'Coochy Cooty Men's Comics'.

Robert Williams is an American underground comix artist, best remembered for his series 'Coochy Cooty' (1969). He is also the founder of the popular art magazine Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine. Yet he is far more famous today as an extravagant and highly controversial painter. His work is a bizarre and chaotic mutation of various pop culture elements, including comics, rock 'n' roll, psychedelica, surf culture, pulp novels, film posters, trading cards and the "hot rod" phenomenon of the early 1960s. Williams refers to his style as "conceptual realism". The obscene and disturbing imagery has often led to accusations of sexism. At the same time he is one of the bestselling graphic artists.

Early life
Robert Williams was born in 1943 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but lived most of his life in Los Angeles. His parents were rich ranch owners and Williams' father owned a drive-in restaurant. The young boy was raised according to their strict, conservative and Christian values, which included taking lessons at the Stark Military Academy. Despite being wealthy, his parents frequently quarrelled which eventually led to their divorce in 1956. Williams was left to the care of a landlady who worked as a lieutenant at the U.S. Airforce. At the same time she was also openly lesbian. As Williams grew up under her guard his outlook on life became more left-wing and progressive. The downside was that he became more rebellious too. The teenager became part of a street gang and failed the ninth grade twice. At a certain point he didn't even bother to show up in class anymore, except for his art lessons. In the eleventh grade he was expelled from school. The young hoodlum was frequently arrested for juvenile crimes like public drunkenness and assaulting people.

Art influences
What saved him was his love for art. Williams enjoyed working with water paint from an early age. The boy grew up watching B-movies and crazy Tex Avery cartoons, while reading lurid pulp magazines. In terms of comics he underwent influence from EC Comics and Mad Magazine. As Williams said himself: "When the first issue of Mad arrived, it blew my mind." Another epiphany was Joseph Henry Sharp's work 'The Stoic' (1914) and a local exhibition of Salvador Dalí paintings. Williams was also interested in figurative European painting between the late Middle Ages and the 19th century, particularly Thédore Géricault's 'The Raft of the Medusa' and the architecture of Antonio Gaudí.


'Coochy Cooty Men's Comics'

California
But he was most interested in the "hot rod" subculture which blossomed at the start of the 1960s. This involved artists like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth who decorated the bonnets and hoods of cars and motorcycles with "cool" airbrush paintings, cartoons and logos. Since this subculture was most prominent in California, Williams moved to Los Angeles, where he took art courses at the Los Angeles City College. He published his first drawings in the college newspaper The Collegiate. Williams instantly liked the local atmosphere. California was populated with many hip, young people with similar progressive viewpoints and interests. Even though he was back on the "good" path he kept an interest in the rough edge of life. Various subcultures like bikers, surfers, hippies and skaters were part of the local scene. Hollywood was not far away, as was the local porn industry. Hallucinogenic drugs, tattoo shops and underground comix circulated close in his vicinity. He also developed a lifelong habit of collecting German pickelhaube helmets.

However, Williams never finished his studies, since he married a college girlfriend and now had to earn more money. He became art director of the monthly martial arts magazine Black Belt. While the work paid well he spent too much time on beautiful and elaborate illustrations. After six months he was fired for missing too much deadlines. Williams found a new job as a container designer at Weyerhaeuser, but within half a year he was unemployed again. He tried picking up his artistic career again at Chouinard Art Institute, yet the teachers didn't like his artwork. As he returned to the unemployment office he was offered a job where no other applicant had proven to be suitable up to that point, namely working as an art designer at Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's studio. This was exactly what he looked for!

Work for Big Daddy Roth
At first Roth didn't think much of his young candidate. To test him he gave him a seemingly impossible task: draw and paint a '54 Plymouth car with Roth's signature character the Rat Fink behind the wheel. To Roth's astonishment Williams was back the next day and handed in a perfect rendition. He was instantly hired and replaced Roth's previous art director, Ed Newton. Williams had to draw "hot rod" imagery suitable for vehicles and T-shirts and advertisements for the company. He excelled in depicting spectacular reflection on the chrome hoods of cars and his artwork always looked gorgeous and eye-catching. Williams furthermore produced four issues of Roth's magazine and also built cars and motorcycles, such as "Captain Pepi's Motorcycle & Zeppelin Repair" (later renamed "Mega Cycle"). Unfortunately Williams' imagination was too wild, even for the "hot rod" fans. Roth gave him a long list of taboos he wasn't supposed to depict. It didn't help much, because after a while advertisers didn't even want to publish his artwork anymore. Nevertheless Roth remained employed with the studio until it closed down in 1970.


'Muzzy the Dunce', from Zap Comix #9.

Underground comix
By that time Williams' interest had already been sparked by another interesting subculture: underground comics. Zap Comix by Robert Crumb blew his mind the same way Mad did. He quickly joined the underground movement and contributed comics to Gothic Blimp Works, Felch Comics, Coochy Cooty Men's Comics, Snatch Comics, The Snatch Sampler, Tales from the Tube and naturally Zap Comix itself from the late 1960s throughout the 1970s and 1980s. His signature series was 'Coochy Cooty' (1969), which featured an insect-like creature drawn in the style of a 1930s cartoon character by Walt Disney or Max and Dave Fleischer. In Williams' comics, though, all innocence is gone. Coochy Cooty is an anti-hero who lives in a depraved world full with sex and drugs. The character appeared in various underground titles, but also featured in one stand-alone comic book: 'Coochy Cooty Men's Comics' (1970), published by The Print Mint Inc. The adventure has Coochy fighting against a bunch of women who are half gorilla, half Nazi.

cover by Robert Williams

Felch
Between 1969 and 1974 Williams was one of many artists to appear in the fanzine Promethean Enterprises, where Al Davoren, Rick Griffin, Robert Crumb and Bob Zoell also published. In August 1975 he illustrated the cover of the one-shot comic book Felch Cumics. The title was thought up by Williams, who once heard that rock singer Ed Sanders of The Fugs used the word "felch" to describe someone licking sperm from a person's asshole after anal sex. The book furthermore featured graphic contributions by Evert Geradts, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Crumb, Jim Osborne, Joe Schenkman, Jay Lynch, William G. Stout, Michael McMillan and Spain Rodriguez. The work was so depraved that police officers took it along with them during a raid in a comics store in Long Beach. They were convinced that this book could help them push through a ban against lewd comics. According to underground cartoonist George DiCaprio the court case never came about because during the trial the policemen couldn't find their copy anymore...


'The Nectar of Satan' (Felch Cumics).

Paintings
During the late 1970s Robert Williams was part of the artistic collective The Art Boys, which had people like Mark Mothersbaugh (from the band Devo), The Pizz, Gary Panter, Mike Kelley, Neon Park and Matt Groening in their midst. Around the same time the underground comix movement mutated into alternative comics. He became part of the so-called "Lowbrow Art" movement with members like The Pizz, XNO, Joe Coleman, R.K. Sloane and Todd Schorr. Most were veterans of hot-rod culture and underground comix, but mixed their art with punk culture and references to cartoons and comics. Williams made various oil paintings in the style of European baroque art, but worked with airbrush and varnish to give them the same shine as his "hot rod" creations. He enjoyed using colours that look ugly when contrasted with one another, like pink, green, orange and purple. Williams combines realistically drawn people and cartoony imagery. He brings them together in violent, perverse, decadent and surreal juxtapositions. The paintings emulate the raw power and energy of low-brow comics cartoons and pulp book illustrations. Rather than keep them on the same tiny scale of a book he blows them up to huge proportions. This also explains why they often shock viewers. His subjects have ranged from the Piltdown Man to Egyptian despot Farouk I. The imagery often features hidden metaphors and symbolism. Each corner is stacked with details and scenes-within-scenes. In a way they are very close to his past as a comics artist, looking almost like a picture story with no panels. Williams enjoys depicting cars, motorcycles, bikes, planes and buildings, but takes great care in getting every technical detail right. Even when he takes a photograph and copies it, he still bends these vehicles and architecture from different angles. Since he can't twist a photograph around he actually calculates the proportions to make sure it still looks realistically. Williams provided his paintings with the title 'Zombie Mystery Paintings'.


'The Forensic Hors D'Oeuvre' (Painting published in Weirdo #13, 1985).

Recognition
Williams' paintings are still genuine bestsellers. Among his celebrity fans and collectors are Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, cartoonist George DiCaprio and his son Leonardo DiCaprio, painter Stanisław Szukalski, drug guru Timothy Leary, jazz musician Artie Shaw and rock musicians Gabby Haines (The Butthole Surfers), Debbie Harry (Blondie) and Anthony Kiedis (The Red Hot Chili Peppers). His most well-known but controversial painting is 'Appetite for Destruction' (1978) which depicts a robot attacking a robot who just raped a woman. A decade later it was reprinted inside the sleeve of the Guns 'N' Roses album 'Appetite for Destruction' (1988). The album cover caused a lot of controversy and had to be put on the back cover rather than the front. But eventually the band put it back on the front again. It gained Williams more fame and publicity than ever before.

Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine
In December 1977 Skip Barrett, Williams and his wife organized a reunion to bring Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's work back under attention. This eventually became an annual event still held in Manti, Utah, and L.A. today. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s most of his cartoons, illustrations, paintings and comics were mostly featured in small magazines specialized in punk music, vehicles and tattoos. Feeling that the "low-brow art" he made didn't really have a magazine of its own he decided to found one himself. Together with Fausto Vitello, publisher of the magazine Trasher, and artists like C.R. Stecyk III, Greg Escalante and Eric Swenson the creative minds established their own cultural magazine: Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine in 1994. Distributed by High Speed Productions it is still one of the bestselling art magazines in the world.

Legacy and influence
Robert Williams was an influence on Mezzo, Alan Moore, Mark Ryden and Matt Groening.

Books and documentaries about Robert Williams
In 1979 Williams published his first book, 'The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams' (1979), which went through numerous reprints and updates over the decades. In 1990 his art was collected in the book 'Zombie Mystery Paintings' (1990) by Last Gasp, which features a foreword by Robert Crumb. All books are highly recommended, much as Mary C. Reese and Doug Blake's documentary 'Robert Williams, Mr. Bitchin' (2010). Fantagraphics also published a volume with Williams' surrealistic art named 'Malicious Resplendence' (1999).

robtwilliamsstudio.com

Series and books by Robert Williams in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

X

If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.