Nevada County cartoonist featured in ‘Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?’ | TheUnion.com

Nevada County cartoonist featured in ‘Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?’

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

That first sentence to Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 classic, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," is a doozy, perfectly capturing the essence of gonzo journalism.

Love him or loathe him, no one could argue against the plain fact that Thompson changed the face of reporting, coining a style of journalism written without claims of objectivity, often including himself as part of the story via a demented first-person narrative.

Flash forward 20 years.

It's 1990, and Thompson was facing drug and weapons charges following sexual assault allegations at his Colorado cabin. A group of Thompson's San Francisco friends rushed to his defense in two RVs and a reproduction of the infamous Red Shark depicted in "Fear and Loathing," carrying, inexplicably, a 100-year-old stuffed buffalo head.

Heading up the expedition were the infamous Mitchell brothers, who owned the O'Farrell Theater, accompanied by a pair of strippers from the theater — and a cartoonist well-known to Nevada County, R.L. Crabb, who had been hired to pen an account of the trial, which was garnering national headlines.

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Crabb first crossed paths with Thompson at the O'Farrell, a notorious striptease joint in San Francisco. Thompson had taken on the position of "night manager" at the O'Farrell because he was planning a book about the porn scene and the persecution it was facing.

Crabb, meanwhile, had connected with the owners of the theater, the Mitchell brothers, through cartoonist Dan O'Neill, who had left San Francisco and moved to Nevada City.

"They were great patrons of the arts," Crabb said of the Mitchells. "They let us do crazy, outrageous cartoons."

O'Neill invited Crabb and other cartoonists to lampoon the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Their studio was located in the theater and their work appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle with commentary by columnist Warren Hinckle, who first matched illustrator Ralph Steadman with Thompson for "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" in 1970.

"I did some work for Hinckle after that," Crabb said.

Crabb and O'Neill were rooming together in 1990 when the Mitchell brothers planned their protest of Thompson's trial as a "lavish expedition" that would "sweep across the desert and descend on the Pitkin County courthouse creating chaos, confusion, and hopefully much media attention."

As Crabb remembers it now, that was the year of his midlife crisis.

"I had just turned 40," he said. "I was getting divorced, I was lurching from one disastrous relationship to another. I was taking lots of cocaine and dubious amounts of alcohol."

The idea of being part of an outlaw gang riding to Thompson's rescue seemed like it would be a great story. But as Crabb puts it, there was no epic last stand and the gang limped home.

When the case petered out in dismissal of all charges, Crabb had fun with the journey, rendering it as an homage to the Gonzo journalist.

Requiem for a gonzo journalist

Those 40-some pages of cartoons about the trip to Colorado, and Crabb's other run-ins with Thompson, are featured in "Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson?" published in November.

The book, with a "humongous" introduction by Hinckle, features essays by "his closest friends and co-conspirators" including Tom Wolfe, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, actor Johnny Depp and Ralph Steadman. Crabb will be signing copies of that book, as well as his own memoir, "Scablands," on Sunday.

Ron Turner, the publisher, actually had contacted Crabb about using his cartoons six years ago for the collection conceived of by Hinckle.

"I sent the artwork down and then I didn't hear anything," Crabb said.

Hinckle died in 2016, reportedly finishing the introduction to the book on his deathbed; Turner finished up the project with Hinckle's daughter and finished it late last year.

"It was a surprise to me," Crabb said. "I had forgotten about the whole thing."

Crabb long ago traded in the outlaws for inlaws, he quips, marveling that he's still alive when so many of the "gang" from those days are gone.

Jim Mitchell shot and killed his brother, Artie, in 1991 and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter; he died of a heart attack in 2007. Bill Cardoso, who coined the term "gonzo," died in 2006.

Thompson committed suicide in 2005; during his funeral, his ashes were shot out of a cannon by Depp.

Even though Thompson's style of journalism could be called creative, Crabb said his work was not fiction.

"He was exactly the person he wrote about," Crabb said. "He did the drug thing, the alcohol ­— I don't know how he could still function. It was all true. It was all true."

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

Know & Go

What: R.L. Crabb book signing

Where: Book Seller, 107 Mill St., Grass Valley

When: 5-7 p.m. Sunday

For info: Call 530-272-2131