Excelsior! A Century of Jean Shepherd

« Night after night, Shepherd forged the inchoate thoughts and feelings of a whole generation of fans into an axiom that went something like: ‘The language of our culture no longer describes real life and, pretty soon, something’s gonna blow.‘. » — Donald Fagen

Today’s a very august occasion, for it marks the birth centennial of that sublime storyteller, Jean Shepherd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999), so we’ll celebrate it… in comics!

« Since 2012, cartoonists Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall have been collaborating on an extensive interview project with John Wilcock, an underground publisher of the 1960s. The graphic novel biography… focuses a year-at-a-time on Wilcock’s interesting and largely undocumented life, from co-founding the Village Voice in 1955, to becoming a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory in the early Sixties, establishing the Underground Press Syndicate, and other interesting moments, until Wilcock left NYC in 1972. » This particular entry appeared in the pages of The American Bystander no. 2 (Spring, 2016). For more info on the project (including a generous helping of choice excerpts), now complete and available for purchase, direct your browser here.
The front and back covers of I, Libertine‘s paperback edition (1956, Ballantine). Here’s a full, fascinating account of how this literary hoax unfolded. Take note, fellow Theodore Sturgeon fans!
Shep’s second LP, Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles (1959, Elektra), was abundantly illustrated by his good friend, Renaissance Man (and local favourite) Shel Silverstein, who also authored the liner notes and played washboard and kazoo!
« In addition to the liner notes, Shel drew a veritable parade of characters marching across the front and back album cover of Foibles, incorporating the message, ‘Jean Shepherd is a dirty rotten, one-way sneaky son of a bitch‘, spelling it out backwards to escape the censors. » (from Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel (2007, St. Martin’s Press)
Another interesting comics connection: In Foibles‘ opening track, [ hear it here ] Shep recalls an old favourite: « How many of you remember ol’ Peter Pain? He used to work in the comic strips, you remember, in those little strips that appeared under Moon Mullins, under The Gumps? He was green, was shaped like a pickle, he had stubble all over, he wore a black derby. He was a tremendous figure… a great American! He was the first Beat Poet. » Here’s one of Peter’s misadventures, circa 1948, illustrated by Jack Betts. You’ll find many more of these entertaining ads on Ger Apeldoorn’s highly-recommended blog, The Fabulous Fifties.
Seldom seen since its publication, this was Shepherd’s collaboration with Wally Wood at the height of his powers. The Night People vs. “Creeping Meatballism appeared in Mad Magazine no. 32 (Apr. 1957, EC).
One gets a sense of Shepherd’s outsize and hopefully abiding significance from the quality of the minds he has helped warp. For example, here’s Underground Comix pioneer and Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith‘s fond tribute to Mr. Shepherd, published soon after Shep’s passing. A grateful tip of the hat to Mr. Griffith, who graciously provided me with a high-quality image of this, his Sunday, January 9, 2000 strip.

Let’s close in highfalutin fashion with a most pertinent bit of Longfellow (1807–1882):

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
      Excelsior!

His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
      Excelsior!

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
      Excelsior!

“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;
“Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!”
And loud that clarion voice replied,
      Excelsior!

“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast! “
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
      Excelsior!

“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
      Excelsior!

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
      Excelsior!

A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
      Excelsior!

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star,
      Excelsior!

-RG

2 thoughts on “Excelsior! A Century of Jean Shepherd

    • gasp65 July 26, 2021 / 15:21

      Thank you very much! I’ve had this ‘Shep’s Birthday’ notion at the back of my mind since last year, but it’s only when I sat down to write it that it dawned on me that it wasn’t just any old anniversary, but indeed the man’s centennial.

      And would you believe that his Mad piece with Wood has only been reprinted once — in 1958? Sheesh. Such lucid and prescient material (and gorgeous) surely deserves a wider audience.

      Liked by 1 person

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