Cartoonist/multidirectional artist Skip Williamson talks with freedom and caustic humor about EVERYTHING

"My fear is that humans are in their final throes and that it will be an ugly death. This is also my hope."

Skip Williamson: A Philosophical Anarchist

Mervyn "Skip" Williamson is an American underground cartoonist and central figure in the underground comix movement, known for being the most political and satirical cartoonist of the underground comix. In 1968, along with Robert Crumb and Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson helped launch Bijou Funnies, one of the earliest and longest running underground comix titles. During the 70s and 80s Williamson toiled in the carnal fleshpool of girlie magazines. He was Art Director of Gallery magazine and created the “Girl Next Door” concept by publishing snapshots of sweethearts and wives sent in by readers. He was the founding Art Director of Hustler—where he encouraged Larry Flynt to “Make it dirtier. And in 1976 he joined the staff of Playboy magazine. There he created the popular “Playboy Funnies” section and introduced millions of readers to his characters, the sordid Neon Vincent and the post-modern couple Nell ‘n’ Void. As an Art Director at Playboy Williamson received numerous awards for design excellence including the Gold award from the Art Director's club of New York.

Williamson has published two anthologies of his work, "The Scum Also Rises" (Fantagraphics Books) and "Halsted Street: Torment and Drama from the Hog Butcher" (Kitchen Sink Press). Skip Williamson self-published Naked Hostility (selections from his sketchbooks), Class War Comix (wild-eyed political strips and cartoons from the 60s), Pighead (all new comics), Gag Reflex (single-panel cartoons) and Smoot (featuring his most famous character, the compulsive and gullible Snappy Sammy Smoot). And he has continued to publish his comic art in anthologies like Blab!, Zero Zero, Legal Action Comics and Mineshaft. A documentary about Skip Williamson’s life and art is in production, and currently Skip is editing and assembling an autobiography/anthology entitled My Bitter Agenda, and compiling XX, a collection of drawings, paintings, words, effigies and cogitations regarding the female. Skip Williamson continues producing comic art and as well as the kind of art hung in galleries, having expanded into 3-D assemblage and lurid mixed-media iconography.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos Courtesy of Skip Williamson Archive / All Right Reserved

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

Life itself. Everything.

Like most artists and writers my art has autobiographical underpinnings, but it’s not tediously literal like so much of the angst and gloomy coffee and cigarettes autobio comics the art kids are churning out these days. 

My art has big clumsy feet. Mine is caustic humor and the brutal truths that haunt me. And, generally speaking, jokes are imperative. Color’s very important, too. Even my black and whites are full of color.

There's always something entertainingly disturbing going on in my head. 

Corruption, drugs, venality, sex and human disgrace interweave in my paintings and drawings.

These are the things of life, and in my art they play out against a soundtrack of honks, tweets, clangs and fart sounds. Most of my stories and paintings are ruckus behind a thin veil of the horrific yet uncomfortably hilarious truth. Or what passes for the truth. It's not a purposeful thing that I do. It simply shakes out that way. It’s my comfort zone.

This is not to say I don’t have my quieter moments, but I do savor the Rude Humor thing.

People ask me where I get my ideas. I sometimes answer "By looking deep into your eyes.”

It’s an inspiring thing to me that I get to monitor the hopeless bumbling of Humanity as it lurches down the flinty road toward certain brutal oblivion.

This thing that I do is unlearned and blood raw. It can't be taught in art school. Its DNA shit. Besides, art school tends to homogenize what art is. Better to not be cloistered and indoctrinated while creating art. Better to just be creating art.

"Edward Abbey said 'The artist in our time has two chief responsibilities: (1) art; and (2) sedition.' I can live with that. My first decision as the minister of education would be to abolish the ministry of education." (Photo: Skip Williamson and his painting, Animal Control)

What have you learned about yourself from your comic characters?

I suppose a good deal of art is the uncovering of the id and ego, our covert selves laid bare. At least that’s true with the underground comix movement. Robert Crumb delights us all by revealing his personal enigmas and hilariously creepy bedrock depths. 

Sometimes it’s not so much what we’ve learned as much as it what we divulge.

With me my characters are fairly evident sides of my tangled personality. Snappy Sammy Smoot represents the blithe, optimistic, and misguided corner of my inherent self. Diametrically opposite to Smoot is his best friend and neighbor, Ragtime Billy, an angry political blowhard somewhere to the right of Atilla the Hun. Necropolis Keester is my drug-addled, alcoholic alter, and Bozo Rebebo is fundamental unchained anarchy in action.

How would you characterize the philosophy of Skip Williamson?

I'm a philosophical anarchist. I believe in the freedom of the spirit and the body, in the lovely mad frenzy of the unfettered. I'm sure I must be an abomination to the cocksuckers who jealously guard the Gates of Culture, and the execrable parasites who preside by stealing our money and killing our children.  

But there's a lot more to life than ruminating over the ebb and flow of random chaos. Or maybe not.

Do you know why your art is connected to the underground movement? What characterize the counterculture?

During the mid-sixties underground newspapers began publishing in major US cities. The East Village Other, The Chicago Seed, The Los Angeles Free Press, The San Francisco Oracle, The Detroit Fifth Estate, Yarrowstalks, the Great Speckled Bird. 

Cartoonists began publishing their work in these papers. Kim Deitch, Trina Robbins, Spain Rodrigues, Joe Schenkman in the Other, Ron Cobb in the Los Angles Free Press, Robert Crumb in Yarrowstalks, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso in the Oracle, and I was publishing in the Detroit Free Press and in the Chicago Seed. I suppose we were defacto "underground" because we published in the underground press. And later, when we started publishing comic books, they were known as "underground comic books". 

What has been the relationship between music in your life and cartoons? How important was music in your life?

Quoting the Fugs, “Beware of those not moved by sound.”

My early years were spent int the South, in Virginia and Texas and my first musical memories were of Ernest Tubb, Patsy Clyne and The Grand Old Opry on the radio. When Elvis came along he was regarded as the anti-Christ in my house. I was not permitted to listen to his music unless it was sung by someone else. So I was allowed to listen to Big Momma Thorton’s cover of “Hound Dog instead of Elvis’ version, and I discovered the blues. Later in my teen years I started listening to Jazz. Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Dave Bruebeck, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, MJQ., Stan Getz and others.

In the tiny sectarian college I attended Jimmy Reed, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and the Count BasIe Orchestra delivered the goods from a stage off the basketball court.

I discovered that I really enjoyed any genre of music — from bluegrass to punk — as long as it was well done and off the grid.

Of course when I moved to Chicago I discovered electric blues and it became the infrastructure of my musical itch. There’s nothing like Wagner but my classical music is Chicago Blues…Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Howling’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. Later in life I designed album covers for Koko Taylor and Albert Collins. I also created album art for Mudcat, a Georgia coastal blues musician

What is the relation between music, art and activism? What would be your first decisions as minister of education?

Edward Abbey said "The artist in our time has two chief responsibilities: (1) art; and (2) sedition."

I can live with that.

My first decision as the minister of education would be to abolish the ministry of education. 

At one time there was a strong connection between music and activism. In the music of Billy Holiday and in the pro-union ballads of Pete Seegar and Woody Guthrie. Later the MC5, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, to name a few. 

You have come to know great personalities. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Shel Silverstein and I were great friends. It was, from the start, a creative alliance steeped in cartoon resolve and creative reciprocity. I wrote this about Shel a few years ago, “Shel and I would talk a lot. His mind was brim full of all kinds of shit. Stuff that was always spilling out in songs and poems and cartoons and conversations. His thoughts were constantly overflowing his physical casing. His ideas were organic, had souls and needed to get out and live on their own. More often than not he'd be confronting them internally, lost in inwardly implicit conversation, deciphering the spooks and enigmas that were clawing their way out. Those of us on the outside were frequently left out of the equation. We couldn't compete with the depth and turmoil of his internal sprites. Sometimes he would grab them as they escaped and scrawl their essence on bits of paper. His conversations with them were way more interesting than anything I could bring to the party. There were many times when his mind and heart were not in the same room we were in.” Shel was an amazing bundle of creative energy and we shared a synergy. He was a tremendous influence intellectually. The two of us were harmoniously artistic and cerebrally agog.

During the Chicago folk revival I became friends with John Prine. I created a comic strip based on his song “Aw Heck!”. I was intended to be included in the packaging of his second album, but his record company nixed it.

In the early 70s I was great friends with Wilderness Road, a Chicago band whose musical virtuosity (Rolling Stone said their guitar work was like listening to a band with two Eric Claptons) mixed with satire and comicality. Two of the members, Warren Leming and Nate Herman were graduates of Second City, and as such were adroit improvisational comedians. Listening to Wilderness Road playing was always a field day. And I produced Snuk Comics, a comic that was to promote the band and entertain its fans.

"I'm a philosophical anarchist. I believe in the freedom of the spirit and the body, in the lovely mad frenzy of the unfettered. I'm sure I must be an abomination to the cocksuckers who jealously guard the Gates of Culture, and the execrable parasites who preside by stealing our money and killing our children." (Phoro: Skip Williamson & the late poet, songwriter and cartoonist, Shel Silverstein)

Are there any memories from Abbie Hoffman?

I had developed a friendship with Abbie Hoffman throughout 1967 and 1968. I don't know about you, but the sexy perversity of anarchy has always held more appeal for me than the pedantic priggishness of either the left or the right. And Abbie was the epitome of the anarchistic spirit. He had become the lightening rod of the Movement, an outrageous media personality who simultaneously galvanized the counter-culture and provoked their parents and the Agents of the State. He was perhaps the last great American radical.

Abbie asked me to draw up some chapter illustrations for "Steal This Book" (After publication Abbie said "It's embarrassing, you try to overthrow the government and you wind up on a Best Sellers List."). And invited me down to the courthouse to sit in and sketch the proceedings at the Conspiracy Trial.

Abbie Hoffman committed suicide April 12, 1989. At least that's the official story. At the time he had been regularly lecturing audiences about the CIA's covert activities, including assassinations disguised as suicide.  His final words: "It's too late. We can't win, they've gotten too powerful."

Anything about Robert Crumb which you’d like to share with us?

In July 1971 Jay Lynch, Robert Crumb and I were young cartoonists hard at work drawing up an issue of Bijou Funnies in Jay's Chicago apartment.

A week earlier Jim Morrison had been discovered dead in his Paris residence. A month earlier the Pentagon Papers had begun publishing in the New York Times and Attica was right around the corner. It was post-Altamont, post-Manson. The Bell Jar was flying off the bookstore shelves and the Rolling Stone's "Bitch" was getting airplay. Clearly, Peace and Love had been stillborn.

We were listening to the radio as we labored on our cartoons. But we dropped our rapidographs in unison when the newscaster announced that Ub Iwerks had died. 

"It's the end of an era" said the newscaster about the death of Disney's seminal animator.

Robert sighed the Robert Crumb sigh and said "I wonder if they'll say that when I die?"

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

Duck and cover!

"I suppose a good deal of art is the uncovering of the id and ego, our covert selves laid bare. At least that’s true with the underground comix movement. Robert Crumb delights us all by revealing his personal enigmas and hilariously creepy bedrock depths." (Photo: The Bijou crew, 1968)

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world?

My fear is that humans are in their final throes and that it will be an ugly death. This is also my hope.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

Well, there was that guy in South America who took so much viagra that his dick exploded. That was pretty hilarious. But lest you think me heartless, the ironic pathos of his plight also touched me. I empathize as well as giggle.

And American politics is pretty hilarious, in a repellent and unnerving fashion. 

The base line of humor is when someone slips on a banana peel our reaction is to laugh at that person’s misfortune. The Three Stooges are straight forward, uncomplicated and anti-intellectual. Noel Coward is witty but wit can sometimes belabor the joke, and we are simpletons don’t you know? Hence, Donald Trump.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

Ephemera is so ephemeral. Now that we’re old and about to die museums, libraries and institutions are starting to collect and archive our stuff. I guess that’s somewhat like a time capsule. I think two things I’d definitely enclose would be a decent dose of laboratory LSD and a copy of Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary.”

What's the legacy of Snappy Sammy Smoot? If he was speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us?

Enjoy the breezy cuteness of life despite all the evidence to the contrary. But in the meantime don't forget to blow up some bridges and smuggle some guns.

How you would spend a day with a Playmate?

When I worked at Playboy I spent many days with models, Bunnies and Playmates, usually work related. But occasionally fornication was also on the menu.

When Bill Clinton was splattering his presidential seed on Lewinski’s blue dress a friend of mine indignantly said “At least I did have sex in my office!” I said “I did. It’s in the job description.” But really most of the time I was at Playboy, Gallery and Hustler I didn’t date many models. Too much vapidity and colorless narcissism. Not at all the passion one would expect.

Freedom is?

Freedom is the name of the game. The artist must be unconstrained and allowed to rampage radiant across the cultural landscape. Otherwise the promise of art does not realize its potential. Who knows what Michelangelo might have accomplished if that goddamn Pope hadn’t forced him to paint the ceiling when all he really wanted to do was chisel marble into homo-erotic beauty?

(Skip & Last Call / Photo by Elisa Rodgers

Happiness is?

True love and home grown tomatoes.

Woman is?

During my adult life I've been surrounded by beautiful women. Four marriages, four daughters and a granddaughter. I never enjoyed hanging with the guys. Dames are way more intelligent, feral, kaleidoscopic and impetuous. Often it's a killing ground, sometimes a trip to the stars. Both at the same time, on occasion. You never know if it’s a heart-melting angel or a black widow is behind door number three.

I love the gynecomorphous primate, the sultana, the queen bee. From baby girl to matron I'm fascinated by their lunal complexity.         

Party is?

I’m not a fan of people very much, so I keep my party going at a minimum. “I like people, but I like them in short bursts. Once you get around a minute, a minute-and-a-half, I gotta get the fuck outa there,” to quote George Carlin. 

My idea of a party is laying naked in bed with my wife, Adrienne, drinking high gravity beer, smoking locally grown organic reefer and watching “Natural Born Killers.”

Beatniks are?

Yesterday’s news, but what fuck…that’s what underground comix are, too.

I was introduced to the Beats while I was still a child. My father (a professor of English and Philosophy) wanted to expand my callow intellectual enrichment and started the ball rolling by introducing me to the writing of the Beat Generation. My favorites were the usual suspects: William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Blues means?

I had a small gallery in Wilmington, Vermont, and I attempted to create an artistic ambience by blasting out electric blues into the streets of this placid village. My neighbor across the street operated a tourist attraction featuring Vermont t-shirts and gewgaws, mainly produced in China. And he was not happy with my musical selections. “You’re scaring my customers,” he said. “Why don’t you play classical music?” he grumbled.

“This is classical music,” I answered.

Skip Williamson & Snappy Sammy Smoot Photo by Elisa Tuning Rodgers

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