Steve Clay Wilson (born July 25, 1941), better known as S. Clay Wilson, is an American underground cartoonist and central figure in the 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. He was an early contributor to Zap Comix, and Wilson's artistic audacity has been cited by Robert Crumb as a liberating source of inspiration for Crumb's own work. Recalling he first saw Wilson's work (in about 1968) Robert Crumb said, "The content was something like I'd never seen before, anywhere, the level of mayhem, violence, dismemberment, naked women, loose body parts, huge, obscene sex organs, a nightmare vision of hell-on-earth never so graphically illustrated before in the history of art.... Suddenly my own work seemed insipid..."
A striking feature of Wilson's work is the contrast between the literate way in which his characters speak and think and the depraved violence in which they engage. As James Danky and Denis Kitchen wrote in their book, Underground Classics, "He astonished and sometimes frightened his fellow cartoonists, though they saw it as pushing if not eviscerating the boundaries of taste. More than anyone, Wilson defined the boundaries of the medium." The artist and characters sometimes take violence with a playful attitude, for example getting tired of fighting and agreeing to have sex instead of continuing a battle. Wilson's later work became more ghoulish, featuring zombie pirates and visualizations of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a rotting vampire mother. In many respects, however, his work has remained consistent since his emergence in the 1960s. In contrast to the many countercultural figures who have moderated their more extreme tendencies and successfully assimilated into the mainstream of commercial culture, Wilson's work has remained troubling to mainstream sensibilities and defiantly ill-mannered.
"He showed us we had been censoring ourselves," said Zap cohort Victor Moscoso. "He blew the doors off the church. Wilson is one of the major artists of our generation." Referring to his and the Zap crew's status in art circles, Wilson himself said, "If you're not good enough to be a cartoonist, maybe you can be an artist."
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Wilson drew from age 12 and attended the University of Nebraska. Trained as a medic in the United States Army, he lived in Lawrence, Kansas and held odd jobs before moving to San Francisco in 1968.
According to Charles Plymell (an editor of Grist magazine, a poetry journal published by John Fowler), Wilson's first published work was in 1966 in Grist #7 and then in Grist #9, also from that same year. The first appearance of the Checkered Demon is said to have been in an ad in a later issue of Grist. His portfolio was printed the following year in 1967 (with subsequent printings later on in comic book form).
In California, Wilson met up with Charles Plymell, who was publishing Robert Crumb's Zap Comix. Wilson needed little persuasion to contribute to Zap. Wilson began collaborating With Crumb in late 1967, and all issues of Zap comix starting with #2 contain his work. It was for Zap #2 that Wilson created his most famous character, The Checkered Demon, a portly, shirtless being generally seen wearing checkered pants.
Wilson was also a frequent early contributor to another underground project, the Yellow Dog tabloid anthology. Wilson's work was featured in all three issues of The Rip Off Review of Western Culture, published in 1972. The third issue (Nov./Dec. 1972) featured an extensive interview with Wilson by Robert Follett, the publication's editorial director. Wilson was also a frequent contributor to Arcade, edited by Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith; as well as Weirdo, Crumb's post-underground anthology published in the 1980s and early 1990s. Wilson's underground comix work was praised by such counterculture icons as William S. Burroughs and Terry Southern.
The Art of S. Clay Wilson, published in 2006 by Ten Speed Press, covers his prints and paintings as well as his comics work. The level of violence may fall off slightly near the end of this book, but there is still little sign of restraint. His avoidance of restraint may be new ground for any medium.
His illustrations for Burroughs' Cities of The Red Night and The Wild Boys were published in German editions by 2001 Publishing. In 1994, he began interpreting classic children's stories, illustrating Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, as he explained to interviewers Jon Randall and Wesley Joost:
I did a children's book entitled Wilson's Andersen
. I always wanted to be a children's book illustrator way back when, but I took some LSD and took a left turn graphically. We got William Burroughs to write us a little blurb on the back, but they misspelled Burroughs! How could they do that! The stories are pretty lugubrious—"The Rose Elf", for instance—where the woman is kissing the "cold blue dead lips" of her lovers' head. Later versions leave all this stuff out. Disney takes a great old story and they "bleach" it—as they used to say about music. To make it palatable and generic. These stories are supposed to scare the shit out of little kids so they'll eat all their broccoli.
The stories in Wilson's Grimm (Cottage Classics, 1999) are "Snow White", "The Spirit in the Bottle", "The Valiant Little Tailor", "The Devil with the Three Gold Hairs", "Hansel and Gretel", "Bearskin" and "The Master Thief".
On November 1, 2008, Wilson suffered a severe brain injury. After attending the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco and drinking throughout the day, Wilson left the house of a friend and was found by two passersby, face down and unconscious between parked cars. Among his injuries were a fractured neck and left orbital bone; it is not known if he was assaulted or passed out and fell.
After a week in intensive care, Wilson was put on an accelerated therapy program, but he still showed major difficulty in summoning words, a common form of aphasia following a trauma of this sort. He had recovered enough to write his own signature in the first week of December, but continued to require hospitalization as of the end of December 2008, when a benefit was held to assist with his medical costs. Another benefit was held in Hollywood in March 2009. Wilson returned home in November 2009, able to draw well and speak a little but still requiring special care.
He married Lorraine Chamberlain, with whom he had been living for ten years, on August 10, 2010.
In the spring of 2012, he was rushed to the hospital with a buildup of fluid on his brain. After having brain surgery and spending three weeks in rehab, he developed a blood clot in his leg that required another three months in a facility on bed rest, followed by rehabilitation. Since that time, he has never fully regained his strength, and suffers further with dementia. He can no longer draw except for the odd face, or cluster of geometric shapes or letters. He rarely speaks, but can answer questions. He appears to understand much of what is said to him, although he can't actively participate in a conversation.
"Tree Frog Beer" is the drink of choice for many of these characters.The Checkered Demon — in one of the most exaggerated strips, Checker prefers the blood of a snake as it takes its own victimStar-Eyed StellaCaptain Pissgums and his Pervert PiratesRuby the DykeHog Riding Fools (motorcycle gang)Club Choad Charley — a member of the Hog Riding FoolsLester Gass the Midnight Misogynist1992 The Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame