A weird trip: The art of Gilbert Shelton


My wife and I have spent many Saturday afternoons hopping from thrift store to thrift store, searching through someone else’s old treasures. A few weeks ago, we went to one of our favorite spots, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. My wife appreciates its selection of vintage clothing, and I’m obsessed with its vintage board games. 

On this outing, a game called Mid-Life Crisis caught my eye. The box described it as “a game that will test your ability to survive your middle years without cracking up or going broke. Presented are real-life crises, broken psyches and marriages and financial woes.” It was made in 1982, so I wasn’t sure how relevant the “real-life crises” still were, but I thought it would make for a good laugh at my next game night with my buddies. (Plus, it was like $3. How could I pass it up?)

When I got home and opened the box, I discovered an absolute treasure. On top of the actual game was a folded-up piece of paper with rules for a separate game. I was amazed by the hand-drawn board that looked like it was created after someone smoked several joints back-to-back. It was called Feds ‘N’ Heads, inspired by the work of American cartoonist and cannabis lover Gilbert Shelton. I felt like this find was sent by the weed gods, so I had to research everything I could find online about the game and the artist behind it. 

Shelton was born in Dallas on May 31, 1940. He graduated from the University of Texas in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. His earliest cartoons were published while working for Texas Ranger, a university-funded, student-run humor magazine. After graduation, he became the editor and further developed his ideas into characters he would use for future comics. The first, “Wonder Wart-Hog,” was a slapstick comedy parodying McCarthyism and far-right violence. The title character was a pig with a Superman-like backstory and superpowers. It was a success, and it led him to other writing and art opportunities throughout the mid-1960s in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and his home state. 

After “Wonder Wart-Hog,” Shelton self-published a 28-page, one-shot comic called “Feds ‘N’ Heads” in 1968. It featured Wonder Wart-Hog’s alter ego, Philbert Desanex, going to San Francisco during the Summer of Love to cover the Human Be-In, eventually facing off against the diabolical supervillain Chameleon. It also featured a variety of whimsical strips about hippies, freaks and, above all, recreational drugs — and introduced the trio that would become Shelton’s most famous creation, “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.”

In 1969, Shelton co-founded Rip Off Press alongside fellow Texans Fred Todd, Dave Moriarty and Jack Jackson. One of Rip Off’s most popular comics was “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” which featured a trio of stoner characters that enjoyed recreational drugs, critiquing the establishment and satirizing the counterculture scene. The “brothers,” actually just a group of close friends, included Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, the oldest and most street smart; Phineas T. Phreak, a master chemist committed to social change and environmental issues and Fat Freddy Freekowtski, known for having the munchies and his witty, “Garfield”-esque cat (who eventually got his own spinoff comic strip, “Fat Freddy’s Cat,” in 1975). The comics were featured in numerous magazines, most notably Playboy and High Times, and had hundreds of thousands of printings. In 1979, Universal Studios paid Shelton and Rip Off $250,000 to make a live-action “Freak Brothers” movie. It never made it to production, but that didn’t stop Shelton from taking his earnings and settling down in France after multiple European excursions.

Shelton eventually released a board game based on “Feds ‘N’ Heads,” featuring characters and references from “The Freak Brothers.” It was published as a foldout in Playboy’s September 1971 issue. It’s a fairly basic “roll and move” game with a play style similar to Monopoly. Old-school potheads will appreciate having to collect “lids” (large bags of weed) by landing on specific locations across the trippy, sprawling board while avoiding unfortunate “Burns, Busts, Bummers & Rip-Offs” or “Weird Trip” cards. The winner is the player who manages to score 35 lids (equivalent to a kilogram of weed) and bring it back to their stash. 

Folks interested in reading Shelton’s work should check out local booksellers or libraries. For streamers, Tubi based a 2021 animated series called “The Freak Brothers” on Shelton’s comic. Pete Davidson, Blake Anderson, Woody Harrelson, Tiffany Haddish and John Goodman are amongst the cast that voice these zany characters.


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