly lost in the process. Featuring lines like (from an army type): "And when we get our hands on him we'll give him a fair, impartial military trail... and then we'll torture the son of a bitch to death!" and the least subtle religious parody I've ever seen ("Hallelujahgobble! Hallelujahgobble!") it's one of those stories that I know that after I've read it - it's going to leave me feeling good for the rest of the day [12].

I don't know how anyone could resist the charms of a series that includes songs like Let's All Get Drunk and Go Naked (sample lyric: "Let's all get drunk and go naked / All get drunk and go naked / All get drunk and go nayyy-kedddd / And lie in a great big pile!") and unfortunately writing all this down has left me too drained to extoll the virtues of Fat Freddy's Cat: but - damn - that is one cool feline.

If you're still undecided then my final attempt to get you to read it lies on the last page of the book: with a short six panel strip that never fails to make him guffaw in a major way. If you can find a copy of the book that I'd recommend that you just find a copy and skip over my attempts to recreate it (because it's always so great when someone goes: hey I saw this joke on a thing last night - let me try and recreate it for you!). I would have just linked to it if I could have found it somewhere online - but no such luck so you're stuck with this (brace yourself): Fat Freddy at a party looking around: "What a swell party! Where's the punch?." He finds a queue of people : "Excuse me" he asks "Is this the punch line?" "No you idiot" says the guy at the back of the queue "This is the beginning of the story." Fat Freddy walks away. Stops. Walks back. "Excuse me" he asks again. "Is this the punch line?" Guy at the back says: "Afraid so." "Such as it is."

Shut your face: That's pure brilliance.

[1] No - I know what you're thinking: it wasn't Grant Morrison in disguise. Sorry.

[2] 624 pages - which makes it about 50 pages longer than From Hell. (So yeah - take that Alan Moore! Not so smart now are you?)

[3] Speaking of: I guess you have to read it in context but for whatever reason this is one of my favourite panels of the whole book: had me giggling like a loon for about 5 minutes after I read it: "Ho ho ho!!"

[4] Altho I haven't actually seen Up in Smoke so that's kinda a guess. But knowing about Cheech & Chong through the grapevine and reading what it says on wikipedia it sounds about right: ("a Grammy Award-winning comedy duo consisting of Richard "Cheech" Marin and Tommy Chong, who found a wide audience in the 1970s and 1980s for their films and stand-up routines, which were based on the hippie and free love era, and especially drug culture movements, most notably their love for cannabis.") In fact - do these guys owe Gilbert Shelton some royalties maybe?

[5] It's pretty telling that The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers movie (which seems like it's got stuck in development hell - oh well) was going to portray them not with actors but with claymation: Wallace and Gromit style. Of course before that there have been quite a few unsuccessful attempts to bring the brothers to the big screen there was even an unauthorized pornographic film titled Up in Flames, which "ripped off the Freak Brothers, Mr. Natural and Cheech and Chong (them again!) all in one go." And in 1979 the guys who published the Freak Brothers - Rip Off Press (Gillbert Shelton himself and another guy called Jack Jackson (or "Jaxon" as his pen name has him)) got a big fat check from Universal Pictures ($250,000) for a five-year option on a live action film - which (so the story goes) was so they won't sue them for the Cheech and Chong franchise (damn that Cheech and Chong!)...

[6] And seeing how I grew up just round the corner from Camberwell I reckon that gives me some sort of right to link to this already much viewed little scene of brilliance ("Who says it's a Camberwell Carrot?" "I do. I invented it in Camberwell, and it looks like a carrot.")

[7] Which also features a drug-dealer ("Hey dig man: it's like the border crackdown has caused this immense dope famine, and the prices have gone up.") who looks just like Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream.

[8] I tried talking over some of these issues with my girlfriend and she said that she had read or heard something by Germaine Greer that said that "rape" shouldn't even exist as a seperate criminal offence and that all violent assault should just be categorised as violent assualt. But maybe we're getting off topic a little here from all the actual funny stuff... 

[9] Even wikipedia seem impressed by it: "For a counterculture production, the standard of artwork is exceptionally high; Shelton's striving for accuracy and attention to detail have earned him comparisons with Hergé." (Funnily enough - altho Hergé wasn't a name that I was thinking of when I read this Freak Brothers book - I do get that people would join them together through the fact that both Shelton and Herge have a habit of designing in great detail all the machines and buildings that they feature in their stories: so much so that at some points they like to get their characters to pour over their blueprints (the moon rocket in Destination Moon and the skyfarm in The Idiots Aboard).

[10] I find it very difficult to imagine that anyone reading this (come on: it's a blog about comic books so I'm guessing that you must be fairly geeky) wouldn't know what "jumping the shark" means. But just in case: Jumping the shark is an idiom created by some guy called Jon Hein that basically is used to describe the moment in the point of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery (as in: "boy - Friends sure jumped the shark with that 9/11 episode"). The phrase is also used to refer to a particular scene, episode or aspect of a show in which the writers use some type of "gimmick" in a desperate attempt to keep viewers' interest. The phrase jump the shark comes from a scene in Happy Days where the characters visit Los Angeles and a water-skiing Fonzie decides that it would be fun to jump over shark (and yes of course there's a website).

[11] Nope. No relation to this guy or this. At least - not as far as I know. (Hell I dunno - maybe Ricky Gervais is a secret Freak Brothers fan - it wouldn't surprise me).

[12] There is a bit of slump after Grass Roots where things just get a little bit silly and sloppy. But I read that one of the artists (Dave Sheridan) died in 1982 so maybe that has something to do with it.

Links: Now Read This Review of Idiots Abroad.

Further reading: American Splendor: The Best of American Splendor, #$@&!: The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection, The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, The Perry Bible Fellowship, Tank Girl: Tank Girl One, Breakdowns.

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