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Yippies, hippies, and Hef

Skip Williamson settles in Wilmington

A portfolio of Skip Williamson’s work (be warned, some is explicit) can be seen on his Facebook page.

WILMINGTON—Legendary cartoonist Skip Williamson has a mascot named Krampus tattooed on his upper arm.

A small red devil, Krampus seems smart, mischievous, and utterly seducing. In fact, he seems a lot like the internationally recognized artist, cartoonist, designer, and writer himself.

Williamson’s real first name is Mervyn. However, when he was a child, he was a bit of a troublemaker, so he earned the nickname Skip, after Percy Crosby’s comic strip character, Skippy.

Still the troublemaker, Williamson has always courted controversy and fun. Last December, Williamson moved to Wilmington, where he has opened a gallery.

That was not his intent, he said.

“I have no interest in being a shopkeeper,” he explained. “I intended to use the space to produce paintings and art for shows and events for galleries in the Northeastern metropolitan areas.”

However, he discovered that the first floor of his apartment would be an excellent place to display his art.

“So now, I’ve transformed it into a small gallery space,” he said.

In September, he plans to have a grand opening for the gallery, where he displays the works from his long and varied career. The gallery will include not just his cartoon work, but also his later paintings and sculpture.

An internationally recognized artist, cartoonist, designer, and writer, his work has has been exhibited in galleries around the world, including the New York Cultural Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Tate Gallery of Modern Art.

He has received numerous awards for design excellence, including the gold award from the Art Director’s Club of New York, and a silver award from the Society of Illustrators.

But most of Williamson’s notoriety comes from his role in the “underground comix” movement of the 1960s, and for being among the most political and satirical cartoonists of the era.

In 1968, along with Robert Crumb and Jay Lynch, Williamson helped launch Bijou Funnies, one of the earliest and longest running underground comix titles.

Some years later, The Comics Journal wrote: “Skip Williamson is still the quintessential underground comix artist... where [Robert] Crumb’s primary comix aim was introspective... Williamson took a broader look, skewering both left-wing trendiness and right-wing over-reaction at a time of much-publicized left-wing trendiness... Crumb’s approach may have been more...artistically ‘legitimate,’ but to those struggling to make sense of the socio-political chaos, Williamson was frequently the funnier.”

Of all the activist groups of the era, Williamson said he was most drawn to the Yippies, because “they were funner and funnier than those dreary members of the SDS [Students for Democratic Society],” who could be “so somber about everything.”

Because of Williamson’s friendship with Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman, he was allowed into the courtroom where the Chicago 8 trial was being held, where he did sketches of key characters in the trial.

Williamson illustrated the first printing of Hoffmann’s Steal this Book. Hoffman gave him the advance from that book so Williamson could produce a comic book that would raise money for the Chicago 8’s defense fund.

The result was the comic book Conspiracy Capers, which featured the work of a number of now-iconic cartoonists, including Jay Lynch, Jay Kinney, and Art Spiegelman, whom Williamson has known since he was 15.

After the radical energy of the 1960s dissipated, Williamson spend the 1970s and 1980s in the adult magazine business, as an art director of, and contributor to, some of the more notorious titles of the era.

In 1973, he was art director of Gallery, where he created the “Girl Next Door” concept by publishing nude snapshots of sweethearts and wives sent in by readers.

A year later, Williamson became the founding art director of Hustler. However, he said he found the publisher, Larry Flynt, to be such a “Kentucky hillbilly” that their personalities and aesthetics clashed, and he lasted little more than a week.

Williams has stories of “drug-fueled parties, Chicago outfit henchmen, hit men, corrupt cops, pimps, prostitutes — and the trail of meeting deadlines.”

After one of his publishers was shot dead by the Chicago Police in a hostage situation in 1976, he joined the staff of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, where he worked for more than 10 years. There, he created the popular “Playboy Funnies” section and introduced millions of readers to his characters Neon Vincent and the postmodern couple Nell ‘n’ Void.

Looking back on that gig, Williamson said that he joined Playboy “on the cusp between the unchecked indulgences of the early years at the Big Bunny, to more rigid corporate structure as the magazine’s assets and circulation crumbled away.”

Soon, he said, he found himself “smoking dope with mythic porn star Harry Reems at Hef’s Playboy mansion, having a disastrous week-long assignment with Deborah Harry and the band Blondie in Texas, going though many adventures in the narco-sexual punk rock underbelly in New York City during the mid-seventies.”

From the perspective of our day, those times seem so strange as to be almost mythical. So Williamson has decided to document his adventurous life in a series of memoirs.

Instead of a linear narrative, each volume considers an aspect of his multi-faceted life. His first volume, Flesh: From Hustler to Playboy, tells his stories of working in the skin trade. It is now available as a Kindle e-book, and can be purchased on Amazon.com for $2.99.

He said he is pleased to work with Kindle, where the author receives 70 percent of the royalties; in traditional publishing, he said, he “would be lucky to get 10 percent.”

The second e-book volume of memoirs, Spontaneous Combustion, will soon be published by Amazon. It details the beginnings of the underground comix movement and Williamson's involvement with the radical left, and it will contain 150 pages of vintage art.

Ultimately, he would like to combine all the volumes into one large, printed book that he says (with a wink) he would like to call My Bitter Agenda.

Williamson was first attracted to Vermont through working with the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, which he calls “a great place.”

Before moving here, Williamson lived for 17 years in Atlanta, but hated it. After one woman destroyed eight of his paintings in a gallery, claiming they were “anti-Semitic and satanic,” he knew it was time to get out, he said.

He discovered Wilmington because his ex-wife had a place there.

He loves Vermont since “everyone’s crazy here,” he said.

“I mean that in a good way,” he added.

Williamson said he is happy in Wilmington, where neighbors check up on how the new “kook” in town is doing.

He is getting involved in the community, teaching an after-school class at Twin Valley Middle School for kids interested in art and cartooning.

He also would like infiltrate the ski trade.

“I’m completing a painting of Krampus tearing down the slopes aflame on a snowboard that bears the symbol of a skull and crossed ski poles,” he said. “Behind him are skiers and the mountain pine forest on fire.”

Williamson is intending to make prints and “hoodies” out of the image for this year’s ski season.

Like Skip, Krampus just might have found a home in Vermont.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #109 (Wednesday, July 13, 2011).

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