The PopCult Bookshelf
Gilbert Shelton is one of the masters of the underground comix movement of the 1960’s, held in the highest esteem alongside top creators like Robert Crumb and Kim Dietch. He’s most noted for creating “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” a much loved comic strip which combined the hippie and drug culture with The Three Stooges. Shelton’s other major creation, pre-dating the Freak Brothers and their spin-off, “Fat Freddy’s Cat,” is “Wonder Wart-Hog,” a satirical superhero parody that first appeared in 1962. While the Freak Brothers were Shelton’s “money” creation, Wonder Wart-Hog seems to be his favorite and still appears from time to time in new stories.
In his secret identity as mild mannered, slightly-built reporter Philbert Desinex, our hero is a five foot, seven inch wimp. But when the world needs him, the eight foot tall, eight hundred pound Hog of Steel squeezes out of his Philbert Desinex suit and Wonder Wart-Hog races to the rescue, usually leaving a path of destruction and collateral damage in his wake. Some of his adventures are straight superhero parody, while others contain biting political satire. The endearing thing about Wonder Wart-Hog is the way he blunders through his adventures, oblivious to whether there’s any deep message to them or not.
“The Best of Wonder Wart-Hog” is a great collection, packed with over 460 pages of Wonder Wart-Hog stories spanning his entire history. The book is in black and white, except for a thirty-two page color section which includes a cover gallery and two recent full color Wonder Wart-Hog adventures. This collection really shows off Shelton as a master storyteller, whose work is more coherent than many of his contemporaries.
While this is a terriffic collection and definitely belongs on the shelf of any fan of underground comix, it’s not perfect. There is no index, minimal background material only appears on the book flaps and back cover, and the stories are not presented in chronological order. With no annotation, it can be a bit jarring to find stories presented next to each other that were written and drawn ten or twenty years apart.
Shelton’s art style has evolved over the last fifty-two years and he’s also worked with different artistic collaborators who bring different qualities to his work when they render it in ink. Some of the stories in the book look like his work in the Freak Brothers, others are drawn in more angular or sketchy styles, and others are presented with a lush, black and white wash.
This doesn’t change the fact that these are great stories. Most of them have topical references, but the humor still comes through. Over the years Wonder Wart-Hog has appeared in many publications, including the legendary Zap Comix, Harvey Kurtzman’s Help magazine, and Drag Cartoons (a magazine which featured cartoons about drag racing, not men dressing up as pretty ladies.)
It would be nice if there were some annotation that would tell us which stories appeared where. It seems the most recent story in the book is a full color story from 2011 which features Wonder Wart-Hog and his faithful sidekick, Chernobyl Chicken. It’s a little wild that a superhero parody that poked fun at the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration is still around to deal with One Percenters and the Occupy Movement.
“The Best of Wonder Wart-Hog” could be a better collection. We have no way of knowing how close this is to being “the complete Wonder Wart-Hog.” The lack of annotation or background material is a little annoying, but it’s still great to have this much Wonder Wart-Hog power concentrated in one place.