‘The Freak Brothers’ cartoon exposes a new generation to Texan’s counter-culture comics

Gilbert Shelton first drew the “Brothers” in the late 1960s while living in Austin. Now, a new cartoon based on the comic strip is streaming on Tubi.

By Michael MarksDecember 27, 2021 2:01 pm,

The new animated series “The Freak Brothers,” streaming on Tubi, features an all-star cast. Woody Harrelson, Pete Davidson, and John Goodman voice the three freaks who are psychedelically transported from 1969 to the present.

The new cartoon is something of a throwback though. It’s based on a counterculture comic “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers,” drawn by Texan Gilbert Shelton. Shelton started drawing the misadventures of the freaks – Franklin, Phineas and Freddy – while living in Austin in the late ’60s.

Chris Vognar, a writer for Texas Monthly, told Texas Standard that the new show is a good opportunity to revisit its source material. Listen to the interview with Vognar in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about how Gilbert Shelton got started drawing “The Freak Brothers” comics. These were iconic back in their heyday, right?

Chris Vognar: Yeah, very much so, really among the biggest underground comics, if not the biggest. Shelton was a UT student, and he was an art director for a place called Vulcan Gas Company. And they were showing a documentary about hippies storming the Capitol, and I think that may have been what it was called, and he drew a poster and it had these characters and the characters turned out to be more popular than the actual documentary and became a regular strip, very much stoner humor.

A lot of the stuff revolved around going to score pot and various misadventures incurred while doing so. Underground comics were kind of an answer to the superhero culture or the Archie kind of culture, very much in tune with the counterculture of the day of the ’60s and the ’70s. Very popular.

I had it in my head when these were popular that this was out of San Francisco. But in the article you wrote for Texas Monthly, you say these brothers are Texas “freaks,” not San Francisco “freaks.” Could you say more about the difference there?

The strip is very much set in San Francisco. When it took off, it was in San Francisco. And, you know, San Francisco was very much “freaks” at that point in time. I mean, it was pocket right after the summer of love. By the time Shelton gets out there, we moved from Texas. So, as I say in my story, the Texas freaks are a little more exotic, have to be a little bit more determined, perhaps because they don’t fit into the culture quite as much.

Let’s talk about the TV show: how well does this humor translate? Does it reflect the same sort of spirit?  We’re talking about, in a way, the permanence of that underground comic vibe, right?

Yeah, it’s a mixed bag, really. It’s very scatological. It seems like you’re trying really hard to do something extreme. And I never really felt that vibe from the actual comic book. So it’s a strange fit what they’re trying to do with these characters. It doesn’t feel quite as natural.

You got a chance to touch base with Shelton after this new TV series based on his work. What was his reaction to it?

It’s kind of funny, he said, “Oh, I don’t watch cartoons on TV.” That’s the way he put it. I have a feeling that, you know, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it’s, he’s telling me the truth, I’m sure. But he didn’t seem incredibly excited about it. They’ve been talking about doing a movie for years of the freak brothers, and that just never got off the ground for various reasons.

And I think he was very sort of blasé about that as well, about the possibility. So I don’t really think he’s jumping in the air and clicking his heels right now. Very pleasant exchange with Shelton. Really, really enjoyed touching base with him, especially having read these comics over the years.

Have “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” become a sort of timeless part of comics culture even though they are very much a product of their era?

Absolutely. And I think it’s pretty cool that kids now can actually see it and go, what is this? And perhaps even go back, do a little homework and do a little research and see where it actually came from.

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